Italy Trip Report (Lake Como and Venice)
Who: 30-something couple expecting our THIRD baby. Our ideal trip combines interesting activities during daytime hours, some relaxation and cocktails in the afternoon (preferably with a view) and going to fancy dinners just for the excuse to dress up!
When: September/October 2011 (I realize this trip is very belated!)
Where: Italy – 9 total days including travel time. Overnight flight from NYC to Milan. 3 nights in Bellagio and 4 nights in Venice
Why: My parents are the greatest grandparents in the world and generously offered to watch our two kids so we could go on vacation. As anyone knows, this offer is greater than gold, so we began fanatically daydreaming about the perfect location. Then one night we watched "The Tourist" and my husband decided that surely we should see Venice — and so it was set. Despite advice to the contrary, I decided we could not spend an entire week in Venice. After much research I settled on Bellagio on Lake Como for a second locale, mostly because it looked glamorous and relaxing and also because my husband loves boats and I enjoy garden tours.
Day One: Late night flight to Milan
The day of departure came, and we said ciao to our kids to catch a late-night flight out of JFK. The kids were perfectly happy to stay with their Mimi & Boppop especially since their grandparents generally make it a point to ply them with too much t.v., random gifts and lollipops.
We thought we were flying Delta, but ended up on an Alitalia plane that flew under the Delta name — I know, confusing. Anyway, the airplane was so luxurious we hardly noticed the hour delay on the runway.
Day Two: Arrival in Milan and Drive to Bellagio via Como (Dinner at Trattoria San Giacomo)
We arrived in Milan a little behind schedule and then faced an unbelievably lengthy line at the AutoEurope rental car pickup. So we were frustrated and ravenous by the time we finally drove our car out of the parking garage on our way to Bellagio. As we pulled away and stopped at the first intersection, the car motor suddenly quit! A wave of annoyance washed over me — we already had a flight delay, a delay picking up the rental car and now we were a few hours behind my itinerary with undiagnosed car trouble and a manual entirely in Italian — we would have to go back to AutoEurope. Then, just as suddenly as it stopped, the car started up again (all on its own)!!! We were bewildered as we drove through traffic with this little car shutting off and starting back up at every stop. My husband, a car guy, was amused as he deduced it must be a European gas-saving motor; so we happily continued onto Bellagio, stopping and starting all the way.
Our first stop was the town of Como where we walked around the old town and soothed our jet lag with prosciutto sandwiches and espresso. The lake-side town was worth a stop, although not nearly as pretty as Bellagio turned out to be. After an hour we continued on the incredibly scenic drive along the lake.
We pulled into Bellagio in the late afternoon just as the sun was turning all the building facades to gold and making the lake sparkle. It was the perfect first impression. On our way to our hotel, we drove down a narrow, pedestrian-filled cobbled street that we thought surely COULD NOT be for cars, but later learned is one of the main thoroughfares in town. Our hotel, The Metropole, was a stately building directly on the waterfront near the ferry stop. I had obsessively researched hotels while planning the trip and was pleased as we walked into a comfortable, tastefully-furnished room on the first floor. I chose the room especially for the spacious outdoor patio with a drop-dead view of the lake and mountains beyond. We spend every afternoon lounging on the patio in the sun, drinking cocktails, reading books and watching the ferry boats dock and depart.
I had not made any dinner reservations for Bellagio but had researched possible locations. The first night we walked through the cobbled streets, up and down the steps and finally settled on Trattoria San Giacomo for dinner. The wait for an outside table was too long, so we sat inside and enjoyed a simple, delicious dinner of lake fish and risotto served by rushed male waiters. It was a homey, friendly place that we both really enjoyed, and I being pregnant, of course had dessert too, yum.
Day Three: Visit to Villa Monastero & Villa Serbelloni (Dinner at Barchetta)
Being parents of young children, we found it impossible to sleep in. So we came down for an early breakfast with a view on the Metropole terrace. The breakfast had it all; yogurt, granola, cereals, cold cuts, coffee, fruit and even a hot English-Breakfast style entree for people like my husband who don't understand prosciutto for breakfast. It was a lovely way to start the day.
We set out on an early ferry to Varenna to visit the Villa Monastero. Originally a monastery until the 1500's, the Villa Monastero is now a conference center that opens its scenic, statue-filled gardens to the public. We walked through Varenna, a pretty town with cafes along the waterfront and into the quiet, narrow gardens filled with citrus trees, rare plants and lots of urns, columns and even a temple overlooking the water. We enjoyed the walk and view across the lake — then it was back to Bellagio for al fresco pizza at a cafe.
