My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Bella Bellagio

I’m disinclined to like a city that gave its name to a Las Vegas casino. But after a couple of afternoons prowling its steep streets, I’ve gotta admit — Bellagio is pretty nice. For the best Lake Como experience, I still prefer home-basing in Varenna, which feels a bit more real and less pretentious. But a targeted side-trip to Bellagio is well worthwhile.

Bellagio OV

Bellagio feels bold and confident. It knows that it has the lake’s glitziest cachet. Its pastel-hued grand hotels stretch out along a lazy lakefront with boat docks, trees, flower boxes, overpriced cafés, and piles of visitors.

Bellagio Dock 2

On a sunny day sandwiched between gloomy ones, hordes of impatient travelers (eager to hop to the next town) meet each arriving boat. While the published boat schedules are nearly impossible to decipher, and the docks can be jammed, somehow it all just works…like everything in Italy. Key strategies: Assume a boat is going to your destination sometime in the next 30-60 minutes. Your job is to ask anyone who seems knowledgeable what time it leaves, and where it leaves from. Don’t wait until the last minute to buy your ticket (since they can’t be bought on board, and long lines can jam up the ticket windows). For a full day of lake-hopping, I splurged on the €15 all-day pass. Cost-wise, I basically broke even, but it saved me loads of time (and, probably, several missed boats while waiting in ticket lines).

Bellago Steps up

While all of the lakefront towns have steep steps leading up from the waterfront, Bellagio’s have more class — they’re wider and more manicured, dressed up with lush flowers, draping ivy, and chichi wine bars. Yeah, I can see why this place is so popular.

Bellagio parkBellagio’s old town is fun to explore, but eventually you’ll need a break. From the promenade — clogged with fancy hotels, designer sports cars, and too many tourists with too much money — a row of carefully cultivated plane trees lures you for a tranquil lakefront stroll.
Bellagio Trees

If you don’t have enough time or interest to ride the boat to some of the famous villas (like the Villa del Balbianello or the Villa Carlotta), just walk to one of the only slightly less stunning gardens near Bellagio or Varenna.  For example, the Villa Melzi Gardens, a scenic 15-minute walk from downtown Bellagio, provides a good sampling of lakefront gardens, without the crowds or hassles of the more famous ones.

Villas and Villages on Lake Como

During my few days on Lake Como, the weather was erratic — stunning sunshine one day, socked in and drizzly the next, then sun again, then rain again — but I didn’t care. Somehow, mountain lakes are equally serene in any weather.

On most trips, I stubbornly solider on with my research duties regardless of the weather. But lately I’m experimenting with letting the forecast dictate my work. I try to do the outdoor stuff (hikes and boat rides) when it’s nice out, and save the drudgery (pounding the pavement to update hotels) for cloudy or rainy days. This worked like a charm on Lake Como, where I saved my “riding a lake boat from villa to villa” responsibilities for the nicest day.

There are plenty of days where my work really feels like work. But today, I’d have been happy to pay for the privilege. (Don’t tell Rick.)

Lake Como Boat

A variety of lake boats — which come and go every half hour — make it easy to connect Lake Como’s various villages and villas. While most travelers head straight up to the congested top deck, I prefer to stand in the lower area in front of the bridge, where the passengers board. Positioned here, you can move around easily for unobstructed views in both directions, and you get to observe the boat dockings up close. The deckhand generally tries to lasso the cleat as the boat approaches the dock. Success earns a smattering of applause from the other crew members (and any tourists who happen to notice). With a miss, the deckhand hangs his head and hauls in the soggy line to try again from closer range.

Lake Como Mountains

Lake Como Mountains 2

And every boat trip comes with a stunning cut-glass alpine backdrop. No matter which country you’re viewing them from — Italy, Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany, Slovenia — the Alps are equally majestic.

Lake Como Boat Dock

Even the docks on Lake Como have a certain canopied class.

Balbianello TreesMy favorite lakeside villa was the Villa del Balbianello. Reaching it requires a restful hike through a wooded park from the boat dock in the town of Lenno. Finally, you emerge from the woods into a wonderland of stoic cypresses and knobby plane trees.

