Monday, July 28, 2008

Bellagio or Bust

Deciding where to go on vacation always comes down to the choice between A. the new and unknown, and B. the places you know and love. This is always tricky because both the very best and the very worst trips we've taken have come from choosing the riskier option A, whereas B is the safe bet. When we were recently planning our latest trip, we were initially thinking of going somewhere new in Spain, but we had such a good time in March when we went to Locarno and the Italian Lakes that option B won us over. In March, the weather was cool and the trees had still not leafed out, so we were looking forward to seeing the area in full Summer glory.

A simplified map of the western lakes region on the Italian - Swiss border

When we told our coworkers that we were headed for the Italian Lakes, there was either a look of zero recognition or people thought that no one from England had taken a holiday there since Byron and Shelley. Much like in the US, where 73% of people do not own a passport, many Brits stay at home or, when they do go abroad, spend their holidays with other Brits in the many chip-shop- and pub-filled outposts on the Costa del Sol or the Balearic Islands.

We again stayed near Locarno on Lake Maggiore, just over the Swiss border in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. We had explored the immediate area on our last trip, so this time we decided to take a short road trip to Lake Como and take the ferry to the famous town of Bellagio. Plus, Maggie's friend Sasha said he would disown her as a friend if she didn't go to Bellagio, and we wouldn't want that to happen.

On the road

Lake Como is mostly known these days as a backdrop to numerous movies (the recent James Bond flick Casino Royale, Ocean's 12, and some memorable scenes from Star Wars II: Attack of the Bad Dialogue), and as a secret celebrity enclave: that dreamy George Clooney owns a lakeside villa in the village of Laglio. Lake Como is wishbone shaped, with Bellagio sitting just at the central least accessible point. I had been to Bellagio once 8 years ago with my brother, and we had driven up the lake from Como along an insanely narrow road that had the unfortunate combination of cliffs, sharp protruding walls, and speeding Italian gas trucks. Once we arrived in Bellagio, we were thrilled to find out that we didn't have to repeat the experience in reverse -- you can take a car ferry and avoid the nasty road entirely. Armed with this knowledge, Maggie and I set out for the western shore of Lake Como to Cadenabbia to take the ferry into Bellagio for the day.

The shore of Lake Lugano

This was a good plan, except for the fact that the road approaching Lake Como from the West along Lake Lugano is just as scary as the road to Bellagio with cliffs, a few 1.5 lane tunnels, and some buildings that seem to be more or less in the middle of the road. That being said, the lake was beautiful and it made me want to explore the eastern part of Lake Lugano more.

Bellagio from the ferry terminal at Cadenabbia

Konrad Adenauer plays a mean game of bocce ball

The ferry ride from Cadenabbia is short (maybe 15 minutes) but it provides the most visually striking approach Bellagio. Despite the Vegas casino image most people get these days from the name Bellagio, the town itself is small and sleepy and, even with the few tacky tourist shops, it bears no resemblance to anything you might find in Vegas.

Approaching Bellagio by ferry

The waterfront at Bellagio

Belaggio has only 2 or 3 streets that you can drive on; all other "streets" are steep stairways or narrow twisting alleys that are built for exploring while eating gelato. Bellagio is rightly famed as a perfect little gem of a village, and is undeniably tourist-oriented to take advantage of this. Despite this, you can escape the most glaring trinkety areas along the waterfront simply by walking just a short distance up the hill (while eating gelato).

One of the many steep stairs leading up through Bellagio

Towards the top of the hill in the middle of town you can find (if you don't get too lost) Ristorante Bilacus. This had been recommended by one of our books and a few online sites and we stumbled across it while looking around for a lunch spot.

Maggie, salad, and the Boris Johnson impostor at Ristorante Bilacus

Ristorante Bilacus has a beautiful leafy terrace and serves delicious local cuisine, some of the best food we had on the trip. I had a delicious piece of fresh lake perch with greens, but Maggie had the clear winner with a plate of fresh papardelle and porcini mushrooms. There was an English family sitting behind Maggie, and I kept thinking that the man might be Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London, but I think he was simply another blonde mop-haired Brit. Alas. I was hoping for that dreamy George Clooney anyway.

Papardelle with porcini mushrooms

View of Bellagio from La Cucina della Marianna

Before we left Cadenabbia for Bellagio, we booked dinner at La Cucina della Marianna, which had received some good reviews online, has a really quirky website, and specializes in fresh local ingredients. On warm nights, such as the night we were there, they serve dinner on a patio right on Lake Como looking out at Bellagio. Because the restaurant itself is across the road, this setup means that the servers have to carry the food across the street (the semi-busy main road along the lake). They've done this so many times, that they just walk out into the road without barely a glance and make cars stop ("Hey, I'm carrying frittata here!") — between the lake views and this peculiar gastronomic Frogger game there was plenty to keep us amused all night. Each night at La Cucina della Marianna you get served a complete fixed dinner that varies depending on the day of the week and the season. The night we came was, unfortunately, the Garden Menu — delicious and creative but entirely vegetarian, and we kept wishing we had come on the meatier days of the week. Still, the food was excellent, the host was extremeley friendly, and the view was incomparable.

I'm not sure that I would stay in Bellagio itself — too isolated, not enough to do for more than a few days, and it probably gets crazy busy on weekends — but it is such a beautiful spot that it is a must-visit if you are in the area.


American in London said...

Sounds like a great trip, and I agree that showing up on veg day a resto isn't ideal. A few years ago, Jon and I showed up at L'Arpege restaurant in Paris only to discover they had recently switched to an all-vegetarian menu, which was good, but not as good as what we'd read about it previously (when it served meat).

Daniel Craig's shorts said...

We went to Bellagio last year, and had a splendid time. Driving on the road in was indeed "exciting". All the more so when some guy in a ferrari decided he'd actually pass someone on it...with a truck approaching from the other direction.

Sasha said...

I am glad I didn't have to disown Maggie... now all I need is a formal apology from Murdock about not loving Bellagio the first time!