And what if I had met him? What then?

You say Bellagio and I say Las Vegas. Try again. You say Bellagio and I say casino. But no matter how many times we try, I never get to where you’re going. George Clooney.

IMG_0019 (800x600)Until I ventured out onto Lake Como, I didn’t know that Bellagio was an Italian village, home to the stars. I didn’t know that it was known as the Pearl of Lake Como and billed by many as the most photogenic village in all of Europe. And I didn’t know that it’s where George Clooney has a villa. I knew it was somewhere on Lake Como but not here.

Always up for a trip across water, whatever that water might be, I didn’t take much persuading to take the ferry and go see for myself. Not that I’d any idea what I’d say were I to run into him.

IMG_9986 (800x598)One of the first things to notice – after I’d double checked the date to be sure I’d not stepped back into another world (Bellagio off-season is strangely reminiscent of the Marie Celeste, were she not a ship, but a village) – is a rather thought-provoking statue at the harbour entrance. I spent quite a while looking at it, trying to figure out what I was seeing and eventually settled on togetherness, having cast aside despair, solace, and grief. I prefer to think of them meeting up after a long absence than readying themselves for an imminent departure.

IMG_0043 (585x800)The village is a maze of narrow climbing streets and at times the only thought that kept me climbing was the remote change that I might bump into himself at the top. We had the place practically to ourselves. And it was gorgeous.

The few shops that were opened sold the famous Como silk (never too early to start Christmas shopping). There was very little tat on display and indeed the windows of those that only opened at weekends were stylish and full of locally made ware. Note to self – next time visit on a weekend.

IMG_0036 (800x600)We passed the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni with its Michelin starred restaurant and a guest list that would rival the Academy Awards. I wonder was it here that Wilde so famously said: Let me be surrounded by luxuries. I can do without the necessities. This, by the way, is not to be confused with another villa of the same name (minus the GH appendage)  further up the hill, now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation where people ‘identify impact-oriented solutions to critical global problems’ – in between cocktails no doubt (the cynic in me will out). Seems like Bellagio has something for everyone.

IMG_0007 (600x800)IMG_0008 (800x600)It certainly has its fair share of churches that come with their own sense of simplicity. I’d been impressed with the churches in Milan, but here, out on the lake, in this little village, time definitely seemed to be standing still. In the church of San Giancomo, I was mesmerized by the frescoes, the pillars, and the polished pews.

IMG_0006 (800x599)IMG_0016 (800x586)Rambling our way through the warren of streets, we ended up on a road that led to the water. A dead end, lined with villa after villa, one more impressive than the next. The lake was turbulent. Waves (can you have waves on a lake?) splashed over the harbour wall as the boats in the sheltered waters seem to sigh audibly with relief. I could have sat there for hours. Travelling off-season certainly has its rewards.

We arrived at lunch time and finding an open restaurant mid-week, off-season was quite a challenge. But find one we did. Lunch of fresh fish and salad with a nice selection of wine was laid back and casual. In true Italian style, nothing was rushed. No evidence of frenzy. Everything taken in the moment, as it was. Not for the first time I mentally congratulated the nation on giving birth to the slow food movement and myself for avoiding the hordes of tourists that descend on the village in season.

IMG_9997 (586x800)IMG_0041 (800x600)I was highly amused at the embellished inscription on a building overlooking the harbour and have my doubts about work conquering anything in the village of Bellagio. Especially not in late January. I never did get to see George. But then again, had we run into each other, what would I have said? Howaya?  How’s she cuttin’? All well? I wonder at the excitement celebrity sightings engender in some folk and give thanks that I’m strangely unmoved by it all. As Yeats would say – being Irish I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy.

IMG_0046 (800x600)We had boated over and decided to bus back to Como. It was on the bus that I had my suspicions confirmed. We had indeed stepped back in time. I hadn’t been imagining it. And had I been able to stop the clock, I might well have been tempted. Bellagio is a must see if you’re in the region. But try to go there off season. And for God’s sake, don’t all go together or it will be as bad as mid-July.





2014 Grateful 46

I’ve been quite open about my Balkan love affair. I’ve made no secret of the fact that three of the most gorgeous men I know all happen to be Serbian. Not necessarily gorgeous gorgeous in the Clooney sense of the word, but lovely lads – gems, all of them. There’s a fourth I could add to my list but I’m loath to do it as he’s fictional – created by the pen of Srđan Valjarević. Yet I suspect  (and hope) that he might be somewhat autobiographical as both the character and the author spent time by in Bellagio by Lake Como on a Rockefeller fellowship. The book my hero narrates is titled Lake Como and has been translated from the Serbian Komo. It’s up there on my list of all-time favourites so when in Milan recently and offered the chance to visit the real Lake Como, I didn’t need to be asked twice.

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Just 50 miles north of Milan, Lake Como, Europe’s deepest lake, came into being as the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated and melted. It’s featured in movies like Casino Royale, Star Wars, Oceans Twelve, A Monthly by the Lake, What a Beautiful Day, and The Shadow of Suspicion.  It’s so popular as a location that you can do a Hollywood-style tour of the villas that have been captured on celluloid. Once I realised that George wasn’t home, I lost interest.

IMG_9964 (800x583)I don’t think I’ve ever seen towns ‘nestling’ before.. or even registered the fact that I’ve never had the opportunity to use that word till now. But nestle they do… in the shadows of the Alps, all around the lake’s peculiar y-shaped perimeter (think inverted wishbone) that runs for about 170km. Multicoloured houses pitched almost on top of each other come right out to the edge of the water. Sailing across the lake, they look like miniature villages, toy towns reminiscent of the pastelled vision that is Burano, one of the Venetian islands.

IMG_9977 (800x598)Schoolkids flock to the lake in droves, guided by geography teachers eager to show them where European and African continental plates collide. Apparently the great plates meet in the Alps and the peculiar geographic formation is something to behold – if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The town of Como was home to Alessandro Volta (no prizes for guessing what he’s famous for). This man, born on 18 February back in 1745,  who didn’t speak until he was nearly four, was all but written off as ‘slow’. Yet he turned out to be a genius. Something to think of next time you change a battery. With its medieval walls and imposing churches, Como is a jewel of a town. We were only there for a few hours but it was enough for me to know that I’ll be back. There’s so much I didn’t get to see or do.

IMG_0113 (800x600)Whether it’s the relative empty marbled expanse of the Basilica di San Fedele which dates back to the 11oos or the plus interior of the Cathedral (Duomo) itself, there’s a church to suit every taste. The skyline is dotted with steeples and spires and numerous church bells provide an unforgettable soundtrack to a movie that plays year-round. Como is the epitome of quaint, with its narrow streets and piazzas, its fur-coated gentlewomen and its designer-clad youth.  People watching rarely gets this good, particularly when the sun is shining and the coffee is hot.

Interior of the Duomo

Interior of the Duomo

I had to be dragged away. Had there been a Como equivalent to Rome’s Trevi  Fountain, I’d have tossed a piggybank of coins to make sure I return. And next time, I’ll be better prepared. Maybe if I start saving now, I might be able to afford a room – with a view – in the Palace Hotel.

This week, as I search in vain for my copy of Lake Como (did you borrow it?), I’m grateful for the random happenings in my life that simmer, half-forgotten and then come to the boil as if that had been the intention all along. A job in London back in 2003 started a lasting friendship with my Milanese mate. An invite to spend Easter in Subotica in 2010 got me hooked on  Srđan Valjarević. Both of them together took me to Lake Como in 2014. Who needs plans eh?

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