Lessons on the Lake

On our last day in Italy, we had detoured on our way to the train station and were sitting at a café in Como when Dan and I looked around, took big sips of our fancy espresso drinks, and both agreed that we could live long-term in Lake Como. We’ve loved a lot of the places we’ve visited in Europe, but there are few for which we can truthfully say, “Yep, we would move here.” Our three days in the Lake Como area that were filled with stunning lake and Alps views, delicious dining options, and plenty of outdoor activities were all we needed to convince us that even if we didn’t move here, we’d be returning.

Our journey to Lake Como, and more specifically the town of Lezzeno, wasn’t perfect though. A delayed train in Cinque Terre led to a missed connecting train in Milan, and then a later ferry departure to the hotel in Lezzeno. There are worse places than Northern Italy to have troubles with transport though, and I’m proud of us for having subscribed to the mentality of “flexibility” when travelling, at least this most recent time. We know that delays and cancellations are inevitable, especially when travelling by train, and usually there is a solution or at least a next best alternative if you can keep your head on straight. I like to think these situations keep us humble.

When we did board the high-speed ferry in Como, known as the hydrofoil, we were able to enjoy the views of the Italian Alps and gorgeous villas (yes, I spotted the Clooney mansion) while on the 30 minute commute to Lezzeno. We were two of the three passengers who disembarked in Lezzeno, which we took to be the first indication that we were going to like this smaller village after our time spent among plenty of other tourists in Cinque Terre. Lezzeno is located just south of Bellagio, one of the better-known and larger towns on the Lake, and we selected it specifically because we found what looked to be an incredible hotel within our price range that seemed to offer everything a visitor could ever want. Hotel Villa Aurora did not disappoint. The gorgeous unobstructed views, private lake access, incredible meals, and super friendly service were some of the best we’ve had. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

How can we take this balcony view back home with us?

That night, before dinner at Villa Aurora’s restaurant, Dan and I walked along the lakeshore in Lezzeno and relished in the peacefulness and beauty of the sleepy town; that is, until a friendly rock skipping competition was initiated between us. Dan won, but there will be a re-match! Our evening meal was incredible from the first sip of prosecco through the tiramisu. Dan fell in love with the local specialty of missoltino (fish of the lake that are salted and dried in the sun) included in our appetizer of assorted lake fishes, and my ravioli with pear and melted cheese was the best pasta I have ever had. It was a great welcome to Lake Como!

Before Dan’s stones out skipped Kaitlan’s

Our next day started rather early in order to squeeze in a run and a visit to the breakfast buffet before catching the 7:56AM ferry back to Como for a cooking class. That is a downside of staying in a smaller town on the Lake without a vehicle – you are subject to the ferry and bus schedules that at the most necessary of times can be more limited. At least the hydrofoil ferry moves fast, but it’s worth noting that it doesn’t’ wait for those who show up late (as observed by someone who by default seems to run a few minutes late). They pull up to the dock, unload the ramp, everyone scrambles on, and away they go. They don’t even collect the fares until you are already on your way to the next stop. Despite the early morning wake-up, our excitement for our cooking class with Paola was not diminished.

We met Paola at the Piazza Vittoria where we got acquainted over espresso. We found out that Paola herself had lived in Brussels so we bonded over our shared appreciation of the commune of Ixelles and its delicious restaurants and charming parks. Paola then led us to the Como Market Hall where we visited some of her more frequented vendors who assisted us selecting the veal, chorizo, cheeses, lettuce, apricots, and fresh loaves of bread that would all play a part in our multi-course lunch. As we watched her chat amicably with the farmers and producers, it was clear that Paola has built relationships with the men and women who open their stalls on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings at the market. One vendor in particular was very friendly and more than happy to let us sample various fresh fruits before we decided on the apricots that would be topped with goat cheese for our aperitivo.

Groceries in hand, we walked a few blocks to Paola’s home that she shares with her family. It wasn’t long until Dan and I had our aprons on with prosecco in hand and were following Paola’s instructions on the assembly of tiramisu. Not much of a baker, Dan was impressed by how easy it is to make this classic Italian dessert. Apparently now an expert in tiramisu making after one lesson, he informed me after the lesson that my ladyfingers (biscuits/cookies used in the tiramisu) were too soggy after being doused in the coffee. He claimed that his on the other hand were perfect. I told him that next time I will sit back and relax and look forward to his handling of the tiramisu – sounds like a win for me!

Kaitlan & Paola hard at work on the aperitivos

We proceeded with the pasta sauce, which I was thrilled to learn was constructed with a few simple ingredients – fresh vegetables, capers, olive oil, garlic, and seasoning. Just before serving, Paola added water from the pot in which the noodles were cooked. Before breaking to enjoy our aperitivo, her son joined us in the kitchen for a lesson on making your own tagliatelle noodles from scratch. There is undoubtedly a difference in taste when your pasta revolves around fresh noodles. Her son supervised the kneading of the dough, and then we cut the noodles using Paola’s hand-cranked pasta machine, and hung them to dry while we enjoyed our aperitivo of assorted cheeses, sausage, and fruit.

