What can I say about Bellagio? It rests on the promontory that juts out where the two legs of Lago Como meet. What was surprising is that it is in the foothills to the Alps. Mountains rise on all banks, severely limiting the amount of housing and shops. While not a large community, shops and hotels dot not only the shoreline, but climb up the hillside so you can look out over the lake in different places. Many of the shops are the typical expensive clothing and jewelry stores one would expect to find in an exclusive resort town. But there are many differences between a lake community and a seaside community like Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. First is the sun. There are many trees along the waterfront with shaded benches so you can look at the water, but not much in the way of beaches except in rocky grottos long the long road in from the autostrada. Boats constantly run tourists from small lakeside communities to another. Ferries carry not only passengers but automobiles (15 euros for a day pass to the six small communities closest to Bellagio of the forty-two on the lake map). There is even a high speed hydrofoil that cuts the two hour journey from Bellagio to Como in half.
We checked in at our five star hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Approaching the hotel I knew we were not in Kansas anymore. Seventeen new black Porsche Carreras in several different models were parked in the entry square. These belonged to guests, we were to learn. Once inside the lobby we were instantly transported to another time in Europe, when old world elegance was the norm in grand estates such as this. The Concierge informed me the hotel was built around a 200 year old villa and opened in 1874. At that time the guest wings were added to the main structure that now houses the offices, restaurants and suites. It features a one star Michelin restaurant, and one would think they were staying with the rich and famous along with occasional royalty that traversed Europe throughout the 19th century. While not a large hotel on the scale that is often seen in major cities, it is extremely well appointed and provides impeccable service.
Wandering through the streets, we came to the weekly market that sets up along the water front. Tents with a wide range of crafts, handmade clothing and objects d’art were available for sale. We chose to peruse as we walked along the water, gazing at the small towns across the lake and wondering what it was like to live in such a remote area during the times when these towns grew up. Not far from Milan, but a world away.
Looking for a light lunch, we happened upon a wine bar, Apertivo Et. Al. It serves a range of cheeses, salads and light snacks. We chose two glasses of wine to sample, one was the best local Nebbiolo – No 1 from Plozza, 2012 and we compared with a Tuscan blend, Arkeos 2010 by San Felice, which combines Pugnitello (60%) with Sangiovese (40%).
Interestingly enough another couple was also sampling wines and in a brief chat we learned they were from a neighboring town back in the US. We exchanged itineraries, information and a promise to compare our experiences over a glass of wine once we returned. We ordered a plate of cheese that the sommelier recommended with the wines we chose and a small salad with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, walnuts and feta with a simple olive oil dressing. Perfect with the wine to compare the excellent Lombardi Nebbiolo, that uses the Amarone method of production, with the superior Tuscan blend.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of wandering shops and discussing the crucial events of our lives and how even small differences would have substantially changed the outcomes we have experienced. But philosophical thoughts such as these are the logical result of realizing how expensive it would be to live on Lake Como and shop in Bellagio. Anyway we kept wandering until time for the evening meal. We came across the restaurant at the Hotel Suisse, Via Lungo Lago Manzoni, 18 – 22021 Bellagio, Tel: 031.951755, firstname.lastname@example.org. It is recognizable as you walk down the arcade as a sign informing you it is Suisse hangs from the ceiling as you approach. We consulted the menu and found interesting options to try. We ordered a Branzino dish (also known as Sea Bass) and a Turbot dish, each with a different sauce, but each excellent. We were convinced to try white truffles with the Branzino which added to the prestige of the dish as white truffles are expensive. The dessert we ordered to complete the evening was a decadent molten chocolate cake with a warm banana sauce. A perfect topping to what had already become an otherworldly old world experience.
We continued to wander shops after our dinner and decided that we would visit the neighboring communities across the lake the next day. The ferry goes out just a short distance down Piazza Mazzini from the hotel. As we approached the ticket window we discovered that a one day pass for unlimited trips to any of the closest towns across the lake including Lenno, Tremezzo, Villa C. Cadenabbia, Menaggio or Varenna was $15 euros. We elected to take the first ferry in and it happened to be going to Varenna. The Concierge informed us that this was the largest of the other close by towns. The ride across took about twenty minutes.
Once across we discovered the ferry was a short walk from the town square along the water. It is a beautiful walk with flowers and plants growing across the stone walls and walkways. The water laps against the stone just below our walkway. Boats for hire or owned by locals are at anchor here, but they are not the substantial yachts found in Portofino or Santa Margherita Ligure. A fifteen foot sailboat is a substantial boat here.
As we explored the streets that run across the face of the hillside, we found numerous shops and restaurants even within the residential areas. Most advertised similar menus that feature lake fish, dried lake fish in pastas, and fish from many of the seas, although usually not using their geographic names. We wanted to get some exercise, having had a substantial meal the night before and started to follow signs for a castle on the top of the hillside. It was a forty minute walk, according to the signs. After about ten, we came to a graveyard, cut into the side of the hill. Fascinating visit to find this in a community where flat land is so precious. We looked at the time and decided we did not want to commit over two hours to the climb up so we walked back down into town and took the road out to the next community, Fiumalatta. We shared the road and a very narrow sidewalk along a substantial drop off to gardens or the lake below. From a distance the town appeared to look similar to Varenna, but when we arrived we did not find enough of interest to keep us there. So we walked back along the highway to the main square of Varenna.
