A visit to a cool, quiet Lake Como makes a writer question the meaning of luxury
It’s not hard to see why Lake Como, the picturesque glacial tarn in the north of Italy, nestled against the Swiss Alps, is seen and sold as a luxury destination. With the old-world charm of villages like Bellagio and Cadenabbia, and the villas and palazzos that preside over its steep hillsides—some owned by glitterati like Madonna and George Clooney—the lake, which lies less than an hour from Milan by car or train, is often dismissed as a playground for the rich and famous. This air of exclusivity has always clung to Como; recalling a hiking tour of the Alps he’d taken in 1790, William Wordsworth described the lake as “a treasure whom the earth/Keeps to herself.”
But on a crisp March afternoon, as I lounge at a sidewalk table on Como’s waterfront, watching ferries and sea-planes ply their routes, it occurs to me that you don’t have to be an aristocrat to enjoy the lake’s extravagant charms. You just need good timing and a taste for simple pleasures—like the glass of Soave and the perfect pizza Napoletana in front of me. In early spring or late autumn there are no crowds, prices are lower, and reservations are easy to get or unneeded. The weather is tentative and blustery, more Seattle than Saint-Tropez, and perfect for long hikes along ancient roads and rocky mule paths or strolls through shuttered medieval town centers, all soundtracked by the lapping of water against stone walls. Many high-end hotels and restaurants close from November until April, but those that stay open offer a more laid-back kind of luxury: Lake Como for the rest of us.
There’s much to recommend this Como: sailboats bobbing in the marina, old-timers in parkas sipping espresso while young couples from Milan stroll past. Even the herd of Harleys that roars past my table—one f ly ing an American f lag and ridden by a K hal Drogo look-alike—is somehow rendered charming by the serene beauty of the lake.
My only previous visit to Lake Como, in 2014, was of the decidedly luxe sort: a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, a 17th-century villa that sits majestically atop a bluff and presides over one of the most inspiring vistas on the planet. I spent a month there, working on a novel, strolling the 53 acres of woods and gardens in pursuit of the muse. I arrived in mid-February: The weather was cold, often drizzly; virtually nothing in Bellagio was open. I couldn’t have cared less. After leaving, I fell into a weeks-long funk that only lifted when I vowed that someday, somehow, I would return to Lake Como. Life had other plans, of course. My son was born a year later. I changed jobs. My wife and I moved halfway across the U.S. The bliss of that pampered month slowly faded, a pleasant memory that felt ever less likely to be repeated. Now, eight years and a global pandemic later, I’m back.
The loveliness of the waterfront in the city of Como can’t prepare you for the gobsmacking gorgeousness of the lake itself, which is best seen from the deck of one of the ferries that crisscross the region. In winter, service is limited to a few critical routes, so I begin exploring by hopping a bus to Argegno, winding along the base of terraced hills dotted with crumbling ancient fortresses, and then taking a ferry to the tiny village of Sala Comacina. The lake in early morning is a flawless mirror, inverting the images of narrow pink and yellow and white houses and the hump of Isola Comacina, Como’s only island, like a breaching whale roughly 300 yards offshore. To the north, the snow-draped Alps rise in otherworldly shades of gray and pink.
From Sala Comacina, I catch a ride on a vaporetto out to the island with Flavio, a transplanted Roman working for Boat Service Lake Como. Isola Comacina was settled in Roman times, first as a military garrison and later as a redoubt for early Christians, who built no fewer than seven churches on its 15 acres. Legend has it that in the 6th century the Holy Grail was hidden on the island for safe-keeping. It brought little protection: After an ill-considered alliance with the Duke of Milan in 1118, the island suffered the wrath of a resurgent Como, whose army razed it to the ground in 1169. Except for three sporadically occupied artist cottages built in the 1930s, it has been uninhabited ever since.
