Arrivederci, Italy

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After touring, elbowing and overeating your way through a two-week run of Italy, is it possible to end the crazy-fun madness with a few days of peace and sanity before getting back on that darned airplane?

There is, if you're in Northern Italy. And the place is the Lake District.

Here, Italy fuses with Switzerland in a union borne of ancient glaciers that brings snow-capped Alps, sapphire pools of water and an Eden of pointed cypresses and dewy camellias to the land of pasta and vino.

There is something redemptive about the Lake District. The scenery is more muscular than elsewhere in Italy. The air is frothier.

For centuries, the weary, moneyed and adventuresome have sought that powerful balm. Folks like Julius Caesar, Ernest Hemingway, Stendhal, Arturo Toscanini, Franz Liszt and Alfred Hitchcock were lake-goers, a fact well known by Ernesto Waingortin, 72, originally of Buenos Aires, now of Milton, Mass., and right now of the dock at Menaggio along Lake Como.

"Look, this is almost the end of a three-week trip. This is my day of relaxation," chuckles the retired physician, who planned a day of ferry-hopping and sipping espresso with the locals. Wife Liuda opted for the other favored lakeside pastime: staring meaningfully across the water, feet perched on ottoman.

Their Italian odyssey comprised one week on an organized bus tour (Liuda's preference) and two weeks cruising free-form (Ernesto's choice) through Italy's midriff. They planned an ending in Milan, but scratched that notion (in a joint decision) when they landed on these shores.

And so you have it. How to get to paradise in this lifetime: You tack a few days onto a highlights-of-Italy trip. And instead of ending it in Milan, you head north and make risotto with lake perch and moonbeams dancing across an inky lake your last hurrah.

There is ample justification.

First of all, the lakes are well-placed for a happy ending. You don't save any time on that critical last day by staying put in Milan. Malpensa airport is about an hour away from either Milan or Lake Como (or Lake Maggiore, for that matter). And for those who still want to jump into the big city, Milan is only 1 1/2 hours away.

In fact, the Waingortins drove to Milan twice in their three-day stay. They left the car at a remote Metro stop and took the underground train into the heart of the city.

And then there's Wilmette-based kitchen designer Mick De Giulio, who makes an (almost) annual business trip to Milan -- but never sleeps there. Every evening, De Giulio and his staff take a train to Como, where they ride bikes in the mountains, jog along the lake and sleep with the windows wide open. "It's worth it," says De Giulio of the 1 1/2-hour-long commute, 40 minutes of which are actually spent on the train. "There is something about that mountain air."

Which leads us to the second-of-all: Most trips to Italy are too jammed to be restful. A couple of days soaking up the mountain dew does wonders to erase the bags under the eyes.

And last but not least, for those who love to shop, there are silk outlets up here, lots of them. Need we say more?

Although there are, in the district, at least seven lakes of note (Como, Maggiore and Garda among them) not to mention a slew of smaller puddles, most Americans know the name Como best and for good reason.

Lake Como is the most lively of the laghi. It offers the best mix of villas, mountains, culture, glitz -- and shopping.

After covering a furniture/design show in Milan for a week along with 160,000 other people, this reporter and photographer chiseled in four days for some open space and a last Italian hurrah. And so we planned three of them on Lake Como; the final 24 hours on Lake Maggiore. (See sidebar.)

And no, three days is not extravagant. Three days will get you to just a handful of the pretty villages strung like pearls along Como's upside-down-Y-shaped shoreline; to one, maybe two villas; to the mountains for a small trek (a must for the able-bodied); and to the actual city of Como (population: 89,000) for an Armani tie or Valentino scarf at deal prices.

This was the extravagant part: We bedded down at Villa d'Este, one of the finest hotels this world has to offer -- it was voted fifth best European resort hotel in the 2000 Conde Nast Traveler readers' choice awards and best international resort hotel in 2000 by readers of Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. Since the 1920s, it's been a Hollywood kind of place. Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Madonna, Mel Gibson -- you name 'em, they have slept here. Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton honeymooned at Villa d'Este. William Randolph Hearst would arrive in two Rolls-Royces -- one for him and his woman, the other for their luggage.

Set outside the sleepy town of Cernobbia with the lake lapping at its frontside and Renaissance and 18th Century gardens mewing all about, the 16th Century pink palace drips with crystal chandeliers, silk period furnishings, marble statues and debonair guests who stroll the lobby and lakeside promenade like something out of a Fitzgerald novel.

I don't think I ever experienced more exquisite service.

As soon as we arrived, our bags disappeared from our car as it was whisked away to an underground garage. In our rooms, the baggage had magically reappeared. Fresh flowers and fruit plates greeted us like a welcome wagon. While not overly large, the rooms were drenched in silk, from ceilings to walls and almost everything in between. When we'd reappear in public, the reception clerks and concierges knew our names.

In the evening, the turn-down service included a perfect realignment of the French windows and hand-cranked blinds, so that the cool mountain air trickled in, but only a slice of moonlight. And perhaps the grandest little gesture of all: two sets of pillows on the bed -- one hard, one soft as a dollop of meringue to cradle even the most cranky neck.

