Behind the Jewel

Lake Como is an upside down ‘Y’.  Bellagio is close to the point where the three lines meet. Behind the village is a forested hillside and on the other side of that hillside is the less glitzy, but equally scenic arm of the ‘Y’ known as Lago di Lecco.  The sprawling villa at the northern tip of Bellagio is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, a 5-star luxury hotel.  (Why are places like this always described in the promo material as ‘5-star luxury‘?  Is there such a thing as 5-star non-luxury?)   In any event the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni features frescoed ceilings, impressive staircases, Murano chandeliers, a starred Michelin restaurant, a spa etc., etc., all of which you can enjoy for an average price of $1500 per night.  Oh, and they throw in free parking.


To the left of the bell tower, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.

The only reason I know any of this is because I had gone on the hotel website to check out the tour of the hotel garden which, for a fee even my budget could manage – 9 euros – was offered twice daily to the public,   EXCEPT on Monday, which is why I hadn’t managed to visit it on previous trips AND in caso di mal tempo, (which always strikes me as edgier than brutto tempo which is just ‘ugly’ instead of ‘evil’), which is why the booking I had so carefully arranged months before had been cancelled.


On a previous trip I’d caught a glimpse of the garden over the top of the high stone walls that surround the hotel grounds.

As the ferry approached the landing this fall day in 2015 an unlikely sight formed to the left.


On this cold day, it was the palm trees more than the snow-capped mountains that looked out of place.

The meeting place for the tour was at the base of a medieval tower in the piazza next to the bell tower.   From here our guide shepherded us through a large gate on to the grounds of Villa Serbelloni and then we started climbing.


Soon we were almost at the top of the bell tower of the Chiesa di San Giacomo.


Along the left, the Avenue of Plane Trees in the gardens of Villa Melzi. The hump in the centre is the elusive Villa Balbianello and the lone, white building on the right shore is Villa Carlotta.


As we climbed higher, Bellagio started to disappear until we couldn’t see it at all.

We were about two thirds of the way up the hillside when our guide stopped and told us to take all the photos we wanted.  Since most of us had been stopping to take photos all the way up, this seemed an odd suggestion.  Even more puzzling, she then told us we weren’t allowed to take any more photos for the next part of the tour.

We had come to the area occupied by the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation. The mission of the foundation is ‘to promote the well-being of humanity’.  The no-photos policy is to protect the privacy of the select group of artists, scholars, policymakers and scientists who are invited to the centre each year for the purpose of ‘exchanging ideas across disciplines and geographies, engaging in focused, small group interactions, and pushing creative and innovative thinking to address global challenges’.


The last photo until we passed the area where the foundation’s guests live and work.

Guests go through a ‘rigorous residency application process’ which is designed to ensure those accepted reflect ‘the greatest possible diversity to drive uncalculated, creative, collaborative thinking’.  One of those guests, whose talents were as extraordinary as they were diverse, was Maya Angelou.  She dedicated ‘Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas’ (The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou, 2004 Modern Library Edition, Random House) to the centre and in a short piece you can find at she gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a black, female author in Italy at the time.


As we approached the top of the promontory the tiny fishing village of Pescallo and the east branch of the  ‘Y’ came into view.


The next day I would be taking the ferry to Varenna, on the right, for a cooking class and to visit another garden.

While on the Grand Tour in the early 1800’s Stendhal had famously collapsed after being overwhelmed by the extraordinary abundance of art on view at every corner of Florence. (I wrote about this in one of my earliest posts – ‘Taking a Break – Una Passeggiata a Firenze Part I’, Oct. 20, 2013)   While he did not faint when he reached the top of the promontory, he declared ‘the luxuriant beauty of the west arm and the austere beauty of the east arm a sublime and enchanting spectacle that the most famous place in the world, the Bay of Naples, equalled but did not surpass’.  While the most famous place in the world may no longer be the Bay of Naples – what is the most famous place in the world nowadays anyway? – as far as the relative beauty of the two views goes, I’m with Stendhal.


