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).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own