This is the original Bellagio the evocative and beautiful town whose name is used in places around the world to mean elegant, sumptuous delight.
You can arrive here either by the famous ferries, riding low in the calm waters of Lake Como, or by car, along the narrow winding road from either Como or Lecco. Even if Bellagio was just a simple lake town, the voyage there would be reason enough to travel to the point of the cape that splits Lake Como in two.
But its not a simple town, it’s a pearl of a town, a resort whose beauty has stood the test of time. This is the original resort town – two thousand years old and still going strong. The hotels in Bellagio invented luxurious opulence and genteel service. Everyone who is anyone has come here, from Caesar to Napoleon, from Hitchcock to Clooney. The square by the port is already familiar before you arrive – you will have seen it in a movie by Visconti, or another with Robert De Niro (Once Upon a Time in America).
Get off the boat, park the car, dump the bike and walk the quiet lanes and alleys of one of Italy’s most lovely small towns. The views and panoramas are unforgettable wherever you look. Visit the English gardens of Villa Melzi and other mansions that may be open. Enjoy window-shopping for fine products in its luxury stores, many of which have been in business for over 150 years. Stroll along to the very point at sunset, to see how the light touches the valleys and hills of faraway mountains.
Any time of year has its own special look and feel, even misty winter mornings when all colors are subdued to soft pastel. Being by the Lake in the summer is absolutely the best thing to do – you can even throw yourself into its fresh water to be fresh yourself.
One place I enjoy eating at is a small and welcoming restaurant just up an alleyway to the right as you enter the main square. It’s called “La Grotta”, run by Marina Silva and her excellent crew. The atmosphere is special, vaulted ceilings and a line of old columns that run down the middle of the room. Service is top notch; the food is abundant and served quickly; the price is very reasonable considering where you are. This is where I eat when I’m in Bellagio.
Interesting places nearby include Como, Cernobbio, Valtellina and Vallespluga.
Do not – ever – just breeze by Milan without taking an extra day to really feel special in the original Bellagio.
A little bit of history
The whole area around the lake was lived in many thousands of years ago; building surfaces as Etruscans and Celts settled the Po region. Romans controlled the region by 200BCE; they and Romanized Gauls began using ‘Bellasium’ as their local tourist resort two thousand years ago. Virgil visited Bellagio and Pliny the Younger writes about his villa there.
After Rome collapsed, the Byzantines created a defensive line of forts all along the lakeshore to keep the Goths out of Italy, including a tower atop Bellagio’s hill: it didn’t help much. Later on, Lombards occupied the towns of the Lake; the Franks displaced them. In the Middle Ages Bellagio tried to keep some form of autonomy but Como wouldn’t abide it. Both towns were eventually brought into the Duchy of Milan, itself to be occupied first by France then by Spain, finally by Austria. The Sfondrati and then the Serbelloni family held most of the land on the cape, which until only a few decades ago was still farmland and orchards.
Modern tourism got its kick-start during the Napoleonic Era, when newly empowered Milanese nobility began to build their summer villas on the cape. The track became a road; elegant and distiguished tourists followed, by carriage and by packet boat.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen