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Lakeside Luxury -- Italian Style
I'd been to Lake Como before, but that time I was just passing through. We were on the way from Rome to Switzerland and it was late afternoon before we arrived. The lakeside looked beautiful and we picked a waterfront hotel just around the bay from Como township. Big mistake!
Six a.m. the next morning we were literally shaken out of bed by the roar of an airplane engine. Looking out of the window and across to the Como waterfront we saw the Como Aero Club seaplane hangars facing the water. The doors were open and the hangars' contents had just taken off on the seaplane's first run. For the whole day, at five minute intervals, different trainee pilots were taking shifts learning to land and take off on the water, the point of joining and leaving the lake's surface being right outside our window each time.
By the next morning, when the exercise repeated itself, we were ready to head off, continue our journey, and almost decide not to come back. That would have been an even bigger mistake.
Lake Como is big. Very big. And on a peninsula far from the maddening crowd of trainee pilots is the little town of Bellagio. After we had seen "A Month on the Lake" we remembered that friends had told us about a very special place -- the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. No seaplanes here, they had assured us, just a remarkable hotel that had been home to the world's movers and shakers from the moment it was built.
This hotel didn't advertise. It didn't need to. The clientele here kept coming back and back, and word of mouth had spread the news among its regulars that over the years had included Kaiser William of Germany, Franz Joseph of Austria, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria of Spain, Queen Mary of Romania, the Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia, the Rothschild family, the Queen of Sweden, von Karajan, Onassis, Adenauer and J.F. Kennedy. From the arts and movie world, Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Mary Pickford, Maria Schell, Romy Schneider and Clark Gable were regulars in their day, while these days you would be more likely to see Chirac, Kohl or Pavarotti at the next table. Definitely not a hotel for tour groups or backpackers.
Having been an unrepentant hedonist since childhood I decided that this hotel would be quite good enough for the Glasers also. It wasn't just good. It was heavenly.
I've never denied being an incurable romantic. The older I get the more history captures my imagination and the more I look for a place that has charm and romance as well as impeccable service and quiet efficiency. And the Villa Serbelloni is fabulous in all these regards. It's a place with style -- lashings of it.
At one stage the hotel and the family villa at the back of it belonged to Ella Walker, daughter of Canadian whisky tycoon, Hyram Walker. That lady had also married into one of Europe's wealthiest families -- the Thurn and Taxis family (whose earlier members had invented the postal service and from which the car-and-driver-for-rent got its name). When she died, she left the villa on the hill behind the hotel to the Rockefeller Foundation, to which it belongs to this day.
The hotel itself is grand in a style that one only sees in Europe. Beautifully maintained, it features health and beauty care, has a pool that one cannot drag oneself away from, and a ceiling in the drawing room that would be worthy of the Vatican. The view from our room across the misty lake was nothing short of stunning.
The mountains on the far side seem to rear out of the lake, ancient geological forces pushing them into the air, that drama illustrated to this day by the layers of granite that rise up the otherwise wooded slopes at thirty degrees. The waters of Lake Como are miraculously clean and unpolluted, and to give the Italian authorities their due, we saw little scooper boats skimming every piece of would-be debris off the surface of the lake.
To say that this area, with its almost semi-tropical micro-climate is lovely is to make an under-statement. We could have made a picture postcard of every photo we took.
Late afternoon a small three-piece orchestra appeared to play the melodious music of the sixties while afternoon tea was being served and they stayed to play softly on into the evening.
At that point the mist had lifted over the lake, the gentle breeze was balmy, and a thousand lights sparkled across from the opposite side of the lake turning the whole scenario into a fairyland.
While my wife and I were having a delicious dinner impeccably served on the terrace overlooking the lakeside, we watched a small wedding group from New York -- eight or nine people -- who had come here to be married on the terrace that afternoon. Having finished dinner earlier than we, they had gone inside to start the dancing with the wedding waltz. A famous Italian chanteuse who was a house guest added to the enjoyment by singing a few numbers superbly, and we decided that the American group was far from silly to get married here.
