Fodor's Travel Talk Forums

Fodor's Travel Talk Forums (
-   Europe (
-   -   Trip Report: Part 1 Northern Italian Lakes & Cities (12 days October) (

whitehall Mar 5th, 2018 06:38 AM

Trip Report: Part 1 Northern Italian Lakes & Cities (12 days October)
This trip report includes Lakes Como, Iseo and Garda with additional stays in Turin, Bergamo and Milan: Sept. 22-Oct. 3. Of the three lakes, Como was the most crowded and had the biggest percentage of Americans; Iseo was very sleepy and had few tourists; and Lake Garda was somewhat busy but with virtually no Americans and lots and lots of Germans. All transportation was by rail, bus and ferry. Our trip started in Turin (Torino). Since we opted for a generous payout from Delta airlines in Atlanta, we voluntarily bumped ourselves and missed one of two days planned there. We still were able to see all of the key streets, squares, parks, churches and buildings (most from the outside). Turin was busy but didnít feel touristy.

Day 1
We visited a couple of Turinís grand squares, and browsed high end shops along Via Roma and the more affordable and interesting shops on the pedestrian only Via Garibaldi. The city is known for its chocolates and the birthplace of hot chocolate. And, there is no more fashionable place than the historic Caffe Torino to get a cup. Its grand staircase, marble floors, chandeliers and spiffy waiters correctly signaled our sticker shock. We opted for sipping our expensive chocolate, topped with a thick sturdy layer of whipped cream, in vibrant Piazza San Carlo. You could spend a week just sampling the many historic coffee shops of Turin, a surprising city with a cathedral that houses the Shroud of Turin, now unavailable to the public. We missed a lot with such a short visit, and had to settle for exteriors of the Palazzo Reale (some compare it to Versailles) and the dramatic Mole Antonelliana tower with its museum of cinema. We usually settle for simple food and had a choice of some great artisanal gelato, and enjoyed a delicious, cheap pizza at a modern but local establishment recommended by our landlord. The city has a grand train station not far from the action, and we watched the shutdown for the regular indoor/outdoor Porta Palazzo food market, said to be the largest in Europe. The vendors use dozens of ancient metal carts with metal wheels. And, there were piles of watermelons and tons of perfectly red ripe Roma tomatoes left over.

Day 2
We took the train to Milan (about 50 minutes) and then quickly got another train to Varenna (about one hour). If you decide to visit Lake Comoís mid-section (the most popular area), Varenna, on the east side of the lake, is the recommended destination. Many travelers, getting off there, roll their luggage the 15 minutes downhill to the harbor to catch ferries to Bellagio, Menaggio and other mid-lake destinations. We decided to base ourselves in beautiful Varenna, which is a little smaller and less busy, yet offering enough restaurants to keep us happy. Food was not pricey, even at the several spots that offered some of the best views available on the water. Lake Como lodging is a bit more expensive than some parts of Italy, so we compromised and stayed in what may have been the ugliest building on the lake, but inside it was clean, modern and even had a view of the lake (the best one from the bathroom). And, the location couldnít be better.

We settled in and got acquainted with Varenna. There is a nice walk along the water around the village to the ferry landing that includes a long bright red scenic arch, covered in ivy. This stretch of walkway provides many visitors with their best photo ops in the area. Varenna has a number of steps and passages leading to the few shops and restaurants not on the water. We didnít realize we were going to have 12 perfect weather days, so we decided to take a hike and grab some panoramic photos of the lake. Castello di Vezio sits well above Varenna, maybe 30-40 minutes and a steep climb to the small village of Vezio. The Castle, with its small drawbridge, is mostly ruins but includes towers, gardens and sculptures. The fee was nominal, but there were only a handful of other tourists. The views up and down and across the lake were the best we saw. Everyone else went back the way they came up; we decided to take a scenic narrow trail to the south that eventually brought us to the main road leading back to the village. We walked by the spacious lakeside gardens of Villa Monastero but the grounds were closed for a private congregation of important (judging by the police presence) Italian government leaders.

