By Adam Jacot de Boinod
Lake Como is pretty much unanimously considered the most beautiful of the Italian Lakes. Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore may be bigger but Lake Como is surely the most impressive. It’s the deepest lake in Europe and is an enchanting and truly restorative setting for a vacation. It’s where the Duke of Windsor holidayed with Mrs. Simpson, where Verdi wrote La Traviata and where Mussolini was executed trying to escape to Switzerland two days before Hitler poisoned himself when the game was finally up. George Clooney has a villa at Laglio and hosts of celebrities are drawn like moths to this visual and sensual delight.
And it’s all about the aristocratic villas and hotels and their elegant gardens. Each of you will have your favourite. Posh Milanese families vie for grandeur and style on this lake rather like New Yorkers with the Hamptons. The hotels and villas have different colours and shapes. There are yellows and greens with canopies and umbrellas or muted pink and terracotta with grey shutters. And their wonderful proportions blend into a pleasing harmonious row. It’s almost as though sometimes they are in communion with each other across the water. I certainly felt that with the hotels of Tremezzo and Serbelloni and their respective villas of Carlotta and Melzi.
As for the gardens, my favourite, and the most famous, is in Bellagio set in the Villa Melzi. It has just the right level of human adaptation. Yes it’s well-kept and tailored but it manages to keep a sense of wilderness and a lack of appearing manicured. Positioned along the banks of the lake it has lots of pleasing surprises: spongy lawns that invited me to take off my flip-flops, a neo-classical gazebo in which to meditate, and a serene family chapel in white, beige and gold. And there’s a working garden and greenhouses to give it real authenticity. The villa was built for the vice-president of the short-lived Napoleonic Republic of Italy and both house and garden reflect the taste of the period. The house is neo-classical in style while the garden, apart from a classically Italian lake terrace with lily pool and statuary, is designed in the romantic English style that invaded Italy at the time.
I stayed in Bellagio at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. And very spoiling it was at breakfast to look up at the coffered ceiling, the frescoes and chandeliers of the ballroom where I ate. The walls were all soft corals and pinks, pale greens and lilac grey with white and gold, with the light from the seven large windows reflected by mirrors everywhere. The liveried uniforms and varnished panelling of the wooden counters of the concierge round off the notion that class is timeless when it comes to this Italian hotel.
I stayed next at the wonderful Villa Camilla, the old family home of the Marchesi di Rozzano. The villa looks across the three parts of Lake Como and the beautiful mountains above and beyond. On arrival I went upstairs, up the polished floors creak wonderfully all the way up the sweeping staircase. It was like a museum and I was dying to explore every nook and cranny. Along its walls is hung a catalogue of horse paintings strongly hinting at the family passion. The bathrooms are an array of vibrant and surprising colours to counteract their sober and traditional adjoining bedrooms. With ten bedrooms the house is often taken for family reunions and groups of friends. And there’s a lovely downstairs bedroom and en suite bathroom for an elderly or infirm occupant. It’s all been thoroughly thought through.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy a private boat ride on the lake. It was unquestionably the icing on the cake and the ultimate experience exploring the serene lake with the towering Swiss Alps looming from every angle. I pulled into a secret cove to swim, before lunching at a small restaurant overhanging the lake taking it all in with a crisp glass of wine. It’s the most beautiful and therapeutic experience. I reached total relaxation as I absorbed the wonders of mother nature.
I had a wonderful dinner at the new and modern funkily designed L’Escale restaurant at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Chef Martin Vitaloni was as inventive as sommelier Andrea Montini was selective. To go with my amuse-bouche of grilled ham (a mini-burger in effect) I was granted a glass of Franciacorta Extra Brut Lo Sparviere champagne. To assist my delicious entrée of ravioli alla papa al pomodoro and red prawns I drank Dama Rose Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo that was pleasingly light. All in eager anticipation of my main course: the monkfish ossobuco with green peas and candied lemon was so fresh it was clearly caught that day and went well with the Lugana Prestige Ca Maiol, a refreshing white wine. To finish and to have with my dangerously generous serving of Tiramisu I sipped on a charming pudding wine called Sule Caluso Passito Orsolani. One real treat of a dinner.
I just had time on my way back to the airport to pop in on the Villa D’Este. This 16th century villa has been a hotel for the rich and famous since her inception over a hundred years ago. Though it has nothing to do with the Este family, much of the Renaissance garden has gone but the lovely double water staircase remains, framed in an avenue of cypresses and magnolias. Quintessential Lake Como!
Author Bio: Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of the BBC panel game QI for Stephen Fry. He is a British author and travel writer.
For Villa Camilla see
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064; www.classic-collection.co.uk) offers 3 nights/7 nights at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni from £1159/£1909 per person. Prices based on 2 adults sharing a classic park view room on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Milan and private transfers.