Posts Tagged ‘Lake Como’

Lake Como

Sunday, 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.

Bellagio in the Heart of Lake Como

Friday, July 30th, 2004

Pool overlooking Lake Como

Pool overlooking Lake Como

Looking across the shimmering blue water of Lake Como you see the Alps form a wall around the lake’s perimeter. These majestic, craggy skyscrapers are very lush on the bottom, but are steep, bare grey cliffs near their apex. Among the cypress and pine trees, are thousands of flowers making the mountains look like botanical gardens. Small villages dot the landscape, and ochre and yellow villas with terracotta roofs illustrate the magnificence of yesteryear. Perched on the northern tip of a peninsula right in the heart of the lake, is the charming town of Bellagio, a true gem.

Bellagio has been a resort town for many, many years. It was the summer residence of the Roman patricians, and then of Lombardy’s noble families. They built mammoth villas overlooking the lake surrounded by perfectly manicured formal gardens. This town became an enchanting retreat for artists, writers, and musicians from around the world: Pliny the Younger, Longfellow, Twain, Shelly, and Toscanini. My expectation of Bellagio was that it would be very formal with a stuffy arrogance, but I was wrong. Yes there is significant wealth here, but the town, and the people in it, are charming and warm.

Lake Como is a massive lake located in the Lombardy area of northern Italy. It is shaped like an upside down Y. Although you can visit the villages along the lake by driving along very narrow one-lane roads, I found it more pleasant to travel by ferry. The ferries stop at all the major towns: Como (the largest) on the southwestern tip of the lake, Lecco on the southeastern tip, Tremmezzo, Varenna, and Bellagio all toward the center of the lake. These towns all provide interesting side trips from Bellagio, which is very centrally located.

As the ferry pulls into Bellagio you see a large open square on your left with tiny cobblestone streets winding up the hill away from the lake. The square is busy: people are waiting for the next ferry, a few vendors have stands set up selling arts & crafts, and others are just lazing while enjoying a gelato. Several hotels face out over this town square with pretty views of the lake. Although there are many lovely accommodations in Bellagio, the five-star hotel is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbolloni. It is a classic, built in the mid 19th century with elaborate interiors and formal gardens. It sits right on the lake with a huge pool, private sand beach, and a landing dock.

The main lobby of this Grande Dame is huge, decorated with chandeliers and period antiques. Although the reception area seems quite calm, the concierge desk is always bustling making dinner reservations or setting up excursions on the lake. Beyond this entry area is the grand ballroom and the main dinning room.

From the terrace of the main dinning room you can see the pool area one level down, with the lake and mountains in the distance. The pool is quite the people scene. Since it gets quite warm during the summer months, most guests spend at least a few hours there per day. The guests are a diverse mix of Europeans and Americans, a unique cross section of many cultures. Watching this cast of characters can provide hours of entertainment. The long pool is surrounded by white lounge chairs that overlook the lake. The scenery, and the boats moving about on the lake, can almost mesmerize you. Lunch, cocktails, or just a gelato can be enjoyed from your chaise lounge as you bask in the sun. On the far side of the pool, the hotel cleared away all the rocks at the lake’s edge and installed a sand beach. This provides another sun bathing area, as well as an easy access for those that want to swim in the lake.

Steps near Restaurant Bilacus

Steps near Restaurant Bilacus

Prior to heading to dinner, you may want to visit the hotel’s beautiful terrace that overlooks the pool. It is the perfect place to start your evening…whether watching the sunset or enjoying the view while sipping a Prosecco. The hotel has excellent food, a combination of fresh regional cuisine and the classic high-end dishes you would anticipate at a five star resort. But as you may suspect, the restaurant is rather formal requiring a sport jacket. Just a few blocks from the hotel are a couple of great restaurants. Bilacus, our favorite, is a trattoria with an outdoor terrace. It is casual with a friendly staff and outstanding food. Typical dishes are melon with prosciutto, fresh pasta with garlic & olive oil, and fresh seafood like lake perch. Barchetta is another good restaurant focusing on the local flavors, with the specialty being lake fish. After dinner, Bellagio is a rather quiet town, don’t expect night clubs or casinos – it’s not Vegas. But the Hotel Villa Serbollini has a four piece band that plays every night in the ballroom. It provides a great place to unwind and reflect on the day.

