Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Bellissimo Bellagio

If this post seems a little disjointed in places, maybe a little breathless, please accept my apologies in advance. The thing is, even a good two months after I left Bellagio, and despite having been to some pretty amazing places since (I'm writing this, in fact, on the return flight from Bermuda, about which more to come), just thinking about my time there has got me nearly as giddy with excitement as I was when I was there. What started as a casual suggestion by Matty, aka My Eldest, that while in Italy I try to fit in a visit to Sarah, his old school friend and my erstwhile drinking buddy and now a successful bar-owner and restaurateur - "You can't go to Italy and not see Lake Homo, Mother!" - turned into an unexpected joy, and saw me fall completely in love with the place. I'll try to keep things eloquent, but if I use the words 'gorgeous', 'super', 'fabulous' and 'amazing' even more than usual, please indulge me this once. I'm also really struggling to just think how to distil into words the wonderful experience I had; how to do justice not just to the place but to the people, the sights, the good times. I think what I'll do is try to cover some of the broad themes of what I want you to know about my time in Bellagio, a tiny jewel of a town on the shores of Lake Como in the very north of Italy, and then fill in some of the detail later or as I go along.

Let me begin by telling you about how beautiful Bellagio actually, let me begin by telling you how beautiful getting to Bellagio is. Once out of the grey suburbs of Milan, the view from the train is of countryside, then soon after of the Alps, and then within only about half an hour, of beautiful Lake Como itself, its lush wooded banks and calm water framed by the mountains beyond. The closer view of this which greets you on arrival at Varenna-Essino, the nearest station to Bellagio, is breath-taking (I let out an involuntary 'Oh my God' as I stepped onto the platform) and even the station itself is attractive, set on a hill above the town amid neatly planted flowerbeds. From there it's only a short, downhill stroll to the lakeside ferry terminal; the journey to Bellagio takes just fifteen minutes, all of them pure joy as you admire the candy-coloured villas which punctuate the lush greenery. Finally, as you dock at the little jetty right on the front street of the town, you're greeted by the sight of a neat row of chi-chi boutiques, pretty cafes and elegant hotels, all with more than a hint of a slightly older, much more refined world, cocooned from the dirt, violence and vulgarity of modern life.

Bellagio is essentially made up of little more than two main streets – the one on the lakefront, the other a few dozen metres up and away on a slight gradient – linked to each by a half dozen or so narrow salite, flights of gently graduated cobbled steps. The front street widens out at one end into a town square of sorts, off of which runs a road to the Lido; the upper street has a church at either end and leads to a small park. Both streets and most of the salite are peppered with shops, both practical and decorative, and places to eat and drink from little gelaterias to gourmet restaurants, and that's about it. No cinema, no supermarket, and certainly no fucking Starbucks. It's simply gorgeous.

Also absolutely gorgeous, and a major contributing factor to my having such a great time, was the Hotel Bellagio where I stayed. Recommended and booked by My Eldest (the booking part during a hilariously camp three-way phone conversation between Matty, Mario at the hotel and myself, conducted for my part from outside La Rinascenta in Milan during a ten-minute time out from the spritz bitches), the Hotel Bellagio far exceeded my expectations given the price and was a truly delightful bolthole for my two nights. Having heaved my suitcase up the 28 steps of salita Grandi to the reception (I couldn't grumble, as in fairness I had been forewarned of the climb), I was checked in and escorted to my fourth floor room. To save the €30/night difference in price I'd opted for a 'side lake view' rather than 'lake view' room, so I was thoroughly chuffed when the first thing I noticed on entering the room was the amazing view. On a top-floor corner of the building, from one side - through the fabulous, electric windows - the view was of the town and its terracotta rooftops, and from the other, with the remote control shutters raised, I could see a very substantial way out across Lake Como even if, admittedly, it was side on. No matter, it was a spectacular vista, jaw-droppingly beautiful, and perfectly set off by the cool, neutral decor of the room from whence I stood gawping.

The gawping didn't last long, however, as Sarah was enjoying a rare day off and had requested the pleasure of my company for afternoon drinks (it was way too early for aperitivi but she'd wangled some anyway), conveniently choosing Bar Rossi at the foot of my salita. "I'm not sure I'll recognise her," I'd told Matty, having not seen her for a few years; "Don't worry, Mother," he'd reassured me, "for one thing she hasn't changed a bit, and for another, if you just look for the girl effing and blinding loudly in English you'll find her." How right he was, for there at a pavement table, cursing away in finest Anglo-Saxon, was a completely unchanged Sarah, sipping cocktails in the glorious sunshine with a couple of friends...I needed no persuasion whatsoever to join this happy group; a Campari and Soda was ordered and the fun began.

