A Taster's Journey is a newsletter on food, wine and travel. After 15 years of studying, tasting, teaching, and selling wine, I created this newsletter to not only share my passion about wine, but of food and travel as well. Each month I hope to share wines that I am drinking, food that is in season, restaurants that I have enjoyed, and places I have traveled. Enjoy!"

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Lake Como

September 25th, 2005

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como is a magical place; the large peaceful lake is surrounded by majestic mountains that are sprinkled with villas dating back to an earlier time. Although this region will overwhelm you with its spectacular beauty, more importantly it will transport your mind and body to a state of total relaxation.

Lake Como is one of Italy’s larger lakes with an area of 55 square miles. It is located in northern Italy bordering on Switzerland and the alps. The town of Como, the largest city on the lake is located on the southwestern tip of the lake, only 45 minutes from the Milan airport. So close to Milan, but so different from Italy’s frenetic fashion city. The spacious lake always seems so quiet, its blue water shimmering like a mirror. Being so close to the alps, it’s not surprising that the perimeter of the lake is lined with steep mountains. I find the combination of water and mountains to be spectacular, but Lake Como has a third ingredient that sets it apart…beautiful historic villages and towns.

This area is rich in history dating back to the Bronze Age, about 1000 BC. However there was little recorded history of the region till the time of Julius

Basilica of San Fedele

Basilica of San Fedele

Caesar when he took the region from the Gauls. Como was the birthplace of Pliney the Younger, who compiled much of its history. In 1500 Como became Italy’s silk capital. I was rather surprised as I visited the historic town of Como that it lacked charm, and there were few sites of historic significance. The two exceptions are the Duomo and the Basilica of San Fedele. The Duomo was built over four centuries beginning in 1396, and it’s an absolute spectacular illustration of the fusion of different architectural styles. The western facade is late Gothic, while the apse and the alter are Renaissance. It is fascinating to notice the dramatic differences in the columns, windows, and ceiling. But what makes this cathedral so splendid is the smooth transition of architectural styles and how the result is so harmonious. Just a few blocks from the Duomo is the Basilica of San Fedele which was first built in 914. Although it is far less dramatic than the Duomo, the interior is lavishly decorated with 18th-century frescos and stuccoes. The Piazza San Fedele was the center of the old walled town of Como, and at the time was the corn market. While in Como, be sure to take the funicular (cog-railway) up the hill to the town of Brunate. The vistas of the city of Como and the lake are extraordinary.

Along the lake there are dozens of small towns. Most are quite small, and very quaint. I find these older stone buildings with their terracotta roofs far more appealing than modern day architecture. As you ride in one of the boats up and down the lake, you will notice many larger villas painted in warm sun-drenched tones of yellow and orange. These larger estates almost always have equally magnificent gardens. You can see rows of cypress trees, pergolas with beautiful vines and stone sculptures dotting the landscape. My favorite town on the lake is Bellagio. It is ideally located in the center of the lake, and should certainly be visited by anyone visiting Lake Como.

Boats pull into a small marina which is situated on the town’s main square, outlined by small shops and hotels. On the northern tip is the town’s one five star hotel, The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelonni. Although dining at this hotel can be

Bellagio

Bellagio

a bit stuffy, the hotel is ideally located with splendid views. Off the main square there are a half dozen cobblestone streets that weave up the hill. These streets are filled with charming stores and a few restaurants. And all the stores are not expensive, I was thrilled with a shirt I bought for 10 Euros. If you are visiting Bellagio for the day, I would highly recommend Bilacus for lunch. They have an outdoor terrace that is lovely, and the food is the real highlight. Fresh fish, pastas, and a plate of melon and prociutto that will make your stomach smile. It is low key, inexpensive, and delicious.