The town, with its narrow windy cobblestone streets, is enchanting. Bellagio is surrounded on three sides by water, therefore it is not unusual to be constantly enamored by its beauty. The hilly streets are filled with shops: the salumaria, produce store, and wine shop are authentic, with abundant treasures for your palate. There are also many one of a kind craft stores selling pottery, artwork, jewelry, and other trinkets that you can’t do without. For those that didn’t pack enough clothes, don’t fret, there are enough boutiques to satisfy all your urges.

Although the center of Bellagio, and the majority of the village is north of the ferry dock, venturing to the south is rewarding. There is a long promenade that runs along the lake with trees lining the path on one side. It leads to Villa Melzi D’Eril, which contours along the lakefront. It’s a neoclassical villa, with a small Etruscan museum, and a gazebo that juts out over the water. The paths through the gardens are very tranquil, but also alive with bursts of color from the azaleas. It is a wonderful way to enjoy your afternoon. My favorite spot in Bellagio however, is the Villa Serbolloni,

Villa Serbollini

Villa Serbollini

which is on the hill behind the hotel. Note that this villa is not part of the hotel, but is a part of the Rockefeller Foundation, and it serves as a retreat for scholars and artists. Today, guided tours are held twice a day. As you climb up the hill, the path meanders through a combination of tall evergreens, sweeping lawns, and garden beds. You will pass a total of 12 tiny one-room buildings that have each been assigned to a visiting artist for the month. It is almost eerie how these buildings blend into the landscape. At the top there is a larger building, obviously for scholarly gettogethers. Although the trek to the top is a bit of a hike, you will be well rewarded. There is the remains of a building by Pliny the Younger, several formal gardens, and an unobstructed view that is unsurpassed.

Venturing beyond Bellagio is as easy as a ferryboat ride. Como is a medieval walled town that is larger than Bellagio. It has many chic shops, and the outdoor market in the Via Vittorio Emanuele II is fabulous. And just north of Como is the famed Villa d’Este. Varenna is another town that is an ancient gem. Being only a short boat ride from Bellagio makes it a must. As the ferry pulls into Varenna you would think the town was asleep. You walk along the lake on a narrow concrete path and pass dozens of small fishing boats. Finally you reach the beginning of town, and you begin to climb the cobblestone streets. It is a tiny town with a town square and a few charming shops, but the highlight is Villa Monastero. This villa used to house nuns, but now it is impeccably maintained by the town. What makes this villa different is the shape of the property, it is a long, sometimes very narrow, strip that runs along the lake. This 16th century garden is so varied and interesting. It has sculptures, pergolas, pools, a gazebo and several sitting areas overlooking the water.

Bellagio is a place that will warm your heart and dazzle expectations. If you can’t buy a villa overlooking the lake, do the next best thing…book a vacation and enjoy.

WINE TASTING – Prosecco. A Taste of the Bubbly…

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2003

This the season to drink some bubbly. Champagne continues to set the standard for sparkling wines, but a fun alternative is Prosecco. If you ever had a Bellini in Harry’s bar, or sipped a sparking wine overlooking Lake Como, then you’ve had Prosecco. It is the sparkling wine made in the Veneto, a region in northeastern Italy. As opposed to Champagne that can improve as it ages, Prosecco is meant to be served young. It is a fun, lively, inexpensive sparking wine which is delicious. Of all the Proseccos we tasted, these were the favorites:

Carpene Malvolti ($14)
The hands down winner. The wine was straw colored, fresh and lively. It was packed with fruit and exhibited floral scents. A great mouth-feel, and a nice long finish. Delicious.
Aneri ($15)
A very sophisticated wine, with a complexity of flavors. It was dry and well integrated.
Ombra ($12)
A fresh, fun wine that had an enormous amount of ripe fruit flavor. Good effervescence and balance.