Lake Como was already familiar for a number of reasons, all of which related to either TV or film. From the Nineties and the ticket to stylish and exotic football that was Channel 4’s groundbreaking coverage of Serie A action came a first glimpse of this intoxicating corner of northern Italy.
Paul Ince’s transfer from Manchester United to Inter Milan meant he became the “go to” man for the channel and its hugely popular Saturday morning magazine show Gazzetta Football Italia.
Rarely a week passed without Ince’s villa on the shore of Lake Como being featured and this then 20-something football fan couldn’t fail to be impressed.
Fast forward a decade or so and it was James Bond who had supplanted English football’s self-styled “guvnor” as the main man in town, thanks to not one but two villas overlooking this vast upside-down Y-shaped expanse of water being used as locations for the filming of Casino Royale.
Later, George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt would spend a month filming Ocean’s Twelve on those same shores and it was while watching this sequel that a vow was made. Lake Como was firmly on the “bucket list”.
The chance to tick it off finally came this summer and the wait was very much worthwhile. Lake Como really is as idyllic as the big screen had suggested and the sunrise so magnificent that even a curmudgeonly late riser such as myself stopped dreading the early alarm call.
Having arrived at the well-appointed Hotel Britannia Excelsior during the afternoon and then embarked on a boat tour soon after that took in a couple of those film locations, I had already been quickly won over.
But it was only when, after throwing back the curtains that first morning shortly before 6am and stepping onto the balcony, that the true beauty of this area became apparent.
As the sun gradually stretched its reach across the pretty village of Bellagio sitting across the already sparkling water, all was truly well with a world that seemed a long, long way from the hustle and bustle of life back home in Yorkshire.
Milan, just 50 or miles to the south, had been our arrival point with Shearings Holidays. This venerable veteran of the coach tour business is increasingly branching out into air travel to serve those more pressed for time when wanting to explore further flung destinations.
Run by the Whieldon family, the Britannia Excelsior in the picturesque village of Cadenabbia boasts 284 rooms, two bars, a selection of restaurants and, best of all, a floating pool with 200 sunbeds. There is also a free shuttle bus to the nearby Bazzoni hotel, also owned by ever-welcoming hosts Ross and Doriana.
Fully refurbished earlier this year, the Bazzoni has a more contemporary design than the classic Italian furnishings of the Excelsior, along with a gourmet restaurant, bistro, cocktail bar and drinks terrace.
The latter overlooks Villa Barbienello, one of those glamorous locations from Casino Royale. Much, much further away but, nevertheless, visible in the distance is the destination on our first day trip, the Alps. Or, more specifically, St Moritz via the Bernina Express Railway.
Starting in Tirano, the train crosses the Swiss border within minutes before snaking its way up and through the Alps.
A remarkable feat of engineering that sees the line rise 1,824 metres in just 22km – a gradient of up to seven per cent – brings some truly breathtaking scenery. A favourite came when looking towards the journey’s peak at Ospizio Bernina across Lake Poschiavo, the water so still that the summit appeared at both the top and bottom of this mirror image. Wonderful, as was the view from Alp Grum, where we enjoyed a 20-minute stop to take in the vista along with a cooling drink.
The following day our excursion couldn’t have been more contrasting to the still and clean air of the Alps. Milan, arguably the fashion capital of the world, beckoned and a chance to explore one of Italy’s great cities.
This being the summer, the city was packed but this couldn’t detract from the splendours on offer. The starting point has to be Piazza del Duomo and its towering Gothic cathedral. Also here can be found the famed shopping arcade Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II along with what felt like half of the tourists spending their summer in Italy.
Happily, when the crowds do become a bit much, escaping the tourist trail isn’t difficult and an enjoyable couple of hours were spent exploring the squares and lanes that make up the city centre.
This being Milan, foodies are well catered for with family-run trattorias abounding in the backstreets along with cafes where people watching is almost as much fun a pastime as sampling the local vino.
Our trips to Milan and St Moritz were hugely enjoyable. But, for me, Lake Como itself and the vista from our hotel was what made the trip.
Gazing across at timeless Bellagio with a refreshing drink in hand or while tucking into some delicious fish specialities were the enduring memories of a rather fabulous and relaxing few days as I finally succeeded in ticking Lake Como off the Sutcliffe “bucket list”.
Richard travelled with Shearings Holidays, which offers holidays to Lake Como 47 weeks a year, with both flight and coach options available.
A nine-day coach tour package in May 2019 costs from £449 per person, including six nights at the Hotel Britannia Excelsior on an all-inclusive basis, three excursions including a Lake Como tour, a visit to Como Market and a trip to Bergamo. Additional excursions can be booked.
For more details, go to www.shearings.com or call 0344-874-8220.