Checking the time we decided we could catch the next ferry to Menaggio, the next small town but across the lake on a different leg. Menaggio proved to be considerably smaller than Varenna. A short wandering brought us back to the square and an interest in a light meal. We found Osteria IL Pozzo (Piazza Garibaldi 22017 Menaggio (CO) Tel: 0344.32333) had the most interesting menu to our taste. What was of interest was homemade ravioli with a cheese walnut filling and a creamy nut sauce, which also proved to be walnut. The portion was the right size for the two of us, for lunch, along with an Insulate mista salad, which is mostly lettuce, shredded carrots and cherry tomatoes with olive oil dressing. We bought a bottle of the local Nebbiolo, but it was equivalent to a house wine – drinkable but not memorable and did not especially enhance the taste of the meal, although if we had consumed the entire bottle it may have.
Since our two hours in Menaggio had fulfilled our curiosity we headed back towards the ferry port and consulted the schedule, thinking we might take in Cadenabbia. What we learned, however, is that at that time of day we could only go back to Varenna and through there back to Bellagio where we could take a direct ferry to Cadenabbia. Our opportunism on catching ferries proved to have made the journey to all three locations much longer than otherwise. Even more mystifying, when we examined the schedule, there were no stops at other than Cadenabbia, Bellagio, Menaggio or Varenna. So we elected to go back to Bellagio, visit a few more shops and decide where we might like to have dinner. After a considerable period of wandering, we decided to check with the Concierge at the hotel. He recommended Hotel Suisse, informing us that they are best known for their meats, even though the fish we had was excellent. His second recommendation was Barchetta, which has both good fish and pizzas, but not a view of the lake. His third choice was La Punta, which is on the very point of Bellagio, overlooking the lake, and is best known for lake fish. So we booked an early dinner slot at La Punta through the Concierge with the hopes that we could watch the night lights come on over the lake.
La Punta, Punta Spartivento was better than advertised. This restaurant is out on the tip of the peninsula and at the end of a short and not well travelled road from the main areas of Bellagio (comparatively speaking – the sign said it was only 200 meters but seemed a lot longer). A walk, and not a drive from the town. The restaurant sits down at water level below the road. It seems small, but is actually large by Bellagio standards. We started with a plate of Bresaola, similar to prosciutto, but significantly leaner. With this we chose a cheese platter, but asked them to hold the gorgonzola. While I’m a fan of blue cheeses in certain foods, I’m not when it’s just the cheese by itself. The cheese platter included Grana Padano and Mozzarella along with two local cheeses that were quite pleasant. We chose a Lombardian wine, Corte di Cama 2010, Sforato di Valtellina by Mamette Prevostrini. This was recommended by the wine steward as best pairing with the white lake fish we were intending to have as our main meal. The lake fish came with head and tail, which was a no no for my companion, who sent hers back. I was not so squeamish and found the fish mild and delightful, although not particularly flavorful. The wine, however, went with it very well. The desserts included a hot molten chocolate cake and a walnut cake, both of which were decadent. A grappa chaser ensured my stomach was handling the new found flavors appropriately.
We asked the waiter to take our picture together after dinner, but he suggested that we should have done so earlier as the night lights did not show up on the picture.
The walk back to the hotel was only about ten minutes, but held out several night photo opportunities of well-lit passages and bell towers. It was another pleasant evening, great food and wine, interesting conversations with fellow travelers as we ate, and exchanging thoughts about the world at large as modified by the alternative life styles we had a brief opportunity to sample in this opulent corner of the world.
The next day was our last in Como and only a morning as we drove back to Malpensa midafternoon. We chose to try the other restaurant recommended by the Concierge for lunch. Barchetta sits up one of the hillside walking lanes without a lake view, but high recommendation. We stopped by late morning and found it was scheduled to open at Noon, so we continued to wander about, discussing other journeys we would like to make and the best things about this trip. A little past noon we arrived again at Barchetta, found the door still locked, so we inquired at the pizzeria below it as to the status. We were informed they weren’t opening that day for lunch, although nothing on the sign would have suggested that outcome. So we wandered again, not sure where to eat and eventually decided to check out the Concierge’s other recommendation which was Hotel Suisse, where we ate the first night, but in this case for meats rather than fish. We were very glad we did.
We ordered an appetizer of shrimp, lobster and scallops on a tomato sauce, which was very good with that sauce. Next was a pasta dish that is simply flat noodles in olive oil and cheese, but the hot noodles are finished off in a large parmesan cheese wheel at your table and scoops of the parmesan are added to the pasta in this process. This is probably the signature dish of the house as several others watched us and also tried it as well. We ordered Tournedos ‘Lucretia Borgia’, which was just excellent even though we sent the dish back finding that ‘medium’ is really ‘medium rare.’ When it came back it was perfectly medium according to my definition which is no blood in the center. Of course my companion had the molten chocolate cake with Banana sauce again, liking it that much. Since we were driving to Malpensa airport after lunch we shared a glass of Prosecco with the early courses and a glass of wine from Multipulchiano for the meat course, although we were not able to determine if it was a Vino Nobile or d’ Abruzzo.
Our last night was at the Sheraton at Malpensa airport. We have found this to be very convenient for North Italy trips when we are leaving in the morning. The hotel is connected to terminal 1 where the international flights go out and it is attached to the garage where rental cars are dispatched and returned. It is also situated at the train station for the Malpensa Express that goes into Milan. On our last trip through Malpensa we took the train in and had dinner in Milan and visited the cathedral and shopping arcade that is adjacent to it. This time we decided that the only thing we had missed on this trip was a pizza, so with a glass of Valpolacella and a glass of Dolcetto, we finished off our trip with the only missing item before our last night’s sleep in Italy and a long plane ride home.