Perhaps the unexpected highlight of the lesson was the hands-on (literally) instructions we received for speaking like an Italian. That is to say, we learned how to let our gestures do the talking. Paola and her son guided us through a crash course on how to gesture everything from wanting to eat pasta, to how to tell someone that they are boring you. We had no idea just how many gestures are used on a daily basis. Dan and I agreed that our most used gestures on this trip would definitely be “more pasta” (looks like you’re wrapping the noodles around your fingers) and “I want tiramisu” (an upward gesturing of both hands that is likened to “pick me up” because of the caffeine in the dessert). Back in the kitchen (with more wine), we wrapped up the lesson by assembling the saltimbocca from the veal slices (scaloppine), prosciutto, and sage. When the saltimbocca was cooked to perfection, the three of us sat down together at their living room table to enjoy our incredible three-course meal.

Our tiramisu accented by Paola’s handiwork (see fork outline that we have not yet mastered)

We felt truly welcomed and comfortable with Paola and cannot say enough wonderful things about her cooking class that is much more than just a lesson in the kitchen. It’s easy to talk with Paola about cultural differences and leave with a deepened appreciation of the Lombardy and Northern Italy region. Unfortunately, we forgot to snap a picture with Paola but we can hands-down recommend her cooking class to anyone visiting Como.

Walking off our meal in Como

With time to kill before the next ferry, we shuffled with full stomachs to the lake for a much-needed walk and espresso. We still had big plans for the afternoon, which involved taking our hotel’s stand up paddleboards out on the lake. As it turns out, the lake had not yet had the opportunity to warm up and as a result, it was Lake Michigan cold. We did our best to avoid a full submersion, but as Dan prepared to head back to the dock, we clumsily crashed and both got soakers. We figured we would give the kayaks a try the next day instead.

Kaitlan afloat on the paddle board post collision

On our final full day in Italy, we opted for a more relaxed morning where we could fully enjoy the buffet-style breakfast before starting our yet to be determined hike. At the suggestion of the front desk, we decided on a three-hour hike up to Monte San Primo since it would be challenging but offer great views over the lake. It only took us a couple wrong turns and another pass by the hotel to ask for directions before we found the sign post marking the trailhead and were on our way upwards. The start of the trail coincides with an ancient pathway that runs along the western shore of the lake. The “Strada Regia” has connected the transalpine region for centuries, and today it allows visitors to walk between Como and Bellagio.

How do we get one of these for the entrance of our future home?

We had to veer off the Strada Regia on our way out of Lezzeno in order to reach the trailhead just after the Madonna dei Ceppi chapel. Before locating the trailhead though, Kaitlan’s incorrect interpretation of the directions resulted in a stop at the Agriturismo Madonna dei Ceppi to ask for further clarification. The hosts of this “off the beaten path” bed and breakfast only spoke Italian, but nonetheless we were able to interpret their directions and their word of caution about the steepness and length of the hike ahead. We should have taken their side-glances and that advice more seriously.

Back on track, we found ourselves ascending quickly through dense forest along a visible, but clearly less-travelled trail. It was well-marked with the tell-tale red and white signs on trees and rocks, but was more ungroomed than others we’ve hiked given that instead of switch-backs or stairs, the path lead straight up, and up, and up, without end. For over an hour, we followed the trail vertically up the side of the mountain, hoping that around the next turn we would be rewarded with a good view of the lake, or at the very least, a level section to give our quads a break. After consulting the map received from the hotel and Google Maps many times, we came to the conclusion that this hike was going to take longer than we thought and in the time it would take to reach the top and slide back down, we were not prepared with enough food or water. We realized we made a mistake in not starting earlier given our active agenda that required we make it back in time to do some kayaking before dinner. We agreed to turn around and although it was somewhat unsatisfying to start and not finish the hike, I acknowledge that advance preparation for this hike is in your best interest.

While we did not see a single other person on the trail, we did encounter an abandoned home and a snake on the trail – two further indications that this is not a hike frequented by tourists or maybe even locals alike. Next time we attempt a summit ascent of Monte San Primo, we will start the hike earlier in the day, with a packed lunch, and better knowledge of the trail. Nonetheless, it was a good way to traverse both the Strada Regia and the “back-country”.

A “victory” Moscow Mule

After rewarding ourselves with lunch and drinks at the hotel café, we headed to the dock to snag the double kayak and make our way to the western shore of the lake. Our goal was the Villa del Balbianello on the other side, for which the gardens have been used for the filming of both Star Wars and James Bond films. We reached the Villa but not without some frantic paddle waving to warn the many boaters in the area that we did not want to be hit and sunk. We were a bit more coordinated on the paddle back and once safely ashore, I decided I was going to give the wetsuits a try in order to feel more comfortable swimming. I was quickly put to shame by a ten-year-old girl who, while frolicking in the water without a wetsuit, told me that it wasn’t so bad. Thanks to what I nonetheless perceived as frigid water, my frolicking didn’t last long and we spent the rest of our evening out to dinner at a restaurant a short walk down the street.

It was a long day of travel back to Belgium by way of a ferry ride, two trains, and a plane, but we concluded that all the hustle was one hundred percent worth it to be able to experience the Como region. In looking back at this trip, I am thankful for the fantastic culinary experience and gorgeous scenery, but keep returning to the people that we met along the way. Lake Como and Lezzeno were the perfect end to a trip where we were welcomed warmly by locals who shared thoughtful insights into the Italian lifestyles and outlooks. I am so appreciative that our travels allow us the opportunity to embrace other cultures but also discover a new appreciation for our own. Without a doubt though, the Italian culture has quickly become an undisputed favorite of the both of us. Dan stepped into his new role as official tiramisu maker this afternoon (which turned out spectacularly) and I’m off to make some pasta for dinner. Ciao and arrivederci Italia!

One more of the lovely Lezzeno

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s