Tell friends that you will be spending your vacation in Bellagio, and they are likely to assume you're talking about the glitzy hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, the one created by entrepreneur Steve Wynn.
Wynn, former chairman of Mirage Resorts--now MGM Mirage--was inspired by the northern Italian village of Bellagio in the building of his grand hotel. Ironically, the town is less well known, even to Italians, than its popular American namesake.
No one arrives in the village--tucked onto a remote corner of the shore overlooking Lake Como--by chance. And from the moment you arrive, it's easy to understand the allure of the little town that draws visitors from around the world and compels them to return.
Your jaw drops at your first panoramic view of the majestic Italian Alps, juxtaposed against the large expanse of blue water in Europe's deepest lake. With an unspoiled grace and charm, the town of Bellagio offers its guests a rare opportunity to experience a style and pace of life that has remained unchanged for decades.
Since 1873, aristocrats, royalty, statesmen and stars of the silver screen--such as Winston Churchill, King Farouk, the Rothschilds, John F. Kennedy, Clark Gable and Al Pacino--have made the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni their holiday home. The hotel still serves a well-heeled but low-key clientele.
For the past three years, my husband, Jerry, my teenage son Andrew and I have spent our summer vacations at the Villa Serbelloni's Residence l'Ulivo. Housed in an ochre-washed building with green shutters, it is in the same private park as the main hotel. Each of the 13 apartments offers the comforts of home on the grounds of the only five-star hotel in Bellagio. We set up a household and live much as the locals do.
The apartments are furnished simply, but guests at the residence enjoy the same amenities as those in the hotel--including use of the two hotel restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, spa, gym and cardio-fitness center. The apartments share an inviting patio that beckons guests to sit and read in the shade of an umbrella by day or to watch the stars and the lights of the nearby towns of Varenna, Tremezzo, Menaggio and Cadenabbia at night.
We meet the same neighbors, who return each year from England, Wales, Germany, Australia and the States. We have become friends, sharing news of discoveries around town and exchanging e-mails during the winter.
A beautiful pool, with a large deck and an outdoor bar, is positioned between the Grand Hotel and the lake's small, sandy beachfront. We sit on chaises at the beach facing the lake for hours and lose track of time. We glimpse the miniature towns nestled comfortably into the green hillsides across the lake and find it hard to stop thinking about the breathtaking natural beauty. We adjust to the slow rhythms of the traghetti (ferries) as they traverse the lake. We have the sense that we have finally found paradise.
Our own newly acquired rituals remind us that we are, indeed, at home in Bellagio. Each morning my husband and I take a walk down the winding street steps away from the hotel grounds. The heart of town, and its historic center, is called Il Borgo. It comprises two narrow one-way streets that are accessible to cars, the Via Garibaldi going south and the Via Piazza Mazzini going north. The rectangular piazza has a shopping arcade that overlooks the port.
Like the more daring natives of the town, we walk down the middle of the road with seeming impunity. Sometimes frustrated drivers honk their horns at us. Occasionally the controlled chaos of the street is punctuated by a motorbike that tries to pass a parked truck delivering Chiarella bottled water.
The two roads are separated by a series of narrow pedestrian alleys with steps, called montées. They run perpendicularly, linking the top level of the town to the lower level at the lakefront. Red geraniums and bougainvillea vines hang from window boxes and balconies above the stairs. It's hard to miss the animated banter of families or the fragrant aromas escaping from kitchen windows at lunchtime.
We take a different path each time we go up or down, pausing to take pictures of the beautiful architecture.
The largest of the stairways is the Salita Serbelloni. Busy shops, restaurants and bars flank the wide stone stairs that the locals call Il Fossato (the ditch). During medieval times, the ditch was used to defend the town from enemies. Each step is made of small stones that have lost their edge from water or wear. When you make the steep climb from bottom to top, shop windows with colorful silk scarves and handmade leather goods provide a convenient excuse to pause to catch your breath.