The tip of the promontory is called Spartivento.  Divide the Wind.


I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who would have liked to linger up here, but access to the hotel grounds is tightly controlled and our guide gently but firmly urged us on.

Scattered around the hillside are small buildings – studios for the visiting artists and scientists.  Our guide stopped in front of one of them, a perfect, tiny villa complete with red-tiled roof, dark green shutters and light yellow stucco walls.  When Alessandro Serbelloni inherited the property in the late 1700’s, he spent a fortune improving and beautifying the garden.  He built the roads and paths we had been walking along so that his son, who was unable to walk, could enjoy the promontory and the views. He was also committed to helping the impoverished community, hired only locals, and even in the face of rapidly depleting funds, managed to provide his workers with a hearty lunch of the northern specialty, polenta.   In memory of that much-appreciated gesture, this studio was called ‘la Polenta‘.

La Polenta.

La Polenta.  An artist’s studio and a reminder of a past benefactor.

The tour had started at 11 am.  By the time we got back to the gate it was, happily, once again, l’ora di mangiare.  I headed to the fishing village on the other arm of the ‘Y’.


From the piazza where our tour ended it was a short walk, mercifully all downhill, to Pescallo.


From this angle the ‘hump’ looks almost squattish. Don’t be fooled. It’s not mountain climbing, but it’s still a good walk up.

The water took on more blue or more green tones as I moved around the restaurant terrace.


Even knowing colour is a function of our perception, it was hard to believe those colours weren’t ‘real’.

The food was forgettable and overpriced – including a 3 euro cover charge. When I told Paola later I’d been disappointed by the restaurant she sighed – many of her guests had said the same thing.  It’s just one of those places – Piazza Navona in Rome comes to mind – where you go for the view.  If I’m lucky enough to come back, I’ll just have an aperitivo.   A nice, local white perhaps.


I suppose 2 out of 3 isn’t bad – great view, nice wine and forgettable food.


If it weren’t for the photos, I might have wondered if I was starting to lose it.  There is no way this calm lake could have been roiling with white caps the day before.

Instead of retracing my steps back to Bellagio, I continued along the path parallel to this less visited arm of the ‘Y’.


An olive grove.  Such a strange site this far north.

Our guide had told us about Villa Giulia and what its owners had done years ago to the local landscape.


The villa is on the east side of the promontory.  The logical thing would have been to build it facing rather than turning its back on Lake Lecco, but instead it was built facing west to the more upscale Lake Como.  There was however, a problem.  While there was a great view of the Lecco arm of the lake from the rear of the villa, the view of the more prestigious Como arm was blocked by a slight elevation in terrain and the farmhouses of the peasants who lived there.



To my mind the sign put up by the current owners captures brilliantly, if unwittingly, the mindset that must have driven the actions of the previous owners.  They had no view.  They wanted a view.  So what does a powerful, wealthy owner do?  They expropriate the offending properties, raze the terrain and voilà! now they have a view.


Il Vialone di Villa Giulia.  A tainted view.

Even though it had happened long ago, I was so incensed by the unbridled, raw arrogance of it all, the crass, entitled view it revealed, I had no desire to take the path along the right side, which is now ‘generously’ open to the public.  It was a poisoned short-cut. Instead I continued along the road.


Even though I had read about them, I was still taken aback when I saw the nurseries.


Who would have thought that behind the ‘Jewel’ all this was going on?  Next to tourism the nursery business is the most important activity in Bellagio’s economy


Over thirty family nurseries stretch out on both sides of the wretched Villa Giulia Avenue.


Mostly for outdoor use, the plants grown here are shipped all over Italy and Europe.


At the western end of the grassy corridor, a long staircase leads down to Via Melzi.  Close, but not quite to the lake.


It wasn’t what I would call a garden, but I’d always wondered about the solitary villa half-way up the hill behind Bellagio. Now I knew.

Next – a cooking class, a castle and one more garden before leaving Lake Como




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