In the afternoon we toured the grounds of the 17th century Villa Serbelloni (not to be confused with the five-star Hotel Villa Serbelloni by the lake). We walked up a very long hill through a vast collection of unusual trees, listening to the guide tell the rich history of the Villa. The property was once owned by Ella Walker, heir to the Canadian Club fortune, who had an amazingly interesting life and eventually left the estate to the Rockefeller Foundation. Today, various professors and scientists stay there and discuss important stuff that all sounded rather mysterious. We were treated to a spectacular view and the back story was fascinating, but the property was much more forest than garden, and I was a little disappointed.
The day ended with cocktails on our patio and then dinner on the terrace at Barchetta. Overall it was a nice dinner, being a little fancier than the previous night's restaurant, but with crowded tables that seemed out of place for such an upscale spot. As we walked back to the hotel under the streetlights we passed other couples and groups, all of which were English-speaking. We were starting to notice that Bellagio, while incredibly scenic, romantic, and charming was almost entirely populated by tourists.
Day Four: Villa Carlotta & Villa Balbianello (Dinner at Restaurant Albergo Silvio)
After breakfast we headed out on the ferry to visit the Villa Carlotta. Once a private home, this elegant property is now a part of the national trust and open to the public . Visitors approach the estate through a dramatic terraced entrance past decorative pools, statues and walkways covered in vines. The house was full of art, but we were more interested in the grounds and spent most of our visit in the impressive gardens.
In the afternoon we went to the Bellagio waterfront and signed up for a private boat tour and visit to Villa Balbianello in Lenno, because apparently I hadn't had my fill of gardens and my husband wanted another boat ride. The boat zipped us around the lake and we were able to see several impressive estates up close. The trip ended at the Villa Balbianello, a dramatically beautiful mansion set practically in the water on a peninsula in the lake. We were given a tour of the grounds, which now serve as an exclusive wedding venue, and they were truly spectacular. So spectacular in fact, that part of a James Bond movie was filmed here.
As we moved into the Villa we learned that a real life James Bond meets Ernest Hemingway character once lived here among the bougainvillea --- Count Guido Monzino. Guido Monzino was an eccentric Italian millionaire, Arctic explorer, cigarette aficionado and Mount Everest climber who revamped the Villa in the 1970s with such strange details as trompe l'oeil paneling in a closet, secret passageways, a room entirely devoted to smoking, an extensive collection of paintings on glass and various trinkets from his exploits throughout the world. The upstairs of the living room served as a museum dedicated to Guido Monzino's explorations and artifacts and his bones are buried in a creepy vault on the property. We were tickled with this story (who can resist such a lyrical name as Guido Monzino) and subsequently invented an entire Guido Monzino persona that only spoke of himself in the third person and gave mystical advice much like the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" character. Guido Monzino approved.
We giggled about Guido Monzino all the way back to Bellagio. For dinner we drove up above Bellagio to Restaurant Albergo Silvio, which was highly recommended. The view was outstanding and the food was good, although the service was only so-so. All in all we most preferred our hectic meal at Trattoria San Giacomo overall for its authentic atmosphere and hearty fare.
Day Five: Drive to Venice via Verona (Dinner at Osteria Oliva Nera)
We said goodbye to the Hotel Metropole and departed after another fantastic breakfast. We were very happy with our stay. The room was comfortable, despite a tiny bathroom. The patio was worth every penny, although they could do away with the weird planters that took away from the view, and we especially enjoyed watching the ferries come and go, even though they were noisy and sometimes vaguely smelly. We also loved Bellagio; it was undeniable lovely, romantic and full of character. We had chosen to stay in Bellagio because we were worried other smaller lake towns would be too quiet at night. We found Bellagio to have the perfect level of activity, with plenty to do both day and night. The real downside to Bellagio is that there is hardly an Italian to be found in the place. While it doesn't have cheesy stores selling cheap t-shirts, it really is geared for tourists and is essentially completely populated by them.
We loaded back into the start & stop car and headed out of town where I proceeded to accidentally give incorrect directions leading my husband to take the long, long way. Our planned stop in Bergamo seemed like a bad idea after that so we decided instead to continue directly onto Verona. Verona was very glamorous, with upscale shopping and what I think were marble streets?! The colosseum was just as impressive as Rome's and we made an obligatory stop at Juliet's balcony. After some gelato we were back on the road.
We dropped the start & stop car at the Venice airport and decided to take the water bus into the city. We almost immediately wished we had sprung for the water taxi. As we plodded along in a hulking, claustrophobic, stuffy tank of a boat — streamlined speed boats (water taxis) zipped by us sending up romantic sprays of water and looking very James Bond. Guido Monzino would have taken the water taxi.