How many stories have we heard of weddings that cost families a king's ransom because they had to invite hundreds of people, not because they liked them but because family politics made it necessary. How much smarter to send everyone an invitation to make their own way to Como. You'd still get all the presents, guests who didn't know you all that well would be pleased not to have to waste an evening, and you'd honeymoon at the sort of location dreams are made of. A win-win situation that only had one fault -- we didn't think of it when it came to our wedding!
Walking into Bellagio village was another treat. The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is located right at the far end of the village, but once you walk into Bellagio from there the main street takes you down a lovely tree-lined waterfront promenade that is studded with outdoor cafes and restaurants, contains many nice but far less luxurious hotels that are spotlessly clean and budget priced (like the Hotel Excelsior Splendide or the Metropole), and also leads to the car ferry that to my mind is "a must" and runs over to Cadenabbia, a little village on the opposite bank of the lake.
One of the ferries that makes this voyage (there are several) has a viewing top deck, and the trip on this is another serendipitous facet to staying here. Once across, there's not a lot to see or do apart from the lakefront walk, but it's certainly an outing we greatly enjoyed.
Back in Bellagio, the shops and boutiques are worth investigating if your credit card is deep enough for you to afford the best. If you want to fit yourself out in Missoni or Ferragamo outfits, you'll have no problem doing this in the shops here. But you may as well make sure that the outfits you choose are pure silk. The reason for this is that Bellagio has for over two centuries been the heart of the Italian silk industry (which indicates that this is not exactly what you'd call of overwhelming proportions).
Be that as it may, the silk shops in Bellagio sell silks that any woman would drool over -- the finest quality and clearly produced in quantities that ensure that you won't find three women at a party with same-pattern dresses.
From Bellagio's waterfront promenade, little side streets climb puffingly up a steeply-sloping hillside, past tiny hideaway shops that can often be akin to Aladdin's Cave. Those staying longer can also take ferries to distant Como to enjoy the roar of seaplane motors. We forewent that doubtful pleasure, though if you are stone-deaf or manage to get to Como on a day when the Aero Club is closed, that town is also quite delightful.
Then it was time to move on. Our next stop was to be L'Albereta, another absolutely charming villa-turned-hotel. This is located at Erbusco, not far from the Lago d'Iseo -- Lake Iseo -- in Italy's premier wine region of Franciacorta. L'Albereta, located just off Highway A4 between Bergamo and Brescia is another one these hideaways of the rich and famous that are utter perfection.
I have always believed that when one considers the cost of an overseas trip, the difference between a budget hotel and one of these "hotels to dream about" makes the latter well worth considering for one or two nights, even if that means eating sandwich lunches and spaghetti dinners for the next week or so.
You will always remember your trip by your very best and very worst experiences, and a couple of days in one of these wonderfully palatial hotels are the stuff to tell your grandchildren about as they gather around your wheelchair when your traveling days are over.
But there is just one word of advice that I must give you about staying at places like this. Dress to fit the scene in neat, clean and relatively classic outfits. There's nothing that will grate more or draw negative attention to a guest than to look like something that the cat has dragged in or wear outlandishly awful clothes in a place where everyone else respects European style and elegance. And it has nothing at all to do with money. I've seen fellow Australians who could buy and sell half the other guests in such a place dress like rejects from the movie set of "Crocodile Dundee."
L'Albereta was also an original villa, but one of much later vintage, added-to and transformed into a luxurious resort-style country hotel. Bathrooms are a dream here, lounges have huge open fireplaces and the long dining room, faces out onto the manicured garden.
Rooms, many with lovely four-poster beds, are both charming and palatial, while public rooms are timber-paneled and elegant. But one of my very favorite spots in this hotel is the heated indoor swimming pool. By coincidence this is another favorite of Luciano Pavarotti, but if you look around you, the party at the next table may be headed up by a European President, the head of some vast industrial empire or other celebrities like Brigitte Nielsen (Sylvester Stallone's ex-wife) and Italian ski champion Tomba.
It was here that we met an old friend, Antonio Marson, who for years was manager at the legendary Hotel Splendido at Portofino. I just cannot imagine any property connected with Mr. Marson being anything but five star. And this hotel is certainly special.
