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Long before Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, evoked a life of ancient indulgence and living for the moment, early Romans flocked to Lake Como for summer and winter retreats. The poet Virgil and magistrate-author Pliny the Younger first reported stays on the Lago di Como, mentioning the picturesque setting of the snowcapped Rhaetian Alps. Today, the area is noted for its celebrity cast of part-time residents. Actor George Clooney and his wife Amal, wealthy adventurer Richard Branson and rock singer Sting are among the stars who have residences along the tranquil lake.
Locals say one could spend a lifetime living on Lake Como and still not see it all. The iconic lake is less than two hours from Milan by train, a stone’s throw from the Swiss border. Its captivating lakeside villages are linked by an intricate ferry system, which transports travelers from one waterfront marina to the next grand piazza. The gateway to the grand lake, and its largest town, with a population of nearly 100,000 is the eponymously named Como located at the southwest corner of the lake. Visitors flock to this historic capital to gawk at its impressive Cathedral of Como, erected in 1396 and painstakingly completed in 1740.
The allure of medieval walls, imposing Roman towers, cobblestone streets and al fresco dining makes Como one of northern Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. Much of Lake Como’s appeal lies in its captivating lakeside enclaves, including Varenna, Menaggio and Lecco. Above all, travelers have a longstanding romance with the alluring pearl of Lake Como, Bellagio.
GRAND HOTEL VILLA SERBELLONI
The next best thing to owning your own private villa is a stay at the five-star Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. The opulent Bellagio estate was built in 1854 by the affluent Frizzone family of Milan, as a summer refuge from city life. Later, the grand estate was transformed into the most richly appointed hotel in the Como region.
The next best thing to owning your own private villa is a stay at the five-star Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.
In 1918, the Bucher family from Lucerne, Switzerland, took over the estate and turned it into a five-star hotel. Now eclipsing 100 years, the Serbelloni is still managed by the same family. Debonair Gianfranco Bucher is the proprietor today; he has entrusted many of the day-to-day operations to his 29-year-old son, Jan Bucher. The younger Bucher crafted his hospitality roots working in London, Namibia, Singapore, and of course, Switzerland. “We are a family business,” he says. “We are not part of a large chain. We are an old building of the 1800s. This is something unique that our guests appreciate. Our staff does not turn over much, as they understand what a special place this is to work.”
The Bucher family has crafted a palatial holiday retreat in one of the world’s most stunning locations, its emerald green hills framed by the snow-capped Alps adjacent to the lively village itself. The Serbelloni is synonymous with the beginnings of Lake Como as a sought-after travel destination.
Upon arrival at the sumptuous 9,000-square-foot property, guests are welcomed by spiffy doorkeepers dressed to the nines in royal navy-style jackets adorned with the majestic gold Serbelloni emblem. The hotel flaunts stately marble columns, period wall coverings, frescoed ceilings in grey and pink tones, antique Persian carpets and Murano crystal chandeliers. Throughout the grand estate, the Bucher patriarchs’ art collection features more than 200 prints of Lake Como itself. The outstanding property has 95 rooms, 22 suites and 13 residences with two of the suites named after paramount guests Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. The outdoor rectangular pool and a beachfront area with lounge chairs creates a private sanctuary for hotel guests.
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At the front desk, the dapper elder statesman, head concierge Roberto Pirelli, greets guests. “I have 30 years at the property,” he says. “I started in 1979 and worked until 1990. I took a break but returned in 2000, as I could not imagine working anywhere else. I enjoy meeting guests from around the world.”
As renowned chefs have taken over restaurants at many of the world’s prestigious hotels, the Serbelloni’s Michelin-starred Mistral Restaurant is helmed by the “father” of Italian molecular cuisine, Ettore Bocchia, who dazzles gourmands with culinary refinement. While her husband tends to innovative changes in the property, including the kitchen, Dusia Bucher caters to the wellness and fitness spa. Ms. Bucher personally tests customized treatments and wellness programs, along with hand-picking all products used in the spa.
Outside the Serbelloni, the vibrant Bellagio village center is filled with local shops and dining experiences. Pirelli recommends dining at Bilacus for local fish favorites and fresh pasta dishes; and Ristorante La Punta for classic Italian dishes with lakeside ambiance. Overlooking the Villa Meltzi is the distinguished Alle Darsene di Loppia, known for its reasonably priced tasting menu. Salice Blu, helmed by award-winning chef Luigi Gandola, uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients with many gluten-free dishes.
No trip to Como and Bellagio would be complete without a stroll along the lido of Bellagio to the lavishly appointed Villa Meltzi gardens. The neoclassical estate and enchanting gardens, with classic Greek statues and sculptures, are a 10-minute stroll from the center of Bellagio.
No trip to Como and Bellagio would be complete without a stroll along the lido of Bellagio to the lavishly appointed Villa Meltzi gardens.
LUXE ON THE LAKE
On the western shores of Como, across the lake from Bellagio (15 minutes by water taxi), is the village of Tremezzo, its refined Villa Carlotta botanic gardens featuring more than 60 varieties of plants and trees. Neighboring the gardens and taking center stage on the Tremezzo shoreline, is the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, a palace since 1910. The imposing hotel stands tall and dignified lakeside, with sweeping views of Bellagio and the Villa Meltzi.
Don’t miss a private boat ride with an experienced captain to gawk at villas and to visit more of the remote villages on the lake. Take a trip to Isola Comacina, Lake Como’s only island, to hike the nearly deserted landscape and to view the beautiful ruins of the splendid Roman Basilica, dedicated to Saint Eufemia. For a unique dining experience, visit the Locanda restaurant, whose owner, Benvenuto Puricelli, has a nightly ritual of lighting a concoction of brandy and sugar on fire while telling tales of the island—a fitting ending to a spectacular meal.
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It’s also wonderful to experience the authentic 11th-Century fishing village of Varenna. Much more laidback than Bellagio, it offers a sense of serenity to those who stroll its alleyways to catch glimpses of traditional Como life. Menaggio is a fairy-tale village adored by all visitors. Its elegant lake promenade is considered among the most picturesque on the lake. Its Piazza Garibaldi is a relaxing refuge to sit back and enjoy an espresso with lake views. The church of Santa Marta has period paintings from the 17th Century. Locals and visitors alike marvel at the town of Lecco, with its 13th-Century center framed by a jagged mountain backdrop. The waterfront promenade is lined with boats and the notable octagonal bell tower connects to the Basilica of Saint Nicholas.
Lake Como is Europe’s crown jewel, a glamorous alpine lake getaway.
Timeless in style, with a year-‘round moderate climate and an understated lap of luxury—dotted with sleepy alpine fishing villages scattered amongst aristocratic villas and the time-skipping Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni—Lake Como is Europe’s crown jewel, a glamorous alpine lake getaway.
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