Lake Como hike reveals the true Italy

Written by Doug Oster on .


blog italy throw Silvia Givera winds up, underhand, to throw a tennis ball to her dog, Diego, are on the banks of Lake Como in Lenno, Italy.Photos by Doug Oster

By Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

LENNO, Italy — Silvia Givera is standing on the picturesque bank of Lake Como. She winds up, underhand, to throw a tennis ball to her dog Diego. The dog stands transfixed until the ball sails far out into the lake, and then he happily swims after it. He brings it back but is reluctant to return it to Ms. Givera. Eventually she gets the ball and the two walk back to Bar IL Golfo in town. She helps run this place, which serves traditional Italian fare. The view of the lake is stunning from the restaurant, and it’s hard to fathom spending every day surrounded by such beauty.
I had just stepped off a water taxi after visiting the amazing topiary gardens of Villa Balbianello and walked past Bar IL on my way to meet my family, in Italy on a parallel trip. While I took 32 people through the gardens of Venice, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, my family used Como as its base to explore Switzerland, the towns around the lake and, most important, connect with relatives near the Austrian border.
When we met in Lenno, my family had already walked more than two miles from the Grand Hotel Tremezzo on the Greenway del lago di Como (Lake Como Greenway). It’s a 10 kilometer trail, a little more than six miles, that winds through neighborhoods and small towns from Cadenabbia south to Colonno in this part of northern Italy.
Of all the remarkable things I saw on my 10-day trip in September, this was one of my most treasured memories. People always say to get off the beaten path while visiting Italy, and it paid off for us in every way.
The greenway is well marked with metal emblems embedded into the trail and bright blue and yellow signs above. We had a few missteps and wrong turns but always found our way on the trail.
We started our walk by a couple of small restaurants and behind industrial businesses. Our first surprise was a rocky slope filled with pink begonias cascading down a rock wall. The second was the sight of a beautiful maid working inside a home. Once we tore our son away, we were back on our hike.

blog italy boatThis picturesque scene of Lake Como was towards the start of our journey.
Before long, we stumbled onto a little lakeside boat launch several yards off the trail. The lake was calm, and we stood there for a few minutes to soak in another sweet view of the water and surrounding hills.
We continued through narrow cobblestone pathways flanked by stone walls punctuated by open shutters and window boxes filled with geraniums, ferns and other plants.
As we rounded a corner in Ossuccio we were struck by an odd looking home, filled with art and a sign saying “free entrance.” I wasn’t sure about going in, but my son led the way.
As we opened the door, Felippo Salice sat watching television. He rose and greeted us with a great smile. His home was filled with a cornucopia of odd treasures for sale. He didn’t speak English, but my wife, Cindy, is pretty good with Italian, and they were able to communicate. The walls were filled with photos of him as a young man, with other family members and even walking in a church processional.
After we talked for a while, Mr. Salice opened another door, which led to even more interesting items. My wife bought an old crucifix from 1950, and I purchased a crazy-looking little bronze face, which might have been at the front of someone’s home. As we bid Mr. Salice goodbye; we felt we had experienced something interesting and special.

blog italy filipeFelippo Salice welcomed us into his home. He was selling things he had collected for many years.
Back outside
We crossed a street and eventually came upon the faded frescos of San Giacomo, a church that dates to at least the 11th century. As we looked around the outside we were treated to another spectacular view of the lake. Standing on a narrow, overhanging walkway we could see big fish swimming at the bottom through the crystal clear water.
The trail ascended and as we climbed we passed an abandoned estate, where we briefly had an “Under the Tuscan Sun” moment. We thought better, though, of following in the Frances Mayes character’s footsteps and renovating an old villa. We took a breather at a small, cool waterfall that meandered. There were warm greenish purple figs hanging from trees for tasty snacks.
As we reached the summit and began to descend, we were greeted with a hard-to-beat view of the bell tower of Chiesa di Sant’Andrea in Sala Comacina.

