Romantic Lake Como for the 99 Percent
By Beverly Stephen
We didn’t really need George Clooney to tell us Lake Como is romantic. Greta Garbo made the point in 1932 in the movie “The Grand Hotel.” And so did the 19th century composer Franz Liszt who declared that “the story of two happy lovers” should be set there. Lake Como is the ideal setting for a fairy tale wedding, a honeymoon, an anniversary celebration, possibly even a proposal.
Lake Como, ringed by stately Italian villas the color of faded terra cotta and burnt ochre, is touted as a playground of the rich and famous. Celebrities are spotted at Villa d’Este, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, or the villa of a Russian oligarch. But does one have to be rich to take a romantic getaway at Lake Como? Actually, no!
We were visiting the Milan Expo about an hour’s train ride from Como, and I thought it would be nice to surprise my gentleman friend with a romantic weekend for his birthday. A little research revealed that there are a number of moderately priced hotels and Airbnb rentals available. We checked into the Hotel Metropole Suisse, (150 to 300 Euro) a quaint hotel dockside on the main square in Como. The same family has owned the hotel for 200 years and fronts on the lake, offering sweeping water views. It will appeal to veteran European travelers who appreciate old-fashioned furnishings and hefty brass keys. Those who enjoy up to the minute renovations might find the Palace Hotel just across the square more to their liking. It’s moderately priced at 150 to 380 Euro , but belongs to the Villa d’Este group. If you’ve recently won the lottery, by all means check into Villa d’Este itself which starts upwards of 700 Euro. But whether you’re a platinum card holder or a struggling student, the beauty and the history of this fabulous northern Italian lake region are yours for the asking.
Boats serve as buses plying the waters day and night. Slower tour boats take two hours to travel the length of the lake while hydrofoils can make the trip in half that time. We crossed the street and hopped one of the hydrofoils to the magical village of Bellagio, 18 miles north of Como, to visit the spectacular gardens of Villa Melzi. Though it’s not available for weddings, many brides pay a fee to use the grounds as a backdrop for photos and it’s not hard to see why. In the spring, the gardens are ablaze with blossoms of azaleas and rhododendrons and the mild subtropical climate supports an amazing variety of flora and fauna year round. The charming village of Bellagio is lined with dockside cafes and picturesque steep steps climbing up the hillside. It’s tempting to settle in for the afternoon.
But we had made a reservation to lunch at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, a short 20 minute boat ride across the lake. It would be an economical way to visit the hotel, enjoy its panoramic view, and to sample the cuisine where the famed Italian chef Gaultiero Marchesi consults with executive chef Osvaldo Presaggi. We were barely seated before the waiter brought us Prosecco to toast our own story. I had a silky vitello tonnato studded with capers and my friend the homemade tagliatelle.
After lunch, we took a little spin through the hotel to admire the striking juxtaposition of contemporary furnishings in the classical building, the elegant Greta Garbo suite, and, yes, more acres of gardens. And so devoted to romance is the hotel that there’s even a secluded proposal nook in the garden called “Dis Moi Oui” (French for “tell me yes”), named for a famous engagement ring. The T Beach Club pool literally floats in the lake and its T Bar can be an appealing perch for an aperitivo. The hotel property borders on the 20 acres of magnificent gardens of Villa Carlotta, one of the few other villas open to the public.
On the return to Como, the boat passes by one stately villa and diminutive village after another. One cannot miss the beautiful Villa Balbianello, the setting for a “Star Wars” episode and a James Bond classic “Casino Royale”. Surely we had arrived in Paradise.
We headed back to our hotel’s lively Ristorante Imbarcadero for dinner. The convivial dining room was crowded with tables of obvious regulars. We began with fresh seasonal asparagus drizzled with olive oil and paper-thin Carpaccio topped with a tangle of shaved fennel. We couldn’t resist two classics—veal cutlet Milanese and veal scaloppini a limone. Both were perfectly cooked. Since we were already in something of a restaurant time warp, we finished up with the iconic Italian dessert, tiramisu. So ubiquitous was tiramisu in American restaurants in the 80s and 90s that Nora Ephron gave it a cameo in her romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. Tom Hanks’ character, worried about getting back into the dating scene after several years, and being confronted with some exotic sexual practice, presses his friend to tell him what tiramisu is. “Some woman is going to want me to do it to her and I’m not going to know what it is,” he pleaded. Little did he know that is just a deliciously simple espresso soaked ladyfinger & mascarpone delight.
The next day it was time to do some sightseeing in the town of Como. Of course, it has a Duomo. What Italian town of note doesn’t? It’s quite striking and if you had never seen Milan’s towering structure you would be sure this was a stairway straight to heaven. The magnificent structure begun in 1396 took some 300 years to complete. And it supports some 2,000 stautes. Interestingly, the most prominent statues are those of two pagan native sons of Como, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. There are other significant churches and museums to explore as well, including one devoted to Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery, who was also born in Como.
Over the years, Como’s main claim to fame has been silk. The secrets of silk production were imported to Italy from China after the year 1,000 and became the mainstay of its economy. The business of actually raising the silk worms was stopped after World War II and ironically the yarn is now imported from China. But Como is still the leading manufacturer of Italian silk and the favored source for designers from Giorgio Armani to Ralph Lauren. Those interested in the whole process from worm to woven scarves should visit the Silk Educational Museum. Shopping opportunities for silk ties and scarves, some at bargain prices if they’re not sporting designer names, also abound. The renowned Ratti even has an outlet store.
A perfect place for an early evening aperitivo is Palace Hotel’s Garden Bar Ceccato, which offers panoramic views of the lake is frequently booked for wedding receptions.
Sales manger Fabio Griffini joins us for a Prosecco and expounds on the ever expanding wedding business in Como. One of his clients, a wealthy Texan, is booking rooms at both Villa d’Este and the Palace Hotel, some 70 rooms in total. He also recounts stories of Russian extravagance. A bride’s father was footing a bill for one million Euro. The groom’s father, not to be outdone, threw another million Euro into the pot. The venues were so hard pressed to spend such vast sums that they staged concerts with famous expensive singers.
But romance doesn’t always have to be so expensive. A charming California couple we met dockside had rented a modest apartment on Airbnb for their honeymoon. Having been a student in the area years ago, the bride was enthralled by its romantic aura. The groom, who makes cured meats for a hobby, was equally enchanted because all his recipes come from Italy.
Como itself has another recipe in its repertoire Griffini tells us. When the April to October tourist season ends, the town switches gears from leisure to business conferences. We would be happy to return any time for work or pleasure. Our only regret is that we weren’t able to spend more time on these sparkling shores.