There are two gardens in Bellagio that should not be missed. Villa Serbelloni (not the hotel) is an estate run by the Rockefeller Foundation. Behind the small town you walk up through the woods toward the crest of the hill. There you will notice several small cabins where visiting artists and educators receive grants to come study. Amongst the cabins are several formal gardens, each prettier than the next. But the setting for the gardens is what will amaze you. You have 360° views that will make you never want to leave. The second garden in Bellagio, also quite nice, is Villa Meltzi which runs along the lakefront.

Visiting these magnificent villas along the lake transports you back in time. Although many of these estates are 500 years old, their magnificence and grandeur still shine through. Two other gardens you may consider visiting are: Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo and Villa Monastero in Varenna. Note they can both be easily reached by ferry.

I was very fortunate last month to stay at one of the most beautiful places on the

Gardens at Villa d'Este

Gardens at Villa d'Este

lake – Villa d’Este. It is located in the town of Cernobbio, just north of Como. This restored 16th century palazzo will make you feel like you are living in a palace. The grounds are magnificent, and includes a mosaic structure designed by Pellegrini that opens onto stairs that ascend to a statue of Hercules. Water from the statue cascades down the hill through a series of concrete cisterns which are framed on either side by mature cypress trees. The view down this hill with the open lake in the
View from Hercules to the Lake

View from Hercules to the Lake

distance is awesome. In total, the gardens cover 25 acres with a wide assortment of well manicured plants and trees, an herb and vegetable garden, numerous statues, and a waterfall. Although Villa d’Este has some historic aspects that are glorious, much of the hotel has been updated to provide the finest creature comforts. One area where they truly excel is service. This becomes very obvious as you see families returning every year, and the staff greets them as if they are family.

Villa d’Este has two large pavilions with a total of 158 rooms. The rooms have

been updated to include marble baths and modern televisions, but they still maintain a classic elegance with period antiques, silk draperies,and oil paintings. The most spectacular feature is the terrace

My Terrace at Villa d'Este

My Terrace at Villa d'Este

overlooking the lake – I would sit for hours drinking my coffee and reading the morning paper. One afternoon I remember watching several rowers glide their sculls along the glass-like lake – how peaceful. Needless to say, if you prefer an afternoon of jet skiing, then I would recommend the Bahamas.

Although I have painted a picture of everyone dozing off on the way to Nirvana,

Pool at Night

Pool at Night

I should clarify that there are plenty of activities. There are three swimming pools: the main pool that floats on the lake, a children’s pool near the main pool but tucked away, and an indoor pool that was frequented by the swimmers doing laps. Boats can be rented for water skiing or touring the lake. Hiking nearby is spectacular, with great vistas around every turn. For the tennis lover, there are beautiful red clay courts, and a pro available if you want to take lessons. A number of golf courses are also available within driving distance. There is also a spa/gym facility with a weight room, squash, sauna, and Turkish bath.

As I travel to Italy, food is always high on my list. Villa d’Este has three restaurants. The main dinning room is formal, and when the weather permits, they set up the tables outside overlooking the lake. And yes, even outside this restaurant insists on a jacket and tie. The Grill Room is the second restaurant, and it was my favorite. There is a beautiful terrace overlooking the lake, a spectacular menu of fresh fish, meat and pastas complimented with a good wine list. The third restaurant is new, and quite small with a focus on pasta. It features a huge antipasto table and a selection of five fresh pasta dishes. If you are not staying at the hotel, I would certainly recommend lunch overlooking the lake, then stroll the grounds and visit the gardens. Although I can still taste the sauted lake perch, the tomatoes and mozzarella, and those heavenly pastas, it is understandable if your budget can use a break from Villa d’Este. Up the road in Cernobbio is Trattoria del Vapore which is delicious and quite reasonable. And don’t forget to eat at Bilacus when in Bellagio.

Lake Como is now my favorite vacation site. Almost immediately I was in awe

Fishing in the Rain

Fishing in the Rain

of the natural beauty, mesmerized by the tranquility, and warmed by the Italian hospitality. You know that a vacation spot is special when you also enjoy the days when it rains. We loved it so much, we have already made reservations for next year. I hope you get to visit Lake Como, and enjoy it half as much as I do.

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