Located in the countryside, it butts directly onto vineyards that produce one of the finest methode champegnoise wines imaginable -- the sparkling wines of the Bellavista which many of the world's leading wine judges and magazines rate as the finest sparkling wine to come out of Italy. If you doubt this statement, buy a bottle (it's available in top wine shops around the world) and try it. If you don't like it, I'm prepared to drink the rest of the bottle. Solo!
Dining here reveals another interesting aspect of L'Albereta. The cuisine is under the cooking-spoon-baton of Master Chef Gualtiero Marchesi, one of the very few in Italy to hold the coveted Three Star Michelin award. Marchesi, a relaxed, low-key master of Italian regional dishes, is held in the same sort of awe for his culinary skills in Italy as the French reserve for Paul Bocuse or Alain Ducasse. People will think nothing of driving up from Milan, Turin, Genoa or Verona just to dine here. And speaking of dining, we found another gem around the corner from this hotel. It is the Restaurant La Mongolfiera dei Sodi, where we also had a most memorable meal.
One of the other pleasures of staying at L'Albereta is to explore the countryside around this lovely property. We drove down to Lake Iseo, taking a cruise on one of the ferries went across to Monte Isola, claimed to be the largest island on any Italian lake.
The manager also arranged for us to visit the wineries of the Franciacorta for wine tastings, giving us a completely new respect for Italian wines. Golf at the Franciacorta Golf Club in Nigoline di Cortefranca with its 18-hole, par 72 course was an opportunity to see just how good Italian golf courses can be. The rest of the time we just enjoyed the pleasures of L'Albereta, which is under the direction of the family of Italian industrialist Vittorio Moretti. He also owns the Bellavista winery, the golf club, the Mongolfiera dei Sodi Restaurant and a string of other enterprises that includes everything from yacht-building shipyards to shopping centers and construction companies.
"Too soon we must depart" is a clich»d phrase that, as every traveler knows, applies to his favorite places. And so it was with L'Albereta as we moved on to the next lake -- Lago di Garda -- to head for the Villa Fordaliso, a small eight-room hotel run by the Tosetti family. Once again it was a converted villa turned into a hotel and lakefront restaurant, and was an interedting complex which has only recently joined the Relais & Chateaux association of castle and mansion country hotels.
We had been driving through this area known as the Garda Riviera, admiring its magnificent parks, villas, gardens and hotels nestling on the lakeside that is highlighted by a backdrop of spectacular mountains. Turning off the busy road we entered through double gates carrying the name of the Villa Fordaliso, and found ourselves in another world.
The villa itself is relatively small and adjoins a classic Italianate tower that would have been a wonderful setting for Romeo and Juliet. There was once an apartment in the tower's first two floors, but now the ground floor has been internally gutted and rebuilt into a smallish, comfortably intimate bar with inside tables from which to watch the musicians that captivate the audience here each night and outside alfresco tables for those who prefer conversation under the stars.
Adjoining one side of the tower is a tiny marina that can hold around eight or ten luxurious motor launches. This provides an ideal access for people staying in waterfront villas around Lake Garda and is already a popular way of arriving for an evening of dining at the villa. We watched such diners arrive, finishing their dinner and then strolling to the tower, perhaps to dance to the excellent Italian combo that performs here every night.
In the evenings the whole tower and marina are floodlit, with some lights below the level of the water. These attract large numbers of trout and other fish that abound in Lake Garda, and to lean on the rail, watch them swim lazily and gracefully around while listening to the wonderful music from the combo was a delight I will long remember.
From the top floor of the three-story main building our room, like all the others, overlooked the lake. There was no elevator, and for those less fit it might be an idea to request a room on the second floor. But for us the view more than compensated for the climb. And so did the history of this building, where the events that took place half a century ago enacted real-life drama unmatched in most novels.
Our room had, at the end of World War II, been the residence of the German SS General who was Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Northern Italy. He had lived on the top floor, the floor below being taken up by Mussolini's mistress Carla Petacci who was the daughter of the chief-physician to the Vatican.
Mussolini, the villa's owner told us, used to come across the lake by launch, to have his trysts with Carla on the first floor of the adjacent tower. On the last evening here the fallen dictator, by now quite estranged from his wife and children for having ordered the death of his son-in-law, Count Ciano, whom he considered a traitor, crossed the lake to spend a night here with Carla. If only the walls could talk!