We could go on.

THEN THERE'S THE PRICE

For those who can afford it, Villa d'Este is worth all $357 to $523 a night (depending on when you go) for the double room, the buffet breakfast with made-to-order omelets, the wait staff in black tie, the swimming pool that floats on the lake, the spa and the chance to feel royal.

We indulged, because Villa d'Este is the quintessential, Como-thing to do. But there are plenty of less expensive hotels that do the mountains-lake-relaxation theme darn well too.

The next Como-thing to do: head for one of the many ferries or faster hyrdofoils that run frequently to various destinations along the lake.

Forget the idea of driving around the lake, although it is possible to go all 67 miles by car. The narrow, two-lane road features hairpin turns and motorcyclists who believe the center line is a lane.

For those who have one whirlwind day to experience Lake Como, Italy's deepest (1,345 feet) and third largest lake (56 square miles), we recommend a point and counterpoint tour -- the town of Bellagio, the town of Varenna.

THE PLACE TO BE

Located at the crux of the "Y," Bellagio is all hubbub and scene. The streets burst with humanity, most of it tourists and, on the weekends, hip bikers in red leather suits who pull off the highway to see and be seen.

Resist any temptation for serious sightseeing -- there are more interesting villas and gardens in Varenna and Tremezzo. Rather, join the spectacle.

Find a table at one of the outdoor cafes that line the waterfront and sip something fizzy. Suck down a gelato. Watch the boats pull in.

And then, before surrendering completely to la dolce vita, wend your way up the steep alleyways that climb to the core of medieval Bellagio, offering up one glorious boutique after another. This is the town in which to buy artwork, jewelry, that one drop-dead bit of clothing.

Varenna, on the other hand, is where you sit under a cypress on a bluff over the shimmering lake and contemplate life.

It's quiet here and unpretentious. The quaint fishing boats parked on the beach are real. So is the old man snoozing on a bench in the sun.

With Roman origins and black marble at its core (the same black marble used for the flooring in the Milan Duomo), the town of Varenna rests at the base of a rocky promontory and is best known for its picturesque promenade that hugs and cantilevers over the water's edge. Follow that path and then head straight up the mountain to the main piazza, curiously empty at midday in mid-April.

Off to one end of the square is an interesting little church -- Chiesa di S. Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist). The unadorned, gray stone temple dates to the 11th Century and is amazingly well preserved.

But the highlight of Varenna lurks another 100 yards or so up the hill. The gardens at Hotel Villa Cipressi -- which has noble, 15th Century beginnings -- are absolutely sublime. Non-guests pay about $1.50 to lose themselves inside a series of five flowering terraces, hanging in stepped fashion over the lake. Amid grinning cherubs and cobblestone paths, you wander.

PLAYGROUND OF RICH

The list of dreamy villas and gardens along Lake Como goes on and on. The lakes have been the playground of the rich since Roman times. The late Gianni Versace used to spend four months a year at his Villa le Fontanalle, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is rumored to be shopping for a villa of his own. For those with limited time and a hankering for one more glorious example of the Renaissance villa high life, head back across the lake to Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo.

Villa Carlotta sprawls across 14 acres and sits right off the main road, up 91 stony steps, which you hardly notice. The lush gardens -- vine-draped pergolas, potted lemon trees, wall-high camellias -- suck you into a perfumed euphoria.

Like all good Italian villas, the 17th Century Carlotta has complex lineage. So suffice it to say that it wound up being a wedding present to a somehow-noble woman named Charlotte in the mid-1800s. Today, the elegant country home exists as a house museum with rooms dedicated to sculpture, paintings and the decorative arts. From the villa's second floor -- up another 67 steps -- the view across the lake and into the Alps is fantastic.

Speaking of Alps, they beckon relentlessly.

For those who are able-bodied but are more the aesthete than athlete (this writer counts herself among the former), there is a wonderful trek up the mountainside at the town of Ossuccio that delivers art and a spiritual experience, along with calves as tight as a steel drum.

The point of your pain is to reach the Sanctuary of Madonna Del Soccorso, a 16th to 17th Century Madonna shrine that overhangs a ravine. To get there, you climb a steep bridle path that bends and turns, thankfully, for no more than about a mile. Along the way are 14 small Baroque and Neoclassic chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ and the mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

Built between 1663 and 1688, these stucco temples are little jewel boxes -- with no way in. Instead, you peer through crusty windows into the darkened innards -- church bells echoing across the countryside at your back -- to eye the religious scenes being portrayed inside by the 230 plaster and stucco statues.

It's OK to linger and do lunch even if you are a shopper. The stores in Como have goofy hours. Most close from noon to 2:30 or 3 p.m.

THE SILK ROAD

Of course, there are plenty of other good reasons to visit the town of Como, located on the southern tip of the western leg. There are any number of churches, a couple of museums, a funicular into the mountains.

