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Trip Report Trip Report: The last hurrah? A fortnight in Lake Como

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For the past decade I have been spending summer holidays with my elderly parents. They are now in their late 70s and this year’s trip to Lake Como, in the second half of May, saw them noticeably frailer, slower and, well older, really for the first time.

We hadn’t originally planned to stay in Lenno, but were unable to book at our first couple of choices, probably because of my need for a single room. The Albergo Lenno is a nice 4 star hotel recommended by several on this forum. I would say that I liked it, and the village, better than my parents did.

So, the hotel: we had booked a front lake view for my parents, and a side lake view for me. Both rooms were nice and big, but ironically my view was the nicer of the two, as the front view looked straight onto the ferry terminal. More unfortunately, they were woken almost every night at 2 am by the laundry van throwing things around. They wouldn’t have minded if it was a bit earlier, say before midnight, but it definitely caused problems. They stood it for the first week – more on that later. My room, in the other wing, was fine from that point of view, although the first night I was kept awake by the noise of the rushing stream running along the side road. I solved that little difficulty by closing the windows on subsequent nights �� A few nights my sleep was disturbed by noisy fellow guests on the floor above – not the hotel’s fault except insofar as it’s a soundproofing issue.

The food: we had booked half board, which was a bit disappointing. It was well cooked, but with little choice and not much flavor. There was no choice of dessert, and I could only have dessert about half the time due to food intolerance issues. More disappointingly, as we were there for two weeks, was that the menu repeated after the first week. It wasn’t BAD, but we’ve stayed at hotels with much better food in the past, so it was a bit of a let down. The best food was the lasagna which was the second course on Thursday nights – this was delicious. My dad tried the octopus stew ne night – it had an awful lot of tentacles. The dining room was quite a pleasant environment. Lenno is a small village, with not many alternative restaurants.

Breakfast was served on the first floor, either inside or on a terrace overlooking the pool. It was perfectly fine for what it was; I’m always rather charmed by the European habit of serving up cakes at breakfast, and here the buffet included jam tarts. The only hot option was DIY boiled eggs (unless you count the also DIY toast), but a positive was the freshly squeezed orange juice. Tea and coffee were served. We enjoyed breakfasts.

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    Your parents could not be the only guests that were ever woken by the laundry person. And one would think that might be an unacceptable state of affairs for your hosts, something they could do something about, unless maybe there's only 1 service in that part of the world. I'll be interested to hear the rest of the story.

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    No, indeed.

    Our first morning, the plan was really to orient ourselves and explore the immediate vicinity. The promenade in Lenno is quite short, but a very pleasant walk in the evenings. The road there has very recently (since April this year) had traffic restricted to a ZTL, which meant it was very safe. At the village square end there are a couple of cafes/restaurants, and the wonderful La Fabbrica del Gelato. This is one of the best icecream places I’ve ever been too, with excellent ice creams and some interesting flavors. It doesn’t have seating, but there are a couple of benches outside. It opens late at weekends and Fridays, and those nights I was able to supplement my dinner with some delicious gelato. Other nights in the first week, we had coffee and occasionally icecream at the Il Golfo café. The second week it was a lot busier three so we mainly skipped it.

    There is an area with steps to the water there, where the town square meets the promenade, where you can feed ducks, swans and coots. We saw a coot’s nest on the back of someone’s motor boat, and a few families of ducklings. Further along, heading towards the Lido and the footpath to the Villa del Balbianello, you can walk along a quieter path, and there are side paths up to the man road.

    The main road is horrendously busy. There is a safe underpass where the main bus stops are, but otherwise you have to take your life in your hands on one of the zebra crossings whenever the pavement runs out, which it does in several places. That first day we went along a fair way to get to the supermarket to pick up a few forgotten essentials. We had considered walking up to the Acquafredda Abbey, but it was quite a steep walk so decided against it. (This, I think, was a sign of anno domini - even a couple of years ago my paremts would have been all for it.)

    Instead, we got the Trombetta Express, the little toy train which runs approximately hourly from Lenno to Menaggio. It’s actually more expensive than either the ferry or the bus. It was quite fun for a one off, and a beter view than from the bus, but not the most comfortable of carriages. We liked busy little Menaggio with its shops and cafes, and had a late lunch here. My parents would have liked to have stayed here, as there was much more to do in the evenings or just pottering about, but on relection I'm happy we stayed at tranquil Lenno. We then got a ferry back, via Bellagio.

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    interesting start to your TR, nonconformist!

    we are going to Switzerland in a few weeks time and as my DH may still have some mobility problems at that point, I'm reading along with that in mind.

