It’s the start of tour season again, and this time I’m working on a Best of Italy tour. When I mention to friends that I’m going to Lake Como, they all ask me if I’m going to see George Clooney’s villa. I wish. I’m staying in Varenna–a romantic and picture-worthy town on the eastern side of Lake Como. George’s pad is in Laglio, on the southwestern side (imagine the lake in the shape of an armless person: Varenna at one hip, George’s home on the opposite knee). The chances of bumping into him are slim to none, but I’m happy to humor my friends and say, “If I do see him, I’ll be sure to tell him you said, ‘Hello.'”
With precious little time on the lake, I didn’t even really get to know Varenna, but I’m looking for a future opportunity to do so. My one full day on the Lago di Como was spent taking a triangular-route ferry ride at what would be the crotch and thigh of the lake. First stop: Lenno (thigh on the western side). Along with some tour members, I visited Villa del Balbianello, a popular filming location that was used in Star Wars: Episode II–The Clone Wars (Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen) and in the reboot James Bond flick, Casino Royale, starring the ever-so-sexy Daniel Craig. It was our intention to indulge in our inner-geeks (which we did), but we were pleasantly surprised with the natural beauty we encountered on the hike to the villa and the splendid views across the lake. We each imagined which villa we would live in and the fabulous galas we would have on our lake-view terraces. We all agreed that George Clooney would be invited.
At lunch, we ditched the sudden onslaught of rain and ducked into the only place open and what looked like, from the outside, a tourist trap ready to help unsavvy travelers exchange their Euros for mediocre food. Inside, we found locals and tourists alike. The barmaids gave heavy-handed pours of beer into liter-sized glass mugs. The menu, which was all in Italian (always a good sign), was select and hand-written (indicating a menu that changes with what’s locally fresh and available), and filled with pastas with which I was unfamiliar. Our waitress insisted that I try a local specialty called pizzocheri–offered at a relatively paltry €6.50. It’s made with fettuccini-like buckwheat pasta, cabbage, potato, sage, butter, and a local cheese from Valtellina called pizzocherini, which is similar to fontina. It arrived at the table with steam billowing out and the ivory sauce draped seductively over wavy tendrils of Saracen-hued pasta. It was the perfect dish for such a stormy day, and my tastebuds and belly will be forever grateful to that waitress.
Our next destination was Bellagio (at the crotch of the lake). It’s nothing like its water-fountain Shangri-La counterpart in Las Vegas. While touristy, it’s also quaintly charming with its steeply stepped cobblestone streets, family-run boutiques, and gracious residents. Because the ferries were now running less frequently on the now choppy waters, our time here was cut short; but I did manage to indulge in the purchase of an exquisite silk scarf, while my new friend Robin found the perfect hand-made rings, earrings, and bracelets to match her rich, copper-colored hair. Her husband, Roy–a true southern gentleman whose heart is as big as he is tall–lusted after some fine Italian shoes. But when he inquired about trying on a pair, the saleswoman replied, “Your feet are too beeeeeg. We don’t make shoes for such beeeeeg, strrrrrrrrong mahhhhnn.”
Back at Varenna, the tempest persisted. And since the water seemed to be striking me sideways, my umbrella did little to prevent me from getting drenched. I changed into dry clothes, put my wet rags on the towel-warmer, and braved the relentless weather once more to find some dinner. Because so few restaurants are open on Sundays, I ran into quite a few tour members who, like me, were wandering the Varenna streets, looking for some place, any place, that would feed them.
We trudged through cobbled lanes that had swiftly become inundated with veritable unbridled rivers. Without reservations, we were all out of luck, and any place that didn’t require reservations didn’t have enough room for eight waterlogged souls. But a tempestuous torrent is an effective motivator. We persevered, and our persistence paid off.
In the warmth of the back room of a restaurant on the town’s petite piazza, we feasted on fresh lake fish, pizzocheri, grilled zucchini and peppers, and grilled meat until we were round with Botticelli bellies. Our cheeks were made rosy by the copious amounts of wine and the constant laughter generated from sharing memories of the day, personal travel tales, and irreverent, self-deprecating stories. It’s impressive how a quality meal, conviviality, and an appreciation for the Here and Now can be quick bonding agents for people who were strangers just 24 hours prior. These were the makings of what would surely be a memorable and fun-filled tour.
We lingered until our clothes had sufficiently dried out. Geared up once more with our jackets and umbrellas, we endured the sideways rain to amble the 100 meters back to the refuge of our Varenna hotel. As we bid each other buona notte, it was easy to see that whether rain or shine, we were all looking forward to the adventures tomorrow held in store.