Bellagio, Italy: Pearl of the Lake
By Ross Collins
(Published in The Forum, September 2002)

We arrived at Como city about mid-afternoon, a half-hour train from Milan. Caught the bus just before an adolescent invasion, students heading home to the little towns ringing the lake en route to Bellagio, the ancient resort city of the northern Italian lake district.

The driver squeezed around mountain switchbacks decked with pines and cedar, azalea and wisteria, stopping at wide spots with names such as Cernobbio, Molrasio, Laglio, Ossuccio. The kids exchanged ciaos, and gradually evaporated into the countryside. No doubt hardly noticing their daily ride through one of Europe’s most scenic retreats.

By the time we reached Bellagio an hour later, left were only those of us looking for a hideaway from hot, dusty Italian cities, and willing to take a side trip to get there. Because no one gets to Bellagio, at the peninsula of Lake Como, by chance. It’s not on a main tour route. But it’s close enough for a weekend getaway from Milan, or from Switzerland, 20 miles away.

Lake Como traces an upside-down Y shape, Bellagio at the center. This “pearl of the lake” nestles aside some of Europe’s deepest fresh water, at almost 1,300 feet, and one of its most picturesque points: the little city’s lakeside Piazza Mazzini looks toward a soaring curtain of Swiss alps, and shorelines dotted with a splendor of palaces and gardens. Many are open to the public, such as the Villa Carlotta. A twenty-minute ferry ride drops you in front of this villa built in 1690 by some obscure Italian marquis, but now a national treasure flanked by a well-tended garden of towering rhododendrons and azaleas.
At first that seems strange, almost surreal. The mountain backdrop around this huge lake leaves the feeling you are visiting a Swiss chalet town, or perhaps a ski resort of the Rockies. Pine trees. Snow caps. Cold lake. Then the contrast: azalea? Wisteria? Even citrus trees? These warm-climate plants seem out of place so far north, and so near Switzerland, but it’s true: lowest temperature in this mild micro-climate may reach 40, high may reach 80. A breeze off the lake moderates even those modest extremes, as a persistent sun splashes the cascade of steps between Bellagio’s upper and lower streets.

Bellagio graciously offers tourists small-town charm sans frenetic heat and hype of the big, hot, famous Italian cities we all feel obligated to visit. Exclusive shops cling to the steps between the Piazza, the Via Centrale and Via Garibaldi. Specialties include silk, leather, clothing, china and jewelry—and all sorts of local olive wood pieces crafted right on site at Tacchi Luigi. Prices barely reflect the work, I told the proprietor. “Yes, we have to sell these other things to make it possible,” he said, pointing at the knick-knacks and toys from—what, China? “But it’s better now, because we also sell from our web site.” (

From his shop the steps of Salita Serbelloni fall to the piazza and the lake. These stone treads flanked by swank shops were part of medieval Bellagio’s defenses, then forming a ditch lining thick stone walls. Remnants of the walls still exist to remind tourists that the city once stood as strategic redoubt for generations of invaders, reaching back to Roman times. In fact, you can take a guided hike to Villa Serbelloni, the Bellagio promontory that served ancient Romans, Gothic kings, and Renaissance nobles. Pliny the Younger built his hideaway here to escape the heat of Rome, one of many who found Bellagio to be an ideal pastoral retreat. More recent notables who tasted the city’s charm include Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain and—as faded newspaper clippings in shop windows still remind you—John F. Kennedy.

For those who tire of shops and steps, Bellagio offers a wonder of formal gardens featuring painfully picturesque views. One easy walk from town center brings you Villa Melzi, a reward to a wealthy Italian who wisely befriended Napoleon. Lakeside grounds include 100-feet tall azalea hedges, magnolia, and bits of ancient statuary strewn about for added interest in a romantic setting.

The classic tranquility of magnificent villas and gentle climate made Bellagio a premier European resort town by the 1700s. Hotels today reflect that, an elegance softened by many generations, but some still affordable (we stayed in a room with mountain view, $95 double). You don’t have to bus it to Bellagio, either—ferries and hydrofoils zip from Como city and to every villa. You do, however, have to be prepared to walk plenty of steps between streets. And if you’re looking for the hopping night life of, say, that other Bellagio, the hotel in Las Vegas—well, perhaps that’s the reason you see here so few backpacking college students.

More information

Villa Carlotta:

Villa Melzi:

Villa Serbelloni (the public gardens):

Villa Serbelloni (the five-star hotel; $308 a night double):

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>