Sarah's friends – who for the record, I now firmly count as being also mine – were Siobhan and Grant, a British couple who over the course of many years holidaying in Bellagio had become good friends with Sarah and her Italian boyfriend, Aurelio (who joined us after a couple of hours, by which stage we were all approaching two-thirds cut). You'll all have met friends-of-friends with whom you instantly just get along, and this was certainly the case with Siobhan and Grant. I've rarely met a couple so simultaneously chilled-out and warm-hearted – within fifteen minutes of my sitting down they'd invited me to join them for dinner that evening – and the four of us got to talking about any and everything from the best of Bellagio, to engagement rings, to Take That, to handbags...the usual sort of stuff, made all the more congenial by the beautiful weather (my arrival coincided with one of the hottest and sunniest days of August) and an uninterrupted flow of cocktails and nibbles. Siobhan and Grant excused themselves after a while to return to their flat to rest before dinner; Sarah and I should have done likewise but instead pushed on through until it was time to go for dinner (and in fact a little after it was time to go for dinner) and wove our way tipsily straight to La Punta, a gorgeous lakeside eatery boasting sweeping views across Lake Como. Dinner was a highly congenial affair, our party made up to seven by Siobhan and Grant's lovely, funny daughter, her best friend who was lucky enough to be holidaying with them, and Aurelio, a surprise addition given that he had been due to work that night. The food was heavenly (my main course of a delicious veal chop in sage butter was made possible only by Grant generously sacrificing his after I – trying to show off my Italian – ordered fish by mistake!) and was washed down by bottle after bottle of superb wines including a Greco di Torro and a Brunello. Afterwards we staggered, somehow, back into the town, and drank cocktails into the wee small hours first al fresco at Bar Florence on the lakefront and then, after they'd chucked us out, at Sarah's own gorgeous bar, Aperitivo et Al. I completely ignored my own long-standing 'note to self' that I am not the same after three Martinis, and had four, all delicious, before excusing myself while I could still stand and see and making my way over the cobbles to the hotel and bed.

Next morning, I woke feeling far better than I deserved to given the previous night's excesses and after breakfast at the Bellagio (meagre pickings, but made thoroughly enjoyable by the lovely views towards the lake from the breakfast terrace) I headed out to explore the town. This took all of, oh, about eight minutes, but I did bump into a very hungover Sarah and made arrangements to drop by her bar for a drink later. I killed a couple of hours most enjoyably watching Sex and The City re-runs on the flatscreen in my hotel room, made all the more special by the gorgeous aroma of wood smoke wafting up from the forno a legna of the pizzeria several floors below being heated up for that evening. I made my way to Aperitivo et Al, where Sarah's staff made me very welcome, and decided to stop for lunch; my salad of rocket, parmesan and tomato was a perfect, fresh sharp foil to the hearty rusticity of my pizzochero, a fat, flat buckwheat pasta served with grana di Pardano (a hard cheese not unlike pecorino) and cabbage. Sarah warned me that this might cause 'rumbling' later, My Eldest having managed to set off a gas alarm in a rented apartment the last time he partook of this particular dish of roughage! On this basis I decided it might be wise to stay outdoors, so I took a long stroll along the front, past the town square and down to the Lido where I sat happily finishing Jessica Mitford's first volume of memoirs until it was time for aperitivi. For these I returned first to Bar Rossi (where, recognised from the day before, I was greeted like an old friend) and then moved along to Bar Florence, idling away the time writing postcards and speaking at length on the phone to Alyn who I wished intensely had been there to share the beauty of the day with me.

Dinner time was approaching and so I headed back to Sarah's bar; she was intending to join me for dinner at Aurelio's restaurant, custom at the bar permitting. For a Tuesday night it was unexpectedly busy, and thus so was Sarah, but I happily settled down at a corner table with a whopping glass of Muller di Alto Adige to wait optimistically for a lull. I love people watching anyway, but it was truly fascinating, and rewarding, to see Sarah in situ; charming her customers in several languages, not least her impressively fluent Italian, talking knowledgably about the many wines on offer (also all on sale to take away at bargain prices, if ever you're passing, plug plug) and managing the team and kitchen to ensure that everyone was kept happy. I certainly was. Fortunately, within a couple of hours the pace slackened and Sarah was able to get away; we didn't have far to go, as Aurelio's Trattoria San Giacomo is directly opposite the bar, and the patron had reserved us a much-in-demand pavement table. The setting could hardly be more gorgeous; right at the top of the salita, overlooked by the tall houses of the upper street, the Trattoria is a tiny, bustling place with about a dozen tables inside and half as many again on the terrace, all of which people happily wait their turn for either in Sarah's bar or seated on the top-most steps of the salita on brightly-coloured cushions taken from a huge wicker basket outside the restaurant. As for the food...oh, the food! I mean, I've had some pretty spectacular meals in my time, but this was truly something else. My starter of fusilli with speck and saffron was a rich, buttery, savoury bowlful of bliss, golden yellow from the strands of the rare precious spice stirred through it; our shared main course of tagliata di manzo – beef sirloin – was a melt-in-the-mouth mountain of gently seared rare beef served simply on a pile of rocket under which was a mouth-watering heap of steamed, buttered vegetables; and pudding, Marguerita's Chocolate Cake, made to Aurelio's mama Marguerita's top secret flourless recipe, was the kind of ambrosial pud that were I to ever find myself on Death Row – God forbid – I would order by the kilo for my last meal on this earth. Add to this a bottle of very good Italian red wine, the attentive service of Aurelio and his team, and the warm feeling that one gets from being the owner's very welcome guest, and it all made for one of the most enjoyable, delicious and memorable meals I've ever had – seriously. And I should also mention that during the course of all this, Grant dropped by to invite me for a farewell coffee at Rossi next morning: I had truly joined 'the Bellagio set'. After a nightcap across the road, I went to bed feeling I couldn't have been happier had George Clooney dropped by from his villa across the lake and tucked me in himself.

