Ahhh Villa d’Este, the storied lakeside retreat of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, Verdi, Puccini, kings, queens, the Duke of Windsor, and once a year, some of the world’s most politically powerful for the World Economic Forum.
The estate boasts 25 acres of manicured, renaissance gardens surrounding a neoclassical villa originally built in 1568 for the aforementioned Cardinal. A pristine aura abounds the park-like property. Grassy knolls stretch down to the lake, carpeted with bamboo, azaleas, and rhododendrons, and ancient trees line the gently curved drive (can you spot the 500 year old plane tree?) I could easily be in another, or many, eras: I see Anne of Green Gables catch the hem of her skirt on oleander bushes as she picks roses and jasmine, while to my left, Sir Hearst shows off his chestnut, magnolia, and cypress trees. Oh look, there’s Hitchcock taking his September hiatus, snoozing under the wisteria. Inside, the décor is grand and opulent,filled with period furniture and romantic motifs. A floating pool, an architecturally modern spa, and sublime Italian service throughout are a few reasons to visit. The most obvious allure, certo, is the location: secluded just beyond the small town with expansive lake views, strict, gated security, and a courtyard café at the edge of the lake where chicissimi Milanese rub shoulders with celebrities and aristocrats, Villa d’Este defines exclusivity. Guests needn’t worry about the overcrowded ferry boats that shuffle the majority between towns; the hotel charters private transportation which arrive at a private dock, just in time for aperitivi.
Wave goodbye to the uncompromising security man at the iron gate and va sinistra (make a left), unless you are making a quick stop at the interior design store directly across the road. The property is just a five minute walk from town, although once inside those gates, I feel as if I am worlds away from the zooming mopeds and the hoards of children flooding the merry-go-round back down on the promenade.
In the early afternoon, Cernobbio is awash with glorious sun that bounces between the lake and the alps, falling contentedly on the faces of the Lombardian people. Up above the promenade, the town undulates in an easy, comfortable tone. Mopeds speed off into the hills, aqua colored helmets and expensive leather loafers grow increasingly miniscule in the distance. I yearn to see the homes hiding in those hills, preferably in a vintage convertible emblematic of the 1960s and an Italian-silk scarf. I feel as though Cernobbio is more local and less of a day-tripper destination than Como, Bellagio, or Varenna. Locals go about their day, sidestepping the trickle of tourists, some of whom might be stationed in Cernobbio, a few, like myself, mistakenly picked Sunday as the sole day to visit, when most everything is closed.
Che fortuna, La Piazzetta is still open. New York restauranteurs and gourmet store-owners dream of designing a space as authentic and elegant as La Piazzetta, just up the road from Villa d’Este on Via Regina. The aproned men are charming, the local clientele are stylish, and the products are of the highest quality. Clearly, we are a little late for the ready-made take-away options, as most of the deliciousness behind the glass case has been bought. I choose octopus (when in Cernobbio) and a side of roasted cauliflower, and later, we have a Como-side picnic on one of those lovely green benches. It is the freshest, most flavorful octopus I have ever eaten, made fresher by our vantage point.
Compared to vertical Bellagio and mostly flat Como, Cernobbio is a gentle slope. The promenade is wide and deep with a designated play area for children. Unrestrained bambini were ubiquitous- nothing like the reverberation of screaming children to rock your relaxation.Far from the maddening crowd, there are benches for lake-gazing and ferry-watching, some under the shade of perfectly symmetrical lemon trees. Restaurants with advantageous outdoor, lakeview seating bring the decibel level up a few notches, and the ambience is lively. Sun-soaked patrons are lakeside glitzy: a little Palm Beach, a little Switzerland, and a little Sophia Loren. Lively as it is, I prefer the narrow, shady lanes upwards from the promenade, where I find vine-covered walls, elegant boutiques, and the clinkety clack of espresso cups in small cafes.
We end our afternoon in Cernobbio early, since most shops are closed, and we are eager to return to Bellagio. Lesson learned: know your ferry timetables. The only way to get from Cernobbio to Bellagio on the ferry is via the slow ferry, which will take nearly three hours. There are three options: hire a private boat, rent a car, or take the fast ferry from either Como or Varenna if you intend to visit Bellagio. Many of the other towns are only accessible via the slow ferry, which is very slow indeed.
We had started our day in Como, where the locals get a late start on Sunday mornings and the town feels like a labyrinth of colorful, quiet streets. It does not have the same charm as the smaller towns, but it certainly has more of the everyday conveniences necessary to the locals who live on the lake, or who have second or third homes here. I am certain there are plenty of yoga and pilates studios, and an exhaustive list of upscale shops, galleries, and home decor stores, as well as world class dining. We had warm apricot and apple croissants on the square with local Como’s. A woman rode by on an old-fashioned bicycle with a bag of lemons in her basket. A man in a crisp polo shirt and fine shoes ate his brioche standing at the bar, a cocker spaniel eager for crumbs at his feet.
When we returned to Como later in the afternoon, the center was flowing with people. Stalls selling dried pasta and other crafts were set up on the main thoroughfare, where we spotted many chain stores that we would rather not see on a blissful visit to Lake Como. We sauntered off the main drag and found that the side streets were completely shut down; the restaurants tucked away, the stores closed. Although oftentimes in Italy, Sunday is not an ideal day to be a tourist as most places are closed, it is a superb time to appreciate the architecture, the little gems that you might not have seen if you were ducking into a hat store or a specialty food shop or even a museum. These are the very streets on which Pliny the Elder walked, and then, Pliny the Younger. We take in the colors, the balconies, the menage of styles on the facades. With each step towards the train station, we grow as melancholy as the taupe-colored buildings, not because of the beautiful old architecture and its emotive qualities, but because we know we are leaving the lake. There comes a moment at the end of each vacation, especially those that seem to have coasted along sans blip or bluster, when reality becomes this none too distant buoy bouncing within eyesight of your Como ferry boat. We have seen and experienced bliss, in Bellagio too, and we do not know when we will meet bliss again.
I admire the strenuous tourist who sets out in the morning with his well-thumbed Baedeker to examine the curiosities of a foreign town, but I do not follow in his steps; his eagerness after knowledge, his devotion to duty, compel my respect, but excite me to no imitation. I prefer to wander in old streets at random without a guidebook, trusting that fortune will bring me across things worth seeing; and if occasionally I miss some monument that is world-famous, more often I discover some little dainty piece of architecture, some scrap of decoration, that repays me for all else I lose. -W. Somerset Maugham