Destinations

The Secrets of the Lake

On the dazzling shores of Italy’s Lake Como, a history flows rich with romance and drama.

The view to the terrace of Il Palazzo, the restored nineteenth-century villa, one of the three accommodation buildings at Villa Làrio.
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LAKE COMO IS scaled like the iridescent tail of a great big fish. It glints and glimmers under the sun — dark bluish emerald at bright midday, silver come aperitivo hour. Opulent and storied with an aristocratic past, the lake has been the jewel of Northern Italy for centuries.

On the day of my arrival, I check into Il Sereno, a property that caused quite the stir when it first opened. In a region known for its neoclassical aesthetic, Il Sereno cuts through with stark and modern lines envisioned by renowned Spanish architect Patricia Urquiola. Taking in the views from the balcony, towering verdant mountains rise into spectacular peaks. Lunch is prosciutto and sweet melon, hand-rolled pasta in a creamy pesto sauce, and a caprese salad of plump mozzarella and sweet tomatoes. My room has a noise-canceling quality about it, a hushed elegance. Featuring dark, soothing slabs of wood panel, the space has a balcony outside with a deep, round chair that I curl into for a moment to stare out at that mesmerizing, mystical lake.

I take a dip in the pool, a sleek stretch of water on the lake’s edge, and then head toward the tiny village of Torno, wet hair dampening the back of my cotton dress. The little port is sun-drenched and frozen in time like a bug in amber — tourists and locals laze over sweating glasses of Aperol spritzes in the tiny piazza. To my annoyance, the ferry to Como, where I plan to sightsee, is late, so I stop into the square’s church. Dim and cool within, I hold the gaze of saintly Renaissance faces. I ask for patience, and to be absolved of my chronic New York City haste. I also ask for the ferry to please come soon, as I am quite earnestly on a schedule.

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The region is meant to be experienced by water. Many hundreds of years ago, these great Y-shaped waterways carried lords and ladies to and from each other’s shoreline villas. I pass clusters of colorful homes along the coast from my little ferry, the chopped waves of crossing boats spraying my cheeks. We pull into Como, which, compared to tiny Torno, is the very heart of hustle and bustle. Making my way toward the old quarter, into the little stone streets dotted with silk boutiques and bars, I reward myself for absolutely nothing with a dark-chocolate gelato, bittersweet and decadent. Dinner back at Il Sereno is at water level, in what was once the old boathouse. I sit at a table nestled beside a dramatic arch of Moltrasio stone, through which the night turns the lake ink black.

The next day I hike to Villa Pliniana on a secret, leafy trail. It’s the oldest villa on the lake. In 1573, the governor of Como, Count Giovanni Anguissola, bought the land and began construction. He had murdered the Pope’s illegitimate son, the cruel and ruthless Pier Luigi Farnese, stabbing him to death along with fellow adversaries. Loved by the citizens of Como, the governor lived out the rest of his days in relative peace at this villa-fortress, unreachable by land due to the extreme topography surrounding it.

Later guests of the villa included the likes of Napoleon, Byron, Shelley, and — my favorite — two scandalized lovers: Prince Emilio Barbiano Belgiojoso and the beautiful French noblewoman Anne Berthier de Wagram. In 1843 they fled from Paris to Pliniana, Anne leaving behind her husband and child, to live together in total isolation for nine years within the villa. At midnight, the lovers would wrap themselves naked together in a bed sheet and dive from the top of the loggia into the lake, so the story goes. The terrified villagers across the water thought they were a ghost. Gazing up at the hand-painted, frescoed ceilings, I can only wonder what secrets this place has seen, what true ghosts still haunt its halls.

Another passionate tale awaits at my next property, the Mandarin Oriental, Lago di Como, housed in the former Villa Roccabruna. I make my way through a front salon lined in a rich wallpaper of blossoms and peacocks, out onto a columned balcony overlooking the terrace below. Here, I learn, once resided the great opera singer Giuditta Pasta, a famed soprano of her time. Across the water, composer Vincenzo Bellini heard her singing and searched all around the lake to find her voice. She became his muse and greatest inspiration. In 1831, Bellini would compose his most significant works for Pasta — “Norma” and “La Sonnambula” — which she’d perform to great acclaim at La Scala in Milan. The composer supposedly wrote “Norma's” opening act, the stunning “Casta Diva,” to highlight the immense range and beauty of her voice.

Once in my room, I play the aria, popping open a bottle of Prosecco and sprawling on the carpeted floor as Maria Callas reaches an impossibly crystalline note in her stirring 1954 rendition. I listen to another from the opera, “Mira, o Norma,” while exploring the property’s gardens, in awe of a larger-than-life manicured hedge that seems to have been shaped into cursive.


