There is no better place to hide away. Just ask George Clooney, writes Diane Armstrong.
Cristina, our vivacious waitress at Villa Belvedere, tries to teach me a new Italian word every morning at breakfast, and claps her hands with delight when I repeat it. "Bravissima!" she cries. We are in Argegno, a hamlet off the beaten track on the edge of Lake Como. Finding a hideaway in this popular holiday region sounds as likely as running into a traffic jam in Antarctica, but Argegno is one of those rare finds, an unspoilt corner of a major tourist area.
Originally my partner and I planned to stay for two days as neither Argegno nor the Villa Belvedere seemed to warrant a longer stay. We were wrong on both counts: we fell in love with the village and with the hotel whose location on the edge of the lake was so beguiling that we were still there a week later.
Mention Lake Como and images of romantic holiday spots like Bellagio, Como, Varenna and Menaggio come to mind, to say nothing of swanky hotels with equally swanky room rates. George Clooney, who could live anywhere in the world, has chosen to live here. Every day the ferries which ply the lake disgorge thousands of tourists in these glamorous villages with their chic cafes, bougainvillea-trellised restaurants, and exclusive boutiques.
Argegno is not glamorous, and that is its charm. Impervious to the frenetic activity on other parts of the lake, it has retained its individual character, and remained a simple, unspoilt village where locals far outnumber visitors. Unlike its neighbours, it offers travellers a glimpse of authentic village life.
Every day we stroll along a lakeside promenade of lime trees to the small triangular piazza which is the heart of Argegno. We buy hazelnut and lemon gelato from the gelateria, and watch children splashing around the fountain while the adults, gesticulating and shouting, fill the pavement tables outside the pizzerias and trattorias. They're not afraid of colours in Italy, and the buildings surrounding the square are painted in vibrant shades of violet, yellow and tangerine.
Just past the piazza, boats bob in the small marina behind the breakwater, and amorous couples sit on top the wall cuddling and whispering. It's Sunday, and bells from the small stone church nearby resound all over the village. Inside, Italian families fill the pews as priests in red cassocks conduct Mass.
Argegno is at the foot of a daunting hill which we decide to explore. We climb stone stairs that seem to reach the sky, cross little stone bridges over fast-flowing streams, and peer into brightly painted houses whose small iron balconies spill with flowers. Every now and again we come across a tiny trattoria tucked into a picturesque corner of the hillside. After our walk we join the locals having Sunday brunch at Cafe Porto where scarlet bougainvillea arches above the tables strung out along the lakeside.
Argengo is situated on one of the narrowest parts of Lake Como, so the large open terrace of Villa Belvedere hotel faces wooded slopes that rise straight up from the water, and beyond them, the snow-capped Dolomites. The view is so magnificent and the food here is so good that we spend most of our evenings at the hotel, washing down delicious white lake fish or mushroom risotto with Prosecco, as we gaze at the ethereal blue sky which gradually turns pink and violet as the sun begins to set over the mountains.
One evening we drag ourselves away from the hotel for dinner at Ristorante Barchetta in the piazza. The interior is rustic with copper pots and farm implements hanging on the walls, bottles of olive oil and wine on the mantelpiece, and a basket of huge porcini mushrooms on a sideboard. The atmosphere is lively, and the jovial host makes us feel at home as he bustles around serving my scaloppine with mushrooms, followed by a big bowl of fresh berries.
Argegno is ideally situated for exploring the lake. The ferry is practically on the hotel doorstep, and every trip reveals a scenic wonderland of gorgeous villas, colourful gardens, and church towers that rise from villages that seem to be poured into the ridges of the hills. It takes 70 minutes to reach Bellagio, a picturesque holiday resort where throngs fill the cafes and silk shops. After lunch at a lakeside trattoria, we climb the narrow cobbled paths and browse in interesting art shops and classy boutiques until we reach the spectacular view from the summit high above the lake.
On a quieter day, we explore the extraordinary grounds of Villa Carlotta, following paths that €lead to rare orchids, exotic trees, a bamboo forest, and spectacular rhododendrons. Inside this magnificent mansion we wander through opulent chambers decorated with sculptures by Canova and a plaster frieze commissioned by Napoleon.
But after each excursion we can't wait to get back to the serenity of Argegno and the mesmerising view from the hotel terrace. On our last morning at Villa Belvedere, Cristina tests me, and claps when I remember the word for rainbow. "Bravissima!" she says. You will speak good Italian if you stay one week more, she says.
If only I could.
Singapore Airlines fly to Milan. Argegno is about 90 minutes' drive away.
Villa Belvedere is a comfortable 3-star hotel with a five-star location, an excellent restaurant and bar, and friendly staff. Double rooms from $A177. Ask for a lakeview room. The return trip by ferry to Bellagio and Como costs €16, €11 for seniors.