Tell your friends you’ll be spending your vacation in Bellagio, and they’re likely to assume you’re talking about the glitzy hotel on the Las Vegas Strip created by hotelier/entrepreneur Steve Wynn.
Even when you try to Google “Bellagio,” you’ll have to dig deep to find information about the one in Italy.
This was one of the first travel stories I ever wrote and sold; it was published in the Los Angeles Times in 2002. I recently updated it for More Time To Travel.
We’ve returned to Bellagio, Italy several times over the years since this article was written and discovered that, fortunately, this sleepy little village doesn’t change too much. That’s a big part of its charm and allure.
In building his grand hotel in Vegas, Steve Wynn was inspired by the northern Italian village of Bellagio. Ironically, before George Clooney purchased a home on Lake Como, the town was less well known, even to Italians, than its popular American namesake.
No one arrives in the village–tucked onto a remote corner of the shore overlooking Lake Como–by chance. And from the moment you arrive, it’s easy to understand the allure of the little town that draws visitors from around the world and compels them to return.
Your jaw drops at your first panoramic view of the majestic Italian Alps, juxtaposed against the large expanse of blue water in Europe’s deepest lake. With an unspoiled grace and charm, the town of Bellagio offers its guests a rare opportunity to experience a style and pace of life that has remained unchanged for decades.
Since 1873, aristocrats, royalty, statesmen and stars of the silver screen–such as Winston Churchill, King Farouk, the Rothschilds, John F. Kennedy, Clark Gable and Al Pacino–have made the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni their holiday home. The hotel still serves a well-heeled but low-key clientele.
For three years, my husband, Jerry, my teenage son Andrew and I spent summer vacations at the Villa Serbelloni’s Residence l’Ulivo. Housed in an ochre-washed building with green shutters, it is in the same private park as the main hotel. Each of the 13 apartments offers the comforts of home on the grounds of the only five-star hotel in Bellagio. We set up a household and lived much as the locals do.
The apartments are furnished simply, but guests at the residence enjoy the same amenities as those in the hotel–including use of the two hotel restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, spa, gym and cardio-fitness center. The apartments share an inviting patio that beckons guests to sit and read in the shade of an umbrella by day or to watch the stars and the lights of the nearby towns of Varenna, Tremezzo, Menaggio and Cadenabbia at night.
We met the same neighbors, who returned each year from England, Wales, Germany, Australia and the States. We became friends, sharing news of discoveries around town and exchanging e-mails during the winter.
A beautiful pool, with a large deck and an outdoor bar, is positioned between the Grand Hotel and the lake’s small, sandy beachfront. We sat on chaises at the beach facing the lake for hours and lost track of time. We glimpsed the miniature towns nestled comfortably into the green hillsides across the lake and found it hard to stop thinking about the breathtaking natural beauty. We adjusted to the slow rhythms of the traghetti (ferries) as they traversed the lake. We had the sense that we have finally found paradise.
Our own newly acquired rituals reminded us that we were, indeed, at home in Bellagio. Each morning my husband and I took a walk down the winding street steps away from the hotel grounds. The heart of town, and its historic center, is called Il Borgo. It comprises two narrow one-way streets that are accessible to cars, the Via Garibaldi going south and the Via Piazza Mazzini going north. The rectangular piazza has a shopping arcade that overlooks the port.
Like the more daring natives of the town, we walked down the middle of the road with seeming impunity. Sometimes frustrated drivers honked their horns at us. Occasionally the controlled chaos of the street was punctuated by a motorbike that tried to pass a parked truck delivering Chiarella bottled water.
The two roads are separated by a series of narrow pedestrian alleys with steps, called montées. They run perpendicularly, linking the top level of the town to the lower level at the lakefront. Red geraniums and bougainvillea vines hang from window boxes and balconies above the stairs. It’s hard to miss the animated banter of families or the fragrant aromas escaping from kitchen windows at lunchtime.
We took a different path each time we went up or down, pausing to take pictures of the beautiful architecture.
The largest of the stairways is the Salita Serbelloni. Busy shops, restaurants and bars flank the wide stone stairs that the locals call Il Fossato (the ditch). During medieval times, the ditch was used to defend the town from enemies. Each step is made of small stones that have lost their edge from water or wear. When you make the steep climb from bottom to top, shop windows with colorful silk scarves and handmade leather goods provide a convenient excuse to pause to catch your breath.
