Lake Como has been a retreat since Roman times. If Bellagio, its loveliest resort, feels like a refuge, it’s because it is, in both peacetime and wartime. During the Second World War, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni faced down the Italian Fascists’ wrath to offer sanctuary to Jewish families.
Bellagio is too blatantly beautiful to play the ingénue. A flotilla of film stars descends on Lake Como in summer, and most end up in this starry resort. Surprisingly, Bellagio is burnished by shimmering moods not star-studded sights. Despite its legendary profile, the lake can also be shadowy, a place for lying low.
As in the best Hollywood blockbusters, power and politics have slogged it out in a blissful setting. Lake Como has witnessed Fascist occupation and the fall of Mussolini as well as Churchillian passion and wartime heroism, with local hoteliers leading the way. In the postwar era, this precious retreat has been wrested back from a shadowy past. So well have the waters closed over the wartime events that it is hard to believe that such brutality ever happened here. The lake has reverted to its original role, a playground for weary urbanites.
Bellagio commands the promontory of Punta Spartivento, ‘the point which divides the winds,’ and wallows in its romantic reputation. From the terrace of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, I sip a peachy Bellini and watch the ferries criss-cross the loveliest arm of Lake Como. I look in vain for a convoy of Clooneys and a brace of Bransons but can only see a quack of decorous ducks. That’s how Bellagio fans like it: serene outdoors, sedate within. And definitely no quacking to the press.
Scenery, simplicity and a sense of surrender
As the most glamorous lake, Como has drawn grand tourists for several thousand years. The Roman poet, Pliny the Younger, sang the praises of his waterside villas, retreats from the cares of the world. Named Comedy and Tragedy, the porticoed villas saved him from what passed for stress in urban Rome. Villa Comedia is traditionally sited in Lenno, where the young poet fished from his bedroom window. Villa Tragedia straddled a ridge in Bellagio, supposedly the site of today’s Rockefeller Foundation, a villa with sweeping views of the Alps. Ever since, grand tourist dreams have resembled a Place in the Sun, with villas set amid azaleas, camellias and giant palms. Whether rich, rakish or rebellious, the pleasure-seekers’ concerns remain the same: scenery, simplicity, a release from social responsibility, and a sense of surrender. So far, so contemporary, so Clooney.
This July, George and Amal Clooney celebrated American Independence Day with lakeside fireworks viewed from their yacht, as one does. The patriotic party included Julia Roberts and Robert De Niro: the poster boy at play with his famous pals. Team Clooney dutifully fed the swans and the world’s media but this might be the star’s swansong. Rumour has it that Como’s favourite import is thinking of selling his gorgeous villa, faced with an outrageously good offer and frustrated by paparazzi intrusion. His departure would be a huge blow to the economy. Chamber of Commerce research suggests the star is worth €130 million in free publicity to Lake Como. Local pride is also at stake, not to mention affection for the star’s lack of airs and graces. Clooney loves the laidback lifestyle here, from his speedboat to simple dinners of grilled fish and Barbera wine: “Italians have taught me how to celebrate life.”
Lake Como is also where old money meets new money and revels in the sexiness of the relationship. Just across the water from Bellagio stands Villa La Cassinella, briefly the love nest of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, but reportedly now a Virgin’s power pad. Not so, proclaims Richard Branson: “It was much to my surprise that the tour guide pointed out ‘Richard Branson’s villa’ over my shoulder. It was news to me. George Clooney is reputedly my next-door neighbour. My wife Joan is very sad to report that this is untrue. George once said he wanted to swap lives with me for 24 hours. As quick as a flash, Joan said: “Done!” The villa, tucked behind its boxwood hedges and climbing wisteria, is just one of the many lakeside mysteries.
Like the celebrities, we are still seduced by Lake Como, a staging post on the Grand Tour, even if a shady past lies behind the glamour. As grand tourists, we play the game, splashing out on a linen suit and a suite with a view. Lake Como is for sophisticates, not cheapskates. We dress for dinner and pose over jazzy cocktails on a time-warp terrace. But murkiness is also part of the picture.
The shadowy landscape of Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks was inspired by Lake Como’s surrounding streams, waterfalls and limestone peaks. This chiaroscuro marker sets the tone for a lake often portrayed only as paradise in pastels. In Bellagio’s Villa Melzi, the shadowy mood is enhanced by wistful classical statuary set against subtle shades of green. A darkly ornamental pool is framed by cedars, maples, camphor and myrrh. Standing sentinel by the lake is a quaint coffeehouse that once captivated Liszt. It’s unashamedly romantic. The composer wrote his Dante Sonata on these shores, supposedly inspired by a statue of Dante and Beatrice in Villa Melzi.