Each morning we stop for what is perhaps the world's best cup of cappuccino at Pasticceria Sport on Piazza della Chiesa (Church Square) and order a cream-filled doughnut. Long ago the bar was a monastery. Now its bistro tables and chairs on the street provide a perfect spot for people-watching.
We continue down the street and stop along the way to purchase provisions for lunch at the apartment. The Panificio Gandola has freshly baked breads and rolls. We go there first because they sell out quickly. The negozio di frutta (fruit store) has ripe tomatoes that taste as good as they smell and succulent black plums that are unlike any we have ever tasted. Then we go to the Alimentari Gilardoni Michele grocery for some prosciutto and local cheese.
For just a few dollars, we can savor the bounty of the region. Multilingual shopkeepers from one family work in the same stores for generations and have perfected the art of making tourists feel comfortable. After a couple of days, they recognize us and ask how our day is going--"Come va?" Would we like to sample the cheese that is more morbido (soft) or try the special salame hanging in the window?
The simplicity of the day is pleasantly jarred by the reminder that we are living within a resort enclave. My son and his friend take advantage of the racquetball courts in the health club and play tennis on the outdoor courts terraced into the hill above the residence. In the heat of the late afternoon, the boys run down to the pool to refresh themselves before dinner.
Bellagio, sited some distance from major roads, is safe enough and small enough--it has a resident population of 3,000--that young teens can independently experience life "in town." They take walks to La Punta, the point, to see where the lake splits into three branches.
They watch the small fishing boats bringing in lavarello, the fish that seems to be on every restaurant menu. They shop for little gifts for their friends in the kitschy shops near the port.
The stores attract a stream of visitors who arrive by boat to have lunch and visit some of the tourist sites. On Tuesdays the boys search for bargains at the once-a-week open-air market that seems to be a favorite with Italians from surrounding towns.
Dinner plans vary. One night we cook a simple meal of fresh pasta with porcini mushroom sauce, all ingredients purchased at the nearby mini-market. For a first course we have delicious insalata mista, assorted greens and radicchio topped with olive oil that is a product of local trees. For dessert we eat a few baci di Bellagio, sinful butter cookies filled with chocolate, which we've bought from the pastry shop up the hill. Another night, the boys bring in thin-crust pizzas from Babayaga, a steakhouse and pizzeria just outside the hotel gate. We order two pizze margherite with cheese and tomato, another with spinaci and another with salsiccia, sausage. Each comes in a small box that we use as a disposable plate--no dishes to wash. The boys have given up soda and drink acqua minerale (mineral water), either frizzante (with carbonation) or naturale.
Each evening ends with a trip to Il Sorbetto, the gelato (ice cream) shop where the boys can connect with their friends at home on the Internet for $6 an hour. Before the shop closes an hour later, they top the evening off with a cone. Renato, the kind man who owns the shop, and his wife, Ida, who makes the gelato, have struck up a friendship with my husband. They offer to run a tab so the boys can pay their bill at the end of the week.
The night when we are to pack for home, we decide to treat ourselves to dinner in the "important" restaurant at the hotel. We dress up for the first time. The boys, just 14, are still permitted to wear a collared shirt and slacks, but men are required to wear jackets in the dining room. On a glass-enclosed terrace, waiters in white jackets carefully lift silver covers in unison. We listen to the same live classical music that has been played in this room for decades and watch the sun slowly descend.
Despite its treacherous streets, Bellagio is definitely a walking town. Except for a few short drives into the mountains to see the vistas from above or to visit Silvio's, a fresh fish restaurant outside town, our car remains parked in the lot outside the residence. Two weeks have passed too quickly.
As we leave Bellagio and head for the ferry that will take us across the lake to the road that leads to Milan's Malpensa Airport, we stop at the main hotel to check out and say goodbye to Luciano, the concierge. With no hesitation, we tell Antonio, the reservations manager, that we will be returning next year.
Irene S. Levine is a freelance writer from Chappaqua, N.Y.