Each morning we stopped for what was perhaps the world’s best cup of cappuccino at Pasticceria Sport on Piazza della Chiesa (Church Square) and ordered a cream-filled doughnut (bombolone). Long ago the bar was a monastery. Now its bistro tables and chairs on the street provide a perfect spot for people-watching.
We continued down the street and stopped along the way to purchase provisions for lunch at the apartment. The Panificio Gandola has freshly baked breads and rolls. We went there first because they sold out quickly. The negozio di frutta (fruit store) had ripe tomatoes that tasted as good as they smelled and succulent black plums that were unlike any we had ever tasted. Then we went to the Alimentari Gilardoni Michele grocery for some prosciutto and local cheese.
For just a few dollars, we were able to savor the bounty of the region. Multilingual shopkeepers from one family work in the same stores for generations and have perfected the art of making tourists feel comfortable. After a couple of days, they recognize you and ask how our day is going–“Come va?” Would we like to sample the cheese that is more morbido (soft) or try the special salame hanging in the window?
The simplicity of the day was occasionally jarred by the reminder that we were living within a resort enclave. My son and his friend took advantage of the racquetball courts in the health club and played tennis on the outdoor courts terraced into the hill above the residence. In the heat of the late afternoon, the boys ran down to the pool to refresh themselves before dinner.
Bellagio, sited some distance from major roads, is safe enough and small enough–it has a resident population of 3,000–that young teens can independently experience life “in town.” They took walks to La Punta, the point, to see where the lake split into three branches.
They watched the small fishing boats bringing in lavarello, the fish that seems to be on every restaurant menu. They shopped for little gifts for their friends in the kitschy shops near the port.
The stores attract a stream of visitors who arrive by boat to have lunch and visit some of the tourist sites. On Tuesdays the boys searched for bargains at the once-a-week open-air market that seems to be a favorite with Italians from surrounding towns.
Dinner plans varied. One night we cooked a simple meal of fresh pasta with porcini mushroom sauce, all ingredients purchased at the nearby mini-market. For a first course we had delicious insalata mista, assorted greens and radicchio topped with olive oil that is a product of local trees. For dessert we ate a few baci di Bellagio, sinful butter cookies filled with chocolate, which we bought at the pastry shop up the hill. Another night, the boys brought “home” thin-crust pizzas from Babayaga, a steakhouse and pizzeria just outside the hotel gate. We ordered two pizze margherite with cheese and tomato, another with spinaci and another with salsiccia, sausage. Each came in a small box that we used as a disposable plate–no dishes to wash. The boys gave up soda for acqua minerale (mineral water), either frizzante (with carbonation) or naturale.
Each evening ended with a trip to Il Sorbetto, the gelato (ice cream) shop where the boys connected with their friends at home on the Internet for $6 an hour. (That was when wireless wasn’t available all over the village, even on the lake, as it is now.) Before the shop closed an hour later, they topped the evening off with a cone. Renato, the kind man who owned the shop, and his wife, Ida, who made the gelato, struck up a friendship with my husband. They offered to run a tab so the boys could pay their bill at the end of the week. (One change in Bellagio, this shop is no longer there.)
The night when we were to pack for home, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in the “important” restaurant at the hotel. We dressed up for the first time. The boys, just 14, were still permitted to wear collared shirts and slacks, but men were required to wear jackets in the dining room. On a glass-enclosed terrace, waiters in white jackets carefully lifted silver covers in unison. We listened to the same live classical music that has been played in this room for decades and watched the sun slowly descend.
Despite its treacherous streets, Bellagio is definitely a walking town. Except for a few short drives into the mountains to see the vistas from above or to visit Silvio’s, a fresh fish restaurant outside town, our car remained parked in the lot outside the residence. Two weeks passed by too quickly.
As we left Bellagio and headed for the ferry that would take us across the lake to the road that leads to Milan’s Malpensa Airport, we stopped at the main hotel to check out and said goodbye to Luciano, the concierge. With no hesitation, we told Antonio, the reservations manager, that we would return again.
IF YOU GO
Bellagio on Lake Como