Accolades for Lake Como Abound

“The Lake of Dreams.” “The Looking Glass of Venus.” “The Coast of the Divas.”

Accolades abound for Lake Como, whose deep blue waters are ringed by steep hills that are studded with flower-bedecked villas and terraced citrus groves. And just beyond it all lie snow-blanketed foothills of the Swiss Alps.

The lake in northern Italy is shaped like an upside-down Y. Think of it more like a divining rod. The lake can lead you to discover just about anything you want on holiday — from a lakeside patio at romantic yet elegant hotels to charming views from bucolic lanes in sleepy, tiny villages clinging to hillsides.

There are towns and addresses that attract movers-and-shakers in finance, industry and politics. Late summer sees an annual think-tank like retreat for VIPs in the town of Cernobbio, as they take their afternoon coffee along the fabulous lakeside promenade and dissect the world’s more pressing issues.

Other town’s names exude beauty, like Bellaggio, where bougainvillea, wisteria and other sensuous plants tumble like floral blankets over balconies from posh lodges or send out their enticing perfumes from behind the walls that rim centuries-old private villas.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of the breathtaking panorama travelers seek on the Amalfi Coast. But instead of a crazily-trafficked highway running through the heart of town, as it does on the daredevil Amalfi highway coast road, much of the traveling to reach Bellaggio and other holiday destinations on the lake is by soothing boat.

Life is calm here, and even tourist spots have a soothing, relaxing atmosphere.

Like the proverbial fork in the road, the fork-shaped lake lends itself to two basic choices — explore Lake Como by boat, or motor between the towns by car.

The first is recommendable, either for a day trip to “sample” some of the famous stops one can make on the boat runs, or for a longer stay at one town, using it as a base for different excursions by ferry to explore Lake Como’s delights.

Bellaggio is prime choice for its estates with manicured gardens, like the 200-plus-year-old Villa Melzi, whose spring-blooming azaleas delight visitors. Also renowned for its gardens in Bellaggio is Villa Serbelloni. Lodging ranges from posh and lavish hotels with cafe tables on terraces to more rustic ”pensioni” up in the hills, with simple home cooking but simply fabulous views.

There always seems to be a crowd at Bellaggio’s dock when the ferry boats dock to bring the next round of visitors. But duck away from the action to scamper up streets that are really staircases to sample the town’s laid-back charm.

Just north of Como, where one fork of the lake begins is another sought-after destination, Cernobbio, whose fabled Villa d’Este dates back to the 16th century. Built by an Italian cardinal, the villa later morphed into the haunt of European royalty and nobility set.

Other shore-side resort possibilities are Tremezzo and Villa Carlotta.

But Lake Como’s riches don’t have to be pricey. Much of the lake’s charming, slow-flowing pace awaits those who take to the lakeside boats known as ”battelli’ that glide up and down and across the lake, stopping at hamlets with docks barely wide. Dockside, locals send off departing relatives — maybe even just for a few hours — with warm hugs or disembark with grocery bags filled at markets in larger towns along the route.

The sun on the boats can be strong, so bring a broad-brimmed hat and a sense of adventure as you journey on these boats. Perhaps you might consider hopping off when you see a tiny, pebble beach with only a few local families sunning. And there, almost surely, a home-style trattoria to try in each small town. Or just to stretch your legs, try exploring picturesque villages nestled near the lake, like that of Torno, or pick a destination just because it has a funky-sounding name, like Onno.

For those wanting to be above it all, go by bike. Cycling enthusiasts — on racer bikes or mountain models — from northern Italy take to the hills ringing the lakes on weekends, enjoying the fresh air, scenic views and rests in strategically placed refuges. Cows are grazed at levels as high as 1,000 meters (roughly nearly two-thirds a mile high), and the cheeses made from this ”high-altitude” cows are famed for their fresh taste and can be found in local shops and on restaurant menus.

Lake Como’s two “forks” each have their own distinct personality, just like the two small cities that are at the ”base” of each fork.

The town of Como is more popular with foreign tourists. Its lakeside promenade makes for a relaxing stroll, and Como town boasts a funicular rail car that rises to a panoramic viewing point known as Brunate. The town itself, just about from the days following Marco Polo’s explorations across Asia, has centuries of tradition in the silk industry. And while you won’t see silkworms in Como, the town is still much involved in silk designs for fashion. Many of the shops in Bellaggio and other tourist points along the lake feature scarves, lingerie and other silk products.

Lake Como’s other “fork” touches down in the town of Lecco, not well known on the international travel map. But for Italians, Lecco has a sentimental tug. It is associated with the Italian novel just about every Italian schoolchild reads in middle school: ”I Promessi Sposi” (“The Betrothed”), where the lake and the locals’ daily interaction with it form poetic and romantic backdrops for the story.

Among those appreciating the best of both worlds — luxury and simplicity — is George Clooney. The U.S. movie director and actor bought a handsome lakeside villa in the sleepy town of Laglio. When his Hollywood pals were in town, Clooney ferried them by motorboat from his private dock to dinners in trattorie across the lake. But he also rode his bike around town and shot some baskets with locals on the neighborhood court. The townsfolk, used to welcoming VIPs for ages, take Clooney’s presence among them all in stride.

Clooney enjoys the Lake Como area’s cuisine while in residence, and, you should, too. It is a hearty one with typical dishes, many, not surprisingly, based on what locally cast fishing nets catch. In Italy, there’s a pairing of ingredients dubbed “mare e monti,” literally, sea and mountains, and dishes like pasta or risotto often feature sea food and mushrooms.

In this area, with no sea but instead a lake, the pairing is referred to as “acqua e monti.” The mountain part often means those fresh local cheeses from choice herds of cows grazing high in the hills; the water part usually means commonly caught fish, like “pesce persico.” The fish is often served with rice (and not risotto). Still another favorite fish here is the ”agone,” a fish caught in summer, salted and laid out in the sun to dry. Dried, the fish is wrapped in laurel leaves, kept in a wooden or tin box and lasts for months.

Still another popular fish is “missoltini” — fish sprinkled with vinegar and thrown on a grill and served up with polenta.

Even polenta, a substantial staple in many homes in the north, has its Lake Como version here, known by the curious-sounding name ”toc.” This polenta is a rich one, generously fortified with locally produced cheeses and butter. Popular in Bellaggio, “toc” derives from ”toccare,” to touch, in Italian. Thee name’s origins refer to the tradition of scooping up the polenta with one’s hands. Even posh Bellaggio has its earthy dish.