The views are spectacular and the food just as good. Laura Millar explores a part of Lombardy with star appeal
He only comes here at night,” laughs Benvenuto Puricelli, the larger-than-life owner of the restaurant on the tiny island of Comacina which sits off the western shore of Como, one of Italy’s most beautiful lakes. Puricelli is referring to the actor George Clooney, who put this region firmly on the map in 2001 when he bought a stately, 18th century waterfront villa in the town of Laglio.
Such has been the focus Clooney’s brought to Lake Como that he’s even mentioned in my Berlitz guidebook – although not, alas, as an attraction in his own right. However, even if a trip here for a long weekend doesn’t result in a sighting, there are plenty of other things to feast your eyes – and your appetite – on.
Lake Como, situated in Lombardy in the north of Italy about a 90-minute drive from Milan, is in the shape of an inverted ‘Y’. It is lined with picture-perfect villages, tall, shapely Italian cypresses, and breathtakingly beautiful villas, and has been a popular retreat for summer visitors since Roman times. Literary greats such as Shelley and Byron came to seek inspiration on its shores, as part of their European Grand Tour, as did the likes of Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Alfred Hitchcock, Verdi, Liszt, and, er, Madonna, no doubt as enthralled by the mesmerising sight of the sun sparkling off the water, and the Italian Alps rearing up behind the lake, as I am.
I’ve come to Locanda Comacina, on the western side of where the ‘Y’ splits and accessible only by motorboat shuttle, for lunch, as this restaurant provides a quintessential Lake Como experience: good food with a stunning view, overseen by a genuine character. Puricelli has been in charge here since the 1970s, but the restaurant was first opened in 1947. It was seen as a brave move, as Comacino was widely regarded to be cursed.
This was cast in 1169 by the Bishop of Como – as punishment for this miniscule islet rashly declaring war on the mainland. Now, at the end of every lunch or dinner service, Puricelli performs an ‘exorcism of fire’, to cleanse away any lingering evil (and to ensure he always has customers…).
It’s certainly entertaining, and the ritual has been experienced by, among others, the aforementioned Clooney, as well as stars such as Sir Sean Connery, Sir Elton John and Brad Pitt. But we mere mortals just need to pay e73/£61 for the set, five-course menu (which hasn’t changed since the restaurant first opened, and includes wine, antipasti, roast chicken, cheese and dessert), then enjoy the bizarre spectacle of Puricelli, dressed in tartan trousers and a bobble hat, setting fire to a pot of brandy which he mixes with sugar and coffee, and serves to all the guests as a fitting – if somewhat boozy – end to the meal.
Nearby, on a small promontory sticking out from the mainland by the town of Tremezzino, perches the Villa del Balbianello, another elegant, 18th century edifice which has connections to the film industry. Now owned by Italy’s equivalent of the National Trust, it belonged most recently to an explorer, Guido Monzino, who led the first Italian expedition to Mount Everest. He filled it with mementoes of his travels around the world, as well as an incredible art collection, and you can book a guided tour around the property (www.eng.fondoambiente.it). A prime spot for weddings, it’s also popular with location scouts, and the grounds have been the backdrop for scenes from, amongst other movies, Casino Royale, Star Wars: Episode II, and A Month in the Country.
And it’s the gardens which really impress; set over three acres they are sculpted into lush, rolling green lawns, dotted with classical statues, colourful flowers, and Narnia-esque iron lampposts.
In fact, you can’t go far in Lake Como without encountering a fabulous flowerbed or two. More gorgeous gardens can be found in the grounds of Villa Carlotta (named after Princess Charlotte of Prussia, whose mother bought it for her as a wedding present in 1843), a couple of miles up the road from Balbianello. Originally built in the 17th century, it was subsequently owned by a famous businessman and patron of the arts, Gian Battista Sommariva, who filled it with paintings and sculptures. Now a museum, you can still see the fine marble carving of Cupid and Psyche by Adamo Tadolini, and a rendering of Romeo and Juliet’s last kiss in oils, by Francesco Hayez. But even lovelier than man’s creations are nature’s offerings, outside: the 20 acres boast honeysuckle-scented terraces, fountains and a trellised walkway, covered in dozens of differnt plants and flowers, from roses to rhododendrons, and camellias, azaleas and birds of paradise.
Just next door is one of the most historic hotels on the lake: the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Looking like a wedding cake itself (or even resembling the iconic Grand Budapest Hotel), with its Belle Epoque, primrose-yellow pastel exterior, and burnt orange awnings, it has played host to glamorous guests such as Natalie Portman and Uma Thurman. Opened in 1910, and still run by the same family, it’s one of the best places to stay here. Even if you don’t want to be seduced by its classic, jewel-coloured décor, its indulgent spa, floating pool, or Michelin-starred restaurant, La Terraza (the risotto Milanese covered with gold leaf has to be seen to be believed), it’s the perfect place to stop for a Bellini; its terrace overlooks the shimmering water and you can also see straight across to the town of Bellagio.
The perfect place to spend half a day strolling around, Bellagio is known as the ‘pearl of Lake Como’. Sitting at the crux of the ‘Y’ shape, you can take a public ferry over from outside the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, as I did. Approaching the opposite shore, I could see the pretty church of San Giacomo, and yet another imposing villa, Villa Melzi, whose grounds you can also visit. Once I’ve disembarked, I lose myself in the narrow, winding lanes which snake around its pastel pink and yellow buildings.
Shopaholics – like me – will delight in the town’s boutiques. Every other business appears to be a shop selling silk products; Lake Como has been at the centre of silk manufacturing since the 15th century, due to its abundance of mulberry trees, perfect fodder for silkworms. Even today, the area produces 85 per cent of all silk made in Italy. Where better to buy a frivolous headscarf which you can knot casually under your chin, Sophia Loren-style, or purchase a smart tie for the office? I treat myself to a pretty, pale-blue, silk-mix scarf for only e10 from a shop called Bellagioseta on Via Garibaldi, before heading to the lakefront Bar Splendide, for an aperitivo of Aperol Spritz and a spot of people – and boat – watching. Alas, I never manage to spot George while I’m here; but with so much beauty attracting my attention elsewhere, I don’t actually mind. Besides, I’ve got a box set of ER at home.
• Easyjet (easyjet.co.uk) flies to Milan from Edinburgh or Glasgow from approximately £73 return. Lake Como is around 90 minutes’ drive away.
Rates at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo start from e450 per room per night in a Park View Prestige Room, based on double occupancy; for more information, visit grandhoteltremezzo.com