A luxe escape at two of Italy's most glamorous stays in Lake Como
Much more than a simple vacanza, a glamorous getaway on the shores of Lake Como is the ultimate diversion from the everyday and an immersion in the magic of true Italian hospitality.
Long before the concept of ‘slow travel’ became a modern trend, the Italians had the tradition of villeggiatura: a word that dates back to Renaissance Italy, when Venetians sought a change of scenery, escaping Venice in favour of a summer villa.
It’s more than a simple vacanza. It’s an extended stay in one place, a diversion from daily life. To rest and relax, embrace a slower pace, enrich the soul and deeply connect with a destination.
It’s intrinsically Italian, and there’s no finer locale than Lake Como to truly escape. So, I’m setting off for Italy’s most beguiling body of water, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Milan. The plan? Well, that’s precisely the point – there isn’t one. The next few days will unfold as I give in to the languid Lago di Como experience, ensconced in two of the lake’s most luxurious hotels: the iconic Grand Hotel Tremezzo and the brand-new sister property, Passalacqua.
Lake Como: Italy’s loveliest lake
There’s a mystique to Italy’s loveliest lake, located in the foothills of the Italian Alps, dotted with lavish palazzi and terracotta roof-topped towns. The province has attracted artists and aristocrats for centuries.
Lake Como’s fabled legacy of pleasure-seekers can be traced to the second century as a Roman holiday resort, and later a stop on the Grand Tour undertaken by the upper classes of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It was a favourite Hollywood haunt during the 1950s before a modern-day revival as the playground of the rich and famous – dubbed the ‘George Clooney effect’ after the lake’s most feted resident.
Passalacqua: Lake Como’s hidden 18th-century villa
It’s a stormy October afternoon when I arrive at Passalacqua on the shores of Lake Como. The grand iron gates creak open to reveal an 18th-century villa with sage-green shutters set among verdant tiered gardens that cascade to the waterfront.
I’m warmly greeted by the staff with a posy of freshly picked flowers and handed a heavy brass key to my room at the enchanting 24-suite hideaway. The historic estate has hosted notable guests from Napoleon and Winston Churchill to composer Vincenzo Bellini, who was inspired to write two operas during his stay.
For the first time in the property’s 236-year history, it’s been reimagined as a hotel. The transformation was dreamt up by the De Santis family, who are perfectly versed in the art of hospitality as owners of Grand Hotel Tremezzo, one of Europe’s legendary institutions.
Third-generation hotelier Valentina De Santis had a vision for Passalacqua. And after three years of masterfully making over the estate – enlisting a small legion of Italy’s finest craftsmen and handpicking decor across the continent – it’s one of the most sought-after stays for the chic elite.
Passalacqua is a celebration of Italian artisanship – a red-carpet staircase, original frescoes, mosaic floors, glass-blown chandeliers from Murano and slabs of Carrara marble. Despite the swoon-worthy antiques and priceless art, I’m invited to feel at home, even to wander into the old-fashioned open kitchen to help myself to a snack from the fridge or a piece of homemade torta (cake) on the counter.
The sweetness of doing nothing
My day begins with the clanging of church bells from the old hamlet of Moltrasio perched behind Passalacqua. I take breakfast in the garden: cloud-soft, cream-filled maritozzi (buns) and a cappuccino. A gentle, jasmine-scented breeze carries the sound of the trickling fountains and birdsong. It’s the Italian idyll. The sprawling grounds are brimming with lemon, pear and pomegranate trees, silvery olive groves, ancient Lebanese cedar and a rose garden. The storm has lifted, revealing something special about the light in Lake Como. The way it peeks through the clouds, streams between pine branches and sparkles on the surface of the glacial lake.
Embracing the Italian saying dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), I meander down to the pool to take a dip. The floral-printed parasols and sun loungers have been custom-designed in collaboration with Milan-based fashion boutique La DoubleJ, as is the 200-year-old glasshouse, decked out with vibrant fabrics and tableware.
A fizzy Bellini makes for the perfect overture to a lingering poolside lunch. Chef di casa Mauro Verza worked as a private cook for prominent Milanese families for over two decades. The food is gorgeously garden-fresh and unfussy. I tuck into fried calamari and zucchini flowers, ribbons of culatello (salumi) with winter melon and twirled forkfuls of spaghetti pomodoro.
A day of sightseeing in Como
The best way to see Lake Como is on the water. I discover the underground passage that emerges at Passalacqua’s private dock and hop onto the vintage motor launch, decked out in lemony yellow Loro Piana fabric. The boat is skippered by Bepe, who’s been zipping along the lake for almost 40 years.
As we glide along the water – smooth like the famed Como silk – he points out George Clooney’s Villa Oleandra in the actor’s adopted hometown of Laglio. The lake is edged with autumnal burnt orange-tinged forests and storybook villages such as vine-clad Nesso, with swans swimming beneath the stone footbridge.
This evening I venture into the cosmopolitan town of Como for a piano recital at the neoclassical Teatro Sociale, an opera house with crimson interiors reminiscent of Milan’s La Scala.
