Escape to Lake Como, a serene Italian getaway

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If you love picturesque views, this is the holiday for you. (Photographs by: Naveen Shakir)
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Bellagio is perfect for an afternoon stroll.
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Bellagio will charm you with its cobbled streets and quaint houses.
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Decorative Murano glassware can be found in Bellagio.
Updated 20 August 2017
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Escape to Lake Como, a serene Italian getaway

BELLAGIO, Italy: When I think of the perfect getaway, I now picture the lakes and mountains of Lake Como. I first heard about this particular lake in Italy when George Clooney bought a vacation home there in 2002. I remember seeing pictures of a small town with charming villas, surrounded by beautiful green mountains and the clear blue waters of the lake. So, when my husband mentioned that he wanted to plan a trip to Italy, I jumped at the chance to visit Lake Como.
We planned a six-day trip during which we would spend three days in Lake Como and then drive through the Swiss Alps to spend the rest of our days on Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Our two-hour flight from London to Milan on British Airways left bright and early so that we could take full advantage of the day when we got there. After picking up our little rental car, we finally made the trip north — which took about one hour — to the Italian Lake District.
Almost immediately, the site of the majestic mountains of Lake Como came into view from the highway. When we got to the base of the mountains and began seeing the blue and turquoise waters of the lake on our right is when the excitement really began to build. I also remember the thrilling realization at that point that we were only halfway there and that the views were about to get so much better.
The mountain roads took us up to the town of Bellagio — “the Pearl of Lake Como” — on the northern edge of the lake and then south to our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Villa Aurora in Lezzeno, a small town just 10 minutes away from Bellagio. This quaint family-owned hotel built in 1912 was just perfect for us — it was simple, serene and was surrounded by stunning views of the lake and mountains. Families were swimming, canoeing and sunbathing while others were sitting at the lakeside restaurant relaxing with their drinks and enjoying their freshly-made pasta with fish caught in the lake. I immediately felt a sense of peace and relief — this was exactly the kind of vacation we had been longing for.
For lunch, while I wanted to try a real Italian pizza, our hotel’s restaurant only served pizza for dinner so I tried their delectable seafood pasta instead. I had heard from many people that I would really enjoy authentic Italian food, but I never realized how much I would love it. Their food is really in a class of its own. It is full of flavor and surprisingly light. I think it can be attributed to the fact that these lakeside towns mostly use locally-produced fresh ingredients that are in season. As a seafood lover, my lake fish seafood pasta was one of the best I have ever had. After that meal, I found any and every excuse to throw some seafood onto my pastas and pizzas.
After lunch and a long nap, we decided to drive to Bellagio. The weather, however, was determined to ruin our night with a massive thunderstorm so instead of finding the restaurant that we wanted to eat at, we ran into a small pizzeria, Ristoro Forma and Gusto. My first taste of real Italian pizza was amazing and I continued to enjoy pizzas for the duration of my trip.
The next day we were blessed with amazing weather, so we decided that we would inhale our breakfast and start exploring immediately. We decided to go back to Bellagio. I have to say, I dare you to not be charmed by this town. Its cobbled walkways, colorful villas, vine-draped walls and blooming flowers are so incredibly alluring. It also helps that such a pretty town has some fabulous shopping as well. I found stores with gorgeous silk scarves, leather purses, jewelry, decorative Murano glass pieces and, of course, a plush Salvatore Ferragamo store. I snagged a couple of beautiful earrings from a quaint little store called Saraceno, owned by a woman who used to design for Armani. The prices were so reasonable that I might have to make an excuse to go back soon!
After walking around Bellagio, we took a short ferry ride to my husband’s favorite town in northern Italy, Varenna. We made our way up the cobbled streets to yet another popular spot for pizza, The Victoria Grill. From there, we walked five minutes to the Villa Monastero, a museum and gorgeous botanical garden with rare species of plants from all over the world. The museum itself was a fairly interesting experience, but what I enjoyed the most was walking through the botanical gardens while enjoying the fresh scent of lavender and the exquisite views of the lake.
We then decided to walk down to the waterfront to see what shopping Varenna had in store for us but, as it was a hot day, we got distracted by the multiple gelato stores on the waterfront and ended up stopping by Gelateria Riva di Riva Duilio. My coffee gelato and my husband’s hazelnut gelato were the best we have ever had in our lives.
The next day was rainy, so we decided to drive two hours south to sunshine and shopping at a fantastic designer outlet just south of Milan called Serravalle. After driving back to Lezzeno, we spent our last night eating pizza at the restaurant in our hotel. I ordered a sumptuous lake fish pizza and my husband ordered not one, but two, margarita pizzas for dinner. It was definitely worth all of the extra calories!
On our last day, we packed up and made our way out of beautiful Italy, through the Swiss Alps to Montreux. While this is not the last of my Italian adventures, as we will be heading to Rome and Florence later this summer, I almost regret having gone to Lake Como first. I think it will be very hard to beat the beauty and serenity of the Italian Lake District.


First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Updated 13 July 2018
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First space tourist flights could come in 2019

WASHINGTON: The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.
Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.
The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.
At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.
With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.
The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.
Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.
In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.
In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.
The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.
Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin said.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.
On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.
From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.
Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.
But one of its directors, Rob Meyerson, said in June the first human tests would come “soon.”
Meanwhile, another company official, Yu Matsutomi, said during a conference Wednesday that the first tests with passengers would take place “at the end of this year,” according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.
“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.