Italy: Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Lake Como

Lake Como Ferry

Springtime in Italy: A Grand Hotel on Lake Como

By Shelley Rotner

Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni pool. Shelley Rotner photos.
Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni pool. Shelley Rotner photos.

I arrived in Bellagio, the “Pearl of the Lake”, just as spring is peaking. It’s the “real” Bellagio known for its old world charm and new world luxury.

Shaped like the letter “Y”, Bellagio sits on the promontory of the central split ofwhere Lake Como branches. The clear water appears anything from light aqua-green to deep green-blue. Fleets of ferries traverse the lake carrying passengers to the small towns and villas that dot the shore.

Lake Como is one of the longest and deepest lakes in Italy– about 29 miles long and rarely more than 2.5 miles wide, formed in the last ice age. It’s just a hop from Milan, less than an hour drive or train ride, but worlds apart.

This is where Italy meets the Alps. Lake Como is surrounded by the foothills and snow-peaked mountains. There are spectacular, panoramic vistas in every direction, lush vegetation in deep valleys, colorful blooms and delicious mountain air. With a little imagination, it’s possible to go back in time.

Lots of Gelato

A chef making ravioli at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

It was a quiet and peaceful visit, at the beginning of the season just before the influx of tourists, which is the only industry here. Century-old buildings in golden shades with red-tiled roofs and quaint narrow cobble lanes and steep stairways characterize Bellagio and most of the small lakeside towns.

There were no roads before 1922. Now these narrow roads, once mule paths, are lined with shops and restaurants and most importantly gelatarias.

Every day I tried a different flavor–hazelnut, fig, stracciatella, and giandujato to name a few.

I stayed at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni once home to a Johnny Walker whiskey heiress. It was built in 1852 and was converted 20 years later into a hotel distinguished as a 5-star hotel with a 1-star Michelin restaurant, Mistral, known for its molecular cuisine.

There’s also a spa, fitness center and outside and indoor pools. Dignitaries and celebrities have visited over time. FDR, JFK, Winston Churchill, Queens and Princes, Clark Gable, Anthony Quinn and George Lucas to name just a few.

Ferry with view of Como town

Third Generation Owner

The third generation owner, Gionfranco Bucher considers the hotel to be his home. He lives on site and welcomes guests to visit in a family friendly way. A beautiful restoration complete with grand marble staircases, opulent chandeliers, and an eclectic art collection showcases the grand villa.

I felt like a princess in my suite with 44 ft. ceilings and views of the lake and majestic mountains from the wrap around windows and balconies. Every morning I woke to birdsong and the sound of water lapping the shore.

Everybody has a general idea of what Italian food is but Mistral puts a new spin on Italian cuisine. Molecular cooking is known for its unique method of changing the physical composition of ingredients with molecular reactions to cold and hot.

Chef Ettore Bocchia’s mission is to enhance Italian gastronomical tradition by improving textures and flavors. His dishes resemble a nouveau style of painting- artfully composed and created. A demonstration at tableside of using cooling liquid nitrogen to -196 degrees created a velvety ice cream that was pared with poached pears. No complaints here.

map of Lake Como
Map of Lake Como, in Northern Italy.

Bellagio has many reminders of the past. The Via Garibaldi, the main street in Bellagio, also known as the Serbelloni steps, climbs from the base of Bellagio to the top of the town.

It’s called “the ditch” from medieval times when it was used as a ditch for defending the old town. Now it’s a charming and slightly precarious steep descent or ascent with lots of good distractions.

Lomard Architecture

As a small town there’s lots to see in Bellagio with short walks in all directions.  In the center is one of the best examples of Romanesque Lomard architecture- the Basilica of St. James dating back to the 11th century. It was decreed a National monument in 1904.

Bilacus Ristorante in Bellagio

Minutes from town is a walk to the tip of the promontory called “Spartivento Punta” which translates to the point where the wind divides. This is where the lake splits. We had a delicious lakeside lunch at The Ristorante La Punta and sampled the fresh lake fish.