For an hour or so, I wander along the silent ridge, stopping to examine 5th-century stone walls, peering into the restored baptistery of the Church of St. John the Baptist, where original sections of fish-themed frescoes are still visible. I am the only human on the island, which would be unimaginable during the high season. I sprawl out in a small meadow, read a few pages of a novel, and watch hawks ride the gentle air currents. The peninsula that separates the lake’s southern arms looms steeply to the east, regal Bellagio just visible at its northern tip. If I squint, I can make out the shape of the villa where I once stayed. It’s very quiet on the island: I could take a nap, or build a fire, or yodel, and no one would know. It’s easy to understand why those early residents chose this place: Solitude is its own luxury.
Later that afternoon, I walk the Greenway del Lago di Como, a six-mile route that starts south of Sala Comacina and zigzags north through a half-dozen villages on the shore and up into the hills, passing through churchyards and olive groves, offering hikers shady respite in 10th-century chapels or the sumptuous gardens and galleries of Villa Balbiano (where Anakin Skywalker married Padmé in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) and Villa Carlotta. Traversing the Green-way, which partly traces the Roman Antica Strada Regina, feels like weaving in and out of history: In hamlets like Spurano and Bonzanigo, narrow cobbled pas-sages and silent courtyards recall lives of millennia past, while along the spacious promenades of Lenno and Tremezzo gelato shops and cantinas intersperse with the dignified manors and public gardens of later eras. Up in the hills, half-crumbled stone farmhouses give way to modest new apartments. In three hours, I pass maybe a dozen other people, until at last I plop down, thirsty and satisfied, for a late lunch at the Red & White Wine Bar, under the arcades of Tremezzo. As water taxis dock and depart, I consider taking a tour of Villa Carlotta or perhaps visiting the Turkish bath at the opulent Grand Hotel Tremezzo. But I don’t want opulence—all I want is this plate of cannelloni and this tall, icy beer. This, I’m quite sure, is the life.
My home for the night is the lakeside Pa l ace Hotel. Made up of a 19t h- century Belle Époque building and a newer Pianella wing, it’s the best-located hotel in the city of Como, steps from the ferry terminal and the train station, with unobstructed views of the water and mountains. In March, the rates are more than reasonable, nowhere near the four-figure prices of the famed Villa d’Este or the Mandarin Oriental, yet sacrificing nothing of European comfort and style. I opt for dinner at the hotel’s elegant Ristorante Antica Darsena; after a half bottle of Curtefranca, the jet lag kicks in, and I make my way upstairs to fall asleep watching lights twinkle in the hills.
The next day, a quick funicular ride from the lakeshore takes me up into those hills, to the village of Brunate, where a walk along steeply sloping streets and paths takes me to the Faro Voltiano, a nearly 100-year-old lighthouse named for native son Alessandro Volta. That hike, and the gelato I award myself afterward, are mere prelude to dinner at La Colombetta, a chic, neighborhoody Como restaurant owned by a Sardinian family. According to the website, George Clooney once brought his parents here, but for most of tonight I have the place to myself. Beneath vaulted ceilings and stark, white walls hung with vivid oils, I tuck into a glorious crudo plate (red tuna, yellowtail, prawns, oysters) served with a tasty flatbread known as carta di musica. The owner has plenty of time for chitchat, and offers me a complimentary glass of mirto, a wild-berry liqueur from Sardinia, with dessert. Walking back to my hotel through the Piazza Volta, I try to envision Como in the busy summer season, to imagine what I might be missing. A great tan, maybe? A celebrity sighting or two?
Little else comes to mind.
The next morning, after an hour’s bus ride along mountain roads so picturesque and perilous they could be the setting of a chase scene in a Bond film, I find myself once again on Bellagio’s lido, a chilly breeze fluttering under my fleece. Surreal silhouettes of pollarded lime and linden trees knuckle darkly into the bright sky. I can sense, rather than see, the Rockefeller Foundation’s villa above me, an old friend welcoming me back after a long absence. My hotel, the three-star Hotel Bellagio, could not be better located—halfway up one of the stone salitas (stairways) that climb away from the waterfront—and with off-season rates starting at around $100, a traveler could hardly ask for a better jumping-off place to explore the town and its surroundings.