Day 3
This was a five-ferry day, getting to know Lake Como. First stop Bellagio. Not as crowded earlier in the day, but, as we experienced with a couple of other stops there, Bellagio is very touristy. We walked around the grounds of the pricey Hotel Villa Serbelloni, visited a number of shops and then discovered Alimentari, the best deli anywhere. Each morning, they pile up hundreds of varied freshly baked rolls, and then, with great humor and teamwork, they slice fresh meats and cheese and create sandwiches to order. And, at the end of the day, all the bread is gone. This was the first of two days that this deli catered our picnic lunch. Our next ferry went to Lenno, a charming and quiet lakeside village with many benches along the water. A perfect spot for enjoying our dayís picnic. The Lenno ferry stops at Villa Carlotta, not far from the beautiful Hotel Tremezzo. We decided against touring that villa and instead hopped on the slow ferry to Como. Itís only a couple dollars cheaper than the high speed ferry but it allowed us to enjoy the scenery and villages along the lake, even allowing for photos of George Clooneyís villa. The ferry makes a close pass to the spectacular Villa Erba and the Hotel Villa DíEste in Cernobbio and the antique ferry Concordia. At the southernmost point of the lake is the city of Como. We took a gelato break there, but we had to hustle through the crowded old city to catch a high speed ferry back up the lake to Menaggio, a busy lakeside town, which seemed to have more locals than tourists. We picked Hotel du Lac and its dramatic location for a late lunch after a nice walk along a park-like waterfront. There was even some sort of festival of Roman soldiers on the grounds of a local villa. Ferry five took us back to quiet Varenna.

Day 4
The weather continued to be so great, we felt a need to get back on the water. First stop Bellagio. And the Alimentari deli again. Todayís picnic spot was Villa Melzi, once the summer residence of an Italian count. There was a fee, few people, and glorious gardens and sculptures in a large estate setting south of the village of Bellagio. The villa itself is not open, but there was a private chapel, greenhouses, and a museum. And, best of all, a choice of spots to enjoy our picnic goodies and bottle of wine. Next up was the ferry to Lenno and a long but beautiful walk to Villa Balbianello. For a fee, there was a shortcut via water taxi, but we opted for the pleasant shaded walk to the villa at the end of the peninsula. Grand gardens, its own church, numerous statues and hidden passages, created by a succession of rich and famous owners, make this a worthwhile visit. And, only two more ferries (had to change in Bellagio again) and we can be home. Except that we decided to have vegetables and lasagna at the Hotel Suisse in Bellagio and experienced a bit of early evening there after the tour buses made their exits.

Day 5
Back on the train again, this time to Bergamo. We switched trains in Lecco, basically two 40 minute trips with little layover time. Bergamo was one place we almost cancelled in advance. It is best known for its airport, which is generally used by discount airlines such as Ryan Air. And, those who stay over often stick close to the airport. But Bergamo was the biggest surprise of our trip. Itís a big city. There are three areas of interest, the lower town, which includes a lot of beautiful old buildings and a large shopping/restaurant district; the upper hill town, which is a busy and large walled medieval city. The third and much smaller area is the village of San Vigilio, reachable by a funicular from the upper city. We stayed between the upper and lower cities in an old palace, part of a local area, that gave us a fourth area to explore. We immediately headed to the busy upper city, where we found numerous great restaurants and lots of good shops. After dinner, we found La Marianna, the fabulous gelato place that claims it invented stracciatella (Italian chocolate chip) in 1961.

Day 6
We decided to take a day trip, by bus, to San Pellegrino, and locate the source for all that sparkling water we have consumed over the years. For years, the once bustling vacation spot for the wealthy, has lost its fizz. The small quiet town is anchored by a huge and modern bottling facility for the water company, but itís best known for its history of thermal spas. The biggest one, the old Grand Hotel consumes much of the riverfront in the center of town, has been closed for 40 years, but construction activity suggests it is having a major multi-year facelift. We love architecture and enjoyed seeing the antique funicular buildings that once brought guests to the source of the famed water. We may have been the only tourists in town, but there was a bonus. San Pellegrino mineral water flows free to at least one downtown water fountain. Upon our return to Bergamo, maybe 25 minutes away, we avoided the climb to the upper city, this time favoring the funicular that is available for a small charge. And, that ticket allowed us to take the second funicular even higher to San Vigilio. Not much there, a cute little village and more castle walls, but mostly wide views of all of Bergamo and in the distance we were able to see many of those Ryan air flights taking off from the airport. And, then a nice evening and a good reasonably priced meal in the busy upper city center.

adnil1962 Jun 18th, 2018 05:28 AM

Great report!! Can't wait to visit Alimentari deli!! Thank you.

