Bellagio (Italy, not Las Vegas): A Lakeside Jewel

Bellagio, Italy is one of the charms of the northern regions nestled at the base of the Alps: a small village perched at the end of a long peninsula that juts out into Lake Como.  This peninsula, as well as the lake itself, owe their existence to a prehistoric glacier (active some 1.5 million years ago during the Quaternary period) which divided itself at the point where Bellagio now sits and created the tri-partate Lake Como, the third largest subalpine lake – but the deepest of them all with a maximum depth of 410 metres.

The peninsula itself also offers great walking country, part of the reason the town (boasting 800+ beds for tourists) has become arguably the most famous resort in the lakes district. Visitors come to Bellagio to lose themselves in the characteristic little steep streets which house many shops and in the romantic gardens of Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni. For these reasons, it serves as the base for three nights of our 6 day/5 night Italian Lakes walking holiday.

A Fishing Village that Made Good

Historically, we find references to paleo-venetian and gallic colonies settling the area.  By the second century BC the Romans had arrived. Behind the promontory where Villa Serbelloni now stands, Pliny the Younger built a villa –  called “Tragoedia” – which was one of the two that he owned on Lake Como.  Later, when Flavius Stilicho, the semi-barbarian Roman general of the 4th C AD, defeated the Visigoths at Bellagio, he built a fortress there, appreciating its dominating and practically invincible strategic position.

One of the more charming local legends involves the sasso del pane (lit. the bread stone).  During the plague epidemic of 1630 (described by Alessandro Manzoni in his 1827 book “I Promessi Sposi”), the people of Bellagio avoided being infected due to their being isolated at the end of their peninsula.  The grain they grew was reputed to be likewise infection free, and the bread made from this grain was consequently greatly sought after by the surrounding local populations.  In order to sell the bread, the bakers of Bellagio placed it on a large boulder located close to the shore. In exchange, the buyers left their payment in a jar filled with vinegar which acted as a disinfectant. In latter years this boulder was blown up with a mine as it was a danger to navigation.

Bellagio: Italy’s Luxury Resort (Without the Casinos)

Bellagio’s particular position provides it with stupendous views of much of the lake, framed on all sides by tall mountains. The fascination of Bellagio has attracted poets and artists since the Renaissance; starting in the nineteenth century a great number of well known foreign visitors came, including Shelley, Longfellow, Stendhal, Flaubert and Liszt. Villa Serbollini, now a respected five-star hotel, was built around around this time by an aristocratic Milanese family in order to enjoy the lakeside ambience, fresh alpine air and moderate climate.

The local flora is wide-ranging, including Mediterranean, alpine and subalpine varieties. Near the shores of the lake are found cypresses and pines, on the sunbathed slopes, vines and olive trees and on the mountainsides, chestnut trees, beeches, walnut trees and conifers.  Some of the flower highlights of the year include narcissus and lily of the valley in March; highly colored azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias in April and May; and roses, oleanders and hydrangeas from June to September. Notable also are the wonderful range of autumn colors in the gardens and parks of Bellagio starting in September and October.

This rich variety of vegetation is favored by the moderate climate. Mean winter temperatures rarely fall below 6-7° C, whereas in summer the level is between 25-30° C. The summer temperature is mitigated by the “breva,”, a light breeze characteristic of the Lake of Como.