I take a behind-the-scenes tour with a local guide who points to a gold-framed painting of a beautiful raven-haired woman in a velvet dress. “That’s a portrait of Giuditta Pasta, also known as Casta Diva”, she says.
The celebrated 19th-century soprano also happened to be the muse of opera composer Bellini. “You are staying at Passalacqua? It was the villa of Bellini at that time. Across the lake, there is Villa Casta Diva. Legend says that he would play the piano from his villa, and she would sing from the other side of the lake. She inspired [the opera] Norma.”
That night, as I drift off to sleep enveloped in the Beltrami bed linen – made from white birch fibres said to be softer than silk – I dream of hearing Bellini’s aria floating across the lake.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo: The place to be seen in Como
While Passalacqua is a hidden paradise, Grand Hotel Tremezzo is the place to see and be seen. It’s a smooth ride to the town of Tremezzo in the back of a Maserati, taking a winding route along the shoreline before I finally set eyes on the hotel’s unmistakable facade.
The 90-room Art Nouveau masterpiece has been charming holidaymakers since 1910. It still exudes the golden-age glamour of Greta Garbo’s ‘happy, sunny place’ from the 1932 film Grand Hotel.
On this blue-sky day, I’ve decided that it’s my happy, sunny place, too. A floating pool sits on the lake, fringed by retro Italian Riviera-esque striped sun loungers on a stretch of real sand. The colour palette is Aperol spritz, which also happens to be the cocktail du jour of the sunbathers wearing silk headscarves and Gucci sunglasses.
The architecture fits squarely in the genre of the grand-hotel style of the early 20th century (think: Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel). I ride the glass-and-brass elevator – a portal into a playful, pastel-hued lobby – and check into my suite, which is lavishly appointed with a gilded bedframe and a bathroom dripping in marble. Sumptuous curtains open onto a Juliette balcony with postcard views.
I’d already heard enthusiastic whispers about the extravagant breakfast buffet at Grand Hotel Tremezzo – and it did not disappoint. It’s fig season, so I tear into the deliciously sweet fruit and pastries before skipping down to the pier, where a handsome Venetian-built boat awaits me.
A vintage boat ride to Villa del Balbianello
It’s Lake Como’s version of a limousine. We speed towards one of the region’s most cinematic locations, Villa del Balbianello, where whimsically sculpted gardens festoon the promontory. The backdrop is recognisable from both Star Wars and James Bond’s Casino Royale. It’s exhilarating – with the wind in my hair and a glass of prosecco in hand.
A ferry trip to Bellagio
When I stand on my suite’s balcony, the town of Bellagio beckons from across the water. Conveniently, the ferry wharf is a moment’s walk away from the hotel, so I ride the 20-minute battello (boat) bound for the ‘Pearl of Lake Como’ where the wishbone-shaped lake forks.
It’s one of the prettiest towns in Europe, with narrow side streets awash in shades of limoncello, peach and apricot with shuttered windows adorned with geraniums, as well as fashion boutiques, cafes, pasticceria and wine bars to while away the afternoon.
Aperitivo on the terrace at Grand Hotel Tremezzo’s T Bar
As the golden-hued afternoon slinks into a sultry evening, it would be unconscionable not to enjoy an aperitivo on the terrace at T Bar where a honey-voiced performer tinkers on the piano.
By the time the moonlight has cast a silvery lustre over the lake, the night progresses to the patio of La Terrazza Gualtiero Marchesi, where the tables are a sea of twinkling candle-lit Murano glassware.
The restaurant has the privilege of serving the signature dishes of the late chef Gualtiero Marchesi, known as the maestro of Italian cuisine. The pièce de résistance is the saffron risotto crowned with a sheet of 24-carat gold leaf from Florence – a dish worthy of the splendid backdrop.
Return to Passalacqua
In the spirit of espousing my slow-paced villeggiatura, I extend my sojourn for another few days at Passalacqua. “You’re back. Welcome home!” one of the white-jacketed waitstaff smiles while swiftly delivering my coffee granita at breakfast.
It’s funny that one should feel so at home in what could quite possibly be the most beautiful villa in Lombardy, but somehow, I do. That’s the magic of true Italian hospitality.
Getting to Lake Como
The nearest airport is Milan Malpensa, around an hour’s drive to Lake Como. The lake is also easily accessible by train; it’s a 40-minute journey from Milano Centrale station to Como San Giovanni station in Como’s town centre. The tourism season begins in March.
This hotly anticipated boutique hotel opened in summer 2022. It’s now one of the lake’s most fashionable addresses. You can stay in the main Villa, the Palazz (fashioned from the former horse stables) or the four-bedroom Casa al Lago by the water’s edge.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo
The grand dame of Lake Como is more than a five-star hotel. The family-run property boasts five stylish restaurants and bars, three pools (including one that floats on the lake) and an award-winning spa for movie star treatment. The lakeside location in the town of Tremezzo makes this hotel a convenient base for those keen to explore.
Located at Grand Hotel Tremezzo, this is the bar of your Lake Como dreams. Expect extraordinary views, a convivial atmosphere and expertly made cocktails. For a twist on an Aperol spritz, try the refreshing Spritz GHT with notes of pink grapefruit and rosemary.