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    We had booked several day trips with I Viaggi Porticciolo, based in Menaggio. They were quite expensive, and mostly for things which we could have done on our own, but involving various changes of bus/train etc, so we felt the hassle made it worth it. We were actually very pleased with their organization – very efficient, with excellent guides. The first of these was on Friday, to Lakes Orta and Maggiore. Unfortunately the weather forecast was for rain all day, so we didn’t see either lake at their best. Orta was a charming little town, but it was drizzling all the time we were there with grey skies and gloom. My parents had been there before, on a day outing from Maggiore, and were a bit disappointed the timetable didn’t allow for a boat trip there. We had a nice drink, served by a noticeably dour waitress, at the Leon d’Oro, and fed some swans.

    At Stresa we took a boat across to L’isola Bella. We had the option of three different boat times back depending how much time we wanted to spend on the island. My parents had been here before and thought there wasn’t enough time for the palace and garden, so we just had lunch on the island and went back to Stresa by the first of the three boats. The grey drizzle had developed into increasingly heavy rain as we strolled the streets, and soon turned into a torrential downpour. We took refuge in a café, where we consumed coffees and an afternoon snack waiting for the sun to shine. It didn’t. The raindrops turned into great big hailstones. At last we ran from doorway to doorway to get back to the coach. It continued to rain all the way home. While the trip was a bit of a wash out, we gathered it had been just as bad on lake Como, and I did at least see enough to think I might go back to stay on Lake Maggiore some day.

    Happily, the weather turned a corner after that, and consistently 26-30 degrees, at least 5 degrees above the average for the time of year. The swimming pool at Albergo Leno is unheated and out of doors, so I had been anxious beforehand that I might not be able to swim, but it was actually really lovely – a good size with a nice quality of water. Unfortunately my mother found the weather a bit too hot at times.

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    Next day we took the ferry to Bellagio. The ferry terminal in Lenno is right outside the hotel, which was very convenient. The young man who staffs it, however, clearly didn’t want to be there. Bellagio was a very attractive town which we liked very much. We spent the morning exploring the steep little cobbled alleys and shops. We also had a look at the church at the op of the town, where there was a small display drawing attention to a local man who had been killed by the Nazis in the later stages of WWII.

    After lunch somewhere on the waterfront we walked along to the garden of the Villa Melzi. We picked this over the better known Serbelloni because access seemed to be more user friendly – no need to prebook set tours - and this was one of the best choices we made. The gardens at Villa Melzi, just outside the town, are in a park style with lots of flowers, and were a truly delightful place. Little lizards scampered everywhere in the hot sun. We returned home by ferry. Incidentally late that evening, there were some rather good fireworks over Bellagio.

    Sunday morning we spent in Lenno again. The very helpful staff at the hotel reception had booked my mum a hair appointment on Monday, and we were trying to work out where it was so it wouldn’t be a rush on the morning in question. We bought some bus tickets for a planned trip to Como in the little newsagent on the main road, and made friends with a fiercely barking little lap dog who assisted the owner. I practised my Italian chatting to the owner about little Rocco.

    We also had a look at the market stalls, and I bought a bag. The main market in Leno is on a Tuesday, but Sundays there are some slightly more arty/tourist oriented ones.

    Then in the afternoon we had a trip by boat to the Villa del Balbianello. (We had decided that the walk might be a bit challenging thus year - in previous years I am sure we would have done it.)

    The guided tour was very well conducted, and the house and its contents, including various items colleced from all over the world by the last wner, an explorer, were fascinating. Although the setting is spectacular and incredibly photogenic, we were a little underwhelmed with the garden as a garden – small and lacking colour.

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    On Monday morning my mother had her hair done. I went with her to get her set up, and then my dad and I waited in a little café nearby, La Pasticceria. This turned out to be a great find. It doesn’t look very special from the outside, but had delicious pastries (and my father discovered the delights of cappuccino con panna, viz with whipped cream on top). Also, no doubt because it caters to the local market and has not lake view, it was really cheap. We would return there a few times, and also found that you could reach it from the lakeside via the Vicolo Guido Delmati a little pathway, rather than having to go along the busy road. I also took my dad along to meet Rocco, the dog in the newsagent. My mum was very happy with her hair; she speaks no Italian and the hairdresser no English, but they were able to communicate sufficiently well by gesture that she was pleased with the result. She would have been happy to go back.

    We had a light lunch back at the hotel bar (the ubiquitous ‘toast’), and then took the 1.24 ferry to Villa Carlotta. We went up to the villa first. It’s a beautiful house but the contents are a bit more random than at Balbianello, and it has a colder, museum feel rather than that of a home. The temporary exhibitions were a little underwhelming too – the one on silkmaking would have been more interesting to us if we hadn’t seen similar ones elsewhere, and the art was rubbish.