To be in Bellagio as spring arrives is to feel present at the birth of something. Up and down the salitas, storekeepers who braved the winter stand squint-ing into the clear sunshine; others, who closed down in November, are opening boxes of inventory, washing windows, arranging display cases and polishing brass bar rails in expectation of returning crowds. Though many restaurants and larger hotels remain closed, there is no lack of things to do. I stop into family-owned Azalea to buy a silk scarf, then take an e-bike tour up through the hill towns of Makallè and Civenna, returning in time for aperitivo at the cozy Enoteca Cava Turacciolo, tucked in an alley next to the Hotel Excelsior Splendide. Time passes slowly, as it usually does in Bellagio, and with maximum pleasantness. The life of a writer is, for the most part, unglamorous in the extreme, so when I was last here, on the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation, I’d felt like Cinderella getting asked to the prince’s ball. The intervening years were somewhat less charmed: The novel I was writing at the villa, The Gringa, was published on March 10, 2020—the day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Understandably, potential readers had other things on their mind, but it was hard not to feel like those years of work had been for naught, the brief glamour of my time in Bellagio all but canceled. So it’s with some emotion that, on my second day in Bellagio, I return to the Rockefeller Foundation and spend a few hours wandering the grounds, parts of which the general public can tour by appointment. As I climb through oak and cedar woods to a promontory ringed with 8th-century Longobardian ruins, I sigh with the memory of those blessed days, when these paths were mine to roam at will. At the top, I find my favorite stone bench right where I’d left it and sit for a long time, watching the Varenna ferry etch the glass lake below. What a luxury to have those memories at all!
If anything can make laid-back Bellagio feel hectic, it’s a morning in Varenna, a village of 800 or so residents that juts into the lake, rendering adjectives like “charming” and “cute” insufficient. After a 10-minute ferry ride, I follow a narrow harbor walk toward the placid Piazza San Giorgio, then strike out on the Sentiero Scabium, a steep, hardscrabble climb through cypress and bamboo groves to the Castello Vezio, where I’m just in time for a falconry demonstration. In the shadow of the 12th-century fortress, I sit with a group of local middle-schoolers and their teachers while Harris hawks and black kites explode into the upper air currents, wheeling around the forbidding watchtower and through pine and larch trees before homing to the chunks of raw, disconcertingly feathered meat in the falconer’s gauntlet.
Afterward, I hike for a couple of hours on the Sentiero del Viandante, or Wayfarer’s Path, plunging along leaf-strewn mule tracks, past farmhouses and isolated chapels, toward the Orrido di Bellano, a thickly wooded gorge carved by the Pioverna River. The map I downloaded is rudimentary and badly translated, but I’m in no rush—getting lost in an Italian chestnut forest, with no emails to answer or appointments to keep, is far more satisfying than a spa massage or an overpriced Aperol spritz.
For dinner that night, I walk a mile down the dimly lit main road from Bellagio to Ittiturismo Mella, in the village of San Giovanni. Ittiturismo translates as “fish tourism,” and Mella, which has been operated by the same family since 1958, might be thought of as a “lake-to-table” restaurant, where diners sample delicious preparations of the previous night’s catch. With the help of two writer friends currently staying at the Bellagio Center, I plow through a plate of lake fish pâté, whitefish salad, and fried gnocchi before moving on to the local delicacy—risotto with fried perch and sage—and a life-altering grilled lavarello. We polish off bottles of Valtellina, a local red, and Lugana, a local white (our waitress gently disapproving of the former and com-mending our choice of the latter) before weaving our way, in the dark, back to town.
Though it’s inexpensive, there’s nothing cheap about our food; the meal is as good as any I’ve had all week. But neither is Mella, with its dressed-down patrons and rustic decor, what one might envision when fantasizing about fabulous Lake Como meals. How many tourists even find their way down that road? On my last night in Bellagio, I fall asleep more convinced than ever that this version of Lake Como—the off-season, off-the-beaten-path Como of ittiturismi and bewildering hikes‚ is more interesting, more satisfying, than the Como of Versace and Villa d’Este. The ferry rides and strenuous walks, the heartstopping views and gelato rewards, are all the luxury I’ll ever need.
