I stood at the lake’s edge with several other old Guidas feeding the ducks and geese, pigeons and swans, without regard for any bird hierarchy. Bundled tightly against the imminent rains in Ugg boots and dull colored down coats wrapped over their house dresses, they squinted across Italy’s Lake Como trying to decipher the mountains on the opposite shores. The weather had changed quickly, as it often does in the mountains; the morning’s brilliant blue skies, dotted with wispy white clouds hanging above Switzerland’s snow-capped peaks are quickly obscured by thick fog and heavy gray skies.
The lake is still except for the occasional ferry shuttling day-trippers to this little town of Bellagio for rich coffee and a panini of thinly-sliced Parma ham and earthy mountain cheese. Cold, wet and decidedly off-season, there are few shops and restaurants open; even the locals have shuttered themselves in against the impending rains. Smoke rises from the hills as farmers make haste to burn old vines and leaves before the wet weather douses their fires. Succulents sprout from crevices in ancient stonewalls to binge on the showers. The only sounds are the ducks’ menacing laughter and the hum of far-off chain saws, preparing wood from aged piles for the hearth.
The tiny road along the lake was created for horse and carriage rides, not automobiles. Such reality doesn’t seem to bother Italian drivers, their cars hurtling at full speed in the lane’s center. I tried to school several carloads of Italians with my lusty hand gestures and screamed expletives in English, which I’m hoping translated perfectly.
Lake Como has been a popular destination for the titled, accomplished and wealthy long before George Clooney ever laid his handsome eyes on his villa. Ancient Romans Plinys’ Senior and Junior had homes on the shores, one named Tragedy and the other, Comedy. Leonardo da Vinci incorporated Como’s grandeur into many of his paintings. Verdi, Bellini and Liszt composed music here and writers Shelley, Wordsworth and Stendhal found inspiration on these shores. Longfellow penned the ode to Lake Como: “I ask myself, Is this a dream? / Will it vanish into air? / Is there a land of such supreme and perfect beauty anywhere?”
In addition to its natural splendidness, Lake Como is revered for its fine silk; the silkworm will only produce silk when it eats mulberries, which are native to Italy, and the lakes and alpine streams provide ample water for silk production. The little shops in the villages surrounding the lake hock ties, scarves and blouses in the vivid colors for which Italians are known.
Famished, I ambled up the steep stone, manicured alleyways to the center of town, silent in winter, and took a seat in a small 19th century café on the lake. In halting English, the raven-haired waitress insisted I eat the locally revered dish, pizzoccheri alla Valtellina. Lake Como is tucked into Italy’s northern Lombardy region, known for its high-quality buckwheat, a peasant food as it grows freely in the mountains and is easily milled into decent flour. A bowl of dark buckwheat noodles, flecked with black grain and cooked until just al dente was set before me. It was studded with hunks of boiled potatoes and cabbage cooked in sage butter and laden with the rustic mountain cheese Valtellina Casera. I ordered an inexpensive bottle of Sassella made from Chiavennasca grapes, the local name for Nebbiolo. I slowly devoured every bite of the toothsome pasta and drained all but one glass of the hearty wine, the last of which I saved for the young stud in the kitchen who hand-cut my noodles. As I sipped a local Amaro, dense with flavors of alpine, I overheard the maître d describing Lake Como to a table of German tourists: cultura del bello, the culture of beauty.