Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY SUE WAL­LACE

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.

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