Traveling The Real Italy – The Lake District

One of the most stunningly beautiful parts of Northern Italy is the Lake District, anchored by Lakes Maggiore, Como and Garda.  Here the Italian Alps drop precipitously into long deep blue glacial lakes, dotted with picturesque towns linked by dramatic roads and ferries.  Less frequented by American travelers, the area has long been a destination for the rich and famous, is the inspiration for the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and has been featured in many Hollywood movies.

              Fly into Milan’s Malpensa airport for easy access to the autostrada and the hour-long trip to Lake Como and the town of Como is at its southern tip.  Settle into the Italian way of life and stroll the waterfront promenade stopping for coffee, gelato, drinks and dinner.  For impressive views, take the funicular (railway) to Brunate, 500 meters above the lake and hike even higher to the lighthouse beyond.

              For getting around Lago di Como, you can drive or take buses, stopping at the many small towns strategically located along the shoreline.  But better is to board one of the frequent ferries for never ending views of the fabulous villas and flowering mountainsides along the shoreline.  The “pearl” of the lake is town of Bellagio, dramatically situated on a peninsular that divides the lake into its three arms.  Five star accommodations, restaurants, cafes and luxury shopping line the hilly cobblestone streets.  Check out the elegant Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, tour the gardens of Villa Melzi, and watch the sunset from Hotel Villa Fiore.

              A short ferry ride away is the beautiful, less crowded town of Varenna.  Visit or stay at Villa Monastero.  Also in the central lake area, don’t miss Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo for art and gardens and Villa Balbaniello in Lenno that provided a lakeside retreat in Star Wars and for James Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale.   These spectacular properties are expensive to stay at but are a great place to have lunch or a glass of wine in a spectacular setting.  More moderate accommodations can be found throughout the region, especially if you can avoid the busy summer season.  Lake Maggiore to the West and Lake Garda to the East offer similar experiences and are close to the famous wine regions of Piedmont and the Veneto.

              If you love shopping, the wealthy city of Milan is Italy’s fashion and industrial capital and home to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele ll, the world’s oldest shopping mall with its towering iron and glass ceiling.  Nearby and linked by a large open plaza is the spectacular Gothic Cathedral, Duomo di Milano.

              Italy is so varied has much to offer.  Slow down, take it a piece at a time and be rewarded by letting the real Italy find you!


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Christmas Traditions in Italy

Italy shares and has inspired many of our Christmas traditions, but there are unique differences that often vary by region.  December 8th, a public holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception marks the start of the Christmas season with trees and decorations going up in homes and towns throughout Italy.  Elaborate Nativity scenes called Presepi are constructed, especially in Naples. Carols are sung in shepherd costumes, bagpipes are heard and Babbo Natale, (Father Christmas) a.k.a. San Nicolo makes appearances.

Christmas Eve, La Vigilia, families gather to fast or eat a meal, not of meat, but of seafood. For Italian American families, this has morphed into the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Midnight mass is mandatory after which Panettone, a sweet holiday cake with dried fruit, is commonly served.  On Christmas Day, Natale, children might open a few gifts from Babbo Natale and elaborate meals are served, starting with Pasta in Brodo, pasta in broth.

Christmas celebrations continue until a big finale on January 6th, the Epiphany.  The Epiphany is when the Magi arrived bearing gifts for the baby Jesus and it is on this day that most gifts are opened.  However, unique to Italy, gifts are brought the night before by La Befana.  La Befana is variously an old woman or good witch that flies about on a broom and it is she who rewards children’s good or bad behavior with gifts or lumps of “coal” black candy placed in stockings. 

The Epiphany also marks the start of the new year.  Extensive celebrations vary by region but include bonfires or parades intended to leave behind the hardships of the past year and to look optimistically to the next.

From all of us at Trattoria Toscano, we wish you and your family Buona Natale and much success in the coming year!

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