Villa Serbelloni - heritage and heroism
Villa Serbelloni is my favourite retreat on the lake. Built in 1853, it’s a grown-up hideaway, a grande-dame not afraid to show her age. Villa envy is provoked by the entrance-making marble staircases and Murano crystal chandeliers. More is definitely more, from the coffered ceilings to the stucco-work columns, trompe l’oeil flourishes and frescoed dining room. Minimalists should stay in Milan.
Vintage Villa Serbelloni
Like the lake’s ducks, the staff are unflappable. The dining team has recently won awards for the best restaurant service in Italy, as has the old-school maître d’hotel. Not that period glamour can’t cope with contemporary tastes. At Mistral, a temple of Molecular Cuisine, Michelin-starred service goes showbiz with a `smoke and mirrors’ spectacle. The tasting menu ends with nitrogen-chilled ice cream concocted at the table: it’s sixteen seconds of wizardry straight out of Harry Potter. That’s showbiz.
In the sedate piano bar, a Russian oligarch flirts with a model. Rumour has it that Robbie Williams is in residence, booked to sing at a Russian party. But there are no gorillas barring the way, still less renditions of the singer’s tiresome Angels: “Does an angel contemplate my fate?” Any under-employed angel would do better to contemplate an `angel in residence’ role in the resort.
Bellagio itself is all bijou craft shops and quaintly cobbled alleys, pastel facades and genteel promenades. Red rooftops and a Romanesque belltower lead to shimmering vistas and coolly neoclassical villas. Days can be spent chugging from one grand garden to another, from blazes of bougainvillea to brooding woods. The litany of lakeside clichés endures.
If the hotel itself feels like a refuge, it’s because it is. During the Second World War, Villa Serbelloni acted as a Swiss enclave and faced down the Italian Fascists’ wrath to offer sanctuary to Jewish families.
For such a peaceful lake, the turbulence of its wartime past is extraordinary. Gianfranco Bucher, the affable owner of Villa Serbelloni, shows me the hotel’s gallery, recording bygone political leaders and wartime family secrets. Among the portraits of Churchill and Roosevelt is a letter of protection from the Swiss consulate in Milan, issued in 1943, guaranteeing safe conduct to the Bucher family. There’s also a chilling response from the local Fascists, claiming the Buchers, Swiss subjects, were “anti-Italian and anti-German.” The hoteliers were charged with consorting with enemies, “housing enemy citizens, even Jewish families” who, disgracefully, “gather around the wireless to listen to Radio London.” The letter concludes: “We’ve put up with the Bucher family for years but it’s time we got rid of them once and for all and expelled them. And stopped them consorting with enemies.” Fortunately, history has rewarded the hoteliers’ acts of humanity with the last laugh. The pool is full of giggling children, blissfully unaware that their great-grandparents were once enemies on these shores.
War and peace on Lake Como
Churchill was also a cherished guest at Villa Serbelloni, as were Roosevelt and JF Kennedy. Suites are named in their honour but, unsurprisingly, a Mussolini Suite is absent, particularly given Il Duce’s dramatic end on Lake Como. During the last days of the war, Mussolini fled from the advancing Allied Army, hidden in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. Mussolini was joined by his devoted mistress, Clara Petacci, who was apparently given a chance to flee but refused. In Mezzegra, near Lake Como, the couple were shot by partisans fearful Mussolini would fall into Allied hands and be treated too leniently. Once in Milan, the corpses of the couple and their fellow-Fascists were strung up by their heels to appease the baying mob. All this is a far cry from Mussolini’s love-nest in the lakes.
Shortly after the War, Churchill holidayed on Lake Como, demoralised after losing office in the July 1945 elections. Solace came in the form of Villa Le Rose, “a small palace, the last word in modern millionairism.” In sleepy Moltrasio, the former prime minister painted all day, even if alternative conspiracy theories abound. Locals still refer to Mussolini’s missing loot, and wonder whether Churchill was in pursuit of treasure or compromising wartime correspondence. Rumours persist of letters from London attempting to persuade Mussolini to make a separate peace with the Allies, thereby subverting Allied demands for an unconditional surrender of all Axis countries. The truth is probably far simpler: that, for a disillusioned wartime leader, peace was the greatest prize of all. Churchill’s daughter Sarah enthused about seeing her father painting “a luminous lake and boats, backed by a beetling crag, with a miniature toy village caught in the sunlight at its foot.”
The brutality of war couldn’t be further from the beauty of the lake, from its sluggish steamers to its snowclad peaks. Here, Churchill found the peace he was looking for: “An air of complete tranquillity and good humour pervades these beautiful lakes and valleys, which are unravaged by war,” Churchill enthused. “There is not a sign to be seen in the countryside, the dwellings or the demeanour or appearance of the inhabitants which would suggest that any violent events have been happening in the world.” For jaded urbanites, this illusory sense of peace is still the lake's greatest draw.