The dining room at Fordaliso is closed on Mondays, and the family recommended a nearby restaurant, La Stalla. Once again we were able to enjoy a meal of the delicious regional cuisine that each part of Italy seems to feature. Here it was barley soup, polenta with cheese and mushrooms, a veal chop with new potatoes and salad, followed by almond biscuits and coffee. Regional Italian food at its best!
The next day was spent driving around the Lago di Garda. It's a big lake and circumnavigating it by car with frequent stops to take in the views made me realize that this area was far more touristy than Lago d'Iseo.
The presence of many Germans was made obvious by the almost unending number of placards reading "Zimmer." I don't know who this fellow Zimmer is, but boy, he must own a lot of houses. Perhaps he's a relative of that other real estate tycoon, Mr. To Let, who seems to have a corner on the property market in England and the United States.
I was quite intrigued to notice that there was one narrow patch of the lake where a gap in the hills on either bank must create a wind-tunnel effect. This has been discovered by the local windsurfers who have made this narrow band of water into a windsurfer superhighway. With the afternoon light coming through the plastic sails, the windsurfers zipping across the lake at motor boat speeds looked like a swarm of dragon flies racing to and fro along the lake's surface.
Other impressions of the lakeside were created by the red, white and pink oleanders, the profusion of wild figs, fragrant late roses and the ever-present massed geraniums that filled window boxes, light-pole baskets and flower beds. If ever the EEC select a flower that represents Europe, this must surely be the geranium! Those unobtrusive flowers brighten up homes and other scenery from Norway to Italy and all points between.
As we went around the lake we passed tall, almost vertical cliffs, dived through road tunnels and marveled at the warm mist that in parts hung over the lake like a huge globe of scented light cloud which, in parts completely blocked the view across the lake. On the far side between Riva and Torbole we passed one village where Goethe resided for some years. Today a statue marks the square he once looked down on from his room. One cannot escape people who shaped history, arts and culture when one visits this part of Europe!
This was to be our last stop on the Italian lakes for this trip. Our stay here had been short enough to regret our leaving and long enough for us to fall in love with the region. Like most who come here, we vowed to return. But to quote someone more poetic than I, "The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on." Our next destination was to be the Italian Riviera.
But that's another story.
The nearest major airport to the Italian Lakes region is Milan. On most long-haul routes we recommend flying here via London by British Airways, who have a connecting service to Milan and often include this destination in their long-haul fares to Europe from Asia, America and Australasia.
time to go
We think May/June and September/October to be the best times of the year. Winter tends to be cold with many establishments in the area closed, and July/August is peak season in Europe when prices peak and services bottom.
The Italian Lakes region is definitely best seen by self-drive car. Hertz have a service, usually only available on request, that gives you a plan of the best sightseeing in the area, and shows the best ways to go.
Italians are inherently stylish when they come to this area and we recommend that you arrive with neat, relatively conservative sportswear. In the best hotels, jacket and tie for men, and dress or slacks for women are expected at dinner time. Suits are not necessary, but keep your T-shirts and thongs for the poolside. You don't need to dress expensively, but if you look as if you care about your appearance you will command a lot more respect from all service staff in this region be it in hotels, restaurants or other venues. Don't forget your camera and loads of film. We use Kodak film and Minolta 9000 and Olympus L-3 cameras.
Between May and October there are plenty of bars, discos and places to dance or listen to good music in the Lakes region.
Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
22021 Bellagio (Como)
via Vittorio Emanuele, 11
via Zanardelli 132
For other excellent hotels in this area we recommend that you contact three groups for their catalogues:
Relais & Chateaux Website:
& Hotels de Charme Website:
Small Luxury Hotels of the World Website:
Near L'Albereta, La Mongolfiera dei Sodi, via Cavour, 7 - Erbusco (Brescia)
Phone: 030 / 7268303 - 451
Near Villa Fordaliso, La Stalla, via Gardone Riviera, via
dei Colli, 14 - Zona Vittoriale
Phone: 0365 / 21038
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Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.