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Bellagio: Lucky Find in the Lake Region

The scenic village on Lake Como has long been a playground for the world's elite

September 15, 2002|IRENE S. LEVINE

BELLAGIO, Italy — 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 montees. 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.

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