ITALY: IN LOVE WITH LAKE COMO
A VISIT TO LAKE COMO IS EXQUISITE ENOUGH, BUT WHEN YOU ARE STAYING AT THE ELEGANT GRAND HOTEL TREMEZZO, IT IS ABSOLUTE PERFECTION.
A visit to Lake Como is exquisite enough, but when you are staying at the elegant Grand Hotel Tremezzo, it is absolute perfection.
It’s one of those fairytale moments when you pull back sumptuous silk drapes, open the French doors, stand on the narrow balcony and Lake Como, in all its glory, takes centre stage.
The old saying that no two dawns are ever the same on the lake rings true. But each one is just as memorable.
This morning, the lake is shimmering and putting on a show for those who care to stop and savour the moment. Speed boats on a mission dash by, row boats move at a more leisurely pace and paddleboarders appear to walk on water, until a wave unbalances them and they fall, unceremoniously, into the inky blue waters.
Ever since I was young, Lake Como has held a special place in my heart and, although I have been here before, it doesn’t take long to become smitten all over again. It is late summer and the leaves are on the cusp of a complete colour change and already shades of brilliant vermilion can be spotted in gardens tumbling down cliff faces.
Thankfully, the tourist crowds have shrunk and I feel just a little smug that I don’t have to share this revered romantic corner of the northern region of Lombardy with too many.
Our day of exploring the lake starts with a 10-minute ferry ride to the charming village of Bellagio that was aptly christened the ‘pearl of the lake’ many years ago. It is located on a promontory in the centre of the lake boasting fabulous views with the jagged group of Grigne Mountains as a backdrop.
Maybe it’s the cobblestone laneways that wind through the historic town or the hot pink and brilliant red geraniums that spill from windowsills and over well-trodden stone steps. Or could it be the century-old Pasticceria Bar Sport selling pastries that make your mouth water and gelato flavours that bring a smile even before that first lick that makes Bellagio so special. It’s a people-watcher’s paradise – everyone from backpackers to those in designer gear wander by, snapping Instagram pics.
A jaunt through the streets draws us to pretty boutiques selling ever-so soft Italian silk scarves, chic leather bags and resin jewellery in a rainbow of colours. “This is so chic – everyone is wearing them this season,” says the Italian beauty behind the counter and I leave with a turquoise bangle that will forever tell a story.
We walk lakeside stopping for a ‘view infusion’ every so often and visit the manicured gardens of Villa Melzi with Japanese maple trees and massed azaleas and rhododendrons.
Home for three days is the elegant Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which exudes Italian style and where you are greeted by a soft primrose-yellow Art Nouveau exterior and Hermès orange awnings, manicured lawns and pots of white cyclamen and begonias. Inside, it’s all about stunning views, drawing rooms filled with plush gem-stone coloured couches and massed roses that spell romance.
The hotel was opened in 1910 by the Gondola family and is now owned by the De Santis family with daughter, Valentina de Santis at the helm. Valentina and her mother have introduced a glamourous bold décor and the choice of outstanding historic and contemporary suites.
This is a hotel where you just want to sit on the terrace – Negroni in hand – and stay forever. It’s an opinion shared by many over the years, especially those who penned handwritten love letters that were discovered in a bundle tied with a red ribbon, hidden behind wallpaper. These have been turned into the most beautiful bedtime stories and each night one is left on your pillow to fill your dreams.
Dining is an adventure with executive chef Osvaldo Presazzi presiding over outstanding dishes such as risotto with saffron and gold leaf that stars in the degustation menu at La Terrazza, which Greta Garbo frequented. L’Escale Trattoria & Wine Bar offers more Italian favourites, classic fondue and a cellar of 1300 best drops. Head to the TBar for a blue cheese martini, TBeach for grills cooked and served beside the famous floating aqua pool or to TPizza for a wood-fired treat.
Breakfast served in La Terrazza is a grand affair with luscious bounty spread atop white linen tablecloths – think the plumpest berries and peaches, the reddest ripest tomatoes, a table of squishy cheeses and creamy burrata, eggs done every which way, piles of fancy pastries, decadent cakes and perfect crisp croissants. Fancy a peach Bellini? That’s no trouble.
