LAKE COMO, Italy — I was only about five or six hours into a trip to Lake Como, and I already had a big problem: I had run out of adjectives for “charming.”
This may not sound like a problem on par with driving into a fire hydrant or discovering that your mom has posted your senior high school portrait on Facebook, but when you’re a writer constructing a story about a place that takes your breath away, your thesaurus game needs to be on point. Instead, I was sounding a lot like a developmentally delayed parrot who could only manage to sputter out “Charming!” over and over.
Other words didn’t do justice to this collection of insanely quaint towns dotting the perimeter of the massive wishbone-shaped lake. The placid water was framed by the dramatically steep hills and grand mountains of the Italian Alps, some of which were still snow-capped in late spring. Terra cotta, butter, and blush-tinted villas contrasted against the deep emerald green of the water. It was like no place I’d ever seen, and I was in love.
In the face of this beauty, I resigned myself to “charming.” It became a running joke between myself and my travel partner-in-crime Dan. We’d hit another impossibly narrow cobblestone alley dripping with fuscia flowers and blurt out “That’s so charming!”
Located an hour outside of Milan, the towns surrounding Lake Como are serviced by a comprehensive ferry that allows you to hop on and off at your leisure. You can also drive around the lake, but I’d only advise these roller coaster roads for those with a strong constitution and 1957 Isetta micro car.
I couldn’t wait to get on the water. On our first day we took the ferry from our hotel in Torno to the very small town of Cernobbio. We strolled by the famous Villa d’Este hotel and Villa Erba before we found Il Giardino della Valle, a beautifully manicured hillside garden which flanks a stream and even has a tiny library where you can leave and take books. A little self-service library in the middle of a remote garden? Everyone say it with me — charming!
None of my pictures could capture the feel of these places. I’m generally not prone to gushiness, but even after a day here I could understand why Lake Como is like catnip for celebrities.
Speaking of celebrities — please note the smooth transition — as you may know, one of Lake Como’s most famous denizens is George Clooney. As a good reporter, I thought it was my duty to find him, and perhaps befriend him. I could picture the two of us engaged in an afternoon tête-à-tête over prosecco and cornetti con panna, the late-day sun picking up the silver strands of his luxurious salt-and-pepper hair. What? Too much?
His villa has a waterfront view, so I knew my best chance of finding him was from a boat. Coincidentally, my hotel rented out slick, custom mahogany Cantiere Ernesto Riva boats. I’ve never driven any kind of boat, but it was for George, so I taught myself quickly and held on for dear life.
I yelled his name over the still of the lake as I sped along, hoping my desperate cries would echo off the mountains and travel through the windows of what I imagined to be his tastefully appointed villa. His roguish and slightly mischievous grin would appear in the doorway, and he would welcome me in for light refreshments and inappropriate knee touching.
Instead, all I heard was the rumble of the boat engine and my friend Dan telling me to shut up.
But at least we had the boat. We buzzed around the lake for hours, stopping to dock at a lakeside restaurant for an alfresco lunch. It felt as if I had slipped into someone else’s life, and I was not ready to give it up.
After seeing the towns from the vantage point of the water we returned the boat to prepare for our cocktail-making class with hotel bar manager Marco Gheza. If I did meet Clooney, I wanted to be ready to make him a proper Negroni.
Some would argue that I spent too much time at the hotel, but the Il Sereno Lago di Como hotel was a big part of why I came to Lake Como.
I saw the hotel, and its surroundings, when I was flipping through one of those aspirational travel magazines, the kind that’s chock-a-block with pictures of places you know you’ll probably never see in real life. Il Sereno is an architectural standout on Lake Como. Designed by architect and designer Patricia Urquiola, the building is made of natural materials, so it looks like part of the surroundings. It doesn’t try to imitate the 18th and 19th century villas. It’s luxurious, but doesn’t feel ostentatious thanks to all the wood, leather, and natural fabrics. It was one of my favorite places to sit on the patio and watch the sunset.
On the days that we didn’t have a boat of our own we took the ferry. Our main destination was the town of Bellagio. We were blessed with perfect weather and minimal crowds, so we could weave through the piazza and plod up the steep stairs by the shops, restaurants, and essential gelaterias to see the ancient churches.
We ate insanely long lunches everywhere. I regularly ordered the local specialty: A simple risotto with saffron, called risotto à la milanaise. When cooked properly it was slightly chewy with a barely detectable crunch. If I were one of those ambitious types I would have spent the sunny days trying to see as many old churches and historic villas as I could. There are dozens of towns on Lake Como. However we let the pace of the place, or perhaps the copious amounts of prosecco, dictate the schedule, keeping us lazy and slightly sunburnt.
By not getting on the ferry every 10 minutes to rush to another town, I also gave myself an excuse to return for more Clooney hunting at a later date.
That’s not to say that Dan and I sat on a patio for a week like a pair of slubberdegullions. We walked through sleepy towns and tourist haunts for breathtaking sites such as the Villa Melzi Garden in Bellagio. I’m not one to rhapsodize over a bunch of symmetrically planted flowers and well-trimmed grass, but the effect of the architecture, the lake, and the gardens was, dare I say, charming.
On our last night we took a boat to the town of Blevio for dinner at Momi. When timed correctly you can watch one of the best sunsets on Lake Como, and perhaps, in Italy. The night we dined here the expansive patio was packed with locals. I always know I’ve found a (mostly) tourist-free zone when I only hear the native language, and the menu is not in English.
We watched the sunset, I ate the handmade pasta, Dan tried the white fish, which is simply called “lake fish” on most menus. After dessert we asked our waitress if she could call us a cab. She looked concerned and said it was unlikely we could get a cab at the late hour. It appeared we’d be swimming back to the hotel.
A few minutes later we were told that the sous chef had offered to drive us back. We shoe-horned ourselves into his car and he began what was easily one of the most terrifying drives of my life as he whipped around two-way streets that were, at best, actually single-lane ant trails. I was so scared that I forgot to ask him for George Clooney’s address.
We arrived back at the hotel both shaken and stirred. But I can’t think of any time in all my travels when a chef gave me a ride back to my hotel. I turned to Dan and said, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, “That was so charming.”