Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. This paradise is absolutely attainable on a budget.
We were in Milan(o) trying to figure out what to do and where to go next. It was the middle of summer. Every report we were fed about Rome and Vienna sounded frustratingly crowded. But, while studying a map of Italy, my mom noticed a very large lake just north of us.
Our hotel informed us that the Y shaped veins were a popular weekend and vacation spot for local Milanos. Turns out this has also been a destination for cream of the crop aristocrats and artists for a hundred years. The lake, we were told, was called Lago di Como. After doing some research, we decided to hit up Italy’s gorgeous third largest lake ourselves.
Man, am I glad we did. It has held out as one of our all-time favorite spots in the world.
The southern half of the lake is most popular with vacationers and tourists. This might be a better option if you are looking for a more upscale vacation. You’ll find a plethora of hotels, resorts, villas and even palaces.
Sitting on a small wad of cash, we held tight until the train brought us as far north as it would go.
Vigna del Lago Campground in Dongo
Looking through hotel prices for the Lago di Como area can get a bit depressing if you’re trying to keep a budget. But what if you’re armed with a tent? At the northern section of Lago di Como, you can secure a stunning spot right near the lake for the price of a hostel. And if you don’t have a tent, you can rent out cute little trailers at the campground.
(If you don’t have a tent or any camping gear and don’t want to spend a fortune for one, I’d recommend the French store Decathalon. We first found it in Barcelona and again in Taipei, Taiwan. They have some fantastic sales, and budget prices for decent quality gear. Check online to see if there’s a Decathalon near you.)
One Dutch guy taking a motorcycle tour around Europe (on a strictly rationed budget) even camped out on a hammock. He didn’t really recommend it though. Not super comfy.
We were headed to a mostly unadvertised town called Dongo. The area is predominately populated by locals and “regulars” -Europeans who visited this same spot every year. Best of all, Dongo is the historic town where Mussolini was captured. And as no one ever forgets to mention, George Clooney has a house there.
After the train took us as far north of the lake as it would go, we jumped on a bus to the other side of the lake, to reach the town of Dongo. The bus driver didn’t speak a word of English, but if you tell him “Vigna del Lago,” hopefully he’ll know where to stop.
There are two campgrounds located right next to each other. One is called Magic Lake and the campground we stayed at was Vigna del Lago. You may want to book your spot in advance if you go during the height of summer. Like the bus driver, the owner of Vigna del Lago didn’t speak much English, but he was kind and accommodating. He showed us his two last spots. Not camp *sites,* camp *spots.*
If you’ve ever camped in the USA, you can empathize with our initial confusion. I grew up with very rural camping excursions in the states of Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia. Camping meant getting a large area with your own little picnic table and fire pit. You would be surrounded by nature and lots of space.
In Italy, however, it seemed that things were a bit more “friendly.” A camping spot just meant a free spot of grass that could fit your tent. As it was summer and the height of the camping season, we often had neighbors camping near by on both sides of our camp spot.
Accustoming ourselves to European camping turned out to be a pretty easy thing to do. We spent a total of 11 days at the campground Vigna del Lago before prying ourselves away.
The campground was more or less divided in two. The front side towards the lake was filled with several rows of the prettiest little camper homes. These “homes” had little gardens, kitchens, widows, and even tvs set up inside. We met families who had been coming to their same spot for 45 years. Everyone would smile and say hello or ciao as you passed.
The backside of the compound was a well kept grassy area with the stunning Alps as a backdrop. The tents, however, were all huge, spacious, and luxurious, nothing like ours.
Camping wasn’t too bad when the wifi reached inside our tents and every morning we woke up to cappuccinos. The close bathrooms were also very convenient for Grace. Just make sure to bring all your own toiletries, including soap and toilet paper.
The three of us put up two tiny little tents in one camping spot under a large, beautiful tree.
For camping, the charge is 7 euros per person.
The owner could have charged us for charging our electronics in his outlets in the common area, but he didn’t. He also only charged us 1 euro instead of the original 2 euro price for a cappuccino. Really nice guy.
You can do your laundry here. Since the owner’s English and my Italian were equally nonexistent, I google translated “can I use the laundry?” memorized it, and rattled off my most convincing pronunciation. He simply nodded, led me to get the key, then asked me if I spoke Italian. Oh, boy, I thought. Don’t expect me to be able to say anything else!
In the evenings, many from this campground community would gather in the common area of tables and chairs. Most of Europe was represented at one point or another.
Where to Eat
The second biggest cost factor for any traveler, after accommodation, is food. Eating out in Italy, like just about anywhere in Europe, can be pricey. But there are a few ways to make your budget stretch in Dongo. I can’t find the restaurant online, but if you just take a left on the main road from Vigna del Lago, then after maybe a 15 minute walk you’ll see a little Pizzeria shop with beads over the door. The place is run by Egyptian expats and the prices here are quite good, and so is the pizza.
However, if you take a right on the main road from Vigna del Lago, you’ll soon find a supermarket. Even if you can’t cook, you can find yogurt, fruits, vegetables and ingredients to make sandwiches. It sure bets restaurant prices. Keep your eyes out for small tubes of lemon gelato in the freezer section. We started finding them in a supermarket in Gravedona, the next town up from Dongo. It was some of the best and most inexpensive gelato we’ve ever had. 😉
Hiking/ Exploring/ Things to Do in Dongo
Of course, being on a lake, there are tons of water activities to do. And Dongo, being at the top of the lake, is the ideal place to be in the water, as it is cleanest here. Since streams are continuously feeding into Lago di Como at the top of the lake, the water moves constantly, keeping it fresh and clean, unlike down in the southern areas where it can become stagnated and polluted.
There are a million and one walks and hikes around and they are STUNNINGLY beautiful. These hikes are well kept, easy to find and follow, and don’t cost a dime. Just grab a water bottle and a camera and you’re bound to find some spectacular hiking trails. While hiking, we found tons of fresh water fountains near the paths where you fill up your water bottle or cool off whenever needed. If you really want to, (unless you really know what you’re doing, please get a guide!) you can bring your passport along and hike to Switzerland in three hours through the mountains!
There’s a long pathway that follows the lip of the water as well if you’re looking for a peaceful stroll rather than a rigorous hike.
We’d highly recommend taking a long walk to the next town of Gravedona. There are some very historic churches along the way and in the town. We even got to attend a free organ concert, so look out for event flyers! Both Gravedona and Dongo are quaint, historic towns that you could explore endlessly.
Need a haircut? Go to the center of Dongo and one a narrow street behind the main road you’ll find a little hair salon. The lady who owns the place doesn’t speak any English, but if you bring in a picture of what you want done, I’m sure she’ll do her best to understand what you’d like. I tried to explain that I wanted layers and she just looked at me and asked, “Escaleras?” Since that means “stairs” in Spanish I replied, “Si!!” And layers was what I got. haha She was an excellent hair dresser and it only cost 17 euros, including the shampoo and everything.
Stopping in town to sit and have a beer while watching the sunset or to escape the heat of the day is always a decent plan of action. 🙂
Vigna del Lago information page, with prices, contact info, and address. However the website is in Italian.