We didn't have time, save for a quick stop inside the Duomo.

We had silk to buy.

Italy has the big-name designer talent. Como gives them silk to play with. Some 80 percent of all the silk produced in Europe (all those designer scarves, ties, fashion, fabric) comes from this area. But here's the kicker: The actual silk threads come from China.

It became economically silly for Italy to nurture mulberry trees, worms and cocoons sometime during the 1950s, explains Ester Geraci, our guide through the Silk Museum, a studious little museum that reproduces the entire silk process from worm breeding through the weaving, printing, dyeing and finishing processes.

Those processes are still done in Italy, in and around Como. Thus, all the shops and outlets. (The tourist office in Como can provide a complete directory.) Let's just say, it's possible to buy eight silk scarves and one tie in less than 20 minutes and for less than $200.

It's also possible that ending a trip to Italy quietly, beautifully (and with gifts that fold flat) is the key to memories that linger long in the heart.


IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

By car: From Milan, take A9 north to Como, about 30 miles away. The hardest part is getting out of downtown Milan. By train: At least 15 trains run daily from Milan's Stazione Centrale to the city of Como.

GETTING AROUND

Boats are the way to go. Ferries, which transport cars as well as people, and faster hydrofoils hop across the lake from town to town on a regular schedule. For those who prefer terra firma, there is a bus that gets you from Como to Bellagio in 1 hour and 20 minutes.

LODGING

Three-star Villa Cipressi in Varenna costs 190,000 Italian lire (about $86 at the rate of 2,200 lire per dollar) a night for a double room with a lake view, including breakfast. The rooms are monastically spare, but the setting is Edenlike, and the view can't be beat. Closed Nov. 1 through February. Phone 011-39-0341-830-113; fax 011-39-0341-830-401; e-mail villacipressi@libero.it. Four-star hotels along Lake Como run about 250,000 lire ($114) a night for a double room including breakfast. Five-star Villa d'Este costs 785,000 to 890,000 lire ($357-$405) a night for a double room in the low season (March through April 26 and Oct. 22 through Nov. 18) including buffet breakfast. High season (April 27 to Oct. 21) rates are 1 million to 1.15 million lire ($455-$523) a night. Closed mid-November through February. Phone 011-39-031-348-1; fax 011-39-031-348-873; Web site www.villadeste.it; e-mail info@villadeste.it.

DINING

In Varenna, we had one of our best pizzas ever -- an asparagus-tomato-mozzarella number -- at Ristorante Del Sole, on the main piazza. Wood-fired individual pizzas (there are 45 varieties from which to choose) run about 13,000 lire ($6).

Set in the mountains over Cernobbia, Il Gatto Nero (The Black Cat) offers great views, great pasta and reasonable prices. First-course pasta dishes, which are enough for a meal, cost about 20,000 lire ($9); try the risotto with lake perch or black noodles with salmon and pecorino cheese. Second-course meat and fish dishes cost 22,000 to 35,000 lire ($10 to $16).

And for those who want (a relatively affordable) taste of Villa d'Este, which is renowned for its culinary skills, try The Grill, the villa's more informal, no-jackets-required restaurant -- although the waiters are in black tie and the tables in white linen. Antipasti run 28,000 to 36,000 lire ($13 to $16). Main courses, from about 40,000 lire ($18) for chicken breast stuffed with spring spinach, truffle sauce and mascarpone cheese; to 42,000 lire ($19) for lake perch in a cereal crust with a cream bean sauce; to grilled lamb ribs for 46,000 lire ($21). Desserts, including a delicious warm chocolate tartlet with hibiscus blossoms extract and white chocolate ice cream, run about 20,000 lire ($9).

SHOPPING

Some of our favorite places . . .

In Bellagio, where the shops are open even on Sunday: For a wonderful selection of jewelry that won't break your pocketbook, head to Paola e Francesco, right along the waterfront at Lungo Lario Manzoni 34-36. Check out the beautiful crystal earrings. For artwork (paintings, prints, posters too), Galleria Valentinarte at Salita Serbelloni 10 offers a lot in one little store. Ask about shipping to the U.S. For those who cannot wait to buy silk in Como, Azalea, Salita Serbelloni 31, has a broad selection of scarves, ties, velvet wraps. And Rebus at Salita Serbelloni 41 sells beautiful Italian ceramicware. In and around Como: The list of silk factories and outlets goes on and on. Pick up the complete listing at the APT Tourist Office (see below). We had great luck at A. Picci, Via Vittorio Emanuele 54, in downtown Como. Be sure to look for last season's silk; it's generally marked way, way down.

GUIDES/MAPS

The main APT Tourist Office is located at Piazza Cavour 17, close to the boat landing in downtown Como. Find all sorts of maps, brochures and directories here, along with tour information. Phone 011-39-031-269-712; fax: 011-39-031-240111.

INFORMATION

Italian Government Tourist Office, 500 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2240, Chicago, IL 60611; 312-644-0996; fax 312-644-3019; www.italiantourism.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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