Travel review: Lake Como

The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como.
The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como.
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Want to know how to do a summer holiday properly? Follow the Italians and head to Lake Como says Adam Jacot de Boinod.

First, a piece of advice. If you can spare a week, pack your bags and bag a ticket straight to the middle of Lake Como. Shaped like an upside down Y, it’s only an hour and a bit from Milan and it’s where the Milanese escape to for their holidays.

They’re not the only ones. JMW Turner, the artist, was drawn to it and Shelley the poet once described it as “exceeding anything I have ever beheld in beauty with the exception of the arbutus islands of Killarney”.

It is all about the view. The lakes appear to be set comfortably in a bowl of mountains that descend precipitously. The impact of the wind and sun had a calming and pleasing effect on all my senses. There was the gentle lapping of the waves, the clarity of the mountain peaks, the verdure of the hills and the seemingly lazy motion of the watercraft.

As for the boats, the Italians certainly know how to ‘do’ leisure. They are past masters at messing about in them and the comparisons with Venice are easy to make. No gondolas admittedly but there are boats of all shapes and sizes. Taxis and shuttles take the form of elegant varnished Riva boats, ferries and hydrofoils and, for a real throwback in time, the steamer. Make sure you check the timetables as the trips vary across the day.

The region conjures up an innocent era of holidaying that reminded me vividly of my childhood. There are swallows and seagulls, dogs and lizards. To add to the theatricality, the church bells chime across the lake charmingly slightly out of synchronicity. Italians in public duty take pride in their immaculate presentation with some of the waiters sporting epaulettes on their uniforms. The ice cream stalls evoked the Walls and Lyons Maid signs that used to hang outside my local village shop.

I stayed in Bellagio at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. How rare to be somewhere quite so romantic for breakfast! The room is a mirrored ballroom with a wonderful sense of a bygone era. Elsewhere in this gorgeous yesteryear ‘grand’ hotel is an impressive staircase bedecked with old photographs and paintings in rhomboid frames parallel to the steps. Runner rugs on the long corridors split the guest bedrooms situated refreshingly on a mere two floors.

I crossed the lake to visit the famous Villa Carlotta. Built as early as 1745 it was then later bought by the Princess of Prussia who gave it as a present to her daughter Carlotta (hence the name). Inside is a vast open high ceilinged central hall with rooms set off from it. One of which houses the masterpiece sculpture Cupid and Psyche by Canova. It’s a stunning white circular composition portraying the fragility of romantic love. But it’s the gardens for which the villa is internationally famous. Added to her typically 18th century layout of terraces rising from the lake to the house is a magnificent landscape garden in the English style. There’s a fabulous display of azaleas and rhododendrons. There’s an olive tree grove, a valley of ferns, a rock garden and a bamboo garden. There’s even a mini-rain forest kept green and humid by a succession of sprinklers. The terraces alternate between being shaded by ilex trees and open to the sun and the beautiful views over the lake. Right next door and later that evening I was to enjoy a fabulous dinner at the new and modern funkily designed L’Escale restaurant at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo.

Set in front of the Alpine part of the lake, with Switzerland nearby and behind it, is the enchanting Villa Camilla, the old family home of the Marchesi di Rozzano where I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days. The spacious 19th-century villa has five acres of garden. There are covered terraces outside affording superb views across the lake. There’s a swimming pool and a private mooring on the lake. Ancient sequoias, cedars, oaks, magnolias and palms all grace the property.

The view from the house is across the sloped lawn down to the lake and across to the houses, hills and mountains beyond. The romantic setting is perfect for a wedding reception. Looking up from the road, I noticed how the green of the Alps beyond and also of the lawn beneath my feet is subtly picked out by the green in the frontage of the villa. The textures vary with lush, spongy grass, solid ancient trees and gritty gravel. The private gates either side of the villa lead onto the Via Antica Regina, an ancient cobbled on-the-level walkway in both directions along which I enjoyed long walks behind the houses, allotments and meadows of the neighbouring villages of San Siro and Santa Maria Rezzonico with their delightful churches.

“Summer afternoon,” said the American novelist Henry James, “to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language”. He starts one novel with a langourous and delicate evocation of that time of day: “part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly however and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour”. I couldn’t put it any better myself!

GETTING THERE

Adam travelled with support from stanstedexpress.com and chepstowcars.com

Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064, classic-collection.co.uk) offers three or seven-night breaks at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni from £1,159/£1,909 per person. Based on two adults sharing a classic park view room on B&B basis. Includes return flights from London Gatwick to Milan and private transfers.