The Grand Villas of Lake Como
Bellagio—the real thing, not the Vegas casino resort—is a picturesque little town in Lombardy, Italy, with “beauty” (bella) embedded in its very name. However, the historical sources attribute it to the Latin bilacus (“two lakes”). The town, also called a “pearl of Lake Como,” is located between the two legs that comprise Lake Como’s shape of a running man.
Ancient Romans, who gave this place its Latin name, came to appreciate this uniquely magnificent area, poetically described by the consul and writer Pliny the Younger, who owned real estate here in the first century CE. In a letter to his friend he described two of his villas—one “high up on the rocks” and another “at its feet … on the lake shore”—as metaphors for Tragedy and Comedy. “Each has its attractions…. This one embraces a single bay with a gentle curve, that one stands on a prominent outcrop dividing two bays. That one does not feel the waves, this one breaks them. From that one you can watch the fishermen, from this one you can fish yourself….”
Since then, very little has changed in the charming appearance of the crystal-blue glacial lake.
Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni by the water’s edge was built as a summer home for the wife of Count Frizzoni and inaugurated on her birthday in 1854. For some reason the Contessa hated “the wide arches, the portico, the cornice with garlands and cherubs, all combined to give an air both sober and enchanting … the most classical of Italian gardens, laid out on different levels with a spectacular stairway linking the levels of the villa with those outside…” and many other breathtaking features admired by her contemporaries. The villa was immediately sold, changed hands several times, and eventually accepted its new successful destiny as a grand hotel. In the 20th century it became highly popular with British lords, Spanish royals, Russian nobles, American presidents, and Hollywood movie stars.
Today, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is owned and operated by the Bucher family of hoteliers with the help of their devoted staff. Chef Ettore Bocchia, who reigns at the hotel kitchen, demonstrates his talent and skill in molecular cooking at Ristorante Mistral. His method is based on scientific approach to the processes of heating and cooling with a goal of preserving the nutrients of fresh row ingredients. At the Villa Serbelloni Spa several types of heavenly massages await a weary traveler, as does an indoor pool—a nice alternative to the beautiful outdoor one in inclement weather.
Villa Melzi, also located in Bellagio, is known for its gardens with century-old camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons. It was built by Francesco Melzi d’Eril (1742-1816), the former vice-president of the Italian Republic, and still contains his collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculptures placed everywhere among the plants.
The stunningly majestic Villa del Balbianello in the town of Lenno on the lakeshore opposite Bellagio was built as a residence for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century. Lately it belonged to a world traveler, North Pole explorer, and the conqueror of Mount Everest, Guido Monzino, who left the villa in his will to Fondo Ambiente Italiano, a non-profit safeguarding Italy’s artistic and natural heritage. Due to its inimitable beauty and romantic atmosphere the villa starred in Hollywood movies “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones.”
In the middle of the lake there is the one and only small island of Comacina, formerly a sacred site of Roman temples and consecutive churches. Back in 1169, the island fell victim to its siding with Milan against Como and was burnt to the ground and cursed for centuries. Today, a very popular restaurant Locanda dell’Isola Comacina stands strong in defiance of the ancient curse, serving the same elaborate menu to crowds of tourists since 1949.
In the town of Varenna, which incidentally became a new home to Comacina’s exiled population, Villa Monastero presents another shining example of a wonderfully preserved historic dwelling. It was first home to a monastery and then was transformed into a temple of science by its 20th century owner, Marco de Marchi. A site of many international scientific conferences, the villa hosted Enrico Fermi in 1954—an event commemorated by a bronze plaque in a former chapel turned lecture hall. Every room at the villa is decorated in a different style and meticulously furnished with period antiques, such as the gothic Sala Nera with exquisitely carved walnut or the rococo Sala Rosa with red silk upholstery and gilded wood.
There is a small botanic garden in front of the villa with Gian Battista Comolli’s sculptural group La clemenza di Tito, “The Clemency of Titus,” in white marble in a striking neoclassical style. It depicts the Roman Emperor Titus, his wife, Vitellia, and his friend Sextus, her accomplice in Titus’s failed assassination attempt. With Sextus and Vitellia repenting, the kind emperor pardons the conspirators with dramatic hand gestures.
From here, standing in the shade of a 500-year-old magnolia tree still blossoming with heavy white flowers, one can see all three branches of the “running man” lake—cool, silvery, and serene.