The Scotsman

Sun- kissed and gorgeous

Exploring the towns and villages hugging the shore of Lake Como in Italy is a wonderful post- lockdown treat, finds Kate Wickers


I’ m standing in Villa Balbianell­o on the Lavedo Peninsula on Lake Como staring at the fur under- garments worn by Guido Monzino, who led the first successful Italian ascent of Mount Everest. When he died in 1988 he bequeathed Villa Balbianell­o to the Fundo Ambiente Italiano ( Italian National Trust), and the lavish gardens shaded by immense sycamores have been used as a location for films such as Casino Royale and Star Wars. The villa, which sits on the site of a 13th century monastery, was built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1785, who had secret passageway­s installed within the walls, one of which ran ( rather predictabl­y) from his bedroom to the guest suite. “The door couldn’t be opened from the guest room. It was only the cardinal that could surprise you with a visit,” our guide, Daniella, tells me, with a wink. When Monzino acquired the house, he created an indulgent retreat complete with map room, smoking den and private museum to house the many artefacts used in his expedition­s, and wandering through his home you get a sense that this was a man born in the wrong era, favouring dog sleds to skidoos and fur to thermal.

Willowy and split in two, the lake stretches 29 miles in length and 2.5 miles at its widest point and it’s the mid- section that is considered most scenic, so the town of Tremezzo makes for the perfect base. I’m staying in Grand Hotel Tremezzo, one of Italy’s most luxurious familyowne­d hotels, with my husband, Neil, and 14- year- old son, Freddie. “Welcome. Make yourself at home,” is the heartfelt cry on our arrival from Valentina de Santis, who inherited the hotel from her grandmothe­r. Despite its size ( 90 rooms in total), it has the atmosphere of a magnificen­t private home. Our suite has a separate living room, perfect for Freddie to sleep in, and in the main bedroom there’s a canopied four- poster in front of oakframed floor- to- ceiling windows with views over to where the town of Bellagio twinkles at night. We’re presented with silk facemasks, a nod to Como’s silk- producing history; and in the marble bathroom, I discover another gift – a bespoke bottle of Aqua di Como ( scent of the lake) perfume, created for the hotel by Acqua di Parma.

“Want to take the wheel?” asks Claudio Valsecchi of Il Medeghino ( boat tours). The wheel he’s referring to belongs to a sleek black E26 speedboat, crafted by Cranchi, boatbuilde­rs on Lake Como for 150 years. Freddie doesn’t need to be asked twice. We cut a surprising­ly smooth 50 knots in a ride along the lake to where cliff- hugging villas perch below verdant mountains. “That’s Villa Oleandra, George Clooney’s place,” Claudio tells us, pointing to an enviable 18th century villa near the town of Lagio. “The story goes that he crashed his Harley Davidson in front of the house, fell in love with it and bought it.” We zip on to 16th century Villa Pliniana where Rossini composed the heroic opera Tancredi; Napoleon played billiards; and Leonardo de Vinci studied the flow of its irregular waterfall; before arriving at 19th century Villa La Cassinella, rumoured to be owned by Richard Branson. It’s an exquisite place, flanked by soaring cypress trees, all quiet apart from an aproned maid scurrying over the immaculate mossy lawns.

Gualtiero Marchesi, who died in 2017, was the first Italian chef to be awarded three Michelin stars and he opened his restaurant La Terrazza

There’s a canopied four- poster in front of oak- framed floor- to- ceiling windows

at Grand Hotel Tremezzo in 2011. Among his signature dishes are dripping di pesce ( squid and carpet shells on a canvas of tomato and squid ink), which was inspired by the artist Jackson Pollock; and riso, oro e zafferano ( rice and gold with saffron) – a bright yellow saffron risotto served on a black plate topped with a square of gold leaf. “Is it OK to eat gold?” Freddie sensibly wants to know. “Only if you’re in a fancy restaurant,” I tell him, already enjoying what is, in essence, the most delicious risotto.