    There was a small snack stand there with icecreams, chocolate bars and drinks near the villa, and toilets. Then we took the most ambitious (red) route around the garden. Unfortunately the azaleas were all but over. It must be truly spectacular in April. It was quite a pleasant walk round, slightly challenging in places, and the signposting was haphazard so we kept on thinking we were lost but got back on track. We were charmed by the terrapins clustered in a pool at the bottom end. Back home by ferry again.

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    We had been planning on going to Como on Tuesday by bus. The lack of sleep was by now a serious issue, and my parents decided they could no longer stand the room they were in, especially as we were there for another week. The hotel staff were very good about trying to find an alternative room. (They had been apologetic about the issue from the start, but said the laundry van’s timing was out of their hands.) They offered a room which my parents rejected as it was too small and poky, then another which they accepted, but it was significantly less nice. (My mum called it grotty, although it looked okay to me). It was overlooking the pool rather than the lake, was rather smaller than the original one, with a more dated shower my mum had trouble working, and they were not entirely happy. They felt they should have been offered an equivalent room, but of course there may not have been any free. I did offer to swap with them, but that wasn’t acceptable either. It did have a balcony, but they wouldn’t take advantage of that because it was so hot (another problem – no one to blame there but God and global warming ��).

    While they were moving all their stuff, they told me to go off on my own. It was a bit late to get a full day out by now, so instead I took the ferry across to Varenna with the aim of going to the Castello di Vezio. I was enchanted by Varenna, such a pretty little town. However, I was stymied in my attempts to find the path up to the castle. I knew it was a steep climb, but was prepared to give it a go. However, what was a deal breaker for me was that both of the signposted routes were at least partly along the main, pavementless, roads. I found the tourist information office and enquired whether there was another way, and was told not. So I wussed out again, and the very kind helpful girl in the tourist info ordered me a taxi. I arranged with the taxi driver (a very pleasant young woman who spoke good English) to collect me a couple of hours later. I was actually surprised how far it was by road, but that was because it was quite a hairpin road. The taxi was about 12 euros each way. I thouht it was worth it, but of course it would have been better value if I had been with my parents. I got dropped at the taxi pickup point, and walked the rest of the way. The little hamlet where the castle is situated was really rather charming, and the walk took me along some narrow cobbled streets. My parents would have loved it.

    The castle ruins were quite nice, though not very extensive, and the views were stunning. It was rather hot up there, but I enjoyed my outing. They normally have some falcons there, with a display in the afternoon (which I would have missed anyway due to timing – not a problem, I’ve seen several at home). However, I had understood that the falcons were normally at rest in the castle, but all the perches were empty. I don’t know if they were flying elsewhere, or had been taken in because of the heat. There was just one owl in an enclosure. There was a small snack bar at the castle, where I would have had lunch, but I checked the toilet first, and finding it to be of the hole in the floor variety, decided not to consume anything. I then walked back to the pickup point and read in the sun, while panicking over what I would do to get back down if the taxi forgot to collect me. Luckily this was so much wasted panic, as she arrived at the appointed time. Having missed my lunch I found I didn’t really need it, so just had an ice cream while I was waiting for the ferry back to Lenno.

    It was quite a long wait, with several ferries going only the other way. Just before the Lenno ferry finally arrived, I saw one ferry heading in the other direction had my parents on board. We exchanged waves, but they stayed on board. My return ticket was to Lenno, so I didn’t join them. I had a nice long swim in the pool back at the hotel instead.

    Reunited that evening, I found they had spent some time exploring Lenno, and had discovered the little path I mentioned earlier which took them back to our secret café. Our post-prandial walk went back there again, but our café was just shutting up shop for the night. However, we did get to see some nice old buildings including an 11th century tower converted into a house.

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    Sounds like a nice trip despite some drawbacks, nonconformist. Shame about your parents' room though as you say, one wonders why they couldn't have spoken to the laundry company - your parents can't have been the only guests to suffer.

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    An ironic counterpoint about the laundry is that my mum actually made use of the laundry service getting some clothes washed while there ;)

    Wednesday we took the trip to Como intended for the day before. We caught the bus up on the main road. The journey was fine, although the bus had no air conditioning. My mum was now complaining about the heat vociferously, and also saying it was really only dad who couldn’t sleep in the old room and she would have preferred not to move. She wanted to buy some new light trousers, so we spent at least an hour shopping. She was a bit shell shocked by the prices, and in any case couldn’t find anything meeting her exacting requirements (dictated partly by a health issue, partly by the heat). So that ended up being a waste of time.

    We had quite a nice lunch near the cathedral, and then popped in to have a look at that. I had already agreed not to subject them to any museums today, but had suggested that we walk along to the Villa Olmo, and/or take the funicular to Brunate, but the heat was taking its toll, and they just wanted to go home. So we just got the bus back to Lenno early.

    We visited La Pasticceria again – this was the visit where my dad discovered cappuccino con panna. We also popped into a rather bizarre art exhibition in the baptistry in the Lenno village square.

    Thursday we had another trip booked with Il Porticciolo Viaggi, to Bergamo, but a combination of the heat and my mum being stressed and anxious about her health issue and an upcoming operation meant she had decided she wanted to go home early. So my parents decided to miss the trip in order to make arrangements to fly home on Saturday, and I went on my own.

    It was a super outing – the old town of Bergamo is an enchanting city, and we had a really outstanding local guide. In the free time, I visited the museum of the 16th century which was quite good, but badly signposted so that I wasted ages climbing up the tower, and as a result by the time I had finished it was too late to get admission to the cathedral treasury museum. It was still open but the cash point was closed. This was disappointing.

    Returning to Lenno, I found my parents had, on my recommendation, gone to Varenna, as wouldn't be able to go there together, and luckily they loved it.

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    Friday I had booked a trip to Lugano. My parents had never fancied this one, so I was on my own again. I was somewhat alarmed when the bus came to collect me 15 minutes before the advertised time (I was the only person coming from Lenno), but the guide told me they would have waited until half an hour after the time if necessary.

    It was an interesting and attractive drive over the hills from Menaggio. Our trip took us first to Morcote, which was an attractive little village, but not as delightful as the guide books had led me to believe, and the ice creams were not as good as those in Italy. Then we had a boat trip to the city of Lugano, which was quite nice.

    The city of Lugano itself was a severe disappointment – all boring modern buildings with no charm whatsoever. The one bright spot was the church of Santa Maria dei Angioli (sic). This had some fine frescoes by a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, including his contemporary copy of the Last Supper.

    My guide book had alerted me to an art gallery/museum which sadly turned out to be closed. The modern art museum was open, but I had no interest in that.

    After the trip, got back to the hotel for a swim. My parents had gone back to Varenna to visit the Villa Monastero.

    Saturday I got up early to see my parents off to the airport before breakfast. I then went over to Varenna by ferry to explore the town itself, and then went to the Villa Monastero. This was the best house/garden combination – a gorgeous long romantic garden with superb vistas and lovely flowers, while the house was filled with very fine furniture, beautiful ceilings, and a rather impressive bathroom. It was really very hot today.

    I had a light lunch in a very unassuming bar with very helpful staff. I had half intended to do the Villa Cipressi as well, but I was a bit gardened out so just wandered around the town a bit, and bought some cold drinks and pastries for the following day. (I stashed them in my minibar overnight.) I was pretty exhausted by now and passed on a swim.

    The evening on my own was a bit lonely, and I hurried down my dinner before going to La Fabbrica for a divine ice cream. I couldn’t have a drink in the bar because someone had turned on a football match on the TV, so I went outside.

    That evening was, however, enlivened by the unheralded appearance on the promenade, right outside the hotel, of a local wind and brass band, the Corpo Musicale di Dongo. The hotel staff told me they were raising money for a local centre for the disabled. They played a couple of tunes, one of which I filmed for my dad – he would have loved to be there. I emailed my parents to check they were OK. It was the day the BA systems went down, but luckily Easyjet was unaffected. They said Gatwick was in chaos though.

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    I didn’t sleep well that night due to some very noisy fellow guests on the floor above. Luckily, I could sleep in next morning as I had planned to visit the Isola Comacina, and the first ferry was not until midday. I had a relaxed morning in Lenno, and was delighted to spot a terrapin swimming in the lake. Was he or she an escapee from the Villa Carlotta? I had a drink at the Bar Sport on the promenade – a disappointing tepid, ice-free Coke Zero. While it was always busy when we passed in the evenings, I was unimpressed. I also bought a slice of cold pizza at one of the market stalls for my island picnic.

    I had understood that there was no café on the island, but found there was, but as it was run by the ultra-expensive restaurant there, prices were ridiculously inflated, so I was glad I had brought my picnic. 10 euros for one drink and icecream, whereas at La Pasticceria it was only just over 6 for drinks and pastries for three.

