My memories of our first drive around Lake Como, back in 1994, were still vivid as we packed into our rented Audi and left Milan for the lake region. And we played out those memories in the present as we zigzagged our way through hairpins turns, narrowly avoiding some drivers who preferred to use the center of the road and at high speeds. Although hair-raising at times, the trip was, as always, beautiful. We stopped often to enjoy the scenery and the weather, although scattered clouds hung low over the lake and made picture taking a challenge.
Bellagio, “the pearl of Lake Como,” and definitely one of the most romantic places in the world, sits at the tip of a peninsula where the three arms of the Y-shaped lake meet. The lake is an exceptionally deep glacial lake amid the Italian Alps, which are visible across the water to the north.
When we arrived in Bellagio, we discovered that the street we had taken in 1994 to reach our hotel was now closed to vehicle traffic, so we proceeded until we came to a dead end near the park. Here, the hotel signs directed us to turn left. As we nosed our Audi down the alley-wide road, Dave was skeptical about going any farther because the lane didn’t appear passable for vehicles. So he pulled alongside a parked police car and asked for directions. The officer in the driver’s seat assured us we were headed in the right direction, then offered to escort us to our hotel. As we entered the narrow street, pedestrians plastered themselves against the walls of the buildings or stepped into the recessed doorways of storefronts to allow our car to pass.
We made it to our hotel without harming any of the locals or tourists and parked in the lot of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Dave thanked our police escort, and then we headed to the lobby to check in. The moment we crossed the threshold, I was surprised, and a bit disappointed, to see that the hotel had undergone a major remodeling. Gone were all traces of the modernist decor I had seen during our earlier visit. Now the interior had a very traditional European look which I, a minimalist, categorize as opulent. Frescoes and paintings adorned the walls and ceilings, antique Persian carpets covered the floors, Murano crystal chandeliers hung from the coffered ceilings, and grand marble staircases led to the upper floors.
After we checked into our room and unpacked, we stopped to marvel at our lake view, then left for dinner at Barchetta Terrazzo. I loved wandering this charming hillside village with its cobblestone byways and multitude of stone steps that lead to the top of the hill. There, if you look back, you can catch glimpses of sparkling blue water tucked between the narrow spaces of century-old buildings with colorful facades in shades of warm rose, peach, sunshine yellow, and vibrant orange. Tomorrow, we would linger longer in these picturesque lanes, tour the classy boutiques, and savor an espresso at an outdoor café on the waterfront while we basked in the warmth of the afternoon sun. But now dinner awaited—grilled lake fish served with orange risotto.
The next day, fortified after a hearty breakfast, we set out for some retail sightseeing . . . okay, some buying. Our first stop was a T-shirt shop. So many great choices were available, but we settled on two each as we still had three weeks of potential shopping ahead and only so much room in our suitcases.
Our next stop was Azalea. Since 1968 the store has sold silk accessories (scarves, ties, foulards, and bags) strictly from Italy. They also sell high-quality men’s clothing (shirts, sweaters, polo shirts, and T-shirts) and leather accessories “rigorously made in Italy.” I had my sights set on a few scarves and was extremely pleased with my choices and the quality of the silk. The staff was knowledgeable and helpful but not pushy.
We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon browsing the shops, then hiked a steep hill with well over 250 stone steps in hopes of seeing a sweeping view of the town and lake. But when we reached the top, both of us a bit winded, we found the gate to what looked like a park padlocked. In the distance we could see a sliver of blue water. Undeterred, we continued up the embankment, still seeking a lake view, but to no avail. When we crested the rise, we came down through a quiet residential neighborhood, enjoying the warm day and the exercise as we headed for the waterfront. There, we passed an hour strolling along the lakeshore before returning to our hotel to clean up for dinner.
I had read varying reviews of Ristorante La Punta, but we decided to make our own determination. The waitstaff seemed a tad perturbed that we had arrived precisely at opening, even though we had made reservations months in advance. But they seated us on the outdoor patio and our drinks came in due course. Fish lovers, we again ordered the lavarello (lake fish), but on this occasion broiled in butter and sage. A good Italian white wine, a beautiful lake view, and a balmy Bellagio evening . . . who could ask for more?
Up early the next morning, I slipped on a light jacket to ward off the gentle, cool breeze blowing off the lake, then climbed the rise to attend Mass at St. James Basilica. Few people stirred at this hour, and I felt as though I had the village to myself. Approximately two hundred are full-time residents of Bellagio, but the town has nine hundred beds for tourists. With no one to block my photographs altogether or involuntarily include themselves in my pictures, I stopped halfway up the steep incline for a photo op before continuing on to the church.
Built in the 900s AD, the basilica’s distinct Lombard Romanesque exterior is as captivating as its gold-accented interior, which was precisely what caught my eye the moment I entered the church: the gilded tabernacle and the fresco-adorned apse (the wall behind the altar).
After Mass, I walked briskly down the hill toward the hotel, famished and ready to tackle the sumptuous buffet breakfast laid out in the grand Salone Reale. When I arrived, Dave was polishing off his second espresso. He reminded me to eat light since we had lunch plans, so I nursed a second cup of tea rather than take a second tour of the buffet table. Then we left the dining room to pack and check out, ready for the drive to Verona where we had lunch reservations at Villa del Quar. Next week, Venice via Verona, Italy.
Next week: “Europe 2011: Verona and Venice, Italy.”