One transatlantic flight (with transfer in Schiphol) to Linate Airport, one bus ride to Milan Central Station, and one train ride later—my husband and I had finally arrived in Lake Como, ready to relax. We had set aside nearly three weeks in September for a grand tour that would take us around Northern Italy, then onward to Paris and London.
We were in town for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, yet rather than staying in nearby Milan we looked farther afield to Lake Como. A longer train ride, sure, but past experience has taught me that after an exhausting day at the racetrack, it’s nice to hop on an uncrowded train and unwind with some peace and quiet.1
But even after a long travel day, we weren’t quite there yet. After checking in at the centrally located Albergo Milano, friendly hotel proprietress Bettina led us down the stairs of a narrow pedestrian lane to the annex named Casa Rossa. From there, it was a hike up several flights of stairs to the fourth floor—no elevator, no porter service—where we found our bird’s nest of a room: Room No. 11 (or “undici” in Italiano).
The draw of Lake Como is to discover la dolce far niente, the sweet joy of doing nothing—like trying all the gelaterie in town to determine who’s got the best scoops. However, if you were really looking to do some sight-seeing, the region is renowned for its lovely villa architecture. At the far end of Varenna past Piazza San Giorgio lies the historic Hotel Villa Cipressi. Upon entering the outdoor dining terrace, it is obvious why the hotel is a popular venue for wedding celebrations.2
Further down the road is Villa Monastero, a former monastic complex turned villa that now serves as a museum and scientific research center. Every summer, the International School of Physics holds a symposium in honor of physicist Enrico Fermi, who gave a series of lectures at the villa shortly before his passing.
Although it’s not particularly crowded compared to other Italian destinations, Lake Como is not some undiscovered gem. There were plenty of English-speaking tourists, hailing from North America,3 the United Kingdom, or Australia and New Zealand. At the height of the weekend during the peak summer travel season, waterfronts throughout Lake Como’s popular mid-lake region can be packed with day-trippers.
By evening, locals reclaim their streets alongside the remaining visitors. Young people hang out in front of the pizzeria waiting for their order, holding court as fellow townspeople stroll past on their daily passeggiata, exchanging greetings with each familiar face. Shopkeepers who run the few artisan shops and galleries in town converse on the steps of the characteristic contrade that tumble downhill to the water. Aside from pizza, we also dined at Albergo Milano’s Ristorante La Vista—graciously run by Bettina’s husband, Egidio—and stocked up on a week’s worth of groceries at Lillia Pietro Matteo, the macelleria/salumeria in Piazza San Giorgio.
Although we would spend five nights in Lake Como, our track-heavy schedule in Monza meant we had only a couple half days at best to explore the region. With our first day in Varenna in the bag, we headed back to Casa Rossa to prepare for our next day: a boat ride around the lake, followed by the first major event of the grand prix weekend: the pitwalk walkabout and driver’s autograph session.