The bus ride from Bellagio to Como is the most picturesque I have ever dozed through.
Weaving through narrow hamlets on more narrow roads, the pastel mortared buildings tumbling down the hillside and coming to a halt at the lapping edge of the lake. Beyond the manicured lawns and jetties, the water glittered in the morning light, enclosed by the rolling green hills and distant peaks of the Alps, still sprinkled with a scattering of snow despite the rising spring temperatures. Each bump and turn in the road nudged me from my slumber to see yet another postcard perfect town come and go.
Lezzeno, Nesso, Torno; all names that evoke the image of sitting in the sun kissed water-front whilst sipping that first Aperol Spritz of the afternoon. All names of places that I wish I had the time to stop in, wander through their piazzas and peruse their churches.
I was making the hour long journey down Lake Como’s eastern limb to visit the lake’s eponymous city, a place where we had arrived by train a few days earlier only to hop aboard a northbound bus without getting the chance to explore. Alighting the bus I could see that the rest of Europe had the same idea as me; the waterfront cafes and promenade were already crowded with tourists, even at this early hour. I decided to go against the crowds and make my way to the centre of town, the towering dome of the Duomo guiding me to Palazzo Broletto where I could escape the morning heat under a cafe awning, coffee in hand.
I found the most Italian of scenes; tables and chairs spilling from the cafes into the beautiful square, musicians pumped away at their accordions for the passersby while nuns rushed from the cathedral – to where I have no idea – holding on to their habits as they push through the queues of people waiting to go inside. Pastel yellow paint peeled from the buildings that boxed us in, the dark green shutters on their windows remained closed to keep the interior cool. It seemed the perfect place to get my morning caffeine fix.
What was planned as a leisurely breakfast became an hour long slog as I waited on my espresso. It’s possible that the customers don’t mind waiting in a setting such as beautiful as this, but when it is getting on to 10 am and my first coffee fix of the day is yet to arrive, I am not one of those customers. My patience gradually being eroded by every moment that my bloodstream remains caffeine free.
The slow pace is something that seems emanate throughout the city. I joined a queue in Piazza De Gasperi to take the funicular up to Brunate – a hilltop village with a spectacular view of the water – and found it static. People looked as though they had been stood there in the baking heat for hours. Occasionally someone would ask a neighbouring queuer to save their position while they took a breather in the shade of a nearby umbrella. When I finally made it inside the terminal I could see why any movement was so slow; four ticket counters sat shuttered while the one open window was manned by a clerk that would make even the laziest of sloths seem dynamic. He slowly raised his eyes to greet each frustrated customer with the most apathetic of looks, prodded at his keyboard for what felt like minutes before glacially sliding a ticket across the desk. Only 20 people had made it past this lethargic gate keeper before each tram left – a tram that could probably hold twice that number.
The funicular itself is a small railway that travels a kilometre up the steep hill between Como and Brunate and has been running since 1894. How people made the journey before it was built I will never know. In fact, my mind also boggles as to why Brunate was built in such an inaccessible position in the first place. One answer may be that the view from the town is spectacular. Less than a minute from the funicular station is a view point that gives a panorama over the whole of Como and the southern edge of the lake. Down below I could see the maze-like grid of winding cobbled streets, the terracotta rooftops rising between them like the studs on a Lego brick. The wake of speedboats cut white lines across the lake’s shimmering blue surface and in the hazy distance, beyond the hills, Switzerland was just about visible. In the centre of town, the dome of the Duomo dwarfed all other buildings and in front of me I could just make out the tiny specks of people bathing in the sprawling grounds of Villa Olma.
Brunate began life as a commune but soon became the home to Milanese royalty, living in the lavish liberty villas that still cling to the hillside. The town is home to just 1,800 residents but swells in the summer as tourists make their way up the funicular to see the villas, the elegant Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo church and Brunate’s famous Faro Voltiano lighthouse – built and named in honour of Alessandro Volta, a short-term resident of the town.
Back at a reasonable altitude, it was strange to be in a busy, living city as opposed to the quiet, postcard perfect towns of the mid-lake – It felt like a metropolis compared to the likes of Varenna and Bellagio. Como is the administrative hub of the region with a population of 90,000 people. However, for a working city, there wasn’t a whole lot of work going on. The whole population of Como, it seemed, was making the most of the blistering heat and gathering by the lake’s edge to sunbathe and swim. Every patch of grass in the Giardini del Tempio Voltiano was covered in the blankets of people picnicking or basking. There wasn’t a section of the waterfront where people weren’t making the most of Como’s cooling water. It had the feeling of a national holiday despite it being mid-afternoon on a working day.
We walked along the promenade towards majestic Villa Olma in the hope of using its public lido. The villa is a sprawling neoclassical mansion, built in 1812 by marquesses Odescalchi. Today it is owned by Como municipality and used for cultural events and art exhibitions. Of all the villas on the lake, it is, without a doubt, the most impressive. It would have been the perfect setting for a swim had the pool been open, which I was diappointed to find it wasn’t.
Instead, we made my way to the Duomo, looking to shelter from the sun inside its insulating stone walls. Built between 1396 and 1770, this gothic masterpiece is the city’s crowning jewel, the marble clad interior as impressive as any I have seen before. It is clear to see why the construction took so long.
We wandered aimlessly through the labyrinthine alleyways of the historic centre. At each turn I found a street prettier than the last; cobbled pavements hemmed in by canyon-like pastel coloured walls, the windows decorated with vibrant displays of flowers. Occasionally we would come across yet another romantic Piazza where couples were huddled intimately over their aperitifs, waiters weaving through the tables with plates of steaming pasta for their guests. I could have stopped in any one of them but settled on the secluded Piazza Del Duca, hidden away on the backstreets and empty apart from one other couple who sat sipping their Aperitivos.
The Italian aperitivo is a concept I can truly get behind and one that I wish the rest of Europe would adopt. It is the tradition of having a pre-dinner drink with snacks to apparently get you in the mood for your meal. We lingered over our cocktails, reluctant to be saying goodbye to this beautiful town. If we were heading anywhere other than the mid-lake region I would have been more hesitant to leave, but our bus was due and a dinner in Bellagio was calling.
I resisted the urge to sleep on the return journey, attempting to soak in each new vista revealed by every turn in the road. The evening light gave a new perspective on the lake, an orange hue that accentuating its beauty and I knew that there is no place in the world I would rather be.
Nothing in the universe can be compared to the charm of these feverish summer days spent on this lake […] the Lake Como, so voluptuous, which proceeds towards Lecco with such austerity: such sublime and beautiful features.
Standhal, Certosa di Parma
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