After two days spent on Lake Maggiore we started Early in the morning to arrive to
Como lake. Como is the most beautiful of the Italian lakes particularly in the center, where the eastern Lecco branch meets the main lake. The two southern branches are too fjord-like for spacious views, an both are breathed on by what are, by Lake standards, two big urban centers: Como and Lecco.To the
north, beyond Dongo, the banks lose their sharp focus to reed beds and camper vans. But the point at which they meet is a charmed space offering almost infinite views across the slim waist of the lake, deep down the legs on either side, and up the trunk to somewhere beyond the head, where a frozen tidal wave of snow capped peaks stands poised for some future calamity. And nestling right between the lake's legs, at the tip of the mountainous Triangolo Lariano, is Bellagio, which manages to be that rarest of things, a town entirely given up to tourism, and yet entirely delightful.Bellagio even sounds luxurious, a combination of bella, beautiful, and agio, ease (forget the official etymology, which has something to do with two lakes). It is a resort to make you sigh with pleasure. The owner of one of the town's hotels told man scale: there are only a handful of hotels, including a 'Grand' that really lives up to the name. And although the old town is invaded by day-trippers in summer, it does not succumb to the tackiness of the popular Lake Garda resorts.Ever since Pliny the Younger sang the praises of his two lakeside.(The centre of Lake Como is a charmed space, offering almost infinite views. And Bellagio, which even sounds luxurious, is a resort to make you sigh with pleasure.Villas (the two, that is, that were his favourites, as he possessed several) Como has hosted the earthly paradises of the rich and powerful. Even Ostrogoth and Lombard kings, their barbarian ways tamed by the people they were supposed to have conquered, built houses in Bellagio. Later, European royals piled in, including raunchy old Queen
Caroline, who made the most of the Villa d'Este in Cernobbio, just upshore from the town of Como, in the days before it was turned into the lake's most luxurious hotel.
Pliny's villas declined and fell, hut more recent historic retreats can still be visited. The neoclassical Villa Melzi, which looks so smugly regular from the Lake, was built for Francesco Meizi d'Eril, one of Napoleon's most loyal Italian henchmen. Its roofs bristle with pointed chimneys, its furnishings are as Empire as they come, its ponds and paths are fringed with azaleas, rhododendrons and statues, including one of Dante and Beatrice that reputedly inspired Liszt to compose his sonata 'After a Reading of Dante'.
The other great villa-and-park combination is the Villa Serbelloni (not to be confused with the Grand Hotel of the same name), a curving, semi-fortified building which occupies the final hump of the promontory, where one of Pliny's villas probably stood. Today it belongs to the Rockefeller Foundation, but the extensive gardens are open for guided tours. All that remains of the l8th century Italian garden are three terraces with geometric topiary shrubs. The rest is a 'giardino all'inglese', a legacy of Count Alessandro Serbelloni, who spent almost two million lire on it at a time when a gardener's daily pay was less than one lira. The views down all three branches of the lake are breathtaking.But there is more to the central section of Lake Como than Bellagio. One tiny place on the rugged eastern shore definitely merits a visit. Varenna consists of a few boats pulled up on the beach, two bars and a restaurant, hidden behind a medieval arcade: from the scenic lakeside walkway that snakes around here from the jetty, it looks like a sleepy Mediterranean
Varenna is one of the few towns on the eastern shore that is more than a single Street between lake and cliff. A good hotel andfrequent car- and passenger-ferries make it an excellent base. The completion of the Lecco to Sondrio motorway has been a blessing, diverting the heavy traffic away from the narrow lakeside road. In any case, Varenna's peculiar urban structure - the old town consists of cobbled flights of steps leading down to a tiny port - makes it a car-free zone. The town has two old churches and a natural wonder, the Fiumelatte. A tumbling surge of foam and spray, this gushes out of a tiny cavern once explored by Leonardo da Vinci. He was able to do so because, like most of the hotels around here, the river - the shortest in Italy - closes down at the end of October and starts up again at the beginning of March.
Nobody knows why.Messing about in boats is the best way to see the central section of the
lake. At weekends, the roads that skirt the lake are reminiscent of those disaster movies in which everyone tries to leave the city at once;
boats, however, travel effortlessly and offer ever-changing views. The voyage from Varenna in the east to Menaggio in the west by way of Bellagio displays all three arms of the lake in a slowly shifting choreography of water and
mountains. The western shore, from Tremezzo to Menaggio, is the domain of past British dowagers and present British package
tourists. Tremezzo, cowering under the bulk of a great, triangular mountain, is where the l9th-century villas start in
earnest: this is the start of the 'Riviera of the Azaleas', a tourist-board coinage which has never really caught on. Cadenabbia has an Anglican church; Menaggio, even moretellingly, has crazy-golf-course-as well as sensible one in the rolling hills above town. There is a Hotel
Britannia,a Victoria tea room ,and a few of the villas that divide up the hillside like a string of subordinate clauses still house those
dowagers, or their Nintendo-friendly grandchildren. But the road along the western shore is a constant and disturbing
presence, and most of the hotels are set on it. The villas suffer less from
traffic, and the best of them is the Villa Balbianello, which clings to a promontory between Sala Comacina and
Lenno. The delightful palazzo, with its unusual open loggia and immaculate terraced
gardens, was created by Cardinal Durini in the l8th century on the foundations of a medieval
monastery, and is excellently maintained by the FAI, Italy's version of the National Trust. The spirit of Como lies in the contrast of such manicured perfection with the plunging slopes on either side and the saw-toothed Alps to the
north. Pampered ease is so much more satisfying when you can see the alternative rising up over the still waters of the lake.We place in on East shore in Varenna of the two
contenders,the l8th-century Hotel du Lac(via del Prestino ) Is the one to go
for. Rooms are homely rather than elegant, but the lakeside position makes drawing back the curtains an unforgettable
experience. Eat at the Vecchia Varenna by the old port, the faintly nouvelle food is good, though not always as faultless as it would like to be. If you wont an expensive Hotel there is in Central
promontory, Bellagio, if one takes account of inflation, prices at the Grand Hotel Villa
Serbelloni(via Roma)doubles 70-90 £) have changed very little since it opened in 1872; the only difference being that in those days one had to add the price of
candles. Set in a shady park on the side of the lake, it is centered on a neoclassical villa with ornate columns and frescoed
ceilings. Rooms are elegant and spacious, and service impeccable. Among the
three-stars, the Hotel du Lac, (piazza Mazzini 32 doubles £90 £100) on the lakeside promenade are good
options: the latter has an elegant, mahogany fill, the former Is more lively.
Nearby, the elegant Bar Caffè.Rossi, piazza Mazzini