Last season, Bellagio, widely considered to be one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, struggled to cope with the number of tourists. This year, in the wake of Covid- 19, it’s a more sedate scene. At the artisan gelateria belonging to Hotel Splendide, I order an apple pie icecream ( an homage to the American and English tourists who first holidayed in Bellagio in the 1950s), and wander the pretty oleander-treed esplanade, past the town’s retro public lido, to the English- inspired gardens at Villa Melzi. In August and September, the lake averages 23 degrees, and I carry our swimming gear in case we fancy a spontaneou­s dip. Today, we swim out in front of Hotel Serbelloni ( the town’s grandest, though rather time- warped, lodgings), to scale the steps of a diving platform. Slippery with fluorescen­t green lake weed, at the top I lose my nerve, leaving Freddie to jump with what Italians call spensierat­o ( without a care).

At Restaurant­e Punto, we order a local favourite, perch with rice flavoured with sage, which we eat gazing out at the Triangolo Lariano peninsula where the Como and Lecco branches of the lake meet.

A 20- minute walk over the hill, down narrow cobbled lanes, brings us to the serene fishing hamlet of Pescallo, where Mich Gandola from Bellagio Watersport­s, is waiting. Being close to the water brings another perspectiv­e to Lake Como, and in kayaks we’re close enough to see perch and pike swim, and grey herons wade elegantly in the shadows of an uninhabite­d craggy cliffside. Another day, we take a sailing trip with Bellegio Sailing, drifting over the deepest section of the lake at 414 metres near to the village of Nesso, where fishermen cast nets for perch.

Grand Hotel Tremezzo has two attractive pools; one secluded in a tropical garden at the rear, and the other at Tbeach, the hotel’s new 50s inspired beach club, with its jaunty orange and white striped umbrellas and pool sunk into a pontoon on the lake. It’s chic and fun, and beautifull­y captures the glamour of the Italian riviera in its heyday. We sip on Campari and watch the ferries, pleasure boats and speed boats motor by, while above us the air gently buzzes with small seaplanes giving aerial tours.

The poster girl for tourism on Lake Como is photogenic 18th century Villa Carlotta, with its peaches and cream exterior. It would normally be packed with day- trippers, but there’s only a handful of other tourists about, plus small lizards that scurry away as we climb the unusual stone triple- layered scissor staircase, past arbors hanging with citrus fruits to the villa entrance, which houses a collection of 18th century art and sculpture. Beyond, there are eight acres of botanical gardens to explore, including a hilltop forest of bamboo and a fern grotto guarded by grotesques.

As we slide into Varenna’s ferry terminal at 7pm, the town, which sprawls from the lake to the hilltop ruins of Castello di Vezio, is bathed in amber light. We pass local kids chasing ducks in the stony shallows of the old harbour and cats snoozing on the scalatinel­li ( staircase steps) that lead to the upper areas of the town, as we hurry along to the terrace of Hotel du Lac – the perfect perch to watch the sun slip seductivel­y away and raise a glass of prosecco to toast what has been a blissful post- lockdown holiday.

Please check the latest Covid- 19 guidelines before travelling.

A double room at Grand Hotel Tremezzo, sleeping up to two adults and one child, from £ 497, including breakfast ( grandhotel­ Ryanair fly from direct from Edinburgh to Milan Bergamo on selected days from around £ 29 return. For sailing, kayaking & speedboat excursions contact, www.bellagiosa­; www.Bellagiowa­; www.lakecomobo­

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 ??  ?? The Villa del Balbianell­o overlookin­g Lake Como, main; a street in Bellagio, above
The Villa del Balbianell­o overlookin­g Lake Como, main; a street in Bellagio, above
 ??  ?? Sunlounger­s by the pool and lake at Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Sunlounger­s by the pool and lake at Grand Hotel Tremezzo

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