Updated: Aug 13, 2018
After saying goodbye to our friend Phil near Milan airport, we headed northeast towards Lake Como. As Dan had only been to Sicily before, he was very excited as we were finally in mainland Italy. Bidi on the other-hand had seen most of the country 12 years earlier, albeit during a school trip.
As we had been on highways most of the way up to Milan, we hadn't yet really seen the true madness of Italian drivers. However as we got close to Lake Como, the true nature of Italian "drivers" became clear along the narrow windy roads. I'm surprised any of them live past the age of 18, as they can't drive to save themselves. Thankfully Gary is large and green, so even the most inept were able to avoid hitting us (just).
We had researched a spectacular campground called Camping La Fornace Alex Bonzi right on the lake, and luckily this only involved 15km of the single lane death roads. The campground is located on the southeast Lecco branch of the lake, which is much easier to access and less touristy. It was a masterstroke. We parked up in a great spot with 180-degree views of the lake, immediately jumping in and immersing ourselves in the super refreshing clear lake water (which was only about 15 meters from our van).
We had also read the campground pizzeria was fantastic - and we were not let down! Our first pizzas in Italy would be an exceptional Margarita and Capricciosa, with a half liter of beautiful vino rosso, seated right on the lake, for a total cost of about €15. A perfect way to end a full on day.
With such an intense itinerary the past two weeks, we had barely stayed anywhere more than one night. As we had penciled in three nights in Lake Como, this gave us the opportuity for a well earned day of nothing - reading, swimming and eating right next to Gary and our lake. With some left over pizza for lunch. Bliss.
Later that afternoon a well timed thunderstorm would give our bodies reprieve from the sun's rays. Quickly retreating to Gary, with the rain pelting down on his pop-top, we were once again reminded why we love #vanlife so much - the constant change of environment, mixed in with the unpredictability of the weather, and the simple cosiness of what is essentially a nice dry "couch on wheels" to sit and relax in as the thunder roars outside.
That night we would really get adventurous and actually order something other than pizza... you guessed it, PASTA (although admittedly we also ordered another pizza as well... a delicious diavola). Following another scrumptious carb-frenzy, we headed back to Gary for a great 10-hour sleep, preparing ourselves for a big day playing tourist.
Following a quick 5km run along the coast, diving out of the way of the crazy drivers, and diving in for another quick swim in the lake, we rushed along to grab our ferry to Bellagio. The timetable given to us by the campground was completely outdated, but we found the official ferry website to be accurate. There can be quite a long wait if you miss a ferry, as some of them are only every 1-2 hours, so it makes sense to arrive at least 10 minutes before the one you plan to catch. The ferry ride (approx €7.20 per person return) was simply stunning as we popped into little villages along the way. See a small video of one below:
Bellagio is a beautiful little town, albeit slightly overrun with tourists, as it is situated right at the lower intersection of the three 'prongs' of the lake. As soon as we disembarked, we headed off for a big walk around the area, wandering the old town streets, and stumbling upon gorgeous little bays with vine covered houses. Eventually we found a cute little terrace restaurant full of locals and with views of the lake (La Bellagina Ristorante Pizzeria). Time for some more carbs! Following some delicious Arrabbiata Penne and Salmon Carbonara, we made our way back to the marina to catch another ferry across to Varenna, where we had heard from friends that there was a castle with great views down all three parts of the lake.
Arriving into Varenna, we found the stairs leading up to Castello di Vezio. Note there is NO route directly on Google Maps. So you are best heading here, then following the signs and stairs. You can't really go wrong. If you are eventually heading up a massive old stone staircase in the bush, then you are on the right track. Otherwise, go back and start again.
Following about a million steps, loosing several liters of body fluids to excessive sweating, and Brigid constantly cursing, we made it to the top of the hill. Wandering through the little village filled with elderly women sitting chatting on the street, we managed to find the actual castle entrance and paid the modest €3 entry fee, which we could clearly see actually went into restoration of the castle and grounds (something that seems to rarely actually happen).
The castle featured some strange ghosts that have been cast each year by volunteering tourists. They are then destroyed by the winter and re-cast each year, to create unique poses that are always changing. Furthermore, these are placed all around the castle courtyard, in which tamed falcon birds swoop around olive trees, returning occasionally to the arm of their trainer. Apparently the olive trees at Lake Como are the most northern olive trees in Europe, and only possible due to the unique ecosystem of the lake (we learnt this from random information boards scattered around this site). There's also a creepy dungeon built into the side of the mountain, which is quite ominous, dark and wet (definitely not meeting the operational health and safety standards of most countries). But at least it's much cooler in there - a brief break from the heat. So essentially the entrance area is a weird mix of art, castle walls, trees, dungeons and falcons... naturally...
Saving the best for last, we headed up the restored tower via the quite unique drawbridge. Ascending yet more stairs, Brigid was thrilled. They seemed a little dodgy too. However it was all well and truly worth it, as once arriving at the top, the views of all three branches of Lake Como were simply stunning. With falcons circling above the tower, it's definitely a spot we won't forget.
The journey back down the hill had barely began and Dan had a jandal blowout (thong/flip-flop breakage for your non-kiwis). Needless to say, walking down a crumbly old stone staircase in 35degrees is pretty darn hot on the feet! Following a wander through Varenna, and luckily finding a cheap pair of jandals from a street vendor, we jumped on a ferry back to Bellagio, where we would have another hour to explore along the west coast of the town, before grabbing the last ferry back to our campground.
What a simply perfect few days in this epic part of the world. Feeling a bit exhausted following a day playing tourist, we grabbed another pizza (we would soon turn into pizzas) and prepared for our journey the next day back to the coast, and to the colourful Cinque Terre. After a relaxing morning, another run along the coast and our last swim in the lake, we hit the road, although slightly heavier than we arrived, given the amount of pizza we were inhaling.
Bidi & Dan :)