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That night, I dine in a glass-enclosed greenhouse. The menu features exceptional crudos, tempura, and one downright perfect cut of beef. I wonder what Giuditta Pasta might have had for dinner here. I wonder if she often dined with Vincenzo Bellini between rehearsals. I wonder if he was very handsome in person. Upon meeting him for the first time in 1835, a jealous poet had remarked, “You are a genius, Bellini, but you will pay for your great gift with a premature death. All the great geniuses die young, like Raphael and like Mozart.” Bellini died, I later discover, at 33.

My next stop is Villa Làrio. The property, across from George Clooney’s, is built into the cliffs on three levels: the nineteenth-century, newly restored villa where I reside, the restaurant above that, and the pool above that. From the pool, the view is breathtaking, giving one the sensation of rising to meet the mountains. I tuck into a cliffside lunch of pasta with a red prawn crudo. Today is overcast and the clouds hang in white wisps and dove-gray solids between the peaks, ringing them like lace. From this vantage point, it’s as beautiful as a sunny day.

A short walk takes me to the tiny port where I catch the boat to the village of Nesso to see a little bridge that inspired Leonardo da Vinci, and then to Lenno, home to the stunning Villa Balbianello. I return to the property with the sun in tow. Villa Làrio is on the sunny side of the lake, which is to say, even at 7 p.m., when the other side has been cloaked in dusk for some time, the property remains bathed in golden hour. I swim back and forth, savoring the last of that gleaming sideways light. After a shower, I fling open my balcony doors to watch the sky turn, in my plush white robe. Guests below are nestled together on the outdoor couches for aperitivo hour in the garden; another couple sits reading in chairs on the dock. I make my way up for a dinner of marvelous polenta gnocchi with strands of tender squid and a buttery, flaky turbot, the local fish.

The next day, a skipper named Fabio drives me across the lake to Passalacqua, Lake Como’s newest development. Under renovation for many years, the eighteenth-century villa is officially set to open the following day. Pulling up, the property is a sight; I make my way up through the technicolor gardens, their vibrancy echoed in the custom textiles adorning the outdoor umbrellas and cushions designed by Milan-based designer J.J. Martin. Entering the villa, classical music flows through the soaring halls, and ceilings drip with gem-like Murano-glass chandeliers. Each room has a different color palette: blush pinks, moss green, surfaces of swirling white and caramel marbles. The restoration is a masterpiece.

Taking in the double-height balustraded music room, lined in original frescoes and dripping in Baroque splendor, I am told this is where a certain composer used to play: Vincenzo Bellini. It is here he composed his two greatest works, “Norma” and “La Sonnambula.” I shake my head in disbelief. But of course.

After exploring every gleaming inch of the hallowed halls, I sit down for lunch in the garden overlooking the water. Future guests are in for a treat; Passalacqua’s cuisine is exquisite. The grilled vegetables are sweet, the crudo is tangy, the pasta sauce rich and round. The crunchiest, airiest breading cloaks a slab of tender veal Milanese. Everything is presented on delicate red-and-white china, a reminder that this is so much more than just lunch.

On the boat once again, I chat with Fabio. Boating is just his hobby, it turns out. He’s a pilot. His wife is a lawyer in Milan. He lives half here, half there. I ask him which home he prefers. “Milan is a big city. But Como …” he looks out at the water, spellbound. “I love my lake. I love this lake … I am a lucky man.”

How to Get There

La Compagnie — the boutique hotel experience of airline carriers.

I flew La Compagnie on this trip. It was sublime. A French carrier, La Compagnie is a business-class-only plane, its main route going between New York and Paris. The carrier recently released a new route between New York and Milan, offering a perfect portal to Northern Italy. A historically phobic, panicked traveler, I abhor flying. As in, every single time I step onto a plane, I ardently believe my demise is imminent. With La Compagnie, I felt quite the opposite — serene, in fact. Because of its small size, check-in is without wait. The actual getting onto the plane part is unhurried and seamless. The in-flight experience is equally calming. Lie-flat beds and weighty quilted blankets create the perfect environment for rest. Menu options feel premium and the media setup is a delight. Think big screens and a lovely selection of films — U.S. titles as well as French.

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Our Contributors

Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.

Paolo Abate Photographer

Born in Naples, Paolo Abate moved to Lake Como after studying in Switzerland as an interior architect, then working as an architect and graphic designer in the area. He currently works as a freelance photographer, writer, and graphic designer.

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