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Part II: Grand Hotels in the Italian Lake District

Located directly on Como’s lakefront, the 100-room Palace Hotel opened in 1899, designed in the 19th-century villa style by architect Federico Frigerio, later known for his landmark Temple of Volta.
Lake Como’s Uncommon Allure
By Augustus Mayhew

Before setting off for a week in Menaggio, we had planned only two days at the Hotel Metropole-Suisse in Como. We might have stayed a week had we realized the “City of Silk’s” wealth of architectural gems. Often heralded mostly for its immense Gothic cathedral, Como offers a walled medieval maze of streets, an attractive public garden, a scenic lakefront procession of impressive villas, Villa Saporiti, Villa Gallia, Villa Parravicini, and Villa Olmo, among them, and an array of picturesque hotels.

In 1904 Edith Wharton observed that “almost everywhere on Lake Como the old garden magic has been driven out by the fury of modern horticulture, although between Como and Bellagio there are still some undisturbed corners.” She called them “old bits.” A century later, Lake Como still offers an incomparable multi-dimensional aesthetic mix of these transcendental “old bits,” blending several centuries of distinctive Italian architectural styles set amidst lofty Alpine slopes framed by sublime Renaissance and English landscapes.

Here are some vintage views of what Edith Wharton might have seen then and images of Lake Como’s grand hotels today, some may have had the pleasure of welcoming Wharton, America’s most discerning connoisseur.
At Bellagio, the headland splits the glacial Lake Como into an inverted Y-shape. To the left between Bellagio and Menaggio, Lake Como proceeds southwest to Como; to the right between Bellagio and Varenna, it flows southeast to Lecco.
During our week on Lake Como, we stayed in Como and Menaggio, visiting Brunate, Cernobbio, Lenno, Isola Comacina, Tremezzo, Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna. We were able to spend the week using the lake’s regular ferry services and the rapido servizio, the hydrofoil.
Como, a view of the waterfront, c. 1900.
Hotel Metropole Suisse
Piazza Cavour, 19. Como
www.hotelmetropolesuisse.com
Situated directly on the lake at the Piazza Cavour, steps from the train station and the traghetti, ferry boats, the Hotel Metropole Suisse claimed to have hosted the Danish royal family and Italian film and television stars but we were certain they did not stay in our Room 301 (the 4th floor balcony where the Italian flag is planted). While the nearby Palace Hotel and Terminus were much swankier, the Metropole was convenient.
From our balcony, we had an excellent view of Como’s lakefront and Brunate, upper right part of the photo, and the funicular’s path that takes you to the top.
From Brunate, looking northwest across Lake Como. While I had gone up to Brunate to photograph villas and my friend had her eye on the birds, we were surprised to find that one of the region’s grand hotels had been abandoned for several decades.
Grand Hotel Milano
Brunate
Designed by Milan architect Achille Manfredini in 1908, the Grand Hotel Milano was once a popular hotel, especially among the Milanese who came to escape the city’s summers. According to several sources, the 110-room hotel was bought during the 1960s by Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and was later deserted by the group. Although there have been several publicized attempts at its restoration, this once magnificent architectural centerpiece is now derelict.
Graffiti gangs have trashed the building.
Although there have been feeble attempts to secure the building, it remains exposed to the elements; its fate clouded.
From Brunate, a view of Villa Olmo and the lake road that leads to Cernobbio.
Cernobbio
As the boat approaches Cernobbio, Villa Erba, the Visconti family home for many years, has a prominent location on Largo Luchino Visconti. The 19th-century Mannerist-style villa has become a conference center, Spazio Villa Erba, maintaining rooms dedicated to film director Luchino Visconti on the first floor. Visconti is said to have edited Ludwig at Villa Erba.
Villa D’Este
Via Regina, 40. Cernobbio
A former 16th century villa built for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, the Villa D’Este was transformed into a hotel during the 1870. Above, the hotel’s Cardinal Building, the centerpiece of the resort’s 25-acre park.
The Cardinal Building and the Queen’s Pavilion.
As you enter from Via Regina, the Villa Cima is one of the first hotel buildings along the lakefront.
At the far right, the Queen’s Pavilion. We had planned to have drinks on the loggia overlooking the lake. When my friend returned from the restroom, she realized she had misplaced her prescription dark glasses, essential since she an ulcer in one of her eyes. After she couldn’t find them within the hotel, she was sure that she had left them on a garden bench. When that proved unsuccessful, perhaps she had left them in one of churches we visited as we walked to the hotel. The next several hours became consumed with finding the glasses which we never did.
Although it was quite warm, the fireplaces were lit.
However appetizing the 98-calorie melon soup for 21 E ( $31 USD) and the 180-calorie minute steak and spring salad sounded for 38 E (about $57 US), we passed on them.
The lobby’s central staircase. An artful touch in one of the dining areas.
The hotel’s more austere port-cochere entrance.
The Villa D’Este gardens are striking.
The gardens remain one of the hotel’s main attractions, along with the nearby helipad.
Lake Como is a showcase for classic boats.
While it did appear some were actually walking the “greenway,” we took the boats.
Lake Como is lined with sensational villas and landscapes.
Set on a highly visibly peninsula, the 18th century Villa Balbianello is one of the lake’s most iconic settings, utilized by James Bond films.
After setting aside an afternoon to visit Villa Balbianello’s gardens, we arrived to find it closed. The villa is owned by the National Trust of Italy.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Tremezzo
Stunning views and location made the Grand Hotel Tremezzo aesthetically one of our favorite spots.
The central hall. The dining room.
Although we passed on the $30 USD bowl of potato leek soup, we are sure it was memorable.
The GH Tremezzo’s public areas are colorfully furnished. The first floor billiard room was waiting for the five-star crowd..
A terrace fountain has a contemporary touch.
Grand Hotel Victoria
Menaggio
Menaggio’s village has not changed much since this c. 1900 photograph. The Grand Hotel Victoria, far right, is the tallest of the buildings along the waterfront.
Popular with English visitors, the GH Victoria’s lakeside façade remains unchanged.
The central staircase. The GH Victoria has an English feel to it.
The view of from the Grand Hotel Victoria across Lake Como towards Varenna.
Although Varenna lacks for a really grand grand hotel, it’s a charming town with a lakefront walkway circling the harbor.
Varenna’s unique walkway passes along the waterfront and through the buildings.
From above the hills surrounding Menaggio, a circa 1900 view of Bellagio.
Except for the rowers, now behind the wheel of motorboats, this more than century-old view Bellagio’s with its row of harbor-front arcaded shops remains unchanged.
From the harbor, Bellagio’s streets are actually steep staircases lined with shops leading up to the town’s Piazza della Chiesa.
Hotel Grande Bretagne
Bellagio
Although the building was surrounded by scaffolds, Bellagio’s once grandiose Grande Bretagne appeared in shambles, exposed to the elements.
Weeds have overgrown what might have once been a reconstruction site.
Some of the exterior architectural details remain.
A view of Bellagio Bay, from the Grande Bretagne extending left to the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.
Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
Bellagio
A view towards Menaggio and the Alps beyond from the GH Villa Serbelloni pool.
We weren’t sure whether this might have been the same red Ferrari we had seen at the GH Des Iles Borromees in Stresa the previous week.
The hotel’s gilded interior won’t disappoint if you have a taste for the lavish baroque.
GH Villa Serbelloni’s central staircase and ceiling.
The Villa Melzi and gardens along Bellagio’s waterfront.
Nightfall at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees

Historic photographs Library of Congress.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew

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