I can be an aristocrat for the day. I can sit on the veranda besides ladies with delicate silk fans, at measured distance from one another due to the circumference of their wide-brimmed hats. When the twenties roll in, I can don drop-waist dresses with fringe at the hem to jazz concerts in the glass-encased restaurant overlooking the lake, where we make plans to visit Hemingway in Stresa, or perhaps host him in Bellagio. We will take turns jumping off the hotel’s diving board in the middle of the night, causing moonlit ripples in the lake. When, circa 2015, visitors to Lago di Como cannot have a conversation about the virtuous lake without mentioning George Clooney, I will roll my eyes and take cover under my red-striped umbrella at the forever classy Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.
For 125 years, the Bucher family has hosted the world’s nobility, royalty, leading politicians, titans of industry, and movie stars. Now, affluent persons alike cross the same antique Persian carpet that Clark Gable strode across, beneath crystal chandeliers from Murano that Al Pacino surely admired, en route to the marble staircases that have carried the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and JFK. Perhaps they are going to have an aperol spritz in the Salone Reale, where Winston Churchill, the Rothschilds, and Robert Mitchum (not all at once, certo), once sat, their reflections bouncing off the mirrored walls.
The guest rooms also stay true to their original opulence and grandeur. While each of the 95 rooms and suites are now outfitted with wi-fi, and one can step into the room on Google map via the hotel’s website (this absolutely beats pinterest), the Imperial furniture, tall coffered ceilings, and majestic balconies transcend. Do away with the devices; embrace the elegance and pretend you are Kate Winslet at the top of the marble staircase. Descend slowly lest you trip (risking a modern-day youtube video in your turn-of-the-century dream stance gone awry).
Before lunch, we mosey down to the water’s edge. The hotel occupies prime real estate at the end of Bellagio’s promontory, encapsulating guests with left to right views. The Italian-style garden is ready for it’s oil painting with its subtropical plants, orange buds, and pink roses.On the path meandering gently along the curve of the lake, I imagine Hemingway making dry, unimpressed commentary as he stifles his awe. We sit down on a bench to let the colors soak in, to create permanent, everlasting visions of the vibrant tones around us, the glittering of the lake, the green of the mountains, the sound of very little, the aura of Italian lakeside bliss. I want to be on this bench forever, and I know that this viewpoint will become my future ‘happy place’ when I am back in New York, in the real world, feeling stressed and wishing I were somewhere else.
We are in a true Serbelloni trance by the time we sit down under the awning for a rather late poolside/lakeside lunch at Mistral. We have done a bit of Bellagio shopping (namely scarves from Azalea), and we are ready for something light and fresh. Service is friendly, attentive, and soft-spoken. We watch the young white-coated gentlemen serving drinks at the pool offer a smile to tanning bodies on each passing across the deck. He looks like a poster model from the 1960s in his dark rimmed glasses and is quite possibly the most elegant pool server I have seen. It is about 4pm, an odd time to eat lunch. This is the time of day when most are falling asleep from the lull of the late afternoon sun, readying themselves for a pre-dinner spa treatment, or getting a jumpstart at aperitivo hour. We are seated amongst a handful of Italians who have lingered long past the end of their appropriately-timed meal. They are chatting knowingly with the waiter, and it seems as if they are regulars here. Perhaps they live on the lake, and they favor Ettore Bocchia’s renowned cooking at the Grand Hotel Serbelloni for a weekly family meal.
It is the last weekend of our Italy Trip (not quite the same as Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s, but it feels as if we ate just as much), and we are determined to put a hard stop to the pasta. I order a salad with salmon. Mia mamma orders a nicoise. There are also potatoes; they were somewhat irresistible. Little did we know that we would dine on divine rigatoni at Giacomo in Milano that evening. Oh well, we tried. My insalata is the freshest I have had all week; the smoked salmon is lighter and fresher than any I have had in years, the radicchio is crisp, the avocado is perfectly ripe, and the citrus is unmistakably Italian. The nicoise is perfetto; the tuna is, as is often the case in Italia, flavorful, fresh, and unadorned. The plates themselves are lakeside chic and elegant. We linger. We listen to wisps of Italian. We people watch. La dolce far niente, and all of that. We do not want to say goodbye to Serbelloni, nor to the oleander trees on the town’s promenade.
It is one of the most heartbreaking arrivederci’s I’ve ever had to make, and I find that nostalgia is a heavier load than my shoulder-sagging Canon. This is going to sound a hint dramatic, but our day in Bellagio and our afternoon at Serbelloni was so wonderfully perfect, I think I shed a small tear as we boarded the ferry. Even as I write this, with wet snow dripping outside my window, drowning in three layers of thick cashmere in defiance of ghastly New York winters, I feel as though that September day was like a great love that slipped between my fingers. Indeed, when I am on the subway, held up by the sheer weight of other passengers, seven different strangers breathing on me, cursing the MTA, I stare intently at photos of Serbelloni on my phone. I count backwards from ten and dream that I am warm from the Italian sun, debating another jump off the diving board into the blue waters that reflect the southern alps and so many smiling faces, from JFK to Mitchum, and now mine too.