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Getting to grips with indolence

Daniela Bezzi visits the drawing room of Italy
Lake Como is one of the places where the British idea of a holiday was born. The rest of the Grand Tour may have furnished material for a lifetime of artistic refinement and intellectual one-upmanship; but Como offered relaxation pure and simple, exquisite balm for all the senses. Here was where the hectic northern soul got to grips with indolence and its charms.

Luckily, not too much has changed here in the past 150 years: it's still one of the fanciest places in the world to do nothing much - on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, for example, in the honey-coloured light of a day in early autumn, with a gentle breeze rippling the water of the lake, the small ferries and the occasional paddle steamer plugging back and forth against the backdrop of the misty mountains beyond.

Como has been a retreat from the rigours of everyday life since Roman times. Pliny the Younger wrote besottedly of his two villas by the lake, one of which he called Tragedy (it rose from its setting like an actor wearing the tragedians' boots), the other Comedy. He wrote that from the windows of Tragedy, built on the lakeside, "you can quite simply cast your line from your bedroom window without getting out of bed, almost as if you were in a boat". That, written some 1,800 years ago, captures the Como spirit pretty precisely.

The lake's enduring popularity is aided by its accessibility: as it is only an hour or so from Milan by car. This also has its downside, of course: in the past, Como's towns and villas were served only by water- borne traffic, whereas now a typically narrow road with typically aggressive traffic skirts the entire lake. This is one of several reasons why Bellagio is the most tempting destination on the lake. At the tip of the promontory which divides Lake Como to the west from Lake Lecco to the east, it is not directly on the way to anywhere.

So Bellagio has by geographical good fortune what the rest of the lake can only mourn the loss of: peace and quiet. All the other elements of a perfect Como holiday are present here in strong concentrations, too.

It has, for example, two of the region's best villas. Como has long been considered "the drawing room of Italy", where the tycoons retreat from the heat and humidity of Milan to recuperate in the lake's famously salubrious microclimate. They built fabulous villas here. A few minutes' walk from Bellagio's town square is Villa Melzi - built in the 1800s by the eponymous lord, a friend of Napoleon's. It is cleanly neo-classical in design, a crisp, white rectangle seen from across the water, and still inhabited by the family. The garden, open to the public, is a splendid example (the first in the region) of an Italian "English" garden: superficially it has the wilfulness and informality prized in English gardens, but in fact it has been levelled, landscaped and planted with great cunning to make it appear much larger than it is.

The other villa is Villa Serbelloni, whose grounds dominate the tip of the Bellagio promontory. It is now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation, and the enormous garden is dotted with the small, stuccoed dwellings in which scholars and writers lucky enough to benefit from Rockefeller largess live and work. The house, which twists along the contours of the hillside, lacks the architectural pretensions of other Como villas, but the garden makes up for it in ambition, and the views from the top across the lake and back down the promontory, across lawns dotted with conical topiary, olive, cypresses and off to the misty mountains beyond the water, are among the most memorable Como has to offer.

Bellagio is a satisfactory size, small enough to walk around in 20 minutes, big enough to offer a variety of nice old shops to browse in, selling locally made silks, ceramics and glassware, and a large array of bars and restaurants. It's a pure tourist town, having sprung up in response to the success of its first hotel in 1825; but a tourist town agreeably pickled in amber. There are practically no buildings of the 20th century, and very little about the holidaymaker's experience here can have changed significantly since the Twenties. Which is not to say that it has gone to seed, merely that it has found the era it likes and is sticking to it.

A stay here is not complicated or demanding. You eat; you drink; you admire the lake; you potter around the shops, up and down the steep, cobbled lanes; you take tea and delicious biscuits offered by the Hotel Florence. In the evening, if you are lucky enough to be staying at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, you put on your best frock and and waltz to the music of the Caffe Strauss Concerto, under the coffered ceiling.

The great ochre-coloured hulk of the Hotel de la Grande Bretagne was the first truly luxurious hotel to open in Bellagio in 1861. The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, at the foot of the promontory - long detached from the estate whose name it shares - was originally built as a gift by the estate's owner, Count Frizzoni, for his wife. The Countess, however, hated the place, and the Count sold it off almost immediately. In 1872, with two new wings added, it opened for business as Bellagio's second luxury hotel.

The two hotels became vicious rivals, even backing different candidates at election time. However, 25 years ago the Grande Bretagne closed down, since when the Serbelloni has had the top of the market to itself. It has not squandered this good fortune: like Bellagio itself, the hotel is welcoming, discreet and luxurious in a deeply old-fashioned way, without being either snobbish or seedy.

Of course you don't have to do next to nothing during your stay in Como. The Serbelloni has a new fitness centre where you could pump iron; there are golf courses in the hinterland , and healthy hikes among the gentle, wooded hills south of Bellagio. It's debatable, however, whether the lake is best appreciated with sweat running down one's face. Better, surely, as evening approaches, to board an ancient paddle steamer and, lulled by the thump thump thump of the engine, explore Como's shore in the most supine fashion possible.

Getting there: Daniela Bezzi paid pounds 156.40 for a return flight from London to Milan on Alitalia, through the Ciao Travel Agency in London (0171-493 8947). She travelled from Linate Airport in Milan to Bellagio by car, which is much the simplest way. Rental cars available at Linate. The cheaper but more complicated solution is to take train or bus to either Lecco or Como and then take a ferry from there to Bellagio.

Staying there: Bellagio has 16 hotels, ranging from the one-star Albergo Ristorante La Pergola (00 39 31 950 263), singles at around 85,000 lire (pounds 35) to the splendour of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (00 39 31 950 216), where rooms range from about 300,000 to 470,000 lire (pounds 125-195).