Balbianello OV

The Villa del Balbianello is familiar to movie buffs (like me) as the place where James Bond recovered from a particularly bruising experience in Casino Royale, and where Anakin first kissed Padme (and later married her) in Star Wars: Episode II. Sometimes I’m tickled by cinematic connections, but in this case the beauty of the villa’s setting trumped any fantasy world.

Balbianello StatueBeing a stony statue, standing sentry at the Villa del Balbianello, may be an even better gig than mine is.

CarlottaSitting just across the lake from busy Bellagio, Villa Carlotta is more crowded than Villa del Balbianello. The interior — a gallery of Neoclassical sculpture — feels like a rerun of other Italian museums. But the sprawling gardens are a delight.

Carlotta Gardens

From inside the mansion, you can look out over the terraced gardens and across the lake.

Carlotta bushes

Villa Carlotta’s gardens are big enough to be dramatically varied, from a lush jungle canyon to this clever maze of giant azalea bushes — and all of it with million-dollar views over Lake Como.

Convalescing on Lake Como

After editing Rick’s writing for many years, I’ve noticed he uses certain words in a very particular way. For example, he reserves “convalesce” for a select few places. Lake Como is one of them. And after my nearly two weeks battling South Italy, some convalescence was exactly what I needed.

Traveling from Naples to Lake Como, I grappled with severe culture shock…without ever leaving Italy. In just a few hours — screaming past Rome, Florence, and Bologna on the bullet train — I went from the unbridled south to the mellow, almost Teutonic north. Stepping off the train in Milan, the sleek efficiency stunned me. I had just enough time to grab a designer yuppie sandwich (for triple the cost of a slice of Neapolitan street pizza) before hopping on my connecting train to Lake Como.

Arriving in the lakeside town of Varenna, I settled into the Hotel du Lac, a pristine Old World hotel with all the modern comforts. The hotel clings to a bluff just over the lake’s tranquil waters. Run with a polish and efficiency unusual in Italy, it feels vaguely Swiss…fitting, since I could see Switzerland from my lakeview balcony.

Set up in comfort for three whole days, I could feel my system decompress from the pressure cooker of Naples. Here’s a photo essay of the lakeside retreat of Varenna.

Varenna View
For decades, Rick has favored Varenna as the best home base for exploring Lake Como. Brassy Bellagio and well-connected Como have their fans, but after spending a few days here, it’s clear why Rick hangs his hat in Varenna.

Varenna Square

Varenna is just the right size for a relaxing vacation. It has a train station, a boat dock, a picturesque church crowning a tidy square, and two little grocery stores that specialize in made-to-order sandwiches for lakeside picnics.

Varenna Sunny Harbor

On a clear day, Varenna’s technicolor harbor lures sun-worshippers to watch the lake boats come and go.

Varenna Harbor

And even when it’s socked in, Varenna’s vacationers still enjoy chatting by the harbor. The town’s fancier, more expensive restaurants are tucked deep in the twisty lanes, but — conveniently — the two big lakeside cafés are affordable and functional. These places let you dine on €10 pasta with €10,000,000 views.

Varenna Steps

Varenna’s steep lanes climb up the hill from the harborfront. The town’s top gelateria provides cushy cushions on the stony steps.

Varenna Trail

Capping the hill over Varenna — a stiff 20-minute huff above the town square — an old castle provides views across the entire lake. Hiking back down into Varenna, you enjoy sweeping views of olive groves, cypress trees, and hamlets hugging the shoreline.

Missoltino

After a busy day’s hike, it’s time for dinner. When traveling, I have an ethic about sampling — at least once — whatever the local specialty is, no matter how gross it sounds. On Lake Como, locals still dine on what, at one time, was a “hardship” food (like lutefisk for Norwegian American immigrants, or salt cod for the Basques). Missoltino is lake fish that’s preserved by being salted and sun-dried. Weeks later, it’s rehydrated and served for dinner. It wasn’t terrible. But no matter how you dress it up with delicate grilled polenta cakes and trendy plating, at some level it’s still old fish. At a later meal, having satisfied my obligation to try missoltino, I ordered a delicious, fresh filet of lavarello (lake whitefish)…much better.

Varenna Lamp

As Varenna’s street lamps twinkle on, those characteristic stepped lanes are washed in vibrant colors.