We arrived at our hotel the Bucintoro in Castello much later than we expected. The hotel was fantastic. I had done extensive, exhaustive almost obsessive research regarding hotels before our trip and finally settled on the Bucintoro because the decor looked beautiful and it had one room (that we could actually afford) with a private rooftop balcony with a view of the canal. The room WAS STUNNING. It is situated into the top floor which is almost an attic-like space outfitted with built-ins and woodwork that is almost reminiscent of a boat. There are no words for the rooftop terrace…. you'll just have to google it.
Since it was so late we had to cancel the reservation we made for dinner. We went out for a walk through some confusing alleyways (hoping we wouldn't get lost) and stumbled onto Osteria Oliva Nera. It was a great find. We sat outside and enjoyed a truly delicious dinner served by the very friendly owner. They even gave me a little bottle of olive oil as a parting gift. We went back to the hotel just as a cruise ship was pulling out past our balcony. The thing was massive and we waved to the passengers as the tug boats guided the floating mountain out of the canal.
Day Six: Walking all around Venice (Dinner at Osteria Da Rioba)
Breakfast at the Bucintoro was similar to the Metropole, except there was no hot entree and my husband was forced to have prosciutto for his morning meal. We then spent the day (as so many had advised) simply walking around the city. We started in St. Mark's square (which was mobbed with tourists) and then moved on through alleys and twisting streets, over bridges through the areas of San Polo, Santa Croce over the Rialto Bridge and into Cannaregio where we stopped for lunch (more prosciutto for me!).
Venice is truly somewhere you need to visit. The entire place defies logic. Everywhere there are little treasures to be found; an unbelievably narrow alley leading nowhere, perfect storybook piazzas, churches of all shapes and sizes around every corner, crooked towers, disintegrating steps and bridges and more steps and bridges and then a turn and another turn and oh my, this street just leads around in a circle, and another bridge and then oh boy, where are we now? Every surface is perfectly weathered and fades seamlessly into a general wash of ochre, gray, terra-cotta and off white. The buildings have an amazing patina with plaster falling off walls and cracks in the streets. If an earthquake hit, the entire city would probably spontaneously disintegrate into a terribly romantic heap of dust. We loved it.
I got more and more exhausted as we wound our way back to Castello (remember I'm pregnant) and was probably three bridges behind my husband by the time we finally got back to the Bucintoro. We had luckily found a liquor store on the way and enjoyed some prosecco on our balcony before dinner. We took a water bus back up to Cannaregio for dinner at Da Rioba. The restaurant was situated on a canal and had terrific food and atmosphere. I would highly recommend it.
Day Seven: Basilica di San Marco, the Doge's Palace & Dosoduro (Dinner at Osteria Oliva Nera again)
After seeing the huge line at the Basilica di San Marco the day before, we arrived at the door an hour before opening time. It was worth the wait. This structure is so encrusted with mosaics, gold, marble and artifacts it is almost beyond comprehension. It also represents the greatness (and arrogance) the ancient Venetians enjoyed, considering they built this monstrous, gorgeous, priceless building on wooden stakes driven into the mud!! We then headed over to the Doge's Palace where we waited in line again. The inside was impressively covered in masterful paintings but we got overwhelmed by all the cruise ship groups and made a premature exit.
To get some fresh air we walked out to Dorsoduro and the crowds subsided as soon as we got out of San Marco. We wound our way through serpentine alleys and quiet piazzas. We strolled around a corner into a deserted square looking at our map and came upon another couple doing the same — it seemed that even in the most obscure places in Venice all the other people around you are visitors too. After lunch we had planned to head back towards home on a water bus, but there was a water bus strike, and the Traghetto (a cheap gondola ride that literally just crosses the canal) never seemed to be open. My feet were about to give out, and Castello really is a little too FAR out, so my husband decided to hail one of the speedy, romantic water taxis. We caught a driver's eye and he proceeded to back right into another boat. A Venice fender-bender. We watched them exchange insurance information, gesture wildly at each other and drive away. We caught another one home which was offensively over priced but saved my feet.
Since all the water buses were on strike we cancelled another dinner reservation in Cannaregio. Instead, we did what seems to be a tourist requirement in Venice — the gondola ride. To my delight we were paired with a Sylvester Stallone (but cuter) look-alike named Mauro who had gigantic biceps and a great personality. He was a third generation gondolier who lived in the same house in Dorsoduro that his grandparents once owned. He had a lot of great stories and he was nice to look at! The canals (except for the Grand Canal) at night were surprisingly quiet, romantic and mysterious, giving a tiny glimpse of what life in Venice might have been like before the speedboat. After our ride we stopped into the Osteria Oliva Nera again, and had another great meal.