blog italy towerA stunning view of the bell tower of Chiesa di Sant’Andrea in Sala Comacina.
I always recall George Clooney’s comments about Lake Como and why he chose to live here. One day he watched as workmen headed for home singing, each with a lunch pail and bottle of wine in hand. As we approached two men pouring concrete one whistled a tune as he worked on a modest trail-side home.
At the bottom, we were desperate for a bathroom break. Two Australians and their Italian friend pointed us toward the ferry home and also a bathroom.
We had to hike back to Sala Comacina for both, which was about a 20-minute walk. “It’s not safe,” I yelled to the family as I looked at the narrow berm and tiny, speeding Italian cars flying by. “This is how they do it,” my wife screamed and off we went, stopping to peer around curves, running to the next safe spot. We found what we needed at Enoteca Wine Bar.
A bit of serendipity
AlessandraAlessandra Carminati saved the day for my family. I enjoyed our 45 mintes together.Alessandra Carminati was preparing the bar for patrons and was happy to allow us in for a bathroom break and point my wife in the direction of the ferry stop.
The printed ferry schedule at the dock confounded us. Two women sitting nearby tried to help. They didn’t speak English, but my wife was able to ascertain that there was no ferry going north to Tremezzo where they were staying and only one more going south to my hotel in Moltrasio.
They learned of a bus headed north, and we parted ways. Since I had 1½ hours to kill before my ferry, I headed back to the Enoteca bar, where Ms. Carminati poured me a large beer and made me a nice plate of meat and cheese.
As we talked, she told me of her love of Italy. How she lived out of the country for a time but longed to return home. She wondered what I thought of Italy, and when I told her of my unending love for the country she flashed a sweet smile and opened up, telling me where all the food on my plate came from.
“The cow cheese is from up there,” she gestured toward a steep hill. Each bite was better than the last, and as she poured me another beer, one of her friends stuck in traffic yelled and waved to her through the open front door. “Alessandra,” he screamed, which made her smile again. Her grandmother came in to sit for a bit and then her grandfather, who runs the nearby Grand Hotel Victoria. Another friend came in for a small beer and some cheese.
The two of us talked for 45 minutes — about tourists, food and her long journey on a bike to and from work each day. Despite our brief time together, we connected in the way that’s hard to explain. In another life, we’d be friends. It’s one of the beautiful things about traveling, stumbling upon a person and place like this.
“Will I see you again, maybe next year?” she asked. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we’d probably never meet again.
As the ferry slowly crossed the lake, I thought of Ms. Carminati and how her kindness had saved us that day. I couldn’t get her sweet smile out of my head. It embodied what Italy is all about.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

Setting the SEEN: Snow Day

Written by Natalie Bencivenga on .

The holidays are quickly approaching, but have you been able to just take a moment and enjoy all the wonderful things to do downtown? From ice skating to shopping the holiday market, see what Sara and I did on our "snow day." (And check out some tasty treats we picked up along the way!)

Until next time...we'lll be seeing you!

Follow @NatalieBenci on Instagram and @NBSeen on Twitter to keep up with #wheresNataliePG

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

Growing paperwhites is easy and fun

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog paperwhites 1214Paperwhites are tender, fragrant daffodils which are forced to bloom indoors. Photo by Doug Oster

Every gardener needs something to grow during the winter and anyone can make paperwhites thrive.

One word of warning, they have an intense fragrance that's both loved and hated.

The bulbs can be found for about a dollar a piece at any good garden center. Sometimes they are already potted up, ready to go, other times the bulbs are sold separately. They are also sold in bulb forcing vases. That's a cool way to see them grow and great for kids as the roots are visible.

Everything a paperwhite needs is in the bulb itself. Put it in water or planting mix and it will bloom in just a few weeks. They aren't hardy and can go to the compost after blooming. I've had them survive in an unheated greenhouse, but have never been able to make the bloom again. The foliage is pretty, like any daffodil.

I stagger my plantings, getting bulbs going every couple weeks which provides pretty white flowers and their scent all season.

I love the fragrance, my wife...not so much. But she knows I've got to have some flowers going in the winter.

Try a few paperwhites, they will make the season a little shorter.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

Holiday plants make great gifts and are easy to grow

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog amarillis long 032514

There are lots of plants earmarked for the holidays which would make great gifts for your favorite gardener or as hostess gifts.