A Long Hike to Lake Como

I think it’s clear that I love Naples. But let’s be honest — I look forward to my departure from this city almost as much as I look forward to my arrival. After a few days, I was ready for a change. And I got one. My next stop is Lake Como, within yodeling distance of Switzerland.

Italy’s reputation for being disorganized and inefficient, while not entirely underserved, is overstated. In this country famous for “trains that don’t run on time,” impressive Freccie bullet trains zip between cities at speeds that put Amtrak to shame. I went from Naples to Milan, about 485 miles, in under five hours, including stops. (Imagine rocketing from San Francisco to San Diego that fast.) They even throw in a welcome drink and a snack.

But I almost missed that train, even though I got to the Naples station with plenty of time to spare. When I spotted my train, I started walking up the platform to my reserved compartment — all the way at the front of the train, car #1 of 11. It was a long hike. Distracted by visions of the serene alpine lakes awaiting me at the other end of this journey, it took me a while to notice that none of the train’s doors was open.

I finally reached car 1 and pressed the “door open” button, and… nothing happened. I pressed the button for other doors and started banging on the windows. The conductor appeared, and she gestured frantically toward the other side of the train. I had walked 600 feet down the wrong platform.

It was just a few minutes before departure, and the next train wasn’t for two hours. I flirted with the simple solution of hopping down onto the tracks in front of the locomotive, then climbing up the platform on the other side. But not wanting to spend the night in a Neapolitan jail cell, I realized that my only viable option was to run the entire length of the train, in three minutes, with my full rucksack on my back. Which is what I did. By the time I’d rounded the end of the platform, hopped on the last car of the train with seconds to spare, then trudged all the way back up to the front of the crowded train to my seat, I was a fountain of sweat. But I made it.

 

All of this illustrates that now matter how experienced a traveler you think you are, you can still make big mistakes. Carelessness, inattentiveness, or just plain bad luck can put you in some strange and stressful situations. On the other hand, those can wind up being the most memorable experiences of your trip…in hindsight.

 

Next stop: Lake Como.

Early Christmas Shopping in Naples (Shhh! Don’t Tell Mom!)

South Italy adores its nativity scenes, called presepi. You see simple ones carved into the walls of urban streets and rustic villages. You see a huge one in the back corner of every church. And you see them for sale in shop windows all over Naples.

I happen to have a very close relative who collects nativity scenes. (And that person is also particularly difficult to shop for at the holidays.) With each trip to Naples, I have to fight the urge to buy her a big, fancy one, because how on earth would I pack it home?

But this trip, I was determined. So I asked my local friend Virgilio for help. Here are some photos from my very early Christmas shopping.

Tacky Presepi

In Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno — a street that leads away from the historic Spaccanapoli pedestrian drag — is jammed with cheap presepi shops. While these are fine for a basic souvenir, the made-in-China quality wasn’t the special gift I was looking for. So Virgilio  took me to one of the most venerable presepi shops in Naples, owned by Signore d’Auria. They let us peek into their workshop, too.

Naples Presepi FiguresIn the workshop, building these Barbie doll-sized presepi figures is a painstaking process: They begin with an articulated metal skeleton, which is wrapped in string and padded with cotton to give volume to the body, and finally dressed with clothes as finely tailored as the real thing.

Naples Presepi Figures 2 Neapolitans’ affection for their presepi may stem from their deep family ties. “Each figure in a presepe becomes a new member of the family,” Virgilio explained.

Naples Presepi Sets

These travel-size presepi are more like it. And you get several small figures for the price of one big one. The level of detail is mesmerizing.

Naples DAurio

Signore d’Auria proudly poses with one of his fine presepi. The fanciest presepi, like the fanciest dinners, come under glass — a fragile dome called a campana (“bell”).

Virgilio offered to ship my presepe for me. He assured me it would be no problem. He was wrong. A few days later he called me with a regretful tone in his voice. “It may take longer than I expected,” he said. “Because presepi are an important part of our cultural heritage, the local cultural authorities must inspect the piece to ensure it is not artifact quality. It cannot be more than 50 years old.” He told me he had scheduled an appointment at the customs office to bring the presepe for authorization.

Apparently, my presepe got its emigration paperwork: Virgilio just emailed me to say that it’s in the mail. I’m in no hurry — as long as it arrives in Seattle in the next seven months, I’ll be fine.