If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the city of Bergamo and Lake Como in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. It is hardly undiscovered, but that shouldn’t stop you from going. With a little effort you should be able to find some relatively untouched spots. Be sure to read the companion articles in this series that present Milan, small town Lombardy outside of its capital Milan, and the Lake Garda district with its interesting political past.
We start our Lombardy tour at Bergamo east of the capital Milan. Then we head northeast to Varenna on the shores of Lake Como and tour the lake in a counterclockwise direction exploring Bellagio, Villa Melzi, and Como at the southern tip of the lake and then head back up north stopping at Cernobbio, the island of Isola Comacina, and then finishing our tour at Tremezzo with its centerpiece Villa Carlotta. For those who want to tour still more of this lovely region head west to Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta. You won’t be disappointed.
Bergamo, population about 120,000, was founded by the Celts well over two thousand years ago. It is the only city in this article that is not on or near a lake, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting. This medieval city, tucked behind ancient walls, overlooks or perhaps we should say underlooks the Alps. It is divided into two sectors connected by funiculars (cable cars); the older Bergamo Alta (Upper Bergamo) and the modern Bergamo Bassa (Lower Bergamo). Can you guess which Bergamo I prefer?
The large Romanesque Church of Santa Maria Maggiore was started in the Twelfth Century but its construction went on for centuries. The Torre Civica (Bell Tower) was completed near the end of the Fifteenth Century. The church is right on the Piazza Vecchia (Old Square) in Bergamo Alta. Climb to the top for a great view of the Old City.
Bergamo was the birthplace and home of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), composer of some 75 operas including the famous Lucia di Lammermoor, 16 symphonies, and a multitude of other musical works. He is buried in the Santa Maria Maggiore Church. If you like opera visit the Museo Donizettiano (Donizetti Museum.) Another citizen was the Russian-born Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931) perhaps the world’s greatest juggler. This wizard was able to juggle 8 plates, 8 sticks and 10 balls. Another of his popular tricks consisted of juggling 6 plates, while spinning a hoop around one foot and skipping a rope spun by an assistant. I doubt very much that you’ll see any performer quite like Rastelli on your Bergamo tour.
The Cathedral of San Vincenzo and Battistero are both situated on Piazza Duomo (Cathedral Square), the old heart of the medieval city and in all likelihood the heart of the Roman city way back when. Their more beautiful neighbor is the Fifteenth Century Renaissance Capella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel).
Lake Como is a glacial lake shaped like an upside Y. It is about 28 miles (54 kilometers) long and at most 2 miles (3 kilometers) wide making it the third largest lake in Italy. Lake Como is one of the deepest lakes in all Europe. We’ll start at Varenna on its eastern shore.
The village of Varenna, population under eight hundred, is home to Italy’s shortest river, the Fiumelatte. I doubt that you’ll come here to see the river but if you do so avoid mid-October to mid-March when it is usually dry. Varenna is home to a magnificent villa, Villa Monestero, originally built as a convent in the beginning of the Thirteenth Century. Villa Monestero sits in a magnificent park more than a half mile (kilometer) long and has become an international cultural and scientific center. You can take the ferry from Varenna to our next destination, Bellagio.
Bellagio, population three thousand, sits at the center of Lake Como’s Y. It was a tourist center even in the days of the Romans. The famous composers Liszt and Schubert vacationed here, as did the writers Pliny the Elder (Classical Roman), Longfellow, and Shelley. This town is so special that Las Vegas has honored it with a hotel. I don’t need to see both Bellagios to know which one I prefer. Try to get here outside the high season of July and August.
Be sure to see the Villa Serbelloni surrounded by acres and acres of gardens laid out in a multitude of styles. The villa itself was built in 1605 and eventually became the property of the Rockerfeller Foundation. It is now an international conference center for scholars and artists.
Back in 1801-1803 Count Francesco Melzi d'Eril was Vice-President of Napoleon’s Italian Republic. Several years later, perhaps to drown his sorrows over the Republic’s brevity, he built the Neo-Classical Villa Melzi in the south end of Bellagio right on the lake. Its garden, the only part of the Villa open to the public, is said to be the first example of an English garden on Lake Como. The garden includes a Japanese pond with waterlilies surrounded by Japanese maples and cedars, Egyptian sculptures, and Roman statues.
