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Boats on Lake Como Keep Pace With the Past

September 23, 1990|JUDITH MORGAN

The paddle-wheels cut through the waters of Lake Como as our excursion boat Patria neared the shore at Bellagio. Italian cypress lined the steep, cobbled lanes. Weeping willows trailed into the lake.

The village was a mass of pinks: blush pink azaleas and bolder rhododendron, pink stucco houses and venerable hotels with balconies framed in roses. For all I know, those merrymakers at the Pasticeria San Remo were choosing strawberry gelati to take to umbrella-topped tables.

Bellagio is at the tip of the peninsula that separates Lake Como from Lake Lecco. We were at the dock just long enough to let a few passengers off and a few on, long enough for me to smile at the memory of an impromptu picnic above Bellagio's Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni a couple of seasons ago.

One joy of a Lake Como excursion is the opportunity to call on a dozen villages and towns, to tie up at their main squares and see the gestures of Saturday markets, the noble bell towers and the terraced villas that zigzag toward the sky.

On this sunny day, we cruised as far north as Gravedona and back to Dongo, where Mussolini was captured in 1945, when he tried to flee to Switzerland. Schoolchildren boarded at the stage-set port of Rezzonico, with its artful 14th-Century castle.

At Menaggio, where a road cuts west to Lake Lugano, tiers of stone steps lead to the esplanade. Half a dozen red and blue fishing boats were tied out of the water.

Menaggio has the ubiquitous Grand Hotel of many Italian resorts. This one is mustard yellow with green shutters and balconies. It faces the winsome village of Varenna, almost three miles away across the widest part of the lake.

The paddle-wheeler Patria was built in Genoa in 1926 and plies the lake from April to September. Its twin--the Concordia--also serves the summer holiday crowds. With a full afternoon on the lake--the deepest in Europe at 1,345 feet--there was time to enjoy the museum-piece vessel.

I sat alone in the plush red saloon, below and at the stern, and dreamed of another era. Doors of etched glass swing into this cozy lounge of red-leather sofas and tufted ottomans, cherry wood tables, globe lamps and gilded mirrors.

The ivory-colored ceiling is molded with patterns of flowers, tendrils and leaves. Inlaid wooden walls are swirled with ribbons and bows, some of lighter woods, some of mother-of-pearl.

The red, white and green flag of Italy flew from the top deck, which was strung with festive pin lights. Showers at mid-lake left the deck glistening and the benches wet.

The crew of the Patria was out of Italy's central casting: young men with glossy black hair, dark glasses, blazing white teeth and uniforms of navy blue pants topped with cabled pullover sweaters.

With our two side-wheels spinning, we were far from the fastest boat on the lake. Hydrofoils and motor launches sped by on regular runs from Como and Cernobbio, the setting of the elegant resort Villa d'Este, which, I heard, would be staying open this fall and winter for the first time.

Sailboats cut in front of us. Hang gliders wafted overhead. On the far side of the lake, two small sightseeing planes flew low over the water. Jet-skis and parachute-skis joined the playground at the base of an Alpine wall.

Toward the end of the day, we docked at Tremezzo and called at the extravagant gardens of the 18th-Century Villa Carlotta. The villa, like many along the lake, was originally a summer home. Its owners came by boat each season from Como.

Now it is open to the public. Its statuary and Gainsborough paintings compete with terraced acres of pines, redwoods, palms, firs and magenta rhododendrons. Fragrant rows of orange and lemon trees are planted near the entrance. Dripping fountains and stone benches appear at mossy turns.

My favorite showpiece is an ancient wisteria that grows alongside a grand old pine with which it is entangled. Thick ropes of vine are twisted into knots and looped into lavish bows. It resembles a mighty length of driftwood, hung with lavender blooms. I would guess it is 40 feet tall.

There are no rooms for overnight guests at the Villa Carlotta; its ornate grilled gates are locked at 6 p.m.

But just next door is the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. From a top-floor room on the north, you can peer into the gardens and out over the lake and, with just a dab of imagination, fancy that all of it is yours.

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