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Como’s beauties include George

Italian resort with its wondrous lake and elegant villas claims Clooney, too

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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COMO, Italy - I arrived with friends at this northern Italian resort and found it abuzz with news of George. Clooney, that is. He was lolling at his villa. He was seen in town. The local paper published photos of him and his girlfriend enjoying a romantic meal in a nearby restaurant. The next day the paparazzi reported he was single.

Sensing opportunity - who cared if I would be a “rebound fling?’’ - I kept my eyes peeled for him in markets, restaurants, and hotels. Everyone seemed to know his business but no one knew where he was.

Of course I didn’t need George on my arm to enjoy the charms of Lake Como. Located between Milan and the border of Switzerland, the lake, with its steep surrounding mountains, hillside towns, and historic villas, has drawn artists, writers, and romantics of all stripes for centuries.

“Is there a land of such supreme and perfect beauty anywhere?’’ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in the 19th century. I could ask the same question today.

Formed by glaciers and shaped like an inverted Y, the 40-mile-long lake is a dreamy getaway from Italy’s bustling cities, a quiet oasis from 21st-century stress. However, I didn’t get much rest since I wanted to see as much as possible in my four-day sojourn.

We stayed in Como, the largest town on the lake, and found it congenial for shopping, eating, strolling, and as a point of departure for daytime excursions. Many residents bike around the city, and we were delighted to learn our hotel had a small fleet of bikes we could use for free.

I was drawn to the waterfront, as is my habit, besotted by its shimmery surface where a thin layer of fog dissipated in the humid morning air. Water lapped the brick-lined edge of the street near the dock, its marshy scent mingling with pine and jasmine from the nearby hills. Did I have a choice but to clamber aboard the local ferry? No. And neither did my friends who, after a successful shopping expedition to the flea market (sandals $12; silk scarves $7.50), came along for the ride.

The best way to view the small villages around the lake - one of the deepest in Europe - is by boat. One can rent a skiff, kayak, or sailboat, hire a taxi boat, board a traditional tour, or hop on the ferry. The latter takes two hours to chug from Como, where the train from Milan arrives, to Bellagio, a town perched on a promontory where the lake splits into three prongs. And since the ferry passes the Villa Oleandra di George (Clooney’s home), we boarded with cameras in hand.

It’s possible to get on and off the ferry at various destinations, and schedules are available online, at the ferry dock, and at certain hotels. Over the course of our stay we made several excursions in weather fair and foul. We loved the sun, though when the landscape was rainy and gray it revealed a wistful beauty.

It was drizzling on the day we visited Tremezzo, about 20 miles upriver from Como. Umbrellas open, we climbed the steps to Villa Carlotta, a 17th-century edifice filled with art featuring polished marble nudes by the Venetian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Surrounding the villa, the 17-acre botanical gardens were particularly lush in the subdued light. With over 65 species of plants, including the remarkable “valley of ferns’’ and colorful swaths of azaleas, the gardens merited a map all their own.

The terrace at the five-star Grand Hotel Tremezzo is a terrific spot for coffee or cocktails, and observing how the fabulous people live. If nothing else, it’s worth a visit to the lounge off the lobby where overstuffed red, green, orange, and lavender loveseats jostle for attention in the canary yellow room, proving high design can have a sense of humor.

For lunch, we followed a tip to try a restaurant “where all the locals go’’ at La Darsena, located in a small hotel by the side of the road. Overlooking the lake in its misty splendor, we enjoyed perhaps the best meal of the trip. The menu featured homemade noodles with prawns; spaghetti with dried shad, spinach, and olives; creamy risotto with parsley pesto; and other dishes featuring local products. On a return visit, we might choose to stay at the hotel, especially in the peak tourist months of July and August when the larger towns get more crowded.

Our day trip to Bellagio was sun-filled and hot. Hopping off the ferry, we strolled the promenade lined with casual restaurants and shops, and explored steep passageways where boutiques sold designer silk clothes, jewelry, art, and stylish baubles. In the upper town, we found the 11th-century Church of St. Giacomo, a well-maintained example of Romanesque-Lombard architecture.

We splurged for lunch with a view on the terrace at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, where a bowl of pasta costs 30 bucks. However, if you stop at any of the small trattorias tucked along the side streets you can eat for half that price.

The tourist office offers maps to scenic overlooks and hamlets around Bellagio. Some hikes are as brief as 10 minutes, such as the one to Punta Spartivento, a spot that overlooks the lake’s three branches, while longer excursions, like the one to Monte San Primo at over 5,500 feet, can take two hours.

Passing the small town of Laglio on the return voyage, the curtains were billowing in the open windows at Villa Oleandra di George, meaning Clooney was probably home but, alas, not looking outside as the ferry cruised on to Como.

That evening we dined at another recommended restaurant.

“Have you seen George?’’ I asked my waiter. He placed a steaming plate of saffron risotto on the table and looked me in the eye, a dark curl of hair sliding across his forehead.

“Why do you look for him? What about me?’’

Hmmm. Good point. Catch you next time, George.

Necee Regis can be contacted at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Albergo Terminus
Lungo Lario Trieste, 14
Como
011-39-031-329-111
www.albergoterminus.it
Some rooms are more rehabbed than others in this 19th-century hotel located directly on the lake. Some rooms are tiny with single beds; others are stylish with queen-size beds. Ask before booking. Rates from $242.
La Darsena Albergo
Via Regina, 3
Tremezzo
011-39-034-443-166
www.centrohotelslagocomo.it/darsena_tremezzo
A nine-room hotel located on the west bank of Lake Como. Seasonal rates from $114.
Where to eat
Ristorante Sociale
Via Rodardi, 6
Como
011-39-031-264-042
www.ristorantesociale.it
Eat in style with the locals. Pasta $8-$12, entrees $15-$27.
La Darsena Ristorante
Via Regina,3
Tremezzo
011-39-034-443-166
Creative, locally sourced food overlooking the lake. Pasta $14-$20, entrees $25-$30.
What to do
Lake Cruises
www.navlaghi.it/eng/index.asp
Take the ferry from Como to Bellagio, hopping on and off at other small towns. Check the ferry website or ask for a schedule at your hotel. Commuter ferry (2 hours) $22 round trip; hydrofoil (1 hour) $34 round trip.
Villa Carlotta
Via Regina, 2
Tremezzo
011-39-034-440-405
www.villacarlotta.it
A 17th-century lakeside villa with extensive botanical gardens. Open March 5-Nov. 13. Adults $12, students and seniors $6.50, children under age 6 free,
Villa del Balbianello
Lenno
011-39-034-456-110
www.fondoambiente.it/beni/ villa-del-balbianello.asp#
An 18th-century villa on the tip of the Lavedo promontory. Italian National Trust property accessible by boat from Bellagio or Lenno or by foot from Lenno. Open April-October. Adults: $8.50 (garden only) or $17 (guided tour), children 4-12 $4.25/$10.