My favourite modern example of trompe l’oeil – an art technique named for the French phrase “trick of the eye” – is any Instagram photo that makes it appear as though landmarks such as the Trevi Fountain in Rome and Ponte di Rialto in Venice aren’t completely overrun by hordes of people.
The Italians didn’t invent the illusory style, commonly painted onto buildings, but Northern Italy is so known for its colourful, deceptive murals that you’d think they did. And so I found myself inside the Basilica di San Fedele in Como last month, staring up at the cupola until I felt dizzy trying to figure out whether I was looking at intricately sculpted reliefs and mouldings or another one of those tricky paintings.
There were no tour guides I could casually try to listen in on. Though the Romanesque cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, is considered to be one of the Lake Como area’s most beautiful and important, on that September morning my friend Stefanie and I had the church almost entirely to ourselves.
This summer, Italy’s national tourism agency claimed the country’s tourism numbers had surpassed France’s. Right around the same time, Rome invoked a slew of new laws for tourists aimed at quelling crowds and preserving some measure of la dolce vita. Indeed, the country has become synonymous with overtourism woes, which is why the lack of crowds in Como seemed as unbelievable as the art.
The reason isn’t that we were off the beaten track: the Lombardy region, where Lake Como is located, ranks third in the country for visitors. But it turns out that if you time your trip right and ditch the checklist approach to travelling, the languorous, refined Italy of your dreams can still be within reach. Right now – the cusp between high and shoulder season – is the sweet spot: in September and early October, the number of visitors to Italy drops 30 per cent from the July and August peak. Even better, the weather is perfection – sunny and warm, bliss compared to the summer heatwaves that punished visitors just a few weeks ago.
Whether on the water or wandering its towns and villages, from Como to Bellagio to Varenna, it’s not hard to see how Lake Como has earned a reputation as Italy’s most glamorous vacation destination. Centuries before George Clooney became the area’s most famous homeowner, the Y-shaped lake – flanked by steep, verdant hills that plunge dramatically into the water, the Italian and Swiss Alps rising majestically in the background – attracted dukes and aristocrats, who built palatial villas along its shores. Those homes remain one of the lake’s best and most unique draws. Visitors can stroll the vast gardens of Bellagio’s Villa Melzi d’Eril, built as the summer home for the Italian Republic’s Napoleonic-era vice-president, with its late-blooming azaleas and knobby, fantastically-shaped sycamores, which line a promenade along the lake. Or they can explore the collections of Count Guido Monzino, a 20th-century entrepreneur who led Italy’s first Mount Everest expedition. The former and final owner of Villa del Balbianello, which is situated on a promontory that’s accessible only by boat, Monzino bequeathed his mansion to the Italian National Trust so all could enjoy its 360-views and the treasures inside.
Having seen both on a previous visit, I convinced Stefanie to skip the ferry to Bellagio in favour of wandering the centre of Como, the lake’s only proper city (population: nearly 85,000). Our other friends opted for Bellagio and reported back that it wasn’t crowded; that said, the lack of busyness lulled them into waiting too long to buy return ferry tickets and the boat they’d planned on taking was sold out. Meanwhile, after a morning of people watching and popping our heads into churches along Como’s piazzas, we happened upon the Pinacoteca Civica, the civic art museum. In utter privacy, we wandered among Renaissance paintings and geeked out at an exhibit dedicated to the founders of the Italian futurist architecture movement, which was born in Como (the visions of Antonio Sant’Elia, whose drawings are part of the museum’s permanent collection, inspired Blade Runner). Later, we ambled the five kilometres along the lake back to Villa d’Este, a 16th-century villa that is Lake Como’s most iconic hotel, enjoying the peaceful afternoon sunshine. (“In the summer it takes longer to drive than to walk,” one hotel employee later mentioned.)
While Lake Como was utterly delightful, I couldn’t help but wonder if its uncrowded bliss was an anomaly, more the result of the area’s spread-out geography and relative scarcity of landmark attractions and museums, than a function of the season. And so when we moved on to Florence a couple of days later, I wondered how my low-season theory would hold up.
Reader: It did. We didn’t have to elbow our way through the Piazza del Duomo or the Ponte Vecchio (was it busy? Of course. But there was zero jostling). Stopping to take a photo on a narrow street near the city’s famed cathedral, the Duomo, we marvelled over just how quiet it was. We enjoyed a tour of the Opera del Duomo Museum, where many of the cathedral’s original works of art are now housed: Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise at the Duomo’s entrance? Those doors are replicas – visit the museum for the originals. Then, we once again split up, our friends off to the Uffizzi Gallery and Stefanie and I in search of budino di riso, a pastry filled with rice pudding that’s a Florentine specialty, and carpaccio. We found excellent versions of both, respectively, at Pasticceria Nencioni, a family-run bakery off the Piazza dei Ciompi, which has been operating since 1950, and Osteria de’Pazzi, a quirky spot where we seemed to the only diners not speaking Italian.
Back at Villa La Massa, the 16th-century country house where we stayed, we drank spritzes made with rose liqueur from Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, ate hand-rolled pasta and couldn’t stop talking about how civilized it all was. (The world’s oldest pharmacy, Santa Maria Novella was founded in Florence by Dominican friars in the 13th century; located opposite the city’s main train station, the opulent apothecary, full of rich tapestries and frescoes, is an absolute must-visit.)
There’s one last thing that makes visiting Italy this time of year the best, as I discovered on my last night in Como. Over aperitivi, Villa d’Este’s executive chef Michele Zambanini whipped out a small golden-coloured nugget and waved it under my nose. Turns out, my visit coincided with the first day of white truffle season and the hotel had procured a two-kilogram box of the precious – and ephemeral – tubers that very morning. Zambanini held the truffle over my glass of champagne and proceeded to shave in a few slices, an intoxicating upgrade. La dolce vita indeed.
The writer travelled as a guest of Villa d’Este Hotels, which did not review or approve the article.
Lake Como is about a 45-minute drive northeast of Milan’s Malpensa Airport, though depending where on the lake your hotel is situated, drive times can be up to 1 1/2 hours. You can also catch the train from Malpensa Airport to Como Nord Lago station in Como, with a transfer in Saronno (1 hour, 5 minutes; from €10.90 [$15.82]). Unless you’re going a short distance, the fastest way to get around Como is on the lake; hydrofoil between Como to Bellagio takes 45 minutes in each direction and must be purchased at the dockside ticket office (expect a queue; return fare about €30. Schedules at navigazionelaghi.it).
To get to Florence, we took a Trenitalia train from Milan (1 hour, 40 minutes; from about €30); driving time is about 4 1/2 hours.
Where to stay
Lake Como: There is no hotel more evocative of Como’s old-world glamour and grandeur than Villa d’Este. Built in 1568 as the summer residence of a cardinal and later purchased by the wife of King George IV, the 152-room palace has played host to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner and, more recently, the likes of John Legend and Chrissy Teigen (who married at the villa next door and return frequently) and Jennifer Aniston. Clooney boated his pals the Obamas over for dinner this summer. The best way to soak up all that atmosphere is with aperitivi on the hotel’s lakeside terrace. From €590 a night, including breakfast.
Florence: Though it’s just eight kilometres from Florence’s centre (there’s complimentary shuttle service), Villa La Massa’s views of the Arno river and Rufina hills and elegant, relaxed vibe make for a luxe country retreat. Make sure to sample La Massa’s estate-made olive oil both at its traditional Tuscan restaurant, Il Verrocchio, and onsite spa. From €490 a night, including breakfast.
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