The drive to Lake Como was uneventful, but meeting with our Airbnb host and finding the house was another story. We met with the host in one of the few small parking areas in the town of Moltrasio and followed them to the driveway. The single-lane driveway was better suited for mountain goats than cars, with a couple of climbing 180-degree turns. When you are following the people who live there, and they have to do a three-point turn in a Mini Cooper, you know it’s tight. The view of the lake is far and away the best feature of our Airbnb, and it didn’t disappoint. The apartment was small and lacked some amenities we’ve enjoyed at other stays, but the view makes it worth it.
Once we were settled, it was time to explore the area. In the morning, we took the ferry to Bellagio and then to Varenna. The goal was to get to Varenna and climb to Vezio Castle before it got too hot. The climb was mostly on stone steps, but the path went up and up until we entered a little village-like complex leading to the castle. This castle has had many incarnations, but a building has existed since Roman times due to its strategic location many hundreds of feet above the town. We had to pay 5 euros each to climb the rest of the way, but it was worth it to enter the castle walls and climb the remaining tower.
The views were spectacular as the elevation changed our perspective on some of the coastline and lakeside towns we saw from the village below. We saw several of the famous “ghosts” that inhabited the castle grounds. These figures are cast in plaster once a year and placed around the castle. The weather slowly erodes the plaster giving them an ever-changing spooking appearance; they’re pretty cool.
As we started back down, a sign pointed to an off-shoot of the main trail directing us to the Villa Monastero, our next intended stop. We followed the path, which eventually led us to the Villa, but there was no direct route. We climbed down a rugged trail that was part steps, random stones, and dirt. It was very steep, and I am glad we didn’t use it to reach the castle as some folks we met were doing. The path we took to the castle was the correct one. We should have gone back that way and walked through the town to get to the Villa, but what fun would that have been? This was the quickest route, so it all worked out.
Villa Monastero is known for its gardens and the mansion remaining on the grounds. We toured the gardens, which were beautiful and offered more fantastic views of this remarkable place. Unless you are behind a wall, I don’t think there is a bad view of Lake Como. The complex is a mix of hedges and flowering trees and lived up to its reputation as an idyllic place to see the lake.
We then made our way to the main town center to catch a ferry back to Bellagio so that we could explore there a bit. We decided to skip getting a snack in Varenna in favor of getting one in Bellagio; that would be a mistake. We joined a massive line for the ferry, totally exposed to the sun with no hope for shade. Thankfully, we just got on the ferry as the attendant put the rope across the entryway behind us. By the time we reached Bellagio, we were toast.
We searched the coastline of Bellagio for a place with a table for two in the shade and finally found one outside the Excelsior Hotel. We were in much better condition after a generous and tasty salad, an Aperol Spritz, and multiple bottles of water. We walked around Bellagio, checking out some shops and more splendid views until it was time to get in line for our ferry ride home. It was the last fast ferry for a few hours, and thankfully it was on time, and our wait was in the shade. We enjoyed a dinner of fresh ravioli in the apartment that evening, and after a nice cold shower and lots of glasses of water, we were ready for bed.
The city of Como
The next day we drove into the city of Como to explore. After finding a place to park, we walked along the harbor to see a few monuments, Monumento ai Caduti, and the Tempio Voltiano, before making our way to the Como Cathedral.
I thought we were done with churches, but I was wrong. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised as the entry was free, and the interior decorations were exquisite. The ceiling is decorated with a stunning blue and gold design. I also captured a few perfect pockets of sunlight through the church windows. They didn’t highlight anything substantial, but I loved how they fell on a chair and bench.
We had a few things on the to-do list, so after the Cathedral, we walked to the Brunate Funicular to ride to the top. The tracks are unbelievably steep, but the ride takes less than ten minutes. When you get out, the view of the lake and the city of Como is impressive. We walked around a bit and decided against the further climb or shuttle ride to the lighthouse perched high above our already heady position.
After seeing signs for a restaurant with an “unbeatable” view, we were determined to see if there was any truth in advertising; there was. The Il Balcone Sul Lago is a bed and breakfast with a restaurant that has a breathtaking view. We ordered a couple of spritzes and salads and enjoyed the shade and the stunning lake before us. After lunch, we walked to the panoramic photo point just below the B & B and took more photos of the lake. The iconic Villa d’Este was across the lake from our position and made for a splendid subject, although I wish we were staying there.
We realized we needed to move as it was close to three pm, and our parking was only paid until four. We rode the funicular down the hill and walked back around the harbor to our car. Bar Centrale in Moltrasio was our destination for dinner that evening. The location in the heart of the village was excellent, and the pizza wasn’t too bad but far from the best we’ve had on the trip.
We decided to drive up the coast to the town of Menaggio to walk around the promenade and take in the sights. The town is much larger than where we’ve been staying, and it was pretty active. We found a parking garage, that’s right, a parking garage! It was a short walk to the coastline to walk along the promenade. While the signature of Bellagio’s promenade is their trees, Menaggio’s signature is their flowers. The center of the promenade is lined with beautiful flower beds that are immaculately manicured. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they smell amazing.
The views of the lake were fantastic due to Menaggio’s perfect vantage point. You get a great view of both sides of the peninsula where Bellagio sits and a great view across the lake to Varenna. After walking around for a bit and checking out some shops etc., we settled on a spot to have a lunchtime snack and cocktail and people watch. We ate at Cafè del Pess, which wasn’t bad. It was a fantastic spot to sit and watch people walk the sidewalks along the water. There was no shortage of wonderfully interesting folks in town that day.
After we finished, we made our way back to the apartment. The highlight of the drive home was following a construction truck through the extremely narrow streets in the small towns along the way. There are many places where two cars just barely fit and, depending on the size of the vehicles, sometimes cannot fit. Following him made it easy and entertaining as people realized they needed to move out of the way.
