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Como, Bergamo, Magnifico!

Travel editor Neil Sowerby continues his spring odyssey in Northern Italy

Written by . Published on April 19th 2012.

Como, Bergamo, Magnifico!

THE Boss and his family are pictured on the walls of the Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, an island restaurant that’s successfully relied on the same set menu since 1947.

The Boss in this case is not Locanda owner Benvenuto Puricelli, though our engaging host does feature in most of the publicity shots, hugging A-list celebrities drawn to this secure rocky outcrop on Lake Como.

No, I mean the one true Boss, Bruce Springsteen, there with Patti Scialfa and the kids and maybe even a stray E Street Band member. The shot’s night-time, a bit blurred. You almost miss it among the shiny ranks of Brad Pitt, Elton John, Michael Winner, Gina Lollobrigida, Liam Gallagher and so many more. There’s a lot of George Clooney, too. As owner of four lakeside houses nearby, he may be a catalyst.

Benvenuto EntertainsBenvenuto entertainsThey all come to enjoy the five-course "if it ain't broke don't fix it" set menu for 65 euros a head, wine, water and rippling lake views included. The set-in-stone menu consists of mixed cured meats and eight variously dressed fresh vegetables, fresh grilled trout filleted at table, free range chicken, a piece of Parmesano reggiano, scooped from the middle of a giant cheese and pressed in the diner’s hand and oranges and ice cream. The entertainment concludes with a coffee liqueur ceremony accompanied by a theatrical history of the island and its curse.

The curse on settling the island is lifted by the bravery of the Puricelli family! I won’t spoil the punchline – you’ll just have to visit.

But Bruce, I bet, knows all this by heart. He is the regular. Benvenuto tells me the rock legend has dined there on eight separate occasions. He pops up whenever he is playing Milan and staying down the lake at the Villa d’Este, anointed one of the world’s 10 best hotels.

Such luxury comes at a price, of course. En route to Comacina, we’d sipped prosecco on d’Este’s sunlit terrace after a show-round that included the 9,000 euros a night suite Bruce is partial to. I could get a taste.

Villa D'esteVilla D'Este – one of the world's great hotels with a setting to match

Our launch swept into the Villa’s private dock against a backdrop of the hotel’s terraced gardens (the 24 acres of grounds are for sole use of guests). The interior was all restrained elegance and immaculate, friendly service. The staff outnumber the guests in its 152 rooms, no two alike in size or decor.

Built in 1568 as a summer residence for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, it remained in his family for over two centuries. Later owners included King George IV’s wife, Caroline of Brunswick until in 1873 a consortium of Milanese businessmen turned it into a luxury hotel. The star-count since has been incomparable from Greta Garbo and Alfred Hitchcock (he holidayed lugubriously here most Septembers) to most current A-list stars.

Gazebo At D'esteLakeside gazebo at the Villa d'Este

Of course, you don’t require such a luxurious base for Como. Its stunning sub-Alpine views  cost nothing. By road it is a bend-ridden trek. Seaplane trips are a special treat. Boat’s best. It’s definitely the quickest way to reach “silk capital” Bellagio on its promontory where the lake forks.

The setting is impossibly romantic, with narrow alleys tumbling down to the promenade lined with lime trees and oleanders. High season it is apparently overwhelmed and, be warned definitely not the place to seek out a silk bargain. Catch it at the right time and it’s an idyllic base for rambles among the cypress-swathed hills or just sitting cradling a gelato in the shade.

Gardens Of Villa CarlottaSpectacular floral display at the Villa Carlotta

Perhaps catch a ferry to Como’s western shore and stroll the colourful botanical gardens of the Villa Carlotta with their view across to Bellagio and and another acclaimed garden – The Villa Melzi. Unlike Melzi, you can step inside Carlotta, a beautifully proportioned villa built at the end of the 17th century by a Milanese marquis.

It’s called Carlotta because it later became a wedding present to a lady of that name. It now houses a rather arid classical art collection. More aesthetic pleasure is to be had from the astonishing springtime azalea array on the hillside.

Serious money is spent to secure the Lake’s spectacular villas (Versace, Branson and the like). To my mind, there’s only one I’d really go for! From afar, from the prow of our boat, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Villa Balbianello, a harmonious cluster of buildings sheltered by cypresses and cloaked in magnolia.

Villa Balbianello %26#8211%3B StunningVilla Balbianello – simply stunning

It was originally constructed in the 16th century by Cardinal Angelo Durini where a small Franciscan monastery had originally stood. After the Great War an American general  renovated the complex and later it became the home of famous Arctic explorer Guido Monzino, who, in 1988, left the villa to the FAI (the Italian National Trust).