Another short walk from town takes you to the Villa Melzi built in beginning of the 19th century in the time of Napoleon in a neo-classical style. It’s privately owned but the English style gardens are open to the public.

A promenade lined with plane trees leads the way to massive azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom. The famous architect, Giocondo Albertolli, designed the villa. Franz Lizst was a frequent guest.

Because of the mild lakeside climate, There’s a wide diversity and range of what grows here. Pines, cypress, chestnuts and olive trees grow alongside lemon, lime, quince and pomegranates. Short boat rides take you to many small towns and villas worth visiting.

Villa Balbianello

Fresh octopus at the Como market.
Fresh octopus at the Como market.

The most outstanding for me was the Villa Balbianello, now part of the National Trust of Italy. At the end

of the 18th century, guests were welcomed with a motto engraved on the floor of the portico that said “place of delights.”

Established wisteria vines frame the lake and immediately create a magical entrance as you climb up through terraced gardens to the elegant loggia.

There’s a concealed passageway built for a quick escape if necessary that adds to the drama.The last owner was a wealthy explorer who has a dedicated room of artifacts and memorabilia sorted by the countries of his expeditions.

His preserved, private art collection includes Chinese, African and pre-Columbian museum quality art. Another claim to fame is that George Lucas filmed parts of Star Wars: Episode 11: Attack of the Clones here.

Another jewel sometimes called “a place of heaven” is the Villa Carlotta with its romantic landscape garden and also just a short boat ride away. Sloping, manicured grounds are covered with monumental mounds of blooming azaleas and rhododendrons.

Fuchsia camellias line the pathways. It’s a blend of nature and art. The villa is known also for its many masterpieces in its extraordinary art collection.

There’s no denying that food is a big part of why we love Italy so much. We enjoyed lunches outdoors at small trattorias in beautiful settings. Typically we tried a variety of antipastis, such as arugula and bresaola followed by risotto and perch, hand cut pastas-ravioli, bolognaise, and for dessert, cannolis and tiramisu. At Bilacus Ristorante the owner insisted we try his mother’s chocolate torta that she makes each morning.

Public hall Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
Public hall Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

Rainy Morning Boat Trip

We took a boat one rainy morning to Varenna an old fishing village and less touristy in feel with a population of just 800 people. Narrow, stepped walkways with charming restaurants and cafes line the tiny harbor.

I had a hot chocolate to warm up from the cold damp day and it was so thick a spoon could stand up in it. Chocolate delight! A winding cobblestone lane takes you Villa Monastero with archways framing lake views and English style gardens.

Como Cathedral

Another morning I toured around Como – a big town not to be missed once world famous as the silk capital. Shops feature beautiful silk scarves and a mix of old and new. The central gothic Como Cathedral was originally constructed in 1396 and is known for its rare 16th–17th century tapestries and 16th century paintings by Bernardino Luini and Gaudenzio Ferrari.

Lake fish at Ristorante La Punta.

There’s a scenic funicular railway running since 1894 that takes you up to the small town of Brunate for views of the lake and the alps beyond. It looked great but was closed for repairs when I was there.

There are two musems in town-The Museo Didattico della Seta traces the history of Como’s silk industry, and the Tempio Voltiano museum is dedicated to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta.

After a few days, it was easy to slow down and get into the rhythm of life on the lake by traveling by boat or walking on old mule paths village to village. And Italy has done it again for me– the food, the scenery, the language and a little shopping.

Serene, sublime. sometimes shrouded in mysterious gray clouds or bright sunny blue days revealing the snow peaked Alps makes me wonder, was all this just a dream?

For more information about Bellagio visit www.bellagiolakecomo.com

Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

Railpasses to get there can be obtained in the US at www.raileurope.com

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Shelley Rotner
Shelley Rotner is the author of more than 50 children's books, and every day she has a new idea for a new photo one. She is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and lives in Northampton MA and New York City.