Dinner reservations were a short walk away by the Moltrasio pier at Ristorante La Veranda. It is an older restaurant that is part of a hotel “downtown.” We arrived in time to secure a seat inside before a front moved through with big gusts of wind that would’ve made eating outside impossible. Dinner was great, probably one of the best we’ve had on this leg of the trip. The food and wine were excellent, the service prompt, and the prices weren’t bad. It’s a place I would recommend to anyone visiting the area.
Back to Como
We had no plans for our last full day at Lake Como and wanted to take the morning easy and chill. After making breakfast and enjoying our mid-morning coffee (from a Moka pot, of course), we went to Como to check out a few sights we missed the other day.
Lunch was at a small organic/vegetarian place called Il Lughino. It was nothing to write home about, not a good choice, but we can’t win them all. After lunch, we walked to the Basilica di Sant’Abbondio. The church is 1km or more from the central area of downtown, and it was an interesting walk through the different economic zones of Como. The church was intriguing, but we didn’t get to stick around for too long because a wedding was about to begin.
The basilica’s exterior is plain compared to many others; there are no sculptures on the walls or massive signs of wealth. There are some intricate designs around the windows and bell towers, but otherwise, it is very understated. The interior mirrors that theme as the main decorations are frescoes, not carvings. The ceiling is wood beam and lacks the gilding of many old cathedrals.
Back at our apartment, we opened a bottle of Prosecco and sat on the patio to enjoy our last evening in the apartment. Dinner was more ravioli and sauce we purchased at the grocery store the first night we arrived. It was delicious and much better than our lunch in Como. As we relaxed and watched night fall over the lake, fireworks echoed through the valley. I’m not sure what the reasoning is for the displays, as it’s the third time we’ve heard fireworks from Como since we’ve been here, but they put on a good show, and it echoes across the entire southern portion of the lake.
The last day
We checked out of the apartment and weren’t sure what to do with ourselves for the next few hours until we could check into our hotel at the Milan airport. We decided to head north along the coast to check out the town of Argegno. Unbeknownst to us, everyone at the lake decided to do the same thing. There was zero parking available anywhere near Argegno, so we pressed on to the next big town, Lenno. We struggled mightily to find a place to park, but we finally found a spot well off the beaten path. The parking was free and easy to enter and exit, so it was a win.
We walked to the main area near the small marina. An ancient church was nearby with an impressive bell tower and a nicely appointed interior. It also had an interesting crypt that was open to the public; nothing macabre, just an interesting remnant of the old ways.
After checking out the church, we walked the promenade and beach area to see what the town was like. Some very, very nice houses and hotels along the water make this place a good destination. With some time to kill, we decided to grab lunch at a bar on the corner of the small square and relax. We had a great seat in the corner of the outdoor patio, so we had some excellent people-watching opportunities. Our salads weren’t the greatest, and the Aperol Spritzes were watered down, but it was still enjoyable. It was an excellent way to end the trip; the food quality didn’t matter; just being there did.
We made the drive to the Milan airport and checked into our hotel. After checking in, I looked up a few places to clean the car and went at it. Getting the car washed up was a little painful because it was Sunday, and many businesses were closed. Once it was clean and I made sure we hadn’t left anything in the storage compartments, I drove to the designated return location, where they checked the paperwork, and all was good. I hopped on the shuttle back to the hotel, and that was it; the short-term lease of our Peugeot 308 was complete. We spent the remainder of the day packing and readying ourselves for the flight home to the US.
The trip home
Our travel day started early to ensure we had plenty of time to navigate customs and attempt to get a refund of the VAT from our clothing and shoe purchases in Milan (I am not holding my breath that we’ll see that money). Our lounge access in the Milan airport made the wait enjoyable with no shortage of comfy chairs, snacks, and clean bathrooms. Our flight to JFK in New York City was smooth and on time. Getting through customs back in the United States was something we had been dreading with countless horror stories of long lines from recent travelers. The lines were massive, but all told, I think we had to wait a little more than 90 minutes to clear customs.
It was late afternoon, and we were in the JFK airport, still a long way from our home in Nashville; but this was according to plan. When I planned our trip, I knew we might be able to make an evening connection to get us to Nashville the same day, but it would be tight if we had any delays leaving Italy. It also would be an added expense since we already exhausted our airline points, at least for airlines that operate from JFK. I have many points with Southwest, but they operate from LaGuardia, 30 minutes away from JFK on a good day. Not wanting to add more stress to an already long day, I booked flights to Nashville from LaGuardia using my Southwest points for the following day. We had to find a place to stay for the night, like maybe the fabulous TWA hotel at the JFK terminal!!
This is a hotel I have wanted to stay at for several years now and was going to be the place we stayed the night before leaving for Europe in the original version of this trip we planned for 2021. So not being able to make a connection work fit nicely into my plan to stay here on the way home. The TWA hotel is cool as hell, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone needing a hotel close to the airport. If you have a remote interest in airplanes, the aviation industry, Howard Hughes, and historic airlines (not to mention the unique 60s style and architecture), you will love this hotel.
Our stay was a blast and worth every penny. I can’t wait to stay there again sometime. Our Uber to LaGuardia was smooth and easy, as was our flight to Nashville. It felt strange to walk into our apartment again after being gone for so long, but it also felt great. I love to travel, but coming home after a long trip is one of the best feelings around. This was one of the most extraordinary adventures we’ve had and a journey that we will never forget and probably never be able to duplicate. I am still processing everything we saw and experienced; it was a trip that will continue to shape my outlook on people and life for years to come. I know most people won’t have the opportunity to drive through Europe for two months, but everyone should try to do something similar. Whatever the trip’s length, it will profoundly impact your life.