Waking the next morning I couldn't help but feel intensely sad that I was leaving that day, such was the extent to which I had fallen for Bellagio. But, there was no time for moping, as I had my coffee date to look forward to. I scoffed some breakfast (pocketing a couple of bananas for the train back to Milan later) and checked out of the hotel, taking myself and my suitcase down to Bar Rossi where Grant, Siobhan and after a little while, Sarah, all gathered to say arrivederci. Stories were shared, photos taken, and contact details exchanged, all with a pledge that our first time together in Bellagio wouldn't be our last. I boarded the boat to Varenna feeling really happy and loved, albeit sad to be leaving – for now. Finding the ticket office at the station closed for lunch, I made my way (as instructed by the notice on the locked door) to the Bar Albergo Beretta at the foot of the hill, where as well as buying my return ticket to Milan I enjoyed a slice of excellent pizza and a couple of ice-cold beers for all of about €9. When word got out among the staff – including a very-hot-indeed barman – that there was an inglese on the premises, it seemed that everyone came out to my table to chat, practise their English, ask me what I thought of their town and country and generally make me feel more welcome than I ever have in restaurants charging a ton a head. It was just so typical of my whole Bellagio experience and completely took the sting out of my departure.

My Italian adventures were drawing to a close but, as I mentioned to you before, my experience of Milan second time around made up for the disappointment of the first. Arriving at about 4pm and having checked in once again to the Hotel Ariston, it having served me so well before, I headed out to the shops and this time, joy of joys, they were actually open! First stop was Armani Manzoni, where in addition to admiring the beautifully conceived layout and displays I invested in some gorgeous evening trousers; I stopped for aperitivi al fresco at the Armani Caffe, which while looking a little tired and unloved compared to the rest of the building serves a mean Martini. From there it was on to Moschino, where to my own astonishment I was able to hold a conversation entirely in Italian regarding a cape from the A/W 08-09 collection which Andrew is lusting after and buy a t-shirt for Alyn, including requesting a style and size! I then moved on to the Dolce & Gabbana men's store, a surprisingly austere but nonetheless very beautiful warren of marble-floored, mirror-walled rooms over four floors housing their complete collection and a surfeit of chisel-jawed staff with nothing much to do (I also checked out the Martini Bar but finding it practically empty, didn't stop for long.) I filled a very exciting couple of hours checking out all these temples to high fashion that I'd been denied the pleasure of exploring just a few days before, and it was every bit as good as I'd hoped it would be. While London may boast some of the finest shopping in the world, even the designer flagships of Bond, Sloane and Mount Streets have nothing on the sheer glamour of the Quadrilatero d'Oro. Finally,on the way back to the hotel, I stopped by the beautiful Pasticerria Fratelli Freni and picked up a half-dozen marzipan fruits, from the finest and most, well, fruit-like selection I've ever seen, for my soon-to-be brother-in-law who loves the things. Hungry from all the retail excitement, I dined at Pizzeria Naturale, an organic, bio-dynamic pizzeria on Corso Genova, where despite suffering from the combined heat of a wood-fired oven and no air-con, I thoroughly enjoyed my pizza Valdostana and half-bottle of Corvo di Sicilia. I left the next morning, walking the short distance from the Ariston to the station to catch the express train to Malpensa and feeling much more sympathetic towards Milan than after my initial bum-note visit.

During the journey home – again taking in a couple of hours in heavenly Zurich Airport – I reflected with immense fondness on my fortnight in Italy, but most particularly on my time in bellissimo Bellagio. Since getting back, Siobhan has been in touch to say that there's a possibility they'll be fitting in a little visit next April; if anywhere will give you odds, you can bet your bottom euro I'll be there too.

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