“One can’t describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could. – Henry James
We decided to spend the last day of our trip with a tour of Lake Como. Neither Karel nor I had ever been there and wow, I am I glad we went. With its spectacular coast and picturesque villages, it’s no surprise that Lake Como has been drawing in the rich and famous for decades. The Rockefeller’s, Richard Branson, and Donatella Versace all have properties, along with stars George Clooney and Madonna.
“At Lake Como, you live your life the way you’re supposed to live your life if you’re lucky. The two-hour lunch. The glass of wine. Everybody sitting around and talking. Dinner starts at nine and it ends at midnight or one.” George Clooney, Esquire magazine
Lake Como (Lago di Como) is one of the famous Italian Lakes, not far from Milan in the north of Italy. It is long (50km), slender and extremely deep. The placid water is framed by the towering mountains of the Italian Alps, which were still snow-capped for our visit. Terra cotta, butter, and blush-tinted villas contrasted against the deep emerald green of the water. It was like no place I’d ever seen.
Like other Italian Lakes, Lake Como has been popular as a resort since the days of the Roman Empire. Visitors ever since have relaxed in luxurious villas in the wooded lakeside slopes. There are historic references to Paleo-Venetian and Gallic colonies settling the area. By the second century BC, the Romans had arrived. Behind the promontory where Villa Serbelloni now stands, Pliny the Younger built a villa “Tragoedia” which was one of the two that he owned on Lake Como.
Although the weather was occasionally drizzly, it didn’t slow us down a bit.
Our trip, in both mini-bus and tour boat, began in Como, a lively and pleasant little town with an attractive center square and a scenic location at the southern end of the lake.
Narrow streets were filled with bustling shops including enotecas (wine shops) and giornalaios (newsagents) selling old-fashioned postcards and charming souvenirs.
We were entertained by a parade of the local Lion’s Club band marching its way through town.
Como also boasts historic churches and parks to visit but is perhaps best known for the many regal villas that grace the surrounding landscape.
Few places are as idyllic as Lake Como, and even fewer resorts as beautiful as the town of Bellagio. It’s an amazing location – with mesmerizing views over the water and surrounding mountains – is on the cape that divides the lake into two legs. Called the “Pearl of the Lake”, Bellagio’s world class hotels and restaurants provide the perfect place to soak up the lake’s famous panorama.
The village is characterized by century-old buildings, cobblestone lanes and picturesque stairways filled with shops showcasing fine Italian fashion, leather goods, glassware and home goods.
The majestic Villa Olmo (1780), which features stunning formal gardens that look out over the lake, must have been a pretty special place to live.
We were on our own for lunch so Karel asked the tour guide where he liked to eat.
He told us that he always ate at the Hotel Suisse so we dined there as well. Everything was simply excellent! The food was beautifully prepared and presented. The staff was very professional and the tables were beautifully decorated.
We were delighted to see a bottle of 2011 Massolino Barolo on the wine list and since we had recently visited the winery, it was a pretty easy choice. It matched our food selections perfectly.
As we settled in and enjoyed our first few sips of Barolo, we noticed that the table next to us was occupied by the owner’s pet doggie, Gina. She was well mannered and hopped up on the chair to sleep through most of our meal.
Our Antipasto was an exceptional Duck Liver Terrine. It was served with a port reduction sauce and cinnamon spiced pear. The spicy-sweet sauce was a nice counterpoint to the smooth terrine.
The Primi Piatti that followed was Veal Ravioli cooked simply in a sauce of brown butter and sage. A single cherry tomato added a nice color accent to the plate.
Our Secondi Piatti was Lake Perch on Black Rice – a recommendation of our tour guide. Pan-fried perch had a light batter and could not have been fresher – we were told that it had been swimming in the lake that morning. The black rice was somewhere between a pilaf and risotto in texture and deliciously flavored.
For our Dolci, we chose the Bonet (Piedmontese Chocolate and Amaretti Flan). The Bonet was historically served at noble banquets in the 13th century. Made the same way as a pudding or crème caramel, it did not originally contain chocolate which was added to the recipe only after cacao was imported to Europe from the newly discovered America. Our version included chocolate (of course) and crushed amoretti cookies which, while baking, float to the top to form a crust. The crust is a beautiful contrast to the silky custard below. The bonet was served with fresh berries, caramel, and an amoretti cookie.
In Piemontese dialect, the word bonet means hat. The hat is generally thought to be the copper mold which is shaped like the bonèt ëd cusin-a (‘chef’s hat’) in which the dish was traditionally served. Others, however, believe the name refers to the fact that the bonet was served to conclude a meal, just as our hats would be the last thing to put on before heading home after a hearty meal at a friend’s home.
Our drive back to Milan brought an end to this trip since we left for home the next morning. It was a magnificent journey and one that we will always remember. However, this kind of travel is far from over for us. We are planning a new Italian / French adventure in a couple of months.