Bellagio, Italy, Home of the Stars on Lake Como
Bellissimo Bellagio on Lake Como
By Tab Hauser
Bellissimo is the Italian word for very beautiful and those words aptly describe this little village on Lake Como.
Bellagio is the perfect two night stop for those that want a little down time from all the running around one does on a typical Italian vacation.
Here you can take a break from the museums, mammoth churches, and busy streets and slow down a little.
Surrounded by Mountains
Bellagio is surrounded by the scenery of mountains that range from 2000 feet to 8000 feet with the snow-capped Alps in the distant north. The beauty of this area in Northern Italy attracted the powerful and wealthy dating back to Roman times.
In modern times, classic Italian villas on the lake are owned by George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, and Sting, to name a few.
This pretty village of Bellagio is located on the northern tip of the fork that separates the east and west branches of Lake Como. It is composed of two main narrow streets that loop north to south.
The village entrance and main road on the hill is Via Garibaldi. There are several narrow alleys or lanes that step down from this street to the waterfront street that goes south. Lining the streets and alleys are wine tasting shops, boutiques, restaurants and craft shops in buildings 200 to 400 years old.
Bellagio’s streets are pedestrian only and perfect for strolling and browsing with gelato in hand.
James Bond and Darth Vader Slept Here
The biggest draw here is to see is the lake and area villas. An easy and least expensive way to do both would be to take the ferry to Villa del Balbianello. This villa was the set for the recuperating James Bond in Casino Royale as well as the place for Anikan Skywalker’s (later, Darth Vader) first kiss.
To get here you buy a roundtrip ticket from Bellagio to Lenno for 7.5 euros. The scenic ride crosses the lake and stops at a few villages allowing you to view up close other villas or old world hotels before disembarking.
In Lenno, you can walk 30 minutes to Villa del Balbianello or take the five-minute boat ride from the dock nearby for 7 euros. We opted to take the boat to get a water entrance of the villa.
Villa del Balbianello is built on a peninsula giving it gorgeous lake front views from three sides. The property started as a monastery in the 13th century and was converted to a villa in 1787.
Since then its changed ownership a few times until 1974 when Count Guido Monzino, an adventurer, and collector bought and restored the property. Upon his death in 1988 he bequeathed the property and an endowment for it to the National Trust of Italy.
Visiting here starts with a walk their “English Style” park and panoramic terraced garden complete with many old statues.
The walk continues until you reach the loggia for the best views. Tours start at the loggia where the Count kept his office and continues to the library and then through several rooms.
The villa is complete with hidden doors and a secret stairway. A highlight was the top floor full of historical artifacts he collected while seeing the world. (He was the first Italian to climb Mount Everest) For information about the villa go to www.visitfai.it/villadelbalbianello
A Walk in the Park
Bellagio is home to two “Villa Serbelloni” named properties. One is the five-star water-front hotel we stayed in (more later). The other is the known as the Bellagio Center, Villa Serbelloni which is part of the Rockefeller Foundation and is a first class learning and research center.
This Villa Serbelloni was built in the 1500’s and is surrounded by 50 manicured acres of wooded park. The villa is off limits to day visitors but the park is opened only to tours given daily at 11 AM and 3:30 PM.
Piazza Della Chiesa
Tours leave from visitor’s center at Piazza Della Chiesa which is opposite the church and cost 9 euros. During the tour, our guide discussed the long history of the property, the scholars that visit as well as the smaller structures that act as studios that were on the path.
The two-hour tour takes you up and down the landscaped hills with great views. The highlight was the promontory at the very tip of the property where you can see both the east and west branch of Lake Como on a ruined fortress.
Reservations can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
After the park tour takes several minutes to visit the Basilica of St. James next to where the tour ends. This church was built in the 12th century by the artisans from Como down the lake.
Inside is a large 16th-century altar piece, a cross from the 12th century and a triptych painting by the artist Vincenzo Foppa from 1432.
