LAKE COMO, ITALY
Finding the Hotel Carramazza almost by accident, Andrew L. Urban meets the man whose family has lived there for 430 years – enough time to accumulate many secrets. The hotel is now gone, but the secrets remain …
Rodolfo Carramazza claimed his family home, a hotel when we visited, is 430 years old. It is not an audacious claim on Lake Como, and although he made it without ceremony, he did make it with pride. And passion. Carramazza, a smiling and generous, a man with a wealth of experience in the business, and outwardly a quiet lakeside businessman, was the last of his family to live there. The site is now an apartment block.
But over dinner one night before the hotel closed its doors, Rodolfo Carramazza revealed himself as an intriguing mix of welcoming host, political dissident, a self confessed rebel who had done time in jail (short bursts for civil offences) and a man with a long memory who has forgotten neither ancient history nor the last war.
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)
Colonised by Julius Caesar in 50 BC with 5000 citizens and 500 slaves, Como's history is extensive. But it is not the Romans that got up his nose. "There came the Greeks - we threw them out. There came the Spanish - we threw them out. There came the Austrians - we threw them out," he said, emphasising each victory with a flourish and a fierce look.
"'people of the lake'"
He referred to the 'people of the lake' like a sovereign state.
From our corner room on the top floor - there are only two floors but the hill makes it seem like ten - we were seduced by the tranquillity into thinking of the whole area as a peaceful backwater. Rodolfo Carramazza changed all that.
Beneath the still waters of this seriously deep, surprisingly large lake lie many bodies, according to Rodolfo. And as deep as the lake is, so is the passion of 'the lake people'. Like Carramazza, they all have long memories, and there is much to remember. From the infamy of Mussolini's attempted escape across the Swiss border a short distance from here, to the aforementioned Spanish etc.
In fact, Como has been a far from serene playground, until recently. It certainly LOOKS peaceful; long stretches of water between the verdant hills crowded with a variety of trees at the top, and tiny villages on the shores below. Shaped like an upended Y, the lake itself is curiously devoid of pleasure craft, at least during our three day stay, in spring.
Only the ferries that shuttle people from village to village disturb the water. Even at Como itself, the old silk town on the lake, private boats are not in abundance. This is curious for a place that is dotted with some of the most elaborate villas in Europe, most of them with great gardens - and private wharves. But perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the lake is a place for visitors on short stays, or the retreat of the wealthy, who come here not to mess about on boats but to seek respite from the madding crowd. (Such as Mr George Clooney...)
For something completely different, we spent a couple of nights at the Villa d'Este, revelling in the comfort, elegance and old fashioned class of this renowned establishment. Its grand facade has been altered since it was built in 1568, and the interior facilities have also been updated, not to mention automated. Still, one can sense that Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio built the place to impress, even then. And in the garden - or rather, one of the gardens - there is a 500 year old plane tree that stands as a monument to his love of nature.
"To say that the Villa d'Este is a grand hotel... is a bit like calling the Eiffel Tower a tall
To say that the Villa d'Este is a grand hotel (has been since 1873) is a bit like calling the Eiffel Tower a tall spike. Yes, it has a grandeur, and yes it offers elaborate, individually decorated suites and a proper degree of comfort. But what it does more, is convey a sense of history and tradition and the mood of elegance that few modern places can match. Modern hotels might make you feel extravagant; this place makes you feel wealthy.
We sat at sunset on the outside terrace drinking scotch as the blue haze of the lake nuzzled slowly into the profound darkness of a night away from city lights, marvelling at the red roses that twined their branches along the railing for some eighty metres. Behind us was the old mosaic wall and garden, which takes the eye up the rising hill along an avenue of cypress trees lining a narrow path of lawn.
After dinner in the Grill Room, we went inside the adjacent nightclub to listen to some live jazz, and strolled back to the main building as the tiny dots of light along the opposite shore flickered.
Set in its extensive grounds just outside the village of Cernobbio, the Villa d'Este offers not only comfort, but a great historical perspective.
The weather had turned from warm to cloudy on our arrival, so we avoided the floating pool, and strolled into Cernobbio, where relaxed retailing hours prevail. Once we caught them open, the shopkeepers were amiable and helpful. The optician fixed a pair of deranged sunglasses, and a general store found a badly needed tapestry needle. (Don’t ask ...) We were keen to try Harry's Bar on the waterfront, but ran out of time, before moving along to adjacent Moltrasio, to our mystery hotel, the Carramazza. It was only a mystery to us, of course, the place being renowned to have the best kitchen on this part of the lake. But we found that out later. Our taxi drove up a ramp for no obvious reason, as there was no hotel awning or sign; but the driver scurried around the side.
The unprepossessing building seemed unconcerned whether we came or not, but eventually help came and a lift grumbled its way down to the garage for our luggage. In two trips. I say a lift, but it was a phone booth in its first incarnation. Simple, almost bare, the hotel does not pretend to be anything but a restaurant with rooms. About 19 of them. The views and the food are superior to the rooms themselves.
"the typical terra cotta roofs of the village
Sitting up on the high road above the lake, the outlook from Carramazza takes in the typical terra cotta roofs of the village which are replicated by the dozens of other villages, each with its pale, crumbling plaster walls, as if they were all built at the same time, by the same craftsmen. The hotel was a seven minute walk from the wharf - including 295 steps - and this wharf is about an hour and a half from Bellagio by boat.
A short, rotund man with a large bushy moustache and wine on his breath commutes between the Hotel Posta and the wharf across the street, to sell tickets. Ferries run down the lake to Como, or up the long leg to Bellagio and beyond.
We had saved this till last, a day in Bellagio, where elegant boutiques, tourist shops and restaurants vie for your euros in one of the busiest village settings imaginable. Sitting on the inside point of the upturned Y, facing the straight bit, this is where we left most of our money and heart. Leather goods from Florence, silk from Como (the area is the world's silk centre) and local products carved from olive wood were the main attractions.
The weather stayed despondently cloudy, it even rained a bit, but nothing can detract from the enjoyment of the gardens of the Villa Melzi. The walk through these meticulously kept grounds - but unstructured, unsymmetrical, naturally laid out - took us through a Japanese garden with a pond and bridge, past firs, cypress trees and a dozen other varieties I can't spell, flowering shrubs and beds of yellow flowers in bloom, to the lawns and fountain in front of the villa. From here the view of the lake and the mountains opposite that signal the start of the Swiss alps is burned into our memories.
"many famous and infamous guests"
These days, you can rent a self catering holiday apartment in the Villa, where many famous and infamous guests have stayed, including Adolf Hitler. That was before the place was turned into apartments, though.
Our favourite waterside cafe at Bellagio is next to the Hotel Splendide, but we also walked up the cobbled lanes that lead into the residential upper part of the village. Shops, bars and restaurants kept tempting us, until we finally missed the last boat to Moltrasio. A young Italian ferryman came to our aid with a timetable and we took the hydrofoil back to Como, from where there was one last little ferry home.
And then came our last dinner at the Carramazza (not long before THE last dinner they ever served), with Rodolfo regaling us with tales of his exploits, his time as Mayor, how he fought to get water put on for the villages up the mountain, and how he shunned all authority, stayed away from society and lived proudly as a man of the lake. That was when he told us tales of people, even children, being thrown into the lake if they crossed the locals. We believed him, too.
What more can you ask from a stay at Lake Como than all this? Sunshine, maybe.
Villa Melzi - a small part of the extraordinary gardens.
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)
Published August, 2013
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A kiss by Lake Como
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)