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