Lake Como on a kayak

Lake Como is one of the deepest in Europe and has a 170km shoreline.
Lake Como is one of the deepest in Europe and has a 170km shoreline. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Take in the beautiful scenery around Italy's third-largest lake on a kayak or on a bicycle if you are up for a workout

Travelling via water gives you a different perspective. Sitting in the front cockpit of a tandem kayak 60m offshore from Varenna, Italy, in the middle of Lake Como, I count three gelaterias faster than you can say: "I know why George Clooney spends so much time here."

Navigating Varenna by road, you couldn't get within 150m of a scoop of gelato. The town, founded by fishermen in the eighth century, does not actually have any streets, just walkways. Childhood summers spent on Maryland's Eastern Shore taught me that water, when it's around, is where the action is.

So even though I am an avid road cyclist and Northern Italy's lakes have some of the most scenic and challenging cycling routes in the world, it has always been my dream to visit this area by boat. I sign up for a nine-day kayaking trip that hits Como, Lugano and Maggiore.

Three weeks before the trip, I have an accident that requires surgery. I would not be able to paddle. Mr Grant Thompson, owner of the company I am travelling with, Tofino Expeditions, offers the front cockpit of his tandem kayak.

I am severely disappointed. Rescheduling is not an option.

Narrow cobblestone paths lined with boutiques, cafes and galleries tumble down a steep hillside. Italian flags flutter among palm trees. Gothic, baroque and Renaissance buildings are painted in colours ranging from peach to tangerine, pale pink,white and mustard.

The disappointment is still there when I land in Italy. (Lake Como is 40km north of Milan.) During an afternoon and night in Milan, I forget the disappointment but, the next morning, when the group - 10 paddlers including me, Mr Thompson and guide Enrico Carrossino - loads into two vans for the 60- minute drive to Lake Como, it returns.

It doesn't go away until Mr Thompson has been paddling me around for an hour and we are in front of a two-storey, buttercup-yellow home.

The house is set back from the lake 5m, on land protected by a stacked-stone bulkhead. Directly above the bulkhead, running its entire length, are iron trellises dripping with jasmine thicker and bloomier than I've ever seen or smelled. At either end of the bulkhead are van-sized masses of hydrangeas, also riotously blooming.

It is one of the most happily situated homes I've ever seen. If I don't have to hold a paddle, I rationalise, I've got more time to admire - and snap photos of - the scenery.

Lake Como has been a vacation spot and a source of inspiration for artists and writers at least since the Romans settled here in the second century B.C.

Leonardo da Vinci visited the lake frequently and the two versions of his painting, Virgin Of The Rocks, include streams and waterfalls he saw here. Verdi composed La Traviata at Lake Como.

In 1925, Alfred Hitchcock shot some of his film, The Pleasure Garden, there. When Winston Churchill vacationed at Lake Como after the end of World War II, he painted almost every day.

Lake Como stands out among the dozens of lakes dotting this area for the intensity of its blue water and its extensive shoreline.

While only the third-largest lake in Italy - after lakes Garda and Maggiore - Como is one of the deepest in Europe. The depth is partially responsible for its colour. Because of its shape - most people say it's an upside-down "Y"; I prefer to think of it as a walker without arms or a head - Como has more shoreline (170km) than any other Italian lake.

The city of Como sits at the foot of the western leg. Industrial Lecco is the east foot. The landscape of the Lecco leg is more rugged, with fewer towns and lakeside villas than the Como leg. Clooney's Villa Oleandra and any Lake Como villa you've seen in a movie is on the Como leg.

The village of Bellagio is at the lake's crotch.

Narrow cobblestone paths lined with boutiques, cafes and galleries tumble down a steep hillside. Italian flags flutter among palm trees. Gothic, baroque and Renaissance buildings are painted in colours ranging from peach to tangerine, pale pink, white and mustard.

Mr Carrossino guides our group along Bellagio's waterfront. Looking to shore, we see men with cigarettes dangling from their lips fishing and looking at us dubiously. Tourists pause in the shade under ordered rows of densely leafed trees and take photos of us. Couples walk dogs or sit on benches holding hands and watching us.

While kayaking is not unusual in the United States, it is in northern Italy. Tofino Expeditions is the only company that regularly does organised trips here. Mr Carrossino is a proud native of Genoa, but has been living near Como, Lugano and Maggiore for 10 years. He knows the spots that are overhyped and the ones that are overlooked.