Day Eight: Murano & Burano (Dinner at Al Covo)
With fond dreams of Mauro floating in my head we awoke the next morning and hopped a ferry (now back on the job) to Murano. The glass capital looked much like a miniature Venice except with lots and lots of glass shops selling all kinds of trinkets. We walked through the town, into some shops and I bought a little glass gondolier for our christmas tree at home.
We then jumped on another ferry to Burano. The idea was to get off the beaten path, since at this point we were getting tired of fighting the crowds in Venice. However, the ferry was packed. Standing room only. A huge mob flowed off the ferry. We ducked and wove, trying to get ahead of the pack, but realized resistance was futile and we were carried along with the crowd into the town. As we were hustled along with the group, we noticed the vibrantly colored buildings which were electric compared to the muted tones of Venice. It was very pretty and the crowds dissipated as we reached the center. My husband enjoyed walking along the canals looking at the fishing boats and I took lots of pictures of window boxes full of flowers. We had lunch at a cafe, and then, exhausted by battling the human tide, decided to head back to our private, quiet, relaxing roof deck for the rest of the day and watch the crowds from afar. On the way back to our hotel we saw a gondolas full of groups of men in colored shirts racing down the Grand Canal. Everyone on shore was cheering and it was fun, though we had no idea what it was all about.
We climbed up to our balcony with exhausted feet, drank prosecco, ate snacks, read our books and watched the various boats speed in and out of the city. Since everything comes into Venice by boat, you really see some sights when you stop to watch. There are gondolas, water buses, ferries, passenger ships, fireboats, police boats, boats carrying food, laundry, cars, cement trucks, excavators and groups of partying people. As the sun set, we watched the cruise ships go out pulled by the now familiar tugboats Marina and Angelina. It was the ideal way to spend our last afternoon in Venice, and watching Venice from our perch in the sky we felt as rich as Guido Monzino.
I had made a reservation at the much acclaimed Al Covo for dinner since it was my husband's birthday. We had a really excellent price fixed meal - which was definitely the best (and most expensive) of our trip.
Day Nine: The Rialto Market and Departure
We set our clocks for a very early hour because we had vowed to see the city with no crowds. As we walked the streets before sunrise we watched boats unloading cargo for the restaurants and hotels and street sweepers go about their rounds in St. Mark's Square. The serpentine alleyways and were dark, quiet and deserted. Canals, quiet and empty of speed boats, cast watery reflections up onto the building facades. The sun started to come up, softly illuminating the Grand Canal, as we crossed the Rialto Bridge (which for once had not another soul on it). We walked over to the Rialto Market and watched the fisherman pull up in their boats (some of them from Burano) and unload their catch onto the docks. The vendors began filling up their stalls with octopus arms, huge fish and colorful cascades of vegetables and fruit. Restaurant owners and actual real-live locals walked around picking out the freshest tidbits for that night's dinner. Venice was a real city after all.
As we walked back to the hotel, the sun was rising and Venice the tourist destination was stirring. The early morning serenity faded, street sweepers scuttled away, souvenir vendors began pushing out their carts, the handbag salesmen set out their wares, the water buses were filling up, a group of cruise passengers pulled up to shore…. and so it began. We were grateful that we had that fleeting glimpse of a quiet Venice — a real, breathing city (full of tourists or not) that is truly unlike anywhere else on earth.
We packed up and headed out to the airport. Back to work, back to child-rearing, goodbye to Italy.
1. Go to Lake Como & Venice -- you’ll love it! Despite the crowds and the vaguely Disneyesque fantasy element, Venice is the most amazing, unique place I have ever been and should undoubtedly be on everyone's bucket list. Bellagio was a great combo with Venice — the mix of city and nature was ideal. Our only regret was that we wish we had done the hustle and bustle of Venice first, and ended the trip with the relaxing calm of Bellagio.
2. Don’t try to do too much. We had 8 days and felt slightly rushed at times because traveling between airports and destinations ate up a lot of time. You should allot AT LEAST 3 full days to Venice – you need time to explore the back alleys, get lost and have a leisurely lunch at a random trattoria. Otherwise you will only experience the tourist crush that is St Marks and will miss out entirely on the real city.
3. Do the gondola trip. I know its cheesy and expensive, but its also surprisingly wonderful. Especially at night and especially with Mauro.
4. Go for walks late at night or early in the morning. Both Bellagio and Venice are tourist destinations. There will be lots of tourists there. This doesn't negate their mystique and unbelievable beauty. Take a walk when the cities are at their quietest and enjoy. Bon voyage to anyone visiting in 2012!
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Italy Trip Report (Lake Como and Venice)