Como, population about sixty thousand, is situated at the very southern tip of Lake Como. Can you believe it took Lombardy’s capital city Milan almost a decade to defeat little Como way back in the Twelfth Century? Not very long afterwards, Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor, destroyed Milan and built several defensive towers ringing Como. Only the Bardadello Tower still remains. Climb it for a great view of the entire lake.
Like most Italian cities, Como has a fine series of old churches to tour. Here are some of them: The Duomo (Cathedral) a Fourteenth Century Renaissance-Gothic structure with statues of two of the city’s most famous residents, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger from Classical Roman times; San Fedele, an Eleventh Century Romanesque church with a beautifully carved door; Sant’Agostino, Fourteenth Century Cistercian church with old frescoes and Baroque decorations; the Romanesque Eleventh Century Sant’Abbondio Church full of old paintings and frescoes; and the Eleventh Century San Carpoforo Church built on a temple to the Roman god Mercury.
Italy produces over 90% of Europe’s silk and most Italian silk is produced in the Como region. Italian silk is a billion Euro (far exceeding a billion Dollar) industry. Find out more at the Museo Didacttico della Seta (Silk Museum). Its rooms take you through the different steps of the silk-making process, from the silkworms to printing the silk. You can shop for fine silks at many nearby stores and warehouse outlets.
Cernobbio, population seven thousand, is best known for the resort of Villa d’Este built in the mid-Sixteenth Century for a Cardinal who seemingly forgot his vow of poverty. Single rooms start at just under three hundred Euros a night, including taxes and service. Check the exchange rates to know how many, many dollars that is. Did I mention low season? High and peak season rates are about 100 Euros a night more. Double the rates if you want a view of the lake. Rates for the Cardinal Suite are available only on request. It is said that the rooms are like museum galleries. One of the swimming pools floats on the lake. You get a buffet breakfast and they pick you up at the airport in a helicopter. If you stay there you’ll join the likes of Napoleon and the Duchess of Windsor.
Isola Comacina (Comacina Island) is the only island in Lake Como. Do you remember the wars between Como and Milan? Well at that time the island residents sided with Milan and there was hell to pay. In the words of the then Bishop "No longer shall bells ring, no stone shall be put on stone, nobody shall be host, under pain of unnatural death." At the start of World War I Isola Comacina was given to the King of Belgium who donated it to Italy after the war. It is now home to artists and scholars.
Head north to the resort town Tremezzo, population 1300. Its highlight is Villa Carlotta, built during a fifty some year period starting towards the end of the Seventeenth Century. When you see this villa you’ll know why it took so long to construct. The grounds are spectacular, for example they include over 150 varieties of azelias and rhododendrons. Its art museum is dedicated to neoclassical art. For a change of pace, visit the Museum of Agricultural Tools located in an ancient greenhouse on the property. While you can’t stay at the Villa Carlotta, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo is definitely quite classy.
What about food? In this part of Lombardy the cuisine is divided into three main sectors. The lake cuisine is based on fish with some local specialties such as dried shad. The area around Tremezzo is known for vegetables such as asparagus. The mountain cuisine is based on polenta, a sort of corn bread often flavored with cheese or cheese, butter, and garlic. Other mountain specialties include free-range chickens, kid, and game. The third category is valley cuisine based on cattle and cheese, especially Taleggio and various goat milk cheeses.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Fettuccine con Funghi (Fettuccine with Mushrooms.) Then try Agnoni all Comasca (Lake Como Fried Fish with Anchovy Filets). For dessert indulge yourself with Torte Paradiso con Mascarpone (Sponge Cake with Mascarpone Cheese.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Lombardy wine. Lombardy ranks 11th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 62% red and rosé and 38% white wine, but there is little rosé. There are 15 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Over 47% of Lombardy wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the sparkling Franciacorta said to compete with French Champagne and priced accordingly, the red Sforzato di Valtellina, and the red Valtellina Superiore.
Interestingly enough no DOC wines originate in the vicinity of Lake Como, Lake Orta, or Lake Maggiore. However, Bergamo is home to two DOC wines, Valcalepio and Scanzo/Moscato di Scanzo. The Valcalepio DOC is vinified in several styles. The dry red and the dry white come from international grape varieties such as Merlot and Chardonnay. The sweet white wine comes from a local grape and has recently been classified at the Scanzo/Moscato di Scanzo DOC. I have not had the pleasure of tasting either of these wines. I have had the disappointment of tasting the sparkling Franciacorta DOCG wine made not far east of Bergamo.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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