Lake Como dream­ing

Best time to visit is when there’s an au­tumn nip in the air

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - AMANDA LINFOOT

The ru­mours won’t go away that Ge­orge Clooney could be sell­ing his villa on Lake Como. Barely 10 min­utes af­ter I ar­rive, Gor­geous Ge­orge has come up in con­ver­sa­tion with the man­ager of the Grand Ho­tel Villa Ser­bel­loni, in Bel­la­gio, won­der­ing what will hap­pen to tourism now.

The lo­cal tourist board reck­ons Clooney has bumped up busi­ness by 20 per cent since he bought his villa at Laglio in 2002. How­ever, this area has quite enough star qual­ity of its own to turn the head, with­out Hol­ly­wood’s help. Most peo­ple know about Lake Como — the flow­ers, the sun­shine, the fer­ries, the glam­our, the vil­las you would need to win the lottery to buy. (If you don’t, Yann Arthus-Ber­trand’s YouTube video Il Lago di Como is a treat.) How­ever, my friend Clare and I are here for a dif­fer­ent take on Como. We have cho­sen au­tumn, when there’s a nip in the air, mist on the wa­ter, free ta­bles in the restau­rants and space to breathe. Not that the lake­side road up to Bel­la­gio from Milan is quiet. Our ex­as­per­ated taxi driver ap­pears to be in a hurry, weav­ing in and out, mak­ing the park­ing sen­sors go off as we skirt too close to the moun­tain­side. Wel­come to Italy.

It’s a breath­tak­ing drive lead­ing to the most beau­ti­ful spot on Como. The lake is an in­verted Y shape and Bel­la­gio sits at its cen­tre, sur­rounded on three sides by wa­ter. The stun­ning views of the lit­tle towns that dot the lake’s edge and an early dust­ing of snow on the Alps com­plete a pretty mag­nif­i­cent lo­ca­tion.

We’ve ar­rived on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, so we head out to join la passeg­giata, the late-af­ter­noon stroll. We make our way along the lake­front, past the at­mo­spheric Caffe Rossi, with its Cuban ma­hogany pan­elling, a chest­nut roaster crack­ling away out­side, and even­tu­ally come to the grounds of Villa Melzi, a neo­clas­si­cal gem dat­ing back to 1808 where land­scaped gar­dens of­fer the first up-close view of the turn­ing leaves. The poker-straight cy­presses may be evergreen, but their Florida cousins, bald cy­presses, are not — sprout­ing from the wa­ter’s edge, their fo­liage is a splen­did shade of rus­set.

As the light fades, we head back to the cen­tre of the vil­lage for an aper­i­tivo — Cam­pari, Aperol, vodka, man­darin liqueur and or­ange juice — at the Ho­tel du Lac, then pizza at La Barchetta, which is up one of the stair­ways that climb steeply from the lake­front. The restau­rant turns out to be so good that we re­turn there the next night for a su­perla­tive car­bonara and a sim­i­larly de­li­cious sea­sonal dish, verzata con cos­tine (pork ribs with savoy cab­bage) and pay €43 ($61) for two, with wine. Ac­tu­ally, there is a good choice of places still open in the cooler months be­cause Como doesn’t shut up shop for the sea­son un­til Novem­ber. The sunny ter­race of Bi­la­cus, for ex­am­ple, is great for a long lunch.

The lake is pep­pered with grande dame ho­tels, but the Grand Ho­tel Villa Ser­bel­loni is among the most ven­er­a­ble. Built right be­side the lake for an aris­to­cratic Mi­lanese fam­ily in the 1850s, this el­e­gant neo­clas­si­cal villa still of­fers a glimpse of a lav­ish life­style. Break­fast is eaten in the enor­mous, mir­rored, gold-leafed ball­room, which re­tains its orig­i­nal chan­de­liers. Else­where there are more Per­sian car­pets, mar­ble stair­cases, stucco col­umns and ex­am­ples of trompe-l’oeil than you could shake a stick at. Grand is the word and my gue­stroom is vast. The fur­ni­ture is an­tique and stately — the enor­mous ma­hogany bed­stead creaks like a de­mon — and ev­ery time I en­ter I go into full He­lena Bon­ham Carter mode, walk­ing over to the win­dows, throw­ing them open and tak­ing in the glo­ri­ous view. Au­tumn lends the air a crisp­ness, which throws the blue sky, the grey moun­tains and their treecov­ered slopes into bril­liant re­lief. That view — of the lake, the fer­ries chug­ging back and forth, the clouds that bub­ble up as the day goes on — never gets old.

In per­fect weather, the best ways to ex­plore are by boat or on foot. Or both. The Green­way — a 9.5km walk from Colonno to Gri­ante that fol­lows an old Ro­man road — is on the western shore of Como, so we buy a one-day ferry pass for the cen­tral lake area and nip over on the boat, past Villa del Bal­bianello, where Daniel Craig, as James Bond, re­cu­per­ated in the film Casino Royale, to the tree-lined es­planade at Lenno. From there it’s a steep 10minute walk up­hill to Mezze­gra, and then we turn north to­wards the hill­side church of Sant’Ab­bon­dio, which has

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