TDudette Jun 18th, 2018 05:35 AM

Thanks for the TR, whitehall. Looking forward to the next days.

maitaitom Jun 18th, 2018 06:44 AM

Keep it coming (:

kaysavla Jul 15th, 2019 12:33 PM

Visit to lake como
Thanks for a lovely trip repot. Will book mark for my trip in 2020. Can you kindly share accommodation information in Varenna .

whitehall Jul 15th, 2019 05:35 PM

We stayed in an airbnb. Ugly building but apartment was clean, affordable and well located. Having said that, if you still have an interest, I will try to find the link. I also have added here the second part of our trip report, which is on a separate thread per a private request from another poster.

whitehall Jul 15th, 2019 05:36 PM

Day 7
We had done little homework for a quick day trip to Lake Iseo. We read somewhere that you take a bus to Sarnico at the south end of Lake Iseo and pick up the ferry to Monte Isola, a mountainous island with several villages in the middle of the lake. While standing alone near the ferry dock, a friendly couple, who did not speak one word of English, eventually were able to convey to us that we missed the only ferry of the day by five minutes. Sarnico looked beautiful, so we took a long walk on the waterfront before doubling back through the outskirts of town. In a largely residential area, we noticed a commercial garage that seemed to rent bikes and scooters. We asked about a car, and the owner tried to have a mechanic talk to us, and he knew only a few words of English. The owner then brought his wife from home, since she supposedly had a good command of English. Not so much. So we settled on the humor of the situation, developed a mutual trust, foolishly agreed to sign a contract that was all Italian, gave them a cash deposit, and off we went, with good directions, in a Fiat for a tour of the lake. The road around the lake was narrow and winding, but loaded with awesome tunnels and views. We visited three very quiet but beautiful villages, Lovere, Pisogne (where we had a great sit down lunch despite a food truck gathering), and Sulzano (where we got some good distant photos of Monte Isla). And, next time, we need to figure out the best way to get to Sulzano because they have regular ferry service to the island. But it was a little late for that, and we finished our circle around the entire lake, which is significantly smaller than Como. When we returned the car, we asked for a recommendation for some good gelato. The owner and his wife motioned for us to get in their car, and they took us on a tour of Sarnico and finally to the best gelato in the area, and they picked up the tab. Wonderful people! We ended our evening with a great outside dinner at da Franca in the upper city of Bergamo.

Day 8
Two trains, with a change after an hour in Brescia, and then another 20 minutes or so brought us to Peschiera del Garda on the south shore of Lake Garda. This was a beautiful small old town across the street from the lake and ferry. Our centrally located apartment was gorgeous, reasonably priced and over the owner’s upscale lingerie shop and just around the corner from her husband’s handsome bicycle shop. We quickly familiarized ourselves with the area, watched a bridal party come out of city hall, and focused on eating and shopping, since this busy little town had some of the best options we had seen. And, again prices for everything were reasonable. We hated to go to bed because this town had such a good vibe.

Day 9
We targeted two communities on Lake Garda and ferries with lots of local stops. Our primary destination was Malcesine and the Alpine experience of Monte Baldo. Two separate cable cars, with unusual rotating cabins, are needed to get up the 2200 feet to the summit, where there is a beer garden, much cooler weather and, when we were there, fast moving fog. As it cleared, an entire mountainside of dozens of hang gliders concentrated and waited for the right moment to lift off. The varying parachutes added color to the blue lake below. There were a couple of alpacas and alpaca products, and, although uncrowded and with peeks of a warm sun out of the fog, there were dozens of empty lounge chairs lined up like for sunbathing on a cruise ship. Down below, Malcesine itself, with its medieval castle, is a quaint but busy tourist town, loaded with shops, restaurants and processed bright-colored gelato. Nonetheless, a good spot for lunch before we took the ferry to Limone, which is set at the base of soaring rocky mountains. The striking scenery has been seen in at least one James Bond film. There is a crowded but wide waterfront promenade, where you will find most of the shops and restaurants. And, beautiful flowers and even bunches of green grapes. There are some lemons and citrus, once a major industry here, but most of the lemons grown there now are in an interesting indoor/outdoor museum. We took a nice scenic walk to the north and found the beachfront Hotel Astor and had a refreshing limoncello based cocktail in a very private location. Once back to Peschiera del Garda, we found a lively nighttime, mostly outside dining, and excellent food. There was even a talented street band covering 1960’s US hits.

