Ethereal Great Lakes

Deserving of its reputation as a playground for the well-heeled, Annabelle Thorpe discovers that Lake Como remains the most fashionable of Italian destinations.
January 2022

Cocktail hour at the Mandarin Oriental – the first international hotel brand to set up shop on Lake Como – and my sister, Caroline, and I are discussing the possibility of George Clooney dropping by on a gleaming motor launch. Anywhere else, this suggestion would be firmly in the realms of fantasy, but here it seems entirely possible – and not just because Mr Clooney owns a villa in Laglio, on the other side of the lake. It’s because Lake Como is so breathtakingly beautiful and so effortlessly glamorous, that Hollywood stars, great musicians and celebrated bon vivants should simply be part of the package.

The smallest of Italy’s three ‘Great Lakes’ (along with Garda and Maggiore), Como has been luring the well-to-do since Roman times, but it was during the Renaissance that many of the elegant, pastel-hued villas were built along its shore. Composers, artists, and writers flocked to the area, drawn by its proximity to Milan and the spectacular scenery. Many of the sprawling villas are now holiday rentals, or boutique hotels; the Mandarin Oriental was once known as Villa Roccabruna, home of the famous opera singer, Giuditta Pasta.

The arrival of this hotel was big news for a destination where little changes from one year to the next. Como is fashionably unfashionable; perennially popular and yet somehow under the radar. This is not a place where new hotels or restaurants constantly pop up – many have been operating on the lake for decades, including our first stop, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Our route to the hotel takes us from the town of Como along the western shore, and as we follow the winding road along the lake to the Tremezzo, it feels as if we have stepped back into the 1950s. The road twists and winds through picturesque villages with trattorias spilling tables and chairs onto the pavement, and faded alimentari signs swinging in the gentle breeze.

By the time we pull up at the hotel, I already feel as if I am living in a Fellini movie. On one side of the road, the lake glistens and shimmers, matched by one of the hotel pools which floats on the lake itself. On the other, the Tremezzo emerges – a vanilla-hued confection that looks straight out of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Inside, the scarlet walled lobby, filled with flowers and velvet sofas, feels wonderfully luxurious, as does our stylish bedroom, with a view straight out over the lake to the mountains beyond. Behind the main building, the hotel grounds encompass a spectacular botanical garden that steps up the hillside, criss-crossed with footpaths and flower-filled viewpoints.

One of the joys of Como is that once you have arrived on the lake, there’s little need for a car to explore further. A huge range of vessels ply the deep waters: slow boats, or battelli, that offer plenty of time for photographs from the deck; hydrofoils, that run from Como in the south to Varenna on the east, and Colico at the northernmost end; and ferries that traverse the middle of the lake. Many of the villas and gardens which dot the lakeshores are open to the public, and are accessible by battelli, so it’s easy to combine visiting one or two with lunch or a spot of shopping in one of the small towns.

We decide to take the passenger ferry from the pier opposite the hotel, and glide across the lake to Bellagio, an historic town that sits on a promontory right in the middle of Como. It’s a charming place, with cobbled streets that lead up the hill, dotted with boutiques and gift shops, the air filled with the scent of fresh coffee that emanates from the myriad small cafés. We browse in shops selling Murano glassware and beautiful leather handbags in jewel-bright colours, and stroll up to Villa Serbelloni, where the magnificent 18th century terraced garden is ablaze with scarlet and purple azaleas and rhododendrons.

By the end of the day, I am completely bemused as to why I have never visited Como before. We sit on the Tremezzo’s elegant terrace, sipping crisp prosecco while the dusk creeps in across the water and the hotel’s pianist provides a gentle jazz soundtrack, and I feel almost giddy with the beauty and the luxury, and the sense that this isn’t somewhere that has been spoilt by overdevelopment, or greedy hoteliers, or an unthinking rush to modernise. We eat dinner in the hotel’s Marchesi restaurant – angel hair pasta and clams so fresh I can taste the saltwater they came from – where the charming, silver-haired sommelier takes us on a whirlwind tour of Lombardy’s best wines.

Next morning, regretfully, we leave the Tremezzo and head back to the town of Como, and over to the east side of the lake, to the Mandarin Oriental. The hotel is a clever combination of Mandarin Oriental’s trademark pared-down, Asian feel, with more than a nod to the flamboyance of those who once called the estate home. Belle Epoque wallpaper, gilt trimmed ceilings, and velvet sofas in deep turquoise give the bar and Co.Mo restaurant a pleasingly luxurious feel, while our spacious room comes with all the trademark MO trimmings; soft robes, sumptuous beds, and our own small library of books.

It would be easily possible to arrive at the hotel and not leave for the whole duration of your stay; the coolly tranquil spa beckons, as do the pool and deck that stretch out across the water. But we’re keen to explore beyond the confines of the hotel, and in the early evening we set out for the small village of Torno, an easy 10-minute stroll. It’s a fantastic time to be out walking; the Mandarin Oriental’s location on the eastern side of the lake makes it the perfect place to watch the sun set, and as we walk the sky fades from blue to lavender, to a warm rose-pink.

Torno turns out to be a small waterfront town, with a handful of restaurants and cafés set around a quiet square. In spite of being right on the lake, it feels wonderfully authentic, and we pop our heads into the town’s only bar to find that the back room is a simple trattoria. The menu delivers classic Italian dishes perfectly done; local salsiccia and cheeses, a lusciously light carbonara, coffees, and a couple of beers apiece. The bill comes to under 50 euros.

The beauty of Como, we agree, as we sit in the Mandarin Oriental’s waterfront garden on our last morning, is that it delivers a real sense of old-school glamour set against the backdrop of charming towns and villages where everyday life goes on. There are no crowds here, no sprawling mega resorts, which means that while there are plenty of upscale restaurants and boutiques for those who rent the palatial villas as holiday homes, there are also plenty of traditional trattorias, simple cafés, and bars which are frequented by locals where it’s possible to glimpse everyday life. If only we’d managed to catch sight of Mr Clooney too.

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