    The island was delightful. I bought a little map to help me find my way around, and did the paths around the outside first, then the woodland walks. I had my picnic sitting in the grass near the church. It was another very hot day, but parts of the walk were shady. The ruins were interesting too, and the whole place was lovely, and very peaceful with few other visitors.

    The main downside was that ferries are very infrequent – I had the choice of staying there an hour (or less given that the first ferry was 20 minutes late) or four, which was about an hour too long. You can get a boat across from one of the mainland villages, but I would have needed to get there. Back at the hotel in the late afternoon I cooled off with another swim.

    Sadly, I slept poorly again thanks to the noisy people (who had also been noisy at the pool). This was unfortunate as the next morning involved a super-early start for the Il Porticciolo trip to St Moritz via the Bernina Express. I had only booked this because my parents wanted to do it, so was a little less than enthusiastic going on my own, but it was an excellent day out.

    The coach stopped for an hour or so in Tirano, where we had time to have a look at the church there, and to get a snack. The views on the Bernina Express train really were stunningly beautiful, and it was well worth it. I took lots of photos and film clips for my parents.

    The guide was rather deprecating about St Moritz, but I actually liked it rather better than Lugano. I would have liked to have had time for the Engadine museum but it was a bit far out of the town centre to be really doable in the free time we had, so I settled for lunch.

    There was a pretty drive through the area, with a stop when the driver saw a cute little marmot by the side of the road. The journey back to Italy also involved a series of tight hairpin bends with more spectacular views. In Italy again, we had another break in Chiavenna, where there was a nice ice cream place. It was noticeable how much hotter it was in Italy than Switzerland.

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    Tuesday was my last day. I had contemplated various options, including going back to Como to do all the things I hadn’t managed on the day I did go there, Lecco (although if I had done this I would have done it on the Sunday and saved the island for today), and Colico, but in the end I decided to go to the End of the War museum in Dongo. I got there by bus. On the timetable it was supposed to be a direct through route, but it turned out to involve a change in Menaggio. Luckily I went up early as I had intended to get my bus ticket at the home of Signor Rocco the ferocious guard dog, but found it was closed all week for the owner’s holidays. I managed to find the other local tobacconist (and to avoid getting run over while dodging traffic) in good time. The main Lenno market was on today, but although there were a lot more stalls than on the Sundays, they were not as nice products.

    The museum was very well presented, and I enjoyed it very much, although some of the audio visual presentations had their languages mixed up – one hit the English button and it came up with only German subtitles. I eventually settled on the French ones. I was the only visitor. I then had lunch in a restaurant in Dongo. I had intended to go on and get the ferry to Piona to the abbey, but the timings were not very frequent and I was anxious I might miss the last ferry back, so I just went back to the hotel and had a last long swim (75 lengths of the pool).

    I left Lenno the next day. My dad very sweetly came to Gatwick to collect me – of course the original plan had been for us to go back together. It was a bit of a mixed bag of a holiday. I’m not sure my mum will want to come abroad again, so I may have to travel alone, or restrict myself to the UK for a bit. We shall see.

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    I enjoyed your report Nonconformist.

    I think it's wonderful that you've had the opportunity to travel with your parents, something so many people don't do and then regret it once they are gone.

    This area is on our list of places to see so I'll be referring back to your post.

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    Nice trip report - and sounds like you had a good time. I had envisioned a trip like that with my parents but sadly never got around to it and now it's too late. So I guess I'll just have to make sure my own kids travel with me.

    In case you were wondering, the path up to the castle from Varenna is not 'that' bad. However, it was about twice as long as the signs and Rick Steves said it was. But you would have made it down if that taxi hadn't shown up.

    And while I agree with you about Lugano having mostly modern buildings it has a wonderful lake side promenade through a huge garden. And there are fabulous views from the mountain top reached by funicular. Doesn't sound like you made it to either of those.

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    Not the funicular. I agree the promenade was nice.

    With regard to ear plugs: a, you don't know in advance when you need them, and b, you want to be awakened by some noise, eg a fire alarm or wake-up call ;)

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    Regarding a, that's why I always have them and b, I have no problem waking up to an alarm, even with my earplugs. They don't keep out all noise, but enough so you aren't disturbed by it.

    That's just me, but it has allowed me to have a good nights sleep in some noisy places.

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    I've really enjoyed your report as well. I'm using some of your itinerary to demonstrate to my husband that there are many things to do if we use Varenna as a base for a number of days. Thank you for taking the time to post!

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    Nice TR and lovely that you have been able and willing to travel with your parents. My mother and I had an amazing 'mother/ daughter' month long trip to Europe when she was 72, it was great fun and we are so glad we did it.

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