Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter Weekend in Italia-Enjoying the sights of Milan and Lake Como!

For the second year in a row, we spent Easter break in Italia. This year, we decided to explore Milan and Lake Como. In Europe, we are lucky to have a four-day weekend for Easter. We decided to take off the Thursday before and Tuesday after to maximize our travel time! Enjoy the tour as I guide you through our trip!

Mark and I started out our trip with a 3 hour train ride from Lausanne to Milan. This one requires advance reservations as the the seats are assisgned (in case you ever plan on doing it in the future!). We checked into our hotel, Antico Locando Leonardo, and then headed out see the city. We walked over to the Sforza Castle, which is in a great location with a huge park right in the city. We grabbed some paninis from a food vendor and sat in the park, relaxing and enjoying some people-watching. It was a warm day and a lot of people were out-and-about in the park, soaking in the sunshine. The castle houses a bunch of small museums, none of which were on our priority list so after lunch we just walked through the square inside the castle walls.

We made reservations for that afternoon to view Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting so after the castle, our next stop was the Church Maria delle Grazie where the painting is located. To preserve what is left of da Vinci's famous painting, only 25 people are allowed into the room at a time for 15 minutes. Due to its popularity (especially since the Da Vinci Code book and movie were released) reservations are a must. If possible, I recommend a time that includes an English-speaking guide. As you have only 15 minutes to check out the painting, it was extremely helpful to have someone explain the details of the painting. The painting was done on the wall of the church, most of which was destroyed during WWII. Luckily, the room that the painting is located in was not damaged and the painting, although deterioring rapidly, still remains. In my opinion, this is a "must-see" in Milan!

Church Marie delle Grazie

After the "Last Supper" viewing, we walked to Milan's duomo, an amazing piece of architecture in Milan's center. Jetting off from the duomo is a large piazza in front and a big shopping area surrounding it. Milan is famous for fashion and you don't have to go too far before you run into any number of stores! Located on a side street a few streets away from the Duomo is a Milan food institution, called "Luini". It features the infamous panzerotti, a "hot-pocket" like food which has a doughy exterior stuffed with any number of things to choose from: ham, cheese, and tomato to name a few. Order at the counter and eat outside on the curb with the locals. Of course, gelato is always on the food list of things to eat when in Italy, so we topped off our meal with a cup of gelato after dinner!

Milan's Duomo

The Galleria

The famous bull mosaic on the floor of the Galleria

On Friday, we checked out of our hotel and headed back to Milan's central train station to catch a regional train to Lake Como! Thanks to Rick Steve's Italy 2011 book, we were able to easily make our way there, so I recommend this readers for any future travels to Italy. His detailed transportation descriptions were a big help. It is only a little over an hour's ride from Milan to Varenna, and then a short (10-15 minute) ferry ride from Varenna to Bellagio, our homebase for the weekend.

Bellagio, known as the "pearl of the lake," is a charming little town sitting directly in the middle of the lake. With easy ferry access to other lake-side towns, this is a good town to make day-trips from. We checked into our hotel, Hotel du Lac, and then went and feasted on lunch a the lake-side terrace at Hotel Metropole. We enjoyed wandering through the small town streets in the afternoon, window-shopping and people-watching. In the evening, we had a pizza for dinner, topped off with gelato, of course! It being Good Friday, we ended our night with a drink at an out-door table at our hotel, watching the Good Friday procession go by, the town's residents slowly following behind.

On the ferry!

The view from our room

One of the main streets in Bellagio

Our hotel

On Saturday, we spent the day villa-hunting!...well, I wish! The central-lake ferry day pass (11 EUR) shuttled us to two different villas open to the public for viewing (for a fee). We lucked out with a lake-side room directly in front of the main ferry landing. This let us keep an eye on the big clock outside so we knew when it was time to run downstairs for the ferry! That morning, we hopped on the boat and enjoyed the ride over to Tremezzo, where Villa Carlotta is located.

Villa Carlotta, sitting on the lake-front opposite Bellagio, is famous for its beautiful gardens. The spring is a great time to visit, as the flowers are blooming and everything is green. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to live in this place, having your own private, grand gardens to wander through! I had fun playing with my new camera in this setting!

Villa Carlotta

Where's Waldo?!!

After Villa Carlotta, we walked down the road to the town of Tremezzo, where we sat and had lunch at a pizzeria on the lake. Afer our meal, we hopped back on the ferry and took the short ride to Lenno . From there we started on the part walk/part hike(!) to get to Villa Balbianello. This well-groomed, elegant property is famous for its use as a movie-shoot location for films such as James Bond's Casino Royale and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. We just toured the outside property at this villa, as we missed the time for the guided tour of the interior. Built in 1787, the property sits on a picturesque point on the lake, giving it a secluded and serene feeling. At the end of our villa-hopping day, we took the ferry back to Bellagio. In the evening, we went to Enoteca's wineshop and enjoyed a sampling of wines from the region.

Villa Balbianello

Bellagio's ferry-landing and lake-side

Wine tasting in Bellagio

On Easter Sunday, we decided to take the hydrofoil (fast boat) to Como, the town at the southern end of the lake for which it is named. Before the boat trip, we walked a few minutes down the lake-side from the ferry-landing to Villa Melzi. The villa itself is not open to the public, but its pristine gardens were definitely worth the walk around.

Villa Melzi's gardens

Where's Waldo #2?!!

Soon it was time to board the boat. The 50 minute hydrofoil ride offers you a nice look at a large portion of the lake, including a nice view of Villa Balbianello from the water. Due it to being a holiday, Como was quite crowded. The first thing we did was buy a return ticket for the hydrofoil back to Bellagio for later in the day so that we were guarenteed a seat! We then went off in search of lunch, walking through the pedestrianized old-town streets. Como has a really nice cathedral worth a look. We found a place that looked good and sat down for lunch. After our meal, we headed over Como's funiculare which takes you up the mountain to the town of Brunate. The funiculare provides spectacular views over Como and is worth the ride. If you have lots of time, walk up the mountain further to the lighthouse. We didn't have enough time to make the trek, but read that the view from there is really great.

Como's cathedral

Como's funiculaire

View from the ride up the hill

View of Villa Balbianello from the water

Outside our favorite restaurant!

We took the funiculare back down to Como, enjoyed some gelato and then headed back to Bellagio on the hydrofoil. That evening, we enjoyed our favorite meal of the trip, our dinner at Trattoria San Giacomo. This "petit" restaurant only has a handful of tables, so be sure to get there before they open to ensure a table. They have a basketful of pillows for you to sit on the steps and wait with a glass of wine in case you are late and have to wait! I enjoyed the fried perch risotto and Mark had a delicious pasta meal. We enjoyed it so much, we went back for lunch the next day!



Back again for lunch the next day!

On Monday, our final day on the lake, we bought another central-lake day pass and went over to Varenna for a quick tour of the small, romantic town. Afterwards, we enjoyed a ride on the ferry to view Menaggio and then went back to Bellagio to eat at Trattoria S.G. before we had to leave. Our journey back took us the way we originally came: ferry ride to Varenna and train back to Milan. We spent the night in Milan to break up the travel, and caught the train back to Lausanne on Tuesday. We had a wonderful visit to the Italian lake district for our Easter break! Va benne!