Day 10
More ferries, but we decided to hit a couple of lake towns closer to home, Sirmione and Garda. We spotted the ruins of a large old Roman villa on the approach to Sirmione, but once closer, we realized that Rocca Scaligera, a medieval castle, dominates the center of town. This is a busy day trip location, with large ferries coming from the more populated area of Desenzano to the south. The castle was worth visiting, with its many lookout posts that tower over the village. We walked northward along the waterfront, across wide beaches of flat rock and piles and piles of stones that visitors before us created. At the northern end of the peninsula, we came upon those Roman ruins, which resemble more a small town, like you might see at Pompeii, than just a massive villa. And, then back to town through a long park. We hopped on a ferry with a few more stops before we landed at Garda. The large very wide waterfront esplanade there is loaded with typical tourist restaurants, but we opted for a better choice in the village itself, which has narrow walkways and numerous shops. We heard about a church built into the rocks high up in the mountain above Garda, so we hiked a mile or so before giving up and calling it a day. Or so we thought. We were only one or two ferry stops from home when we came upon Bardolino and saw what seemed like some sort of festival all along the pretty waterfront, with thousands of people. There were later ferries, so we checked out what turned out to be the annual rose’ and red wine festival celebrating the year’s new crop. Who new that this small town produces the famed Italian Bardolino wine. If you wanted something other than red wine, there were bars that served lots of other stuff for nominal prices. And, the festival, with tons of friendly people, and virtually no Americans, ended up being an unexpected highlight of our vacation. Music, food, colorful tents, and more. We took a late ferry back to Peschiera where we had a great veggie soup to cleanse our system and, of course, some more wine.

Day 11
Time to leave the lakes and an hour rail trip to Milan and its grand central train station. We are ending this segment of our trip, since we will fly cheap from Bergamo (5 euro bus trip from the rail station) to meet our daughter in Barcelona. But we had never spent time in Milan but we came away severely disappointed. Our apartment was near the rail station, and that’s about 45 minutes by foot from the major tourist sites. No problem. We like to walk, and it provides us a better feel for a city, which, in this case, was surprisingly dirty and uncared for. The major tourist sites, the duomo, the shopping Galleria, and the La Scala opera house are stunning and worth seeing. And, yes Milan has the Last Supper (we tried unsuccessfully to get very limited tickets for months in advance) and Milan lovers will say a lot more. But, for us, it was missing the cache’ that we have discovered in dozens of other Italian cities and towns. Our biggest thrill was snagging a private box, closest to the stage, at the packed La Scala. Impossible during the winter opera season. And, our tickets, purchased in advance online, were only to a recital, but the performance by a highly regarded singer was sensational. The best thing is that tickets were something like only $40 apiece. Afterwards, we walked back on a circuitous route through some areas that we might call “hipster.” Not the most attractive neighborhoods, but lots of little restaurants, bars, and young people.

Day 12
Our day was focused on walking more local areas, and we did find a couple of really good family-run bakeries, catering to the neighborhoods they were in. Eventually, we worked our way to the Duomo, a must see, and we enjoyed the adjacent museum. We usually steer clear of sidewalk hucksters, but for a reasonable skip the line price, we avoided the long ticket line and the extremely long entrance line at the duomo. For only a couple dollars more, we were quickly ushered through security as if we were VIPs. The price included a good English speaking tour guide, who didn’t even seem to want a tip. The duomo is the 3rd largest church anywhere, took 600 years to construct and is so spectacular it needs some time and focus. The museum includes a number of detailed wooden models, some hundreds of years old, that were used by architects in the duomo’s construction. We settled for a tourist lunch at Aperol, which celebrates the orangey apricot spritzer drink we see so many Italians consume. And, then to our apartment for some rest before heading to the airport the next morning.

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 11:34 PM.