Following a massage at the TSpa that offers indulgent treatments in the 18th century Villa Emilia and a heated infinity pool, a stroll around the hotel park reveals rare magnolias, azaleas, geraniums and rhododendrons and the best views over the lake and beyond.
Later we enjoy a villa hop and board the hotel’s elegant Venetian-built wooden boat, Batt stopping at the magnificent Villa del Balbianello, a stunning palazzo built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787. Scenes from the Bond movie, Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones were filmed here. The elegant gardens are a haven and a guided house tour reveals secrets of its secluded owner – think a 4000-book library and secret passageways.
Villa Carlotta is our next stop and, with its centuries-old parkland, is considered by many to be the most famous villa on Lake Como. The gardens that seem to go on forever are filled with vibrant colours in spring. There are orange trees knitted into pergolas and some of Europe’s finest rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. Home to rare paintings, sculptures by Antonio Canova and priceless tapestries, the villa was given to a Prussian princess as a wedding gift from her mother in 1847.
Another stunner is the palatial Villa Sola Cabiati, a summer residence for the dukes of the noble Serbelloni family, which is now exclusively available to guests of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
Its swirling terrazzo floors, fabulous frescoes and priceless objets d’art are outstanding. The 18th century neoclassical residence is resplendent with ornate wrought-iron gates, manicured parterres, museum-like exhibition rooms and a sweeping staircase with tapestries. It is also the resting place for a bed where Napoleon and Josephine once slumbered – rescued from a fire in Milan.
Guests can experience duke-like decadence in the villa’s six historic suites, enjoy a pre-arranged gourmet lunch or a short visit to see its treasures. We sit in an upstairs drawing room overlooking the lake with glass cabinets filled with treasures and magnificent frescoes overhead. We dine on delicate zucchini flan, fettuccine pasta with wild mushrooms and repitella mint with a finale of the best tiramisu I have ever tasted. It’s a surreal experience and we all wish those walls could share what they have seen – it would surely be bestseller material.
Our last stop on the villa hop is Villa Erba, a 19th century ornate palazzo in Cernobbio that may well look familiar to movie buffs: it was the backdrop for scenes in Ocean’s Twelve in 2004 and is now an events centre complete with chandeliers and frescoes.
Built by Luigi Erba, brother of Carlo Erba, founder of Italy’s first pharmaceutical company, the villa was left to daughter Carla, mother of director Luchino Visconti, best known for the 1971 movie Death in Venice.
A tour of the excellent Museo Didattico Della Seta (Educational Silk Museum) of Como explains everything about silk. Nicknamed the City of Silk, Como has been producing the fabric since silkworms were smuggled in from China. There’s a comprehensive display of the unique history from silkworm rearing, equipment and looms to the exquisite finished fabrics.
Today, Como produces 85 per cent of all silk made in Italy and provides 70 per cent of Europe’s silk for fashion houses including Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel, Armani, Hermès, Valentino and Versace. I leave with another memento: a bright scarf – Como silk of course.
A great base closer to the city of Como is the Sheraton
Lake Como Hotel, a sister property to the Grand Tremezzo Hotel, set in manicured parklands and a 10-minute walk to the village of Cernobbio. The classic 1990s building with
116 rooms has been rejuvenated and showcases Italian style with great dining options including fine dining at Restaurant Kitchen and Italian specialities at Restaurant Gusto.
After dinner I stroll across to farewell Lake Como, which outshines all those ritzy villas and palatial palazzos any day
– it is the star attraction in these parts. Here, an ageing gentleman with a faithful black spaniel senses my wistfulness and tells me no matter how many times you visit you leave a little of your heart here for next time.
Italian poet Vincenzo Cardarelli also got it right when he penned: “Who lived a summer evening on this lake-shore knows what bliss is.” That’s Lake Como for you. •
Photography by Sue Wallace and Tommy Picone.
Opening image: The Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Clockwise from left: Lake views from the rooms; Dining views to Lake Como; Lakeside gardens of Villa Sola Cabiati; TSpa Infinity Pool.