Lake Como isn’t just for the rich and famous, by travel writers

By Gay Courter

We never considered visiting Lake Como on our many trips to Italy, assuming it would be prohibitively expensive to spawn on the same exclusive waterway as George Clooney, Sting and Sir Richard Branson. Because we were traveling in August, cooling off in the shade of the Alps before returning from Milan – just an hour from this legendary triangle-shaped lake – seemed idyllic.

Because we were traveling with our son, his Roman wife, twin 4 year old daughters, 6 year old son and Nonna (their Italian grandmother) we needed a minimum of three rooms. Hotel prices were high, so I searched for “lakeside villas” and found many beautiful homes with equally amazing prices: over $10,000 a night! Eventually I found affordable opportunities on Airbnb and VRBO.

After weeding out some because the picture antiques might not survive our rambunctious grandchildren, I discovered Ca Livia – a pink palace that crowned the hill above the postcard-perfect port of Varenna. While Bellagio, Como and Menaggio are more famous, Varenna – a former fishing village – is a gem on the less traveled east side of the lake. Most of the streets are too narrow for cars, so everyone walks from the ferry on ancient stone steps, through shady passageways and past pastel facades in shades of lemon and gold on the way to the central square.

Ca Livia has its own enclosed gardens which join the public walkway, parallel to the lake. Spanning five levels, the villa has four bedrooms, a sunny kitchen, a formal dining room, two-story living rooms, multiple terraces and even a billiard room with a roulette table and pool tables. game shelves.

Each morning, we followed our lively grandchildren as they jumped, jumped and jumped to the nearby wharf, where ferries – both fast airboats and slower traditional boats – departed frequently. As we strolled around one of Europe’s largest and deepest glacial lakes, the children pointed to the remains of medieval stone villages juxtaposed between lavish estates, olive groves and steep vineyards and tried to decide which was the highest alpine peak. Meanwhile, I wondered who this couple was speeding past in a vintage wooden boat with gleaming brass fittings.

Our family hopped on and off as we explored different towns. In Como, the largest city on the lake, we took the historic funicular to Brunate, where we enjoyed stunning views while having lunch on the terrace. We met hikers returning from the lighthouse built in honor of Alessandro Volta, who developed the first electric cell, and asked how far it was. When we heard it was a steep climb and nearly 200 steps to the top, I suggested shopping in Como instead.

The next day we took the ferry to Lenno and wandered around its curvaceous harbor to catch the water taxi to the famous Villa del Balbianello. Perched on a wooded peninsula, the estate was built in 1787 on the site of a Franciscan monastery. Count Guido Monzino, its last private owner, was the first Italian to climb Mount Everest.

Walking up from the dock, we were greeted by quintessential tiered Italian gardens. The villa has been featured in numerous movies, including ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Star Wars: Episode II’ (both of which included languid kissing scenes), and we watched a bride and groom filmed strolling together and s kiss shyly on the legendary terrace.

The meticulously maintained garden avoids a riot of color while displaying all shades of green. Trimmed with precision, the century-old trees are works of art lined with sky, mountains and water. Plane trees are pruned to imitate candelabra, and huge holm oaks – actually conifers – are shaped into massive umbrellas. Most amazing is the continuous creeping fig tree that hugs the walls and pillars of the loggia and is said to be almost 200 years old. Even the grass looks more like a lush carpet than a living lawn.

I found a cool alcove where I could enjoy the twins, the ribbons of their straw hats blowing in the wind as they walked up and down the aisles lined with gigantic urns and classical sculptures, thinking it was maybe -to be the most romantic place on earth.

Later, when the ferry docked in Varenna, our Energizer bunnies were ready for their next adventure. The sweltering summer sun begged us to slow down, so we headed back to the villa as our son’s family trekked up the steep path to the Castello di Vezio, part of a chain of medieval watchtowers in early warning.

Although it was too late for the falconry demonstration, our son launched his drone to capture views of the lake and the terracotta rooftops. During this time, we were invigorated watching the wind on the water while having a prosecco on the terrace. After the sunset turned the watery palette from gold to silver, our family joined other residents and visitors on the passeggiata degli innamorati (lovers’ walk) until we found a table in the one of the lakeside restaurants for local fish and vegetables.

On the way back we stopped for gelati. For me, the highlight of the trip came when my adorable grandson – who is fluent in Italian – offered to order me. Nothing – not even running into the Clooneys – could have made me happier.


Ca Livia is a pink palace that reigns over the harbor above the port of Varenna in Italy. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

    The author's 4-year-old twin granddaughters enjoy a walk near Lake Como in Italy.  Photo courtesy of Giulia Longo.

The author’s 4-year-old twin granddaughters enjoy a walk near Lake Como in Italy. Photo courtesy of Giulia Longo.

    A ferry docks at Bellagio in Italy.  Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

A ferry docks at Bellagio in Italy. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Gay Courter’s latest book is “Quarantine! How I Survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis”. To read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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