Celebrating 150 Years: Lake Como’s Grandest Grand-Dame

From my bed, I can hear the buzz of seaplanes overhead, and the tooting of the battelli ferry chugging across to Lenno on the other side of the lake. There’s something nostalgic about the soundtrack, something almost lyrical.

It’s autumn but it’s still mild outside. In fact, Lake Como always tends to be clement, despite being framed by snow-capped mountains, despite being so close to Switzerland. Palm trees and tropical plants thrive in its shielded climate, where the lake is so deep that it never freezes.

The room I’m in is one of the grandest ever – impossibly high ceilings, ornate plasterwork and brocade wallpaper. The floor-to-ceiling windows are shrouded in elaborate golden drapes, and the bed I’m lying in has a gilt headboard inlaid with crimson velvet. There are chubby dressers, elegant writing desks and Louis XIV armchairs; the carpet is deep and plush, and the beds are covered in traditional mini-sized, blood-red silk eiderdowns, a nod to Como’s silk-making heritage. In the marble bathroom, the toiletries have been made especially for the hotel by Etro. It’s positively palatial yet perfectly in keeping with the building’s neo-classical history.

This is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni – a one-of-a-kind, true ‘grand-dame’ hotel, which has welcomed guests since 1873. Overseen by the Bucher family for four generations, it has retained many of its original features – and stately ambiance – since it first opened.

The salon, where, come nightfall, a pianist plays jazz standards while guests sip cocktails, is a case in point. Groups of stout chairs create vignettes, so that guests can ‘play their part’ in their evening finery. Waiters, meanwhile, in their starched white jackets, deliver pink La Vie en Rose cocktails with tiny bowls of olives and arancini. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Hercule Poirot tucked away in a corner.

The ceiling is adorned with intricate frescoes of dancing cherubs and garlands of blooms; the floor is made of inlaid wood parquet and the walls are lined with an eclectic art collection. The latter, says Jan Bucher, who has recently taken over as general manager from his father, “Is a passion belonging to my father – he adores art; while my mother still oversees the interiors.”

Turns out that his mother, Dusia Bucher, is emphatic about preserving the house’s identity, and is meticulous about sourcing the exact period pieces that are fitting for the historic property.

That said, it’s not to say that Villa Serbelloni has not moved with the times. As a member of the fourth generation to oversee the hotel, Jan Bucher will no doubt inject a breath of fresh air into proceedings, although he maintains that: “Our hotel will never be minimal, it is an historic home, and that will never change. That is its charm.”

But, while the corridors might be imposing and the marble staircases impressive, guests will also find all the essentials of a modern, luxury hotel: a health club and spa, squash and tennis courts, an hammam and a pilates room. In the spa, treatments are deeply pampering, such as the Mediterranean-themed Dolce Vita, which uses sweet orange and lemon oils to massage you to sleep.

There’s an indoor and outdoor pool, and an outside terrace, where you can gaze out over the water – pondering perhaps exactly where George and Amal Clooney’s villa is – and using the charming old-school button to ‘Press for Champagne’ when the urge takes you.

One of Lake Como’s unchanged treasures, Villa Serbelloni has the rare advantage of not only being directly on the lake, but also on the doorstep of the pretty town of Bellagio. It’s a characterful place with cobbled streets so narrow that you feel like you should breathe in when a car passes. There are artisan shops, cafés and churches, where you’ll rub shoulders with ragazzi and nonnas alike. While the botanical gardens of Villa Melzi Gardens, filled with avenues of plane trees, camilla trees and oversized hydrangeas, is a joy to explore.

By day, you can also take the hotel’s elegant Riva boat across to other towns, such as Como, or to explore one of the historic villas, such as Villa del Balbianello. Built for a cardinal in the 18th century, this house was originally frequented by literati and travellers until its last private owner – Guido Monzino. Now, it is partly a shrine to his passion for mountaineering, as well as a museum displaying his eclectic collection of antiquities and fine art.

Lake Como, of course, has always attracted the curious and the glamorous. The Latin poets Virgil and Catullus came here, and – from the Renaissance times onwards – aristocrats built precariously-perched villas so they could capture the most majestic views of the lake. The Victorians made it a must-see on their Grand Tours and Hollywood’s jet-set have long holidayed here. George Clooney being the most famous, perhaps, to make it his home.

As the sun sets, it casts long shadows over the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. It looks opulent and somehow timeless in the half-light. Next year, it will celebrate its 150th anniversary, a landmark not lost on chef Ettore Bocchia, who oversees the hotel’s Mistral restaurant. and is planning a special menu to reflect the history of the hotel and of Italy. Mistral is the crowning glory of Serbelloni – the only five-star hotel on Lake Como to boast a Michelin-starred restaurant, which it has held since 2005.

Bocchia is also Italy’s leading expert on molecular cuisine, and is renowned for his passionate pursuit of the best ingredients he can find – from privately-grown tomatoes from Sicily, Alaskan crab from Kamchatka, veal from Switzerland and access to strictly limited supplies of the world’s only organic and cruelty-free foie gras.

As the lights twinkle on the lake outside, Bocchia’s dramatic menu comes alive – from his signature handmade tortellini stuffed with peacock breast to the Peach Melba dessert which is deconstructed and remade at your table (the frozen nitrogen causing great clouds of mist to waft over your head.)

Mornings bring yet more magical moments. Breakfat is served in the Salone Reale – one of the most glitziest of the hotel’s rooms. Ceilings are hand-painted and gilded, and vast, twinkling chandeliers hang down to illuminate the room. You sit on one of the priceless collection of original wooden chairs by Michael Thonet – inventor of Bentwood furniture in the 19th century. As you sip your coffee – made from beans roasted on site, no less – you realise that some things are best unchanged.

Nightly rates at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni start from €495 for a Classic Park View Room. For more information, visit villaserbelloni.com

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