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LA DOLCE VITA

Think of Lake Como and you may well think of Hollywood. With superstar resident forgiven for thinking Lake Como has become Italy's answer to St Tropez. But while the area that stretches back through the decades -the ostentatious exhibitionism of the south of Lake Como George Clooney, his regular guests Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, you could be surrounding Italy's third largest lake is certainly popular with celebrities -association France's hotspots is mercifully absent from this jewel of northern Italy.

Not that the villages and hotels surrounding the lake don 't contain an abundance of glamour and luxury -they do, it 's just that most of the high-end living goes on behind closed doors, or more accurately, behind carefully manicured hedges. The late fashion legend
Gianni Versace was known for his twin loves of celebrity and the good life, but his palatial residence at Lake Como was his retreat from the rest of the world. Villa Le Fontanelle, which overlooks the lake from Moltrasio, was a place for quiet reflection for its owner, and he described it as standing out amongst his four homes as “The house which really belongs to me: reflecting a mirror image of all that I am, for better or for worse.”

Versace bought the 18th Century Villa Le Fontanelle in 1977, when the former seat of Milan's aristocratic Cambiaghi family was in a sorry state of disrepair. After years of careful reconstruction and millions spent on historically accurate décor, furnishings and art, the villa was returned to its former glory. The spectacular residence can only be viewed from the outside, as it is still owned by the Versace family -Gianni left it to his niece Allegra in his will -but its exterior is certainly one of the most impressive lakeside landmarks.

Clooney 's place in Laglio, Villa Oleandra, with a relatively modest 15 rooms, is not quite on the same scale as the Versace villa, but the Ocean 's Thirteen star 's presence has proved more than enough to induce excitement among locals and tourists alike. The actor's arrival has led to acres of press coverage for the region, and traders, hoteliers and restaurant owners have all basked in the financial glow of the Clooney effect.

The suave superstar 's patronage of the area has not come without its pitfalls, however -locals in Laglio were outraged when the new neighbour announced plans to privatize the small beach in front of his villa in 2002.Two years later Clooney wrote a letter to the village 's 400 residents apologizing for the disruption caused by location filming on the movie Ocean 's Twelve, in large part because of the crowds of fans who descended on the picturesque spot hoping for a glimpse of the film 's stellar cast. But such celebrity madness is the exception rather than the rule in Lake Como.

The area's best and most famous hotel, the renaissance era Villa d 'Este, can proudly boast a lack of paparazzi blighting the views and tranquil atmosphere of Cernobbio, its beautiful location -the snappers have long since given up trying to gain access to the hotel's grounds thanks to its vigilant staff.

The rich and famous have long been a fixture Romantic Belaggio, lake Como ,Lombardy, Italy at the hotel, which was once home to Caroline of Brunswick, Queen Consort of George IV and a former Princess of Wales, but the hotel 's owners pride themselves on providing total privacy and seclusion for their guests. Villa d 'Este's claims to fame reads like a who's who of the A-list celebrity world from the 1920s to today. Alfred Hitchcock discovered the hotel in 1925 and shot his first fully-fledged feature film The Pleasure Garden there, and he returned for holidays for many years from that point on.

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson enjoyed numerous stays at the hotel; other famous couples to have honeymooned or holidayed there include Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Nick Hilton; and modern day superstars Kylie Minogue, Eddie Murphy, Rod Stewart and Elton John have all fallen for its charms, to name but a few.

For a luxury hotel of its calibre, rates at Villa d 'Este are quite reasonable -the 154 bedrooms start at EUR 325 in low season (mid October -late April) and EUR 480 in high season. That is just for standard rooms, of course; suites will set you back a pretty penny, and for those who can afford them, two separate villas that sleep eight or nine can be hired for up to EUR 35,000 a week. In return guests get some of the best service available anywhere, world class fine dining, and exquisite surroundings full of antiques, oil paintings and sumptuous fabrics.