Here's this week's segment from Pittsburgh Today Live where I go over all the cool plants for the holidays.


Lets talk about holiday plants and how to make them not only survive, but thrive. Poinsettias, Christmas cactus and amaryllis are the big three and all enjoy life on the windowsill with the right care.

Poinsettias can live for years both inside and outside. Don't throw your poinsettias away after the season. Not only will they keep their color for months, they are a cool garden plant too. By the way they are technically poison, but taste so awful, no child or animal would take more than a bite. They would have to eat a a plate full just to get a stomach ache.
 I like all the weird ones, different colors and forms, but they all have similar growing requirements.
The first job is to remove the foil, place the plant on a saucer, you can use the plastic ones they sell at the garden center or old plates from the thrift store. This will allow water to go through the soil, flush out the bad stuff and the plant can drain properly. They like it a little on the dry side, just poke your finger into the soil. If it's dry a couple inches down, add some water. Depending on the temperature of the house and the amount of light it gets, that might mean once a week.

Poinsettias need some light, and will only last a couple weeks if used as decorations up a dark staircase. Move them onto a table near a window.
There's no reason to fertilize any indoor plants this time of the year, there isn't enough light for them to process the nutrients. Wait until March to add some liquid organic fertilizer.

When there's no chance of frost (around May 15 in our area), poinsettias can go outside and will make a handsome plant in the garden. Some folks will bring them in and out for years. There's a giant one in the back of the greenhouse at Janoski's in Clinton, Pa. It's not that old and is over six feet tall.
Getting them to bloom again is tough, requiring exactly 12 hours of light and the same time in the dark. That's really hard to do unless you have a greenhouse. Back in the day gardeners would put the plant in the closet at night, then bring it back out into the daylight. What a pain, I wouldn't bother. They will color up when they the light is right, but usually not as nicely as the plants from a good greenhouse.

There's not much out there prettier than an amaryllis. Amaryllis offer some of the most beautiful flowers for the holiday season. For the first season the bulb has everything in it that the flower needs. The job of the gardener is to treat the plant right to get blooms next season. I've got about a 50/50 record for re-blooming. I never throw them away and they will bloom when they are happy. Sometimes that's every year, sometimes it takes three.
After the plant is done blooming remove the flower stalk leaving the tall, floppy foliage. Grow it as a houseplant all winter and start fertilizing in March. Mid-May it goes outside in the shade. Sometimes transplanting to a pot one size bigger will help. Keep feeding the plant every couple weeks through the season.
In August stop all watering and fertilization and bring the amaryllis back inside. I put mine down in the basement for six  to eight weeks until they go into dormancy. The leaves will turn brown, which feeds the bulb. Then bring the plant back to the windowsill add a little water and hope for buds to emerge.
I rarely get them to bloom at Christmas, but anytime they flower, it's wonderful. Usually it's about being too busy at the end of the season and not getting them into dormancy fast enough. Others never make it outside, are forgotten about and bloom after given a little water.
The Christmas cactus is a perennial favorite gift for gardeners. It's indestructible, usually killed with kindness. It's not really a cactus, so it's watered like any other houseplant, but prefers dry over wet. I like to grow them in eight inch and bigger pots so they don't need watered as often and they get nice and big.
They are triggered to bloom in the same way poinsettias are. That means when growing on the windowsill they are often turned into an Easter or Thanksgiving cactus.
I forgot about one out in my unheated greenhouse and it received the perfect light to be in full bloom on Christmas day.
For many gardeners a Christmas cactus becomes a family heirloom passed down for generations. I've done stories on plants that were 100 years old.
Enjoy your holiday plants now and for years to come.




Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

#SEENonTV: What are you doing New Year's Eve?

Written by Natalie Bencivenga on .

I had such a great time on Pittsburgh Today Live this morning chatting about fun events coming up this weekend (I'll be in New York City!) as well as what parties to hit up on New Year's Eve.


Keep up with #wheresNataliePG on Twitter @NBSeen or check out party pics on my Instagram @NatalieBenci

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.