Living Like a Local on Lake Como

The man on the dock grabbed the boy and thrust him skyward until the boy was sitting on the man’s head.  The boy put his feet on the man’s shoulders, his arms out to the sides like he was a bird.  “Uno, due, tre,” shouted the man and the boy in unison.  The man launched the boy with all of his might.  The boy screamed in delight as he flew through the air and splashed down into the cool waters of the lake. The man looked down to see three more boys in line for their turn at flying.

This went on for a long time until the man finally grew tired and went to take a nap on his lounge chair.  His wife was seated next to him reading an Italian celebrity magazine.  Did George Clooney sell his villa on the lake or not?  Did he break up with his Italian supermodel girlfriend or not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Varenna from the Bellagio ferry
La Dolce Vita in Varenna, Italy

We were staying for a few days in the small fishing village of Varenna, on the shore of Lake Como in northern Italy.  It was time to take a break from traveling and relax for a few days in a small town.  We were living like locals and enjoying the experience immensely.

A lakeside dinner in Varenna.

We took the train from Milan to Varenna.  It was only an hour’s ride, but we entered a totally different environment.  Gone were the big city bustle, the traffic, and the noise.  Here on Lake Como, the views were outstanding, the air was fresh, and the pace of life was peaceful.

A man named Enzo was supposed to meet us at the train station.  We got off the train and didn’t see any men waiting.  Instead, an older woman immediately approached me and asked if I was Steve.  Well, yes, that’s me, how did you guess? (There were very few people getting off the train at this stop.  I think our suitcases gave us away).  I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t speak much English.  I understood from her that she was Enzo’s sister.  Maybe Enzo had gone fishing or something.

We piled our stuff into her tiny car and drove a few blocks to her house.  We had rented an apartment from in an old three story villa on the main road through the town of Varenna.  The apartment was on the first floor, the woman and her family lived on the second floor, and Enzo and his family lived on the third floor.  The house was built into the hillside overlooking the lake.  The garage was carved into a cave in the rock under the house.  I don’t know how they got their two tiny cars into the garage.  I’ve seen bigger dog houses back home.  The side of the house facing the street was covered in vines.

The house had a garden on the second level with a fantastic view of Lake Como.  I would climb a narrow, steep stairway through an old tool shed to reach it.  The stairway was dark and full of cobwebs and old junk.  But as soon as I emerged from the gloom I could see across the lake to the town of Menaggio and the mountains beyond.  It was a nice place to read a book and gaze at the sailboats making their way across the lake.

view of Lake Como
The view of Lake Como from our apartment

Once we were settled in, we walked down the road to the beach.  The beach was not like a Caribbean beach or even a beach on a Minnesota lake.  The beach was on a raised plot of land made from cement walls in the lake.  It was covered in a coarse layer of dark, small pebbles.  There were uncomfortable plastic lounge chairs and big umbrellas.  A dock jutted out into the water.  A tanned man with a large abdominal scar in a blue swimsuit came to accept payment for renting his chairs for the afternoon.

It was here that the man was sending the boys flying into the lake.  The beach was crowded because it was very hot.  Many places here don’t have air conditioning so spending an afternoon at the beach is the thing to do.

I walked down to the dock and jumped in.  The water was cool and refreshing. I floated in a circle, taking in the view of the lake and the mountains all around me. I had to dodge a pack of wrestling teen aged boys to get out of the lake.  They were trying to give a “wedgie” to one boy.  Some things never change, no matter what country you are in.

Villa in Varenna
Villa Monastario in Varenna

Since we had a small kitchen in the apartment, we were going to cook some meals for the first time on the trip.  We walked about 50 yards to the center of the village to go to one of the two grocery stores.  This was not Costco.  The store was about as big as a single garage stall.  It was packed with basic food items and a large vacationing Italian family getting their sandwiches for a picnic.  I made my way to one corner to look at some drinks and got stuck there for several minutes.

The children couldn’t decide on what kind of sandwich to have made and I couldn’t get out of my corner. Eventually they left and I could continue browsing the tiny store.  You can only buy what you can carry, so it’s clear to me why most people here shop a little every day.  Need some milk or some potato chips?  Walk a few feet down the road from your house and buy some.  No need to get in your car and drive a mile or two.

Make sure to visit the store in the morning like the old women of the village do if you want any bread, because it will be gone by the afternoon.  The store didn’t have much selection but it did a booming business.

I walked down the street to the competition, the only other store in town.  This store had some of the same items, but it also had more fresh meats and cheeses.  I got some thinly sliced Parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, and a baguette.  I was set for lunch…

Every day I walked through Varenna to a neighboring town.  The walkway along the side of the road was very narrow and I had to be on constant lookout so I wouldn’t get hit by a car.  The route was along the lakeshore for most of the way and very picturesque.

A view of Varenna from a foot path along Lake Como

One day as I was coming back into Varenna, I saw a wedding party coming out of the 12th century church.  There were about 40 people in the party.  All of them were Asians. I think they were from Thailand.  I knew people came to this little romantic village to get married. However, it’s a long way from Southeast Asia.  The party stopped traffic as they walked down the main street, with the photographer getting a nice group shot with the old church in the background.

There were few streets in the town.  Instead, narrow paths called contradas were between blocks of houses.  A contrada was about eight feet wide, for pedestrians only, and was paved with rough stones.  Since the town was built on a hillside to the lake, the contradas were steep and slippery when wet.

Varenna contrada
A contrada in Varenna

Ferries sailed between the towns on the lake.  We went over to Bellagio on the other side of Lake Como one day to have lunch and shop.  The Las Vegas hotel must have been named after this Italian town.  Bellagio is a bigger town that was full of British tourists.  It had a lot of ristorantes and shops.  It seemed too touristy to me.  I liked it better on our side of the lake in Varenna.  It just seemed more authentic to me.

We saw the locals living everyday life in Varenna.  The old women talked to each other across the street from their respective house windows.  The old men sat in the square smoking and talking about the old days.  The church bells chimed on the hour, with more peals at mass time.  The two shopkeepers closed up their shops at 12:30pm for an extended lunch break.  If you wanted a snack before 4pm, it was too bad for you.  You were out of luck.

There wasn’t much happening in this town.  No big cultural attractions, sporting events, or fancy restaurants and shopping.  It was, however, tough to leave.

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