Almost as impressive is the Tremezzo Palace Hotel, a 19th Century palazzo facing the picturesque village of Bellagio. The 94 rooms and suites benefit from features including two heated swimming pools, one of which floats on the lake -ideal for avoiding the heavily polluted waters (more of which later).The hotel boasts a 20,000 square metre garden, a spa, solarium, gym, sauna, tennis court, billiards room, two restaurants with views of the lake, and three bars including the Beach Club which takes ‘place of pride' on the lake, with decking surrounding the lake-top swimming pool.

Food-wise, visitors are spoilt for choice. This is Italy, after all, and quality cuisine is taken very seriously. Those staying in the higher-end hotels could happily eat within the grounds of their accommodation for their entire stay, but it is worth venturing out to try some of the excellent local restaurants. Il Gatto Nero, nestled in the hills above Cernobbio, is the most acclaimed restaurant in the region, and with dishes like tagliolini with asparagus at EUR 12 and perfectly grilled lamb chops at EUR 14,the spot-on cookery can be enjoyed by all.
George Clooney's presence can be felt with the waiters' proud display of photos with the actor and his A-list pals, but the atmosphere is homely and comfortable rather than starry.

La Locanda Dell 'Isola Comacina is pricier, but the set menu has to be sampled at least once. Delicious antipasti, fresh trout, and great wine and cheese have been packing in the punters for 40 years. Catching the boat from Sala Comacina to the island restaurant adds another dimension to the whole experience, and the host makes all feel welcome by recounting a potted history of the island. And if in the area, look out for the Villa del Balbianello, a beautiful 18th Century building once home to the explorer Guido Monzino and recently featured in the James Bond movie Casino Royale.

Those looking for nocturnal activity are likely to be disappointed -Lake Como is no hard-partying place; there are no nightclubs and the bars are far too refined to ever get raucous. But beyond the boundaries of the luxury hotel bars, Harry's Bar in Cernobbio is the place to head, known to be frequented by - you guessed it -George Clooney when he is in town.

For the sights, Bellagio takes some beating. It is famed as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, and with its cypress groves, lush gardens, rustic buildings and cobbled streets, it 's not hard to see why. Two of the best gardens, which are both open to the public, can be found in the grounds of Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni; the latter must be booked in advance and tours last 90 minutes.

The village of Varenna, 20 minutes from Bellagio by boat on the eastern shore of the lake, is another gem. The steep steps leading through the village are a bit of a challenge, but keep heading upwards for 20 minutes and you'll reach the ruined Castello di Vezio, plus a stunning vista of the lake, its villages and the mountains to the north.

To the west, seek out Villa La Collina, which overlooks the lake from the shores of Griante. The villa, built in 1899, was a holiday home for the late chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, for 10 years. The chancellor loved the place so much that eventually he treated it as his office in Italy, spending more and more time there and using it as a base to entertain various world leaders. Today the villa belongs to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and is open to the public as a hotel, so why not go along and check out the beautiful views that captivated Adenauer for so long.

Sadly, Lake Como's beauty is not totally unspoilt. As mentioned above, the waters are heavily polluted, making swimming and water sports inadvisable. In July this year the Italian environmental organisation Legambiente announced that they had found levels of faecal bacteria 10 times the legal limit on the Riva del Tenciuu beach, near Clooney's villa, plus twice the permitted levels of E coli. The clear water can be deceptive, and many bathers ignore the no swimming signs because of this, but Legambiente warned of the risk of skin infections in their report.

There are good reasons for optimism, however - the organisation likened the pollution levels to those on Italian coastal beaches 20 years ago, which have since much improved. Now the issue has been highlighted, it is far more likely to be tackled. And with all its natural beauty, it would be a crying shame if Lake Como isn't cleaned up, as water bodies aside, the area is one of Italy's most captivating.

Source: Arabian Man
Posted: 29/06/2008


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