The last time so many movie stars were trampling over each other to reach a destination was the Academy Awards gift table. Now it’s Lake Como and locals blame George Clooney. Following a visit to his lakeside villa where green mountains tower over clear blue water A-list celebrities want their own piece of paradise.
For mere mortals who can only afford property porn, there is an alternative…the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Formerly a private home it was turned into a luxury hotel in 1873. This is where the original movie stars Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Mary Pickford quaffed champagne and later Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum relaxed on chaise lounges under iconic red and white striped umbrellas. Today guests spot Al Pacino dining in the Michelin star restaurant Mistral and a grinning George Clooney pulling up to the dock in his fishing boat with a fresh catch he convinces the chef to prepare for lunch.
This five-star hotel has been owned and run by the Buchon family for four generations. Each winter they close it to touch up the frescos, tapestries and Murano crystal chandeliers before re-opening in April for the season.
Just a short walk away, the village Bellagio, nicknamed the Pearl of Lake Como, boasts a Romanesque church you may need for confession after spending too much money in the boutiques tucked away on curved cobblestoned alleyways. Bellagio is known for its silk but don’t be fooled by the tacky tourist displays hanging in stores along the water. It’s worth hiking up the steep street to reach Pierangelo Masciadri’s showroom. While he’s famous for his ties (owners include Presidents Clintons and Bush, Prince Albert and Bill Gates), most of his tiny store is filled with silk scarves he designs. It’s worth visiting just to chat with the gregarious Pieangel who loves sharing stories about the fashion world and his VIP customers.
Like Venice, Lake Como has water taxis. Drivers complain about passengers who insist on gliding by Clooney’s estate that appeared in the movie Ocean’s Twelve. There are so many annoying drive-bys that Clooney has reportedly set up a machine to lobby tennis balls at gawkers.
Another nearby villa welcomes visitors (so there Georgie! Did you forget your first big break was a janitor in Full House?). Built in the 17th century Villa Balbianello is best known for appearing in Star Wars II but before people were exploring other planets, a former resident, Count Monzino, was planting the Italian flag on Mount Everest. His artifacts are housed here along with English and French furniture from the 18th century.
Keep that water taxi to visit Varenna, a medieval fishing village with pastel painted homes burrowed in the hillside. Around every corner, lovers are kissing under porticos covered in pink and red azaleas while bicyclists glide past vintage cars.
Save your appetite however for Locanda dell’isola Comacina, for the food, the views, and the entertainment. Located on a tiny island, the quirky owner, Benvenuto Puricelli, loves showing visitors his gallery of celebrity photos and telling stories about the Island. When snakes were the Island’s only inhabitants two brave men opened the restaurant only to both die in separate accidents shortly afterward. So to ensure good luck Puricelli performs an exorcism with fire after most seatings.
Quirky characters like Puricell are the real stars of Lake Como. Locals are familiar with the neighbors who make a living appearing on the big screen but they’re not impressed. After all, anyone can don a stylish hat and some oversize sunglasses, nab a bench lakeside and feel like a million bucks. That is the magic of Lake Como.