Bella Bellagio – the very name evokes ‘beautiful lake’ (although it is most likely from the Latin bi-lacus). And there are those who have said that this is the most picturesque place in all Europe. Whether or not you want to that far, there is no doubt that Bellagio distils the essence of Lake Como into a single point, on the very spot where the three branches of the lake meet. Even if you only have a couple of days in the area, a visit to Bellagio is a must.
Getting there is part of the adventure. Most people arrive by ferry, and summer weekends see a steady procession of tourists disembarking at the jetty. You can also arrive by bus. The C30 from Como follows a scenic and tortuous route around the edge of the lake, visiting the villages along the way, and giving an unrivalled view of the more developed western shore.
Bellagio itself is a delightful cocktail of liberty-style villas and hotels, rambling cobbled streets sprawling up the hill, lined with the inevitable souvenir shops, gardens and churches, all cascading in a charming haphazard muddle over the promontory. It looks as though it is in a strategic position, and Bellagio has been fought over in the wars between Como and Milan, but generally it has been given over to pleasure since late Roman times. One of Napoleon’s generals, Francesco Melzi, was rewarded with the white neo-Classical Villa Melzi, to the south of the town, which today is visited primarily for its spectacular gardens (open late March to October, 9.00am to 6.30). Like the Villa Carlotta on the opposite shore, the very best time to visit is around April and May when the azaleas are in bloom.
On the road close to the entrance to the Villa Melzi is the Lido, which had fallen into near dereliction until recently. But in 2011 it was reopened after a refit. It is a typical Italian lido in that swimming is in the lake – there isn’t a separate swimming pool. There is an artificial beach (with sand), a dive board, and a very scary looking slide, and the whole place has an air of slightly Hollywoodesque ‘30s glamour. Open daily from 9.00 a.m to 6.30.
The tip of the promontory is dominated by the Villa Serbelloni, which is now a study centre of the Rockefeller Foundation. The park and gardens are well worth a visit (tickets from the Promo Bellagio tourist office).
Up in the ‘high town’ of Bellagio, at the top of the steps, is the 11th century Romanesque church of San Giacomo. Don’t miss the 11th century evangelists on the pulpit, and the rich mosaics.