A kayak guide for 15 years, he also knows that schedules, especially when weather is involved, are not set in stone. Our second day on Como is more leisurely than originally scheduled. The day's scenery is so diverse, though, it feels like our longest day.

The northern-most tip of the land that pushes up to the bend in the upside-down "Y" of Lake Como is just past Bellagio. In Italian, it's called Punta Spartivento, "the point that parts the wind". It's not windy as we paddle around it, but it is as if we've been swept into a completely different landscape.

Gone are the villas that dot the peninsula's western side. Instead, I see 30m-tall sheer, white limestone walls. Waterfalls of prickly pear cacti, some with yellow blooms, cascade down them. Every centimetre of land that isn't sheer rock is dense with greenery. Mallard ducks swim between our boats.

From here, we set off for Varenna, the town of many gelaterias and the ruins of an 11th-century castle.

Despite the fact that I really wasn't supposed to, I tell myself it's time to do more than sit in the front of a boat. Italy is one of the most cycling-mad countries in a continent that is crazy for the sport. And Lombardy, the region of the country that includes Como, is arguably the heart of Italian cycling. It has an estimated 700 cycling clubs with nearly 12,000 members.

The church of the patron saint of cycling, Madonna Del Ghisallo, is also in Lombardy. The church sits at the top of a classic climb, the Madonna Del Ghisallo hill. I know this climb from television. It is sometimes used in the Giro d'Italia, Italy's version of the Tour de France. The climb starts from Bellagio.

There is a cycling museum, the Museo Del Ciclismo, next to the chapel. It sounds perfect for my first European cycling adventure. Except the road does not have shoulders. I start out with my senses set to 11. The climbing starts immediately. The corners at switchbacks are often 180 degrees. Still, I'm grinning like an idiot. My quads are ready to explode, but so is my mind.

My worry about the roads having no shoulders is unnecessary. Every car that passes slows and gives me plenty of room. Several times, passengers shout encouragement: "Go! Go! Go!" I've ridden tens of thousands of kilometres and my town is fairly bike-friendly, but never before have I felt respected while riding.

When I arrive at the chapel and museum after an hour of climbing, my quads are quaking. I give them a rest by visiting the museum. A circa 1915 folding bike issued to Italian soldiers is cool, as are the several racing bikes used by various Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winners, but I spend most of my time staring at three modern custom bikes made from heavily shellacked marine wood. They're gorgeous, more art than bicycle.

From Como, we move on to a couple of days paddling on Lugano, less than an hour's drive away, but a whole other country. The shared border of Italy and Switzerland runs right through the lake. The top third of the lake is Italian. The bottom two-thirds are mostly Switzerland.

Both sides are very different from Como. The first difference I notice is the jasmine. Or lack of it.

Paddling around Como, we were in a haze of blooming jasmine the entire time. The trellises in Lugano's gardens are draped instead with a species of wisteria that, while colourful, isn't particularly fragrant.

Lake Lugano is busier, too, on shore and on the water. The city of Lugano - population 60,000 - sprawls across and up several hills.

Mr Carrossino leads us to quiet and quaint Morcote. An 800m hike up steep, cobblestone paths through a sleepy residential neighbourhood - Morcote is like Varenna in its lack of streets - is the Church of Santa Maria del Sasso. This church was the first part of Morcote we saw from the water and I thought it was about to fall into the lake. Walking around the complex, I see it is obviously old - 15th century - but in no danger of collapse.

Another day, we have a Mediterranean alfresco feast at a shabbily elegant villa near a museum dedicated to smuggling. Because the Italy/ Switzerland border runs through the middle of the lake, smuggling on Lugano has a long history.

After this lunch, we take turns jumping into the lake from the villa's pier. On Lake Maggiore, we take a break from paddling to jump into the water from a craggy rock.

I look down from the top, 6m above the lake. From this height, it looks like something my surgeon wouldn't want me to jump from.

But it's the last day and I've dutifully not taken a single paddle stroke the whole trip. Also, more than the other two lakes, Maggiore feels removed from reality.

Here, we've paddled beneath 90m-tall rock walls, around hydrofoil ferries exuberant with summer visitors and past Isola Bella, one of the three Borromean Islands, where white peacocks wander ornate 17th-century gardens under the watch of a unicorn statue atop the tallest fountain.

I run off the end of the rock before I can think about it too much.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Lake Como on a kayak'. Print Edition | Subscribe