Stirring from my train induced slumber, I stretched and turned to the window, assessing our progress from Milan to Lake Como. Wincing as the sunlight poured in, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dazzling blue of Lake Como that lay beyond the window; pastel coloured houses falling in and out of view. Framing the scene, like the cherry atop the perfect birthday cake, was the gentle rise of the Italian Alps; a deep green against the vivid blue. I’d woken, it seemed, in paradise.
Lake Como requires little by way of introduction, known throughout the world as Italy’s crowning jewels. It’s a destination upon which films, songs, and quotes are based. Indeed, in the words of Franz Liszt: ‘When you write the story of two happy lovers, let the story be set on the banks of Lake Como.’ It therefore seemed a fitting place to celebrate my first wedding anniversary, a year after marrying under fresh flowers amongst the rolling Tuscan hills.
Pulling into the small station of Varenna, just an hour after leaving the intense heat of Milan, we hopped off the train and followed the crowd down the winding hill to Varenna’s ferry port. We were headed to Bellagio – our home for the next four days – which was just a ten minute ferry ride away. Departing pretty Varenna, the town’s colourful houses now reduced to small, jellybean-coloured blobs, it wasn’t long before we were greeted by the pretty houses of Bellagio: a town decorated in dusky pinks and lemon yellows.
Our accommodation in Bellagio came courtesy of Airbnb. It was a small gem of an apartment known as Apartment Roncati, tucked away up the winding cobbled streets, and just a stone’s throw from the local church. It even came complete with a small balcony that hovered over a knot of fragrant jasmine bushes, growing enthusiastically below. The owners, Natalina and Angelo, had both been born in Bellagio (Angelo even pointed out the home in which he was born), and were hugely knowledgeable; providing us with excellent tips on sights and places to eat. There were even freshly baked cupcakes waiting for us at the apartment, which made for the perfect breakfast with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Our mouths now watering, we headed straight for lunch at the idyllic Bilacus . Positioned beneath yet more heavenly smelling jasmine, we had a slow and lazy lunch of red wine, thick ribbons of pasta and fresh gelato. Bellies protruding, and feeling the gentle effects of a couple of glasses of wine, we strolled to Villa Melzi – one of two villas and gardens you can visit in Bellagio. Offering self-guided tours, the waterfront villa was built between 1808-1810, and boasts winding, hillside gardens. It is an ideal spot for those looking to enjoy a slow afternoon. Built as a summer residence for Francesco Melzi D’Eril, the neoclassical designed villa is a vision of pearly white, bordering the famous topaz-coloured lake behind it. Not to be missed are the Japanese gardens (purchasing exotic plants was all the rage at the time), complete with a glittering pond, water lillies and Japanese maple and cedar trees. It is a miniature paradise.
Our day ended in an excellent wine bar, Aperitivo Et Al Bar, where I consumed far too much red wine and cheese for someone attempting to be bikini ready in a few weeks’ time. If you’re visiting Bellagio and looking for somewhere to sample local, or wider, Italian wines, alongside bulging platters of cheese, honey and meats, Aperitvo Et Al Bar is the ideal spot.
Taking a bite of a creamy mozzarella ball, I gazed out across the lake back to Bellagio, where we had woken that morning to bird song and the smell of freshly baked pastries. Our second day of Lake Como celebrations had propelled us across the water (the ferry is five minutes) to Tremezzo and the infamous Grand Hotel Tremezzo, for an extravagant afternoon lunch. I had arranged the lunch as a ‘formal’ celebration; a present (to myself) for having survived the first year of marriage. As I slurped on a glass of prosecco – the lake stretching out ahead of me – I felt wildly smug at my decision to do so.
The romantic T Bar, where we had lunch, offered postcard worthy views over the Lake; the hotel’s floating swimming pool bobbing busily below. Over several hours, the light on the lake continuing to change, we made our way through bruschetta; fresh sea bass; locally sourced vegetables; strawberries and cream; and – of course – an espresso to finish.
We left Hotel Tremezzo a little reluctantly (squeezing in a sneaky look at the lavish interior before we left), vowing one day to return when we were rich and famous. For those in search of true luxury when visiting Lake Como, this is the hotel for you. Alternatively, it’s the perfect spot to treat yourself to an indulgent lunch or dinner. For us, this was the perfect way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.
As had become somewhat of a tradition after our large, Italian-fuelled meals, the afternoon was spent exploring another heart-achingly beautiful Villa in Tremezzo: Villa Carlotta. A five minute walk from the Hotel, Villa Carlotta’s botanic gardens form a labyrinth of miniature worlds, including: the ferns valley, the rock garden and succulent plants, the bamboo garden and the old garden (to name but a few). My favourite spot saw me perched on the terraces, where I surveyed my pretend kingdom and observed my subjects (the little terrapins that were sunning themselves beneath the tinkling water fountains below).
