We dropped the children off on Monday morning at a summer camp in the small village of Berceto, a retreat from stifling hot Parma in the summer months, in the Tuscan–Emilian Apennine. It was the third year they had attended the camp; they were all more than happy to go.
My husband (Italian) and I were off to Lake Como for a few days but we stopped off in Pavia, a town in south-western Lombardy, on the way. The city possesses many artistic and cultural treasures and is home to the ancient University of Pavia as well as several important churches and museums.
We arrived in the small village of Sala Comacina (with only 600 or so residents) on the western shore of Lake Como between Como and Menaggio late in the afternoon. We parked the car and didn’t go near it again until we left 3 days later. The road around the lake is windy and very narrow in places and does not make for enjoyable driving so we decided to explore on foot or travel by boat.
I found our accommodation through AirBnB. We booked very late as we just couldn’t decide what type of place we wanted to stay in, so when Suite Regina popped up on my screen with the message ‘this is a rare find’, I booked it straight away. My earlier indecision had paid off. Suite Regina, a double room and ensuite bathroom, in the house of Australian couple Wendy and Harold was perfect. We parked the car and called Wendy to let her know we had arrived and suddenly there she was walking up the road to greet us as if we were long lost friends. Wendy was delightful, giving us a quick tour of the village, introducing us to bar owners and local residents, pointing out the best restaurants and giving us tips on the best way to see the lake and surrounding villages. The room itself was pure luxury with crisp white linens, a mini bar packed with goodies, a very spacious bathroom and the most beautiful view I have ever seen.
The first day we walked along the Greenway, a leisurely and pleasant hike through ancient villages, passed stunning villas, gardens and baroque churches, with beautiful views of the lake along the way. The walk begins at Colonno and takes you through Sala Comacina, Ossuccio, Lenno, Mezzegra, Tremezzo, and Griante ending up in Cadenabbia. It’s an easy walk, well signposted with green metal circles embedded in the pavement and from beginning to end will take about 3.5 hours. You can join the path at many different points so it made sense for us to start at Sala Comacina. We didn’t complete the 10kms as we set off late (remember this was a trip without children so we took the opportunity to lie-in in the morning after watching a movie in bed on Netflix the night before – pure luxury!), stopped for lunch at Ossuccio and took a slight detour to visit the spectacular Villa del Balbianello.
The Villa and Loggia, originally built in the last years of the 1700s as a quiet summer residence are now in the ownership of the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (the National Trust for Italy). Entrance to the villa and gardens is €20. We visited the gardens only and paid €10. As the official brochure states the original designers had to take into account the steep and irregular grounds and the result is “a loose compromise between the strict geometry of an Italian style garden and the monumental nature of a French park”. There are huge plane trees pruned in candelabra shapes, wisteria and ivy vines, laurel and boxwood bushes and a sloping path that leads to an English style lawn. However you want to describe them – they are simply glorious. The villa was featured in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones as the lakeside retreat where Anakin and Padmé marry.
On our second day we decided to travel around by boat and personally I think this is the best way to see the villages. You get a real feel for the picturesque quality of the villages looking at them from the lake. The ferries which run regularly between Como, Tremezzo, Bellagio, Varenna and Colico are by far the easiest way to get around. We went straight to Bellagio often called the ‘Pearl of the Lake’ as it is well known for its narrow streets, cobbled stairways and elegant buildings. I was disappointed when we arrived – after the tiny virtually tourist free Sala Comacina the large numbers of people at Bellagio where suffocating. We headed away from the crowds and by chance after about a 10 minute walk we came across La Punta, a family run restaurant, which first opened in 1963, offering the best of local produce and classic Italian cuisine. Located in a panoramic position, with a wonderful view of the three branches of Lake Como we decided to stop for lunch. We shared a salad with Lavarello (typical white lake fish) followed by ravioli con radicchio rosso (divine) and crespelle carciofi e spinaci (not my favourite dish but still very good). We had 2 glasses of white wine. The staff were friendly, multilingual and attentive.
Feeling refreshed we decided to head back into town but as soon as we came across the crowds we knew we had to find an escape route. We headed out the other side of Bellagio to I Giardini di Villa Melzi. There we found peace and tranquility and yet more fabulous views of the lake as we walked in the shade of the plane trees which line the path to reach the villa. Built in 1808 for the Duke Francesco Melzi d’Eril, assistant to Napoleon, the villa is one of the most emblematic examples of neo-classicism in Lombardy.
We ate well everywhere during our stay at Lake Como but the dinner on our last evening at La Tirlindana was by far the best. Just a stone’s throw from our accommodation we could see the tables in Piazza Matteotti from our bedroom terrace. Small but very popular we were lucky to get a table in this romantic setting on the edge of the lake. I’m a fan of maltagliati (literally translated as badly cut) pasta so when I saw it on the menu I couldn’t resist. It came with pomodorini, gamberi e pesto di nocciole. I asked for it without the shrimps which wasn’t a problem and the homemade pesto of hazelnuts was delicious. For the main course I ordered filetto di branzino al vapore con salsa all’arancia (sea bass with orange sauce). My husband had the 4 course tasting menu. All delicious particularly the 4 dessert pots (which we shared of course), one of which was the best panacotta I have ever tasted.
After 3 nights and 2 days it was time to move on, this time to visit a friend in Cella Monte, a small village near Alessandria in the region of Piemonte. Dinner that evening was vitello tonnato (finely carved veal with a tuna and egg paté) – which sounded awful but was what the locals were eating so I decided to try it and much to my surprise it was delicious – which was of course accompanied by 2 great red wines. This was followed by the second best panacotta I have ever tasted. If you haven’t yet guessed I am an absolute dessert fiend and am severely disappointed when a dessert does not live up to my high expectations!
The next morning we drove through the undulating hills and wineries of Piemonte. We visited 2 small wine producers: Luigi Pira in Serralunga d’Alba, in the Barolo wine producing area and Sottimano with vineyards in Neive, famous for its Barbaresco wines. The landscape was stunning – vineyards as far as the eye could see dotted with ancient villages perched on the top of every hill. Once again we eat very well, in L’Aromatario, a restaurant and B&B situated in the piazza of the small village of Neive, a quintessential Italian village with cobbled lanes, picturesque houses and spectacular views of the surrounding vineyards.
We arrived back in Berceto at the camp Saturday morning in time to see our children perform their end of week show – a somewhat incoherent but amusing selection of scenes from their adventurous week in ‘Camelot’. After 5 days and nights with only my husband, I felt reconnected to him mentally, emotionally and physically. We had talked about our past, our present and our future along with current affairs (Brexit and Trump reared their ugly heads often, as well as our genuine bemusement at the incredibly strict rules of rubbish disposal in Italy), the breathtaking scenery and of course food and wine. We were ready to pick up our children and continue our holiday as a family. When we saw them their main concern was getting us to agree to two weeks of camp next year as opposed to just one. They hadn’t missed us in the slightest. For me that was the icing on the cake – taking time for Christian and myself knowing our kids are having the time of their lives.
Jane Mitchell is Associate Director at MumAbroad
All photos: Jane Mitchell