The tower built in the 1700’s has bells that give off the sweetest sounds when rung Click the link to see and hear these bells
Tasting the Village
At the visitors center, you can collect a self-guided map and booklet at no charge and take a stroll around Bellagio.
This booklet highlights the history of several places in the village. Without stops, this walk is 45 minutes.
Our self-tour took about two hours allowing for browsing the shops and tasting a few things along the way. A good start is a visit to the mini lace shop above the tourist office.
Here you will see elderly ladies producing handmade lace products that you can purchase. We turned our walking tour into a tasting tour. The places we recommend are the Gelateria del Borgo for the creamiest flavors in town. This is up on Via Garibaldi.
From here continue up the street to Pasticceria Castelli for different Italian Pastries. The next stop was at the Enoteca Cava Turacciolo on Salita Genazzini, 3. Getting here requires you to find the narrow alley just past the municipal building on the right and walking down the hill until you see the sign and three-foot corkscrew in front of it.
Cava Turacciolo is well worth a stop for a snack or meal. This small restaurant is located in a brick vaulted cellar from the 18th century. When seated you are surrounded by hundreds of bottle of wine as well as prosciutto ham hanging from hooks above.
This place offers about two dozen wines by the glass or up to 300 bottles to choose from. The menu has several different pairings of regional meats and cheeses along with a full menu. A nice place to rest your feet or wind down an evening is at Apertivo et al at the top of Salita Serbelloni.
Here you can order different wines to taste from many varietals. We purchased a few small tastes of different Brunello’s to compare followed by two different Italian dessert wines.
The staff was very friendly offering suggestions and comping us an extra ounce of an expensive Brunello to show the difference in aging.
Tie Designer to the Presidents
One noteworthy high fashion boutique in town is Arte and Mode opposite the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is owned by Pierangelo Masciadri (www.masciadri.tv). Mr. Masciadri who is in the store regularly with his daughter is a designer of handcrafted bags and ties.
He has designed ties for Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Other notables: a scarf for Justice O'Connor and a specific tie for Bill Gates based on the Leonardo da Vinci’s Leicester Code.
His handbag and clutch collection are works of art with prices that are not unreasonable when compared to the fashion stores in Milan.
We stayed in Bellagio for two days but adding another day or two is easy if you want to see more. This can include a 10-minute walk to the Villa Melzi Gardens on the lake and next to the imposing three-story all white villa built in 1810. (www.giardinidivillamelzi.it )
Another place for a half a day to visit is the village of Varenna just across the way from Bellagio via a short ferry ride. Here you can stroll this quiet village, take in lunch and then see the Castello di Vizio, a medieval fortress surrounded by an olive grove up on a steep hill.
The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is a treasure directly on the lake. The reason we picked this place is that it is the only hotel with lake front lounge chairs and a pool.
This property was originally built in the 1850’s in the neoclassical tradition for an aristocratic Milanese family. Its rooms and bathrooms are large and airy. The breakfast room looks like something out of a palace. The staff here cannot be more accommodating to your requests.
Mistral Ristorante: Our splurge here was the one star Michelin restaurant in the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Here you will have the finest service and food in Bellagio.
You can order from a regular menu or do the seven-course tasting menu as we did. This was finished with a nitrogen ice cream made tableside.
Ristorante La Punta: La Punta as the name says, is located at the most northern point in this area of the lake requiring about a 5-minute walk from town. We chose this place because many of the restaurants in town seemed similar.
La Punta has an excellent location, average prices for the Bellagio and excellent service. Here I tried a trio of locally fried fish which I found small and a little bony but the pasta and meat dishes were very good.
For all things Bellagio go to www.bellagiolakecomo.com
Tab Hauser was President of two small family businesses before selling out and embracing his passion for writing and photography. When not at his home in Glen Cove, NY he is traveling the United States and world where he visited 42 countries so far.