Bellagio has been a resort town for many, many years. It was the summer residence of the Roman patricians, and then of Lombardy’s noble families. They built mammoth villas overlooking the lake surrounded by perfectly manicured formal gardens. This town became an enchanting retreat for artists, writers, and musicians from around the world: Pliny the Younger, Longfellow, Twain, Shelly, and Toscanini. My expectation of Bellagio was that it would be very formal with a stuffy arrogance, but I was wrong. Yes there is significant wealth here, but the town, and the people in it, are charming and warm.
Lake Como is a massive lake located in the Lombardy area of northern Italy. It is shaped like an upside down Y. Although you can visit the villages along the lake by driving along very narrow one-lane roads, I found it more pleasant to travel by ferry. The ferries stop at all the major towns: Como (the largest) on the southwestern tip of the lake, Lecco on the southeastern tip, Tremmezzo, Varenna, and Bellagio all toward the center of the lake. These towns all provide interesting side trips from Bellagio, which is very centrally located.
As the ferry pulls into Bellagio you see a large open square on your left with tiny cobblestone streets winding up the hill away from the lake. The square is busy: people are waiting for the next ferry, a few vendors have stands set up selling arts & crafts, and others are just lazing while enjoying a gelato. Several hotels face out over this town square with pretty views of the lake. Although there are many lovely accommodations in Bellagio, the five-star hotel is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbolloni. It is a classic, built in the mid 19th century with elaborate interiors and formal gardens. It sits right on the lake with a huge pool, private sand beach, and a landing dock.
The main lobby of this Grande Dame is huge, decorated with chandeliers and period antiques. Although the reception area seems quite calm, the concierge desk is always bustling making dinner reservations or setting up excursions on the lake. Beyond this entry area is the grand ballroom and the main dinning room.
From the terrace of the main dinning room you can see the pool area one level down, with the lake and mountains in the distance. The pool is quite the people scene. Since it gets quite warm during the summer months, most guests spend at least a few hours there per day. The guests are a diverse mix of Europeans and Americans, a unique cross section of many cultures. Watching this cast of characters can provide hours of entertainment. The long pool is surrounded by white lounge chairs that overlook the lake. The scenery, and the boats moving about on the lake, can almost mesmerize you. Lunch, cocktails, or just a gelato can be enjoyed from your chaise lounge as you bask in the sun. On the far side of the pool, the hotel cleared away all the rocks at the lake’s edge and installed a sand beach. This provides another sun bathing area, as well as an easy access for those that want to swim in the lake.Prior to heading to dinner, you may want to visit the hotel’s beautiful terrace that overlooks the pool. It is the perfect place to start your evening…whether watching the sunset or enjoying the view while sipping a Prosecco. The hotel has excellent food, a combination of fresh regional cuisine and the classic high-end dishes you would anticipate at a five star resort. But as you may suspect, the restaurant is rather formal requiring a sport jacket. Just a few blocks from the hotel are a couple of great restaurants. Bilacus, our favorite, is a trattoria with an outdoor terrace. It is casual with a friendly staff and outstanding food. Typical dishes are melon with prosciutto, fresh pasta with garlic & olive oil, and fresh seafood like lake perch. Barchetta is another good restaurant focusing on the local flavors, with the specialty being lake fish. After dinner, Bellagio is a rather quiet town, don’t expect night clubs or casinos – it’s not Vegas. But the Hotel Villa Serbollini has a four piece band that plays every night in the ballroom. It provides a great place to unwind and reflect on the day.
The town, with its narrow windy cobblestone streets, is enchanting. Bellagio is surrounded on three sides by water, therefore it is not unusual to be constantly enamored by its beauty. The hilly streets are filled with shops: the salumaria, produce store, and wine shop are authentic, with abundant treasures for your palate. There are also many one of a kind craft stores selling pottery, artwork, jewelry, and other trinkets that you can’t do without. For those that didn’t pack enough clothes, don’t fret, there are enough boutiques to satisfy all your urges.
Although the center of Bellagio, and the majority of the village is north of the ferry dock, venturing to the south is rewarding. There is a long promenade that runs along the lake with trees lining the path on one side. It leads to Villa Melzi D’Eril, which contours along the lakefront. It’s a neoclassical villa, with a small Etruscan museum, and a gazebo that juts out over the water. The paths through the gardens are very tranquil, but also alive with bursts of color from the azaleas. It is a wonderful way to enjoy your afternoon. My favorite spot in Bellagio however, is the Villa Serbolloni,which is on the hill behind the hotel. Note that this villa is not part of the hotel, but is a part of the Rockefeller Foundation, and it serves as a retreat for scholars and artists. Today, guided tours are held twice a day. As you climb up the hill, the path meanders through a combination of tall evergreens, sweeping lawns, and garden beds. You will pass a total of 12 tiny one-room buildings that have each been assigned to a visiting artist for the month. It is almost eerie how these buildings blend into the landscape. At the top there is a larger building, obviously for scholarly gettogethers. Although the trek to the top is a bit of a hike, you will be well rewarded. There is the remains of a building by Pliny the Younger, several formal gardens, and an unobstructed view that is unsurpassed.
Venturing beyond Bellagio is as easy as a ferryboat ride. Como is a medieval walled town that is larger than Bellagio. It has many chic shops, and the outdoor market in the Via Vittorio Emanuele II is fabulous. And just north of Como is the famed Villa d’Este. Varenna is another town that is an ancient gem. Being only a short boat ride from Bellagio makes it a must. As the ferry pulls into Varenna you would think the town was asleep. You walk along the lake on a narrow concrete path and pass dozens of small fishing boats. Finally you reach the beginning of town, and you begin to climb the cobblestone streets. It is a tiny town with a town square and a few charming shops, but the highlight is Villa Monastero. This villa used to house nuns, but now it is impeccably maintained by the town. What makes this villa different is the shape of the property, it is a long, sometimes very narrow, strip that runs along the lake. This 16th century garden is so varied and interesting. It has sculptures, pergolas, pools, a gazebo and several sitting areas overlooking the water.
Bellagio is a place that will warm your heart and dazzle expectations. If you can’t buy a villa overlooking the lake, do the next best thingÂ…book a vacation and enjoy.