For a taste of la dolce vita, you could wing over to Rome to splash in the Trevi Fountain in your evening gown and fur stole, a la Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s iconic 1960 film. But if you’d rather avoid getting arrested, soaked to the bone and seriously indebted to your dry cleaner, I’d suggest heading north to the Lombardy region for a tour of legendary Lake Como.
Movie stars, Russian oligarchs and world leaders have succumbed to the relaxing allure of the lake, where mansions cling to steep slopes slipping into its sapphire depths. Worries float away in the frothing wake of ferries that glide between the sherbet-colored towns planted upon its shores. Here’s a Neapolitan sample of three inviting villages, each with their own distinctive flavor.
Near the southwestern tip of this inverted Y-shaped waterway, charming Cernobbio wraps around a modest fountain in a cobblestone square, although folks are more inclined to bask in the warmth beside it than to wade in for full baptismal immersion. Along the lakefront, parents push baby carriages, children wheel wobbly bicycles, and couples canoodle on park benches beneath a leafy allée.
“I come for the sun, the atmosphere, the people,” says Maria Grazia de Novellis, a painter who sells her canvases from the back of a three-wheeled truck that’s so comically tiny, it could be mistaken for a clown car. “Maybe I sell something,” she shrugs with a smile.
Her cheerful nonchalance perfectly sums up the atmosphere. The point is to live in the moment, chat over a cup of coffee, flirt over a glass of wine, browse for things you really don’t need but absolutely must have, and apply yourself toward nothing more serious than pleasure—which, in Italy, is serious business indeed.
Villa Erba, a 19th century mansion that was the setting for a Nespresso commercial starring Lake Como’s most famous part-time resident, George Clooney (looking improbably suave in a pair of orange flip-flops), is not open to visitors, but I’m happy just to wander among Cernobbio’s boutiques. Circe sells handmade hats from Florence. Italyssima stocks only Italian goods, including leather bags, perfumes, and silk scarves made in Como, which is renowned for its textiles. Vini & Affini Enoteca, meanwhile, hawks bottles of wine and whisky in a homey setting kitted out with tables, chairs and paperback novels which patrons are encouraged to borrow. How can you not love a village that boasts a library with a liquor license?
Three miles south, Como is like Cernobbio’s bolder, brassier big sister. Its streets and squares are more crowded, particularly Via Vittorio Emanuele II and Via Cinque Giornate, where you can shop for everything from leather goods to lingerie (although not leather lingerie, as far as I’m aware).
“This is what we call the swimming pool,” explains my guide, Gabriella, as the swarms part around her. “When it is sunny, people go to and fro, as if to fish for something.” In the Piazza Duomo, crane our necks at the Gothic-style cathedral and the striated marble 13th century Palace of Justice. Eschewing the al fresco café in the square, Gabriella lets me in on a locals’ secret, leading me to the top of Coin department store, where the terrace of Loft bar and restaurant offers panoramic views. Far above the fray,
I gaze out over Como’s green-domed cathedral and red-tiled rooftops toward the town of Brunate, perched atop a verdant hill surmounted by a 19th century funicular. After drinking in the vistas and a high-octane espresso, we delve into the past, headed west into the medieval quarter for an appointment at Lopez Jewelry Museum. Encompassing two separate storefronts on Via Vitani, Lopez is an Aladdin’s cave of glittering accessories, vintage clothes, well-loved toys and nostalgic housewares, the culmination of owner Maria Grazia Lopez’ lifelong passion.
Unlike most museums, nearly everything is for sale. There are sparkling broaches tucked into tiny cave-like niches, a white lace wedding dress ethereally suspended in mid-air, and even, inexplicably, a Star Wars pinball machine. I may have missed the paintings and sculptures of Como’s churches and galleries, but I’m happy to spend my short time in town surrounded by the “artwork” of Gucci, Dior and Valentino.
Perhaps the most beautifully situated of Lake Como’s villages, Bellagio occupies the lush promontory where all three branches of the lake meet. Flower-draped café terraces line the banks alongside the ferry dock, behind which rise sunny-hued hotels, ochre-colored shop fronts, and the bell tower of the Romanesque Basilica di San Giacomo, with its alarmingly life-like statue of Christ, apparently dredged from the lake by a very surprised fisherman.
Historic Villa Serbelloni, whose illustrious guests have included Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Victoria and John Kennedy, towers above it all. The Rockefeller Foundation owns the villa now, but you can arrange a guided tour of its 50 acres of gardens and parks.
There are plenty of boutiques serving the boatloads of tourists who arrive every year, and shopkeepers are proud of their history. At Bellagioseta, which sells Italian-made silk scarves, neckties, and jewel-toned leather handbags, an old postcard of the town accompanies each purchase. Tacchi’s Wood Shop, atop the frequently photographed steps of Salita Serbelloni, has produced finely crafted wood sculptures, ship models, toys and household accessories since 1855. And at Pasticceria Gelateria, the oldest ice cream shop in town, a cheerful white-haired gentleman behind the counter eagerly points out a laminated photo of himself scooping gelato here more than 50 years ago. For half a century, he’s been living the sweet life, in every sense of the word.