When I planned and successfully executed my whirlwind eight city tour of Italy, it just worked out that Milan would be our last stop. Milan doesn’t have a ton to offer tourists, particularly when DaVinci’s Last Supper is closed and your bank account doesn’t allow for any more than window shopping in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. But I didn’t really know that when I laid out the itinerary for our trip. We took the train in from Venice on a Thursday morning and spent the afternoon seeing the Duomo and walking around the large, impressive cemetery. And instead of bumming around Milan for the whole next day we jumped on a train and headed north to Lake Como.
If you’ve never been and don’t know anyone who has been, you’re probably only familiar with Lake Como because that’s where George Clooney has a home. Pick up a tabloid in the summer months and there’s guaranteed to be a story about some beautiful people skinny dipping or pictures of designer bikinis on boats. But that’s not why I added it to my itinerary. No, I added it because it’s beautiful, it’s picturesque, it sound so fancy when I tell people I’ve been there!
This beautiful, picturesque, fancy sounding place is a mere 33 minutes away via a spectacularly scenic train ride. We took a bit of a longer train ride and rode up to the town of Varenna. They say Lake Como is shaped like a man and we were planning to visit the middle where a quick ferry ride can take you between towns, our visit being to Varenna and across to Bellagio. Being the end of November and far away from the peak summer season, I knew there wouldn’t be crowds, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so deserted.
We strolled around Varenna’s quiet streets for an hour or so. We walked along the waterfront, took in the sight of the buildings, and imagined how different it would be mobbed with Italian and foreign holiday makers. The town was ours to explore, and it was unbelievably peaceful – a nice way to spend a day when so much of the previous two weeks were spent at full speed. We saw exactly three people before we boarded the ferry across the lake to Bellagio (none of whom were George Clooney). Much like the town, the ferry was empty except for us which was a source of unexpected fun. With no cars and no passengers, we could climb the steps on one side and race up the steps on the other side to catch the best view. We would warm up in an enclosed section and head right back out to the front of the boat. It was like our own private scenic cruise.
While Varenna is beautiful enough while strolling through the town, it is absolutely breathtaking when you see it from the water. Reds, golds, and oranges provide a bright contrast to the dark green mountains just behind it, and the colors reflect beautifully on the calm water of the lake. All this on a bitter overcast day. I can only imagine how this place lights up with the sun shining!
Across the lake, Bellagio was positively hopping with people. Well, at least compared to Varenna. We weren’t alone, but we definitely still had our run of the place. Empty cafe tables sat fully set at the waterfront and ready for visitors, but it was far too cold to sit outside. The staircased lanes leading up from the water were in the process of being decorated for Christmas, and townspeople were going about their business seemingly happy for the peace and quiet. We ran into a few people and an adorable poodle before popping into a small sandwich shop (surprisingly packed!) for a tasty lunch, but it was otherwise just the two of us wandering around the town.
We shared the ferry back to Varenna with four other people, boarded our train with only one other woman, and ended our day just the two of us in our Milan hotel room after dark. I’m sure Lake Como is a whole different world in the peak of the summer season, but we had such a nice time with our quiet and uneventful day, dreary and overcast as the weather was. Perhaps one day we’ll pick a warm, sunny day to return.
Getting to Lake Como from Milan: Trains run regularly from Milano Centrale station to Como, Varenna, and Bellagio. Timetables can be checked ahead of time at Rail Europe’s site or they are on display at Milan’s train station. Travel time to Como is 33 minutes while Varenna further north is one hour.