Mansukh's Lake Como adventure
Published: 15 August 2017
Unsure of what to buy for my wife for her 65th birthday in late July, I established from her close friend that she would treasure a European Lakes and Mountains break, this being probably the best time of the year to venture a visit. So we and our close friends booked a trip to Lake Como with Riviera Holidays, who specialise in this type of ‘armchair’ touring. The tour details looked interesting enough with picturesque scenery and tantalising drives through the beautiful countryside, lushly sprawled between Italy and Switzerland.
Cernobbio, Lake Como
We travel half a dozen times in a year and prefer to fly via scheduled services. I must say flying with easyJet was a pleasant experience from A to Z. After meeting Andrew, our chirpy and very knowledgeable Tour manager, we travelled with the rest of the group by coach to Hotel Regina Olga in Cernobbio, a few kilometres north-west of Como. This charming hotel fronts Lake Como with a backdrop of beautiful mountain ranges, offers spectacular views to cherish. The second-floor lake-facing balcony room was a real boon and a delight for my wife. After a pleasant dinner with other members of the 40 strong group, and a stroll round the Lake front in the cool breeze of the night, a good night’s sleep awaited.
After a hearty breakfast (the full English, of course), it was fitting that we explored the delights of the Y-shaped Lake Como on the first day of our trip. Romanticised by Verdi and Rossini, Lake Como, one of deepest Lakes in Europe has had an alluring effect to those who encounter it. Both sides of the Lake show off magnificent villas and houses, including the 18th century Villa del Balbianello, one of the finest surrounding the Lake, which we had the privilege to visit. Originally built for a cardinal, the villa houses an impressive collection of art and historic furniture, including an oak bureau from Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. The stunning gardens, manicured to the tee, were a delight to visit and admire. We headed back to the hotel after an al fresco lunch in Bellageo, known as the ‘Pearl of the Lake’ and holiday home to the rich and famous, including Versace and Richard Branson. We even managed to take a peek from the boat at Villa Oleandra, George Clooney’s 18th century, 22-room house, currently on the market for a reported $100m - how the other half live! After a light lunch at an outdoor café, watching the hustle and bustle of this historic town, it was time to set sail to the Hotel. An enjoyable nightcap by the Lakeside finished the day in style.
The Bernina Express/St Moritz
A pleasant coach ride past the Swiss border took us to Tirano after ascending the picturesque Valtellina valley with soaring peaks and extraordinary scenery. We then boarded the Bernina Express, our joyful ride to St Moritz. The UNESCO Heritage Express runs along 122 kilometres of track via 55 tunnels and close to 200 bridges and viaducts, passing through spectacular scenery using amazing Swiss engineering, spiralling through some astounding tunnels and loops via Ospizio Bernina (7,391 ft above sea level), the highest through station in Europe. Taking in the stunning vistas over snow-capped peaks and glaciers, we descend through lush pine forests into St Moritz. After a pleasurable walk through this quaint and stylish town, home to the famous Cresta toboggan run, and a sumptuous tea and cake, we took the coach back to our hotel via more scenic routes, with twists and turns and hair-pin bends: definitely something to write home about!
A day off
Whilst the rest of our fellow-passengers trotted off to more Lake tours, art galleries and visits to historical places nearby, we decided to laze by the warm pool in glorious sunshine. With recharged batteries, another walk through the small town and a most enjoyable dinner in celebration of my wife’s birthday at a popular local restaurant rounded off a blissful day.
Today, a trip with a difference. We travelled to the historic town of Bergamo, offering an intense level of history over 400 years, ruled by Venice for centuries and a great Renaissance power of the time, split distinctly between the old town (on the hill) and the new (at the base). The medieval and Renaissance buildings around the Piazza Vacchia, surrounded by a palace, water fountains and wrought-ironed grand houses were a joy to behold. A ride up the funicular and a steep 193-step walk (I counted!) took us up the 12th Century castle walls for a captivating view of life below. The skyline of Milan, some 40 kilometres away, was clearly visible.
A leisurely walk through cobbled streets with antiquated shops selling local and designer wares, produce and mouth-watering delicacies was a real treat. The gelato was never wasted here. For art lovers, a number of museums and art galleries were easily accessible. Historic-Italy at its best.
Lake Maggiore & Stressa
We nip into Switzerland one more time and into Stressa, a quaint little town fronting Lake Maggiore with its magnificent palm-tree-lined walk. Though Swiss in all other respects, this town has an Italian persona in its language, walk and talk. A short boat ride took us to Isola Bella, famously visited by Queen Caroline of England (wife of George IV), Napolean and Josephine amongst others. Unfortunatley time did not permit us to have a drink at the famous Grand Hotel featured in Earnest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms and frequented by George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin. Back into town and a scenic cable car ride to the summit of Monte Mottarone for enchanting views of the snow-capped Alps made a fitting curtain call to our visit.
Capital of the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, Lugano, nestling by the beautiful Lake Lugano and surrounded by the mountains of the Lugano Prealps, was seized by the Swiss in 1512 and has steadfastly remained Swiss by choice. Chic shops, pizzerias galore, piazzas with water fountains round every corner, this is Little Italy in Switzerland. Al fresco dining, street cafes, cobbled streets, Swiss coffee, glorious sunshine – a perfect setting for any tourist. We lapped it up every which way and had a thoroughly enjoyable walk buying gifts for family back home. The trip back to the Hotel was as exhilarating as it was coming up, all lakes and Mountains!
After saying our goodbyes to the highly efficient and friendly hotel staff, our by now very pally fellow-passengers and Andrew, our charming and highly knowledgeable Tour Manager, we made the enjoyable trip back home. For me it made the trip all worthwhile when my wife said it was her best birthday present ever!