From Lake Como to Milan: A dream trip to Italy

George Clooney "helped put us on the map."

lake como 248 88 (photo credit: )
lake como 248 88
(photo credit: )
We're cruising along the chilly waters of the deepest lake in Italy, the tour guide's voice barely audible above the wind and foam spraying back in our faces. Sprinkled in with the pastel-colored buildings and mansions on the lush slopes to our right and left, Marta the guide runs us through the who's who of celebrities who have recently decided to make Lake Como - on the northern tip of Italy and a stone's throw from the Swiss border - their part-time home. The most impressive of these, surrounded by an immaculate English garden that juts out from beneath the steep slope and is only accessible by boat, is owned by Virgin Airlines mega-billionaire owner and space-travel enthusiast Richard Branson. A moment earlier we passed a 15-bedroom villa purchased in 2002 by Hollywood star George Clooney, who the locals explain to us with pride, has fallen in love with this little-known paradise and "has helped put Lake Como on the map." Somewhere in the hills to our left, explains Marta, is a home owned by a Saudi prince. I can't blame him, I think to myself - if I were a Saudi prince I would probably buy a house here, too. Docking in the picturesque town of Como, on the lake's southern-most tip, we see a statue of native-son Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the battery and discoverer of methane gas. The volt, of course, the unit used to measure electric tension, is named after him. Sufficiently "charged" from the boat ride, our group is quickly whisked to the elegant Hotel Terminus for an exquisite lunch overlooking the tiny harbor and lakefront promenade. Everyone does a double take when the owner makes an appearance to say hello, but more on that later. We spent the previous night living the high life at The Grand Hotel Via Serbelloni, a five-star deluxe hotel in the medieval town of Bellagio, perfectly positioned at the center of Lake Como and overlooking the snow-capped Alps. Otherwise known as "the pearl of the lake," Bellagio's beauty - with its narrow, stone-paved streets and alleyways lined with quaint boutique shops - is obvious for anyone to see. The 73-room Serbelloni, with its Michelin-starred restaurant is the very definition of exclusivity. However, if you're looking for kosher dining you'll definitely need to order in advance, as the food needs to be delivered the short distance from Milan in the south. If you're looking for discothèques, nightclubs or anything else that resembles high-paced nightlife, look elsewhere. And don't be alarmed early Sunday morning when the nearby church bells pound you out of your sweet slumber. In fact, if you're looking for a synagogue or anything else Jewish, you'll need to drive the relatively short distance to Milan, where there are a number of synagogues and Chabad centers. Milan itself is a blend of medieval churches and palaces combined with high fashion and modern culture. The natural place to start a day of sightseeing is in the city's center, the Piazza del Duomo, which can be traversed by foot, by electric tram (there is also an underground Metro) or by bus. A 10-minute cab ride costs about 8 Euros. The gargoyles perched atop the marble-massed Duomo Cathedral (construction began in the late 14th century and was completed in 1813) scowl menacingly at the shoppers and sightseers below as they hustle between the various Armani emporiums and high-end fashion boutiques. If Tel Aviv is Israel's capital of trendy fashion, then the world's capital is surely Milan, a deceptively small metropolis of approximately 1.3 million residents. Meanwhile, the Armani and Gucci-clad Milanese turn every street on an average afternoon stroll into a fashion-show runway. Regardless of whether you are a fashion aficionado or not (and I am not), the endless array of colors and styles is something to behold. Even the tiny dogs strutting alongside their owners know they look good. Indeed, a great way to let the atmosphere sink in is to put your feet up at one of the dozens of sidewalk cafés, or grab a refreshing gelato, and just watch the people go by. Warning: You will not get bored, but you might come away feeling a little inadequate about your appearance. If you're more inclined to relax with an alcoholic beverage in hand, the prices are unfortunately a bit steep: a margarita can go for 8.5 euros, while a simple beer can be as expensive as 7.5 euros. Just a few walking minutes away from Duomo is another of the city's true jewels: La Scala Opera House. As Italy's most prestigious theater and one of the most important in the world, La Scala was seriously damaged during Allied bombing raids in 1943, only to be restored in 1946. Final renovations to the stage area were completed in 2004, making La Scala a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even for novices. For those passionate about opera, it is a must on your bucket list. Back to the mystery restaurant owner from Como: as mentioned, locals and visitors alike get very excited about just the possibility of running into the famous actor who has made Lake Como his personal getaway spot. And there he was, kindly seating us in his restaurant! What in the name of Leonardo Da Vinci was going on here? Alas, it wasn't George, but Maurizio Gerosa, an uncanny Clooney look-alike who even has his own web site:> . Who wouldn't want to meet their identical twin, right? In a striking way, Italians resemble Israelis. With their warm, open and sometimes hot-headed nature (be careful on the roads), Italy is the ideal place for any Israeli wanting to feel like they're home while at the same time experiencing something totally new and beautiful. The writer was a guest of the Lombardi Tourist Council and Alitalia