And yet … there is something about Como that makes even the most modest among us crave luxury— something enticing about its velvet salons and heated pools, its chic restaurants where gentlemen must wear jackets. And so, at the end of a week of simple pleasures, when I hear the siren call of the Villa d’Este, I can’t help but answer.
Originally built as a palazzo for the Cardinal of Como in 1568, the 152-room hotel in Cernobbio is celebrating its 150th season this year, and while it has made small concessions to the 21st century (Wi-Fi, virtual golf), in most ways it has remained stubbornly, gloriously traditional. It is the kind of place with marble sculptures and Renaissance paint-ings lining hushed halls, with a private helipad that sits below a faux medieval fortress (a previous owner’s idea of “home improvement”); the kind of place where you can enjoy a cocktail while lounging in a swimming pool that floats on top of the lake, where you can order a $25,000 bottle of Barolo and enjoy it in a Louis XV armchair, where at night you’ll find fresh-cut flowers in your bathroom before you stretch out in a bed large enough for the Brady Bunch.
If you like that sort of thing.
It turns out I do like that sort of thing. I like it very, very much. Because the word luxury comes from the Latin word luxus: excess, magnificence. These two words fit Villa d’Este to a T: a magnificent excess of food, drink, space, beauty, and, most of all, time. In my pre-travel notes I’d set aside this last day for further adventures: Maybe I’d hike up to the tiny 17th-century San Martino church, an hour’s steep trek from Cadenabbia, or visit the 14 chapels of the Sacred Mount of Ossuccio, a pilgrim’s trail built in the 17th century. But when I wake in the cool acreage of that bed and throw open the shutters to welcome the breeze off the lake, I know I’ll do none of those things. I’ll sip coffee on the balcony and read a while, head down for a morning swim, wander the lovely gardens past the hotel’s exquisite Mosaic House, and, after sundown, stroll (jacketed) into the ultra-refined Veranda restaurant. Until now, I have seized every day in Como, but today I will do nothing but luxuriate.
Still, there’s something limiting about this kind of luxury. I will treasure the day I spent at Villa d’Este, as I treasure my month at the Bellagio Center—but I pity the traveler to Como who only stays at such places, who misses the rest of what the lake has to offer.
In his poem “Cadenabbia,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described Lake Como as a kind of Brigadoon: I ask myself, Is this a dream? Will it all vanish into air? Is there a land of such supreme And perfect beauty anywhere?
After a week at the lake, I’m convinced there is not. I’ve seen a good deal of it, on foot and by ferry, and I know there is much I haven’t seen. I’ve been plenty comfortable, but other than at Villa d’Este I haven’t traveled like an A-lister. Yet all the way back to Milan Malpensa Airport, I watch the landscape out the train window and smile with satisfaction, basking in that sense of dreamy special-ness Como imparts. I may never have George Clooney’s money, or his fame, but for a glorious week in March, spring sun rising over the Alps and reflecting in the lake, I was as happy as he could ever be.
Where to Stay
Originally built in 1898 as the Grand Hotel Plinius, this Belle Époque landmark on the town of Como’s lakefront added its modern Pianella wing in 1992. (The latter was refurbished in 2019.) Stroll the hotel gardens, ask the staff to arrange a guided tour of the City of Silk, and be sure to plan a dinner at the on-site Ristorante Antica Darsena; don’t miss the braised octopus and the game hen in artichoke sauce.
From $206, palacehotel.it
Formerly the Hotel Roma, this 29-room boutique property is located 38 steps up from the shore on one of Bellagio’s traditional staircases. Those who want to get out on the lake can rent kayaks or reserve private water taxis, while guests who’d prefer to simply look at the water can do so with a cocktail in hand from the rooftop bar at the Hotel du Lac, the Bellagio’s sister property nearby.
From $106, hotelbellagio.it
The most iconic hotel in the Como region, the five-star Villa d’Este has served the area’s most discerning visitors since 1873. Wander the 25-acre private park that surrounds the former palace building, challenge yourself at the nearby Golf Villa d’Este course, avail yourself of one of the many treatments on offer at the spa, and take in the views of the lake while dining at the Veranda restaurant.
From $740, villadeste.com