The shores of Lake Como are elegantly frilled with grande dame hotels. Now a clean-lined upstart is bringing an unbuttoned, pared-back look to the party
‘Fancy a ride?’ ‘Sure,’ I said.
Duilio pointed at the mahogany Riva Jetto tied to the dock. ‘That’s the pretty one,’ he said, tossing me the keys. ‘You don’t need a boat licence. Have fun.’
‘Do you need to have it back by a certain time?’ I asked, pretending it was no big deal.
‘No. It’s all yours.’
I untied the ropes, turned the key and motored, rather too aggressively at first, into the wide-open, mossy-green waters. Had I really just been given a Riva to cruise Lake Como? I pinched myself.
I’m not the first to be seduced by the unimaginable allure of Como. It has served as an escape from hot, sweaty, city summers since the Roman Empire. The lakeshore architecture is a testament to this history, from the walled city of Como built by Julius Caesar to Pliny the Younger’s villa, from Renaissance palazzos with grand facades, 10 sash windows by five, manicured gardens and cypress trees, to pretty little houses in butter-yellow, cream and rose with terracotta-tiled roofs.
Yet it is still the lake itself that’s the wonder, more like three steep-sided fjords joined at a nexus – which by chance is the enchanting town of Bellagio with slender proportions and deep waters bound by imposing mountains clad in chestnut trees and conifers. Where the cliffs are too sheer, pale granite peeps through the thick vegetation.
The latest, greatest place to stay among all this incredible loveliness is II Sereno, the second property by the Venezuelan Contreras family, who have Le Sereno in St Barth’s, a handsome hotel, clean and elementary, and the favourite of a smart Manhattan crowd. The family choose their destinations well. And their designers. In St Barth’s, they went with Parisian mastermind Christian Liagre. Here they plumped for Patricia Urquiola, one of the most prolific and talked-about interior, furniture and product designers (Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona, Das Stue in Berlin), who also dabbles in architecture. And boy, she has created a modem masterpiece.
So how to go about designing a new hotel on Lake Como to stand proud next to big-hitters such as Villa d’Este and Villa Tremezzo? Two hard-and-fast rules: avoid historical; avoid repro. But it’s still complicated, not least because Mr and Mrs Contreras are architects themselves, as is their daughter, and their sons are civil engineers, which is the training you might need to build a hotel jutting over the water and cut into the solid rock of a cliff-face. But the family assure me they aren‘t meddlesome. ‘I called [Urquiola] because she’s better than us,’ the father, Ignazio Contreras, says frankly and with a twinkle. ‘She’s a hurricane.’