Villa Carlotta also hosts music concerts during the Lake Como Festival (April through to September); something I’ve added to my bucket list. I was informed of the festival in the ticket queue by a fellow Brit – Peter aged 83 – who had arrived to buy tickets for the evening concert for both him and his wife, in celebration of their golden wedding anniversary. I hope we’ll be doing just the same in a mere 49 years time.
Our second evening in Bellagio was my favourite. Grabbing some bread, cheese and yet more wine after returning from Tremezzo, we treated ourselves to a DIY dinner on our balcony and a few rounds of cards, before heading down to the waterfront for a sunset gelato.
As I dangled my legs over the jetty, listening to the whistle of a local as he cleaned his boat, my mind wandered (as it often does whilst I’m away) to how wonderful life might be living in this little hamlet. We had just walked the short ten minutes from Bellagio to Pescallo, a sleepy fishing village that felt a world away from tourist bustling Bellagio. We were looking for a quiet spot to enjoy our morning pastries, and had been told of Pescallo by a local the night before. It was an idyllic spot and a perfect place to base yourself if you’re looking for somewhere a little more remote.
Reluctantly, it was time to leave this small sanctuary and head down to Bellagio’s port. Our penultimate day on Lake Como was to be spent aboard the two-hour slow ferry that was headed for Como. We had been recommended the trip by our Airbnb owners as a cheap but ideal way to see the majority of the lake. A bit like the slow train home – excluding the late night McDonalds meals – the ferry pulled into most of the towns and villages en route to Como. What really caught my attention, however, was the promise of passing the house of one particularly famous local resident: George Clooney. Armed with my binoculars, and an intense zoom lens, I was ready for some celebrity house spotting.
Grabbing two seats on the top deck, and purchasing some snacks from the ferry’s bar, our two hour journey began. Chugging along the lake, the sun beating down, it was hard to imagine a better way to spend a Friday morning. The climax came as we passed George’s house, sitting boldly on the waterfront, but sadly, it showed little sign of the owner (alas, he wasn’t reclining on a sun lounger as I’d hoped). I’d highly recommend this trip – unless of course you can afford your own private boat hire – as a cost effective way to explore the lake. There is also a ‘hop on, hop off’ version of the ticket, if you’d appreciate more flexibility.
Como itself was a little overwhelming after a couple of days spent in sleepy Bellagio (not helped by a national holiday). Half of Milan, it seemed, had also opted for a lazy day in Como, and the town was heaving with holiday makers slurping freshly made gelato. Braving the heat, we made our way to Como’s famous Duomo, built between the 14th and 18th centuries, for our usual gawping session. I’ll never tire of Italian Cathedrals – each as breathtaking as the next.
Guided by our Lonely Planet, we also nipped through the winding alleyways to Via Vitani, one of the prettiest streets found within the old city walls of the town. Here we treated ourselves to a few silk gifts – Como being of the world’s most important producers of silk products. Indeed, Como was built on the riches of the silk trade, and you can still pick up a tie or scarf for a snip of the usual price.
For ease, and having had our full fix of pretty-town spotting on our way to Como, we took the fast ferry home (around 45 minutes), which was far less romantic but delivered us in time for a final dinner at Bellagio’s finest pizzeria: La Grotta.
‘Some say that snow used to fall on Lake Como for two months of every winter, but I’ve never seen snow here,’ our guide told us, as we later wound our way up the steep path that led to Bellagio’s crowning jewel: Villa Serbelloni. As the sun glistened on the lake, and I sheltered from the heat under an olive tree, it was hard to imagine this sunny sanctuary covered in snow (although the thought was hugely romantic).
Our final morning in Bellagio was spent on a guided tour of this infamous Villa, which was built in 1566 and sits high above sleepy Bellagio. The only way to explore Villa Serbelloni is on a guided tour (once a day during the week and twice a day at weekends), and I was grateful for our guide as the history surrounding the villa is fascinating. Now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation, the villa is exclusively used by visiting academics in the arts and sciences, who are given their own room in which to work, amid the tranquility of this beautiful spot. Who says academia is dull? Although it’s not possible to tour the inside of the villa itself, the grounds themselves are worth the climb. The tour ends at the highest vantage point of the gardens, where it’s possible to see where the lake splits into two strands: Como and Lecco.
It was the perfect place to end our visit to Lake Como.
As the tour drew to a close, and we found ourselves making our way down the winding road, the holiday blues began; the type of blues that creep up on you when you know your birthday is drawing to a close or, in my case, when you know your time in paradise is up. Gathering our suitcases and making our way down to the port, I soaked up the scenes of the busy alleyways, the smell of jasmine and the heat of the sun warming my skin.
Climbing aboard the ferry, and setting sail from the port, I gave a little wave and said goodbye to Bellagio; although I have an inkling that we’ll meet again.