My sources tell me it featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale as well as Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones (its balcony is where Anakin and Padme first kiss, apparently). To see inside you have to take an organised tour from Como town.

Como, the only Lake settlement of any real size, is the southern hub, easily accessible by the A9 autostrada and rail links from Milan. The two unmissable attractions are the Gothic Duomo, which took four centuries to complete, and the stupendous view from the Voltiano Lighthouse on the Summit of the Three Crosses. The Educational Museum of Silk unravels the traditional silk trade of the region: www.museoseta.como.com.

Priest On A Mission, BergamoPriest on a mission, Bergamo

Bergamo, a similar distance east of Milan, is far more interesting once you have ditched initial impressions. The A4 route there is far from picturesque and most Ryanair passengers flying into Bergamo (sic Milan) Airport bypass the industrial-looking town on the plain.

Venture up the hill to the old town (via funicular is best, parking is difficult) and you enter a different Bergamo. In any country less architecturally rich it would be a tourist magnet. A wealth of ecclesiastical gems and interesting shops and eateries are encased within its Venetian-built walls.

Pure BaroquePure Baroque ceiling inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

The outstanding church is the Romanesque Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was built by the people of Bergamo after a vow to the Virgin Mary. Work began in 1137 and continued for over half a century. It is an artistic treasure trove.

Star attraction is Lorenzo Lotto’s intarsia (elaborate wooden marquetry) featuring biblical stories such as Noah’s Ark and Judith and Holofernes, but even more amazing is the elaborately carved confessional by Andrea Fantoni.

Iincredibel Carved Confessional In Santa MariaIncredible carved confessional in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

There’s also a monument to the great (and prolific) opera composer Gaetano Donizetti. Born in Bergamo, he returned home, aged just 50 and stricken with syphilis, to die. If you want to know more, the town is home to an exhaustive Donizetti museum.

Pope John Xxiii And His Coffin, BergamoPope John Xxiii And His Coffin, Bergamo

Not to be outdone, the adjacent Bergamo Cathedral boasts the precious silver Cross, of Ughetto, dating back to the 14th century and in a back chapel a bizarre memorial to one of the area’s greatest sons, Pope John XXIII. A statue of the great man who died in 1963, stands watch over his original coffin from St Peter’s in Rome. Following his beatification  a few years ago his body now rests in a glass case there.

The Cathedral was closed for several years for archaeological excavations. They took the opportunity to renovate its exuberant Baroque interior and in autumn 2012, will open a museum underground on the site of two earlier churches.

The the 14th century Capella Colleoni, attached to Manta Maria, was converted into a burial chapel by a monomaniac general of that name.The Tiepolo paintings are a Baroque cuckoo in the fabulous Perpendicular Gothic nest with amazing patterns of marble.

Bergamo Cafe SocietyBergamo cafe society

From here it’s a short hop to one of my favourite squares in Italy (ie anywhere) – the Palazza Vecchio. Pull up a table, summon an espresso and people watch. Ciao.

Neil Sowerby’s 10 Things to See and Do in Milan: http://www.planetconfidential.co.uk/Abroad/Ten-Things-To-Do-In-Milan

Fact file

Chateau Monfort By NightChateau MonfortNeil Sowerby stayed in Milan at the five-star Chateau Monfort. 77 rooms, including three junior suites and five suites. Innovative restaurant. Spa to follow late summer 2012. For rates visit the www.hotelchateaumonfort. Part of the Planetaria Hotel Group: www.planetariahotels.com. About an hour’s drive away from Como. There is also a half-hourly train service.

If you want to stay on the Lake (and want to splash out) it has to be Villa d’Este  Via Regina, 40-22012  Cernobbio, Lago di Como (For rates visit www.villadeste.it). Open from March until mid-November.

Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, for full details of menu and how to get there, visit www.locanda-isola-comacina.com.

For details of Villa Carlotta and Villa Melzi: www.villacarlotta.it and www.giardinivillamelzi.it.

The nearest lake to Bergamo is Iseo, where Sarnico is a good base. This is becoming vineyard country. The visitor-friendly Tallarini winery in its idyllic valley is a good place to taste. Tradition and contemporary commercial nous combine to produce attractive red and whites: www.tallarini.com/?utm_source=vinogusto.

Monarch Airlines fly direct from Manchester to Milan Malpensa, starting at £39 one way. For full details visit www.monarch.co.uk.

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