The 1948 Macchi MB 308 seaplane splashes down into the placid waters of Lake Como. Taxiing through sunshine, the amphibian comes alongside the floating swimming pool of the Villa d’Este. As a mode of arrival at one of Italy’s grandest hotels, this takes some beating. Vintage seaplanes are, however, nothing new to the hotel or to this northern-Italian lake. Indeed, for Europe’s most stylish adventurers, they are the principal attraction.
Daredevil pilots have been landing on Lago di Como for a century, among them the poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio. Aero Club Como is Europe’s only seaplane flying school, a longstanding, swashbuckling institution cherished by the dilettanti of the air. Ten employees instruct or maintain its 11 planes, but all officers are honorary and the club’s cosmopolitan atmosphere extends to the appreciation of the aeroplane as an art form.
“Flying a seaplane demands the skills of a pilot, a sailor and an explorer,” observes Cesare Baj, former president of the school and author of the definitive manual, Seaplane Operations. This, then, is the place to learn, in civilised company from accomplished instructors. “It is addictive and a challenge I never tire of,” says Irish marketing entrepreneur Ciara O’Toole, who earned her private pilot’s licence here. “Flying solo for the first time is an experience you won’t forget –nerve-wracking, but completely liberating.”
To get to that point can take around five weeks of desk and flight training conducted in English. “On the lake you have a runway that is moving and need to keep a lookout for boats and sudden wind changes,” O’Toole notes. “On my first flight the instructor made me fly at just 15ft above the water to teach me low-altitude management. I felt like a bird skimming the surface of the lake.”
Training is often combined with convivial expeditions: one air rally was to d’Annunzio’s eccentric Vittoriale estate overlooking Lake Garda. “The difference is that in Britain an aero club is just the name for a business,” says one English member. “In Italy it is a true club where revenue is ploughed back in, and it has real camaraderie.” Como membership also carries a certain cachet among the international fraternity of adventurers otherwise to be found on St Moritz’s Cresta Run or steeplechasing at Cheltenham.
To acquire a private pilot’s licence requires about 42 hours of instruction, with an additional seven hours for the seaplane extension. Vittorio Catanese, who runs a Milan-based consultancy advising fabric and wallpaper manufacturers, did it the other way round, starting on floats – “for the sheer thrill of it” – and then adding the land qualification. He often flies a couple of friends in a Cessna C172 to picnic on one of the Como beaches, or land on Lakes Maggiore, Lugano or Garlate, frequently in formation with other seaplanes. “My aim now is to improve my ‘bush pilot’ skills, for example, by learning to land on rivers,” he says.
As I join Baj aboard a jungle-green Cessna 305C Bird Dog, the need for high levels of skill is evident. Instrumentation is sparse, this being an authentic 1950s military model with minimal modification, but the interior is spacious and the view panoramic. Takeoff through the light swell off the Aero Club’s slipway requires just 27 seconds. As we climb away from the old town of Como, tiny harbours and a necklace of noble villas come into view along the sunlit western shore. So steep is the shady opposing bank that waterfalls cascade into the lake.
We are cruising at 85 knots. Baj banks around Isola Comacina in a heart-stopping manoeuvre performed in this plane by longstanding club member Roberto Ruberto for the 2008 film L’Aviatore, and now practised by students. The half-kilometre-long island was once a medieval stronghold projecting naval power in miniature. Today the Chapel of San Giacomo and a handful of artisan cottages are all that remain of ancient glory. Below us a ferry is disembarking families for a five-course Sunday lunch at Locanda dell’Isola Comacina. On a promontory to the north is the 18th-century Villa del Balbianello, former home of the dashing explorer Count Guido Monzino. This beautiful lakeside palace now belongs to Italy’s National Trust and visitors are descending through terraced gardens to view the count’s controversial ethnographic collection. Amphibious arrival is possible here – indeed it is saluted as displaying appropriate bella figura.
The widest part of the lake is prime training territory and is where O’Toole practised stalls, whereby the aircraft climbs sharply until the engine cuts out, obliging the pilot to regain control and restart. Surprisingly, she loved doing them, proclaiming them “an assertion of mastery over the machine.” To the south is ancient Bellagio, commanding the headland that divides the lake into an inverted Y. Below us the architecture of the 1872 Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni betrays its origins as the private villa of a noble family. Antique charm pervades its colonnades. This is the rival to Villa d’Este, although perhaps attracting a less cosmopolitan clientele.
Villa d’Este began life as a nunnery until, in 1568, Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio commissioned architect Pellegrino Pellegrini to rebuild it as a retreat from the Roman summer. In 1815 it passed into the hands of Caroline of Brunswick, wife of Britain’s King George IV, who spent the happiest years of her life restoring the Renaissance gardens. Pellegrini’s nymphaeum still forms a dramatic entrance to a grand arcade overlooked by a statue of Hercules. Little has changed since. For 141 years Villa d’Este has been a grand hotel, dismissive of changing fashions in hospitality. “If your statuary comes from the workshop of Canova and your paintings are by Parmigianino, why would you feel the need to redecorate constantly?” says the hotel’s marketing director, Antonella Chiesa, over a Rossini cocktail. “There is the ever-changing decoration,” she says, with a wave at the shimmering lake.
It was here, aboard a boat, that Edward VIII was first photographed with Wallis Simpson; here, too, that escaping Nazis are said to have undergone plastic surgery in 1945. When a contessa shot her lover on the dance floor of the night club, the band continued to play as he expired noisily. Such operatic scenes could not be entirely ruled out today. The libro d’oro displays the signatures of Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill, as well as those of Cary Grant and his spiritual successor George Clooney, whose Villa Oleandra is just up the coast at Laglio. Guests seem younger and less formal than hitherto, and children, who are now welcomed, have their own pool and activities such as windsurfing and waterskiing.
It is not just a matter of synergy. “Aero Club and Villa d’Este have grown up together,” says managing director Danilo Zucchetti. “We share a happy overlap in patronage and the same appreciation of the classic.” This is evident each May when a convoy of 50 historic cars rumbles along the narrow coastal road to park on the terrace. Participating in the Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza are vintage Lancias, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos.
Nor is affection for the golden era of transport confined to aircraft and automobiles. Classic speedboats are in use throughout the summer, with Riva and Cantieri Mostes limousine boats knifing across the lake. Valentina De Santis and her family have restored a 1961 casada, a private Venetian water limo built by the celebrated boatmaker’s Cucchini. Now guests at the family’s relaxed Grand Hotel Tremezzo on the western bank use it to explore the lake, including Bellagio and the sublime gardens of Villa Melzi d’Eril. “Why drive when you can be there in style in a quarter of the time?” De Santis asks above the roar of the original Volkswagen 225hp engines.
The hotel and its more than five acres of terraced gardens have recently been restored. Cuisine may be accomplished and service-friendly, but it is aquatic grand touring that excites guests. Not surprisingly, this is one of the places pilots like to moor their seaplanes for lunch. “It is Lake Como’s combination of classic style, sporting opportunity and easy access that nails it as a long-weekend destination,” says Vanessa Dean of luxury travel specialist Carrier. And it is a good place to keep up the flying hours necessary to maintain the licence.
As the Bird Dogcomes in to land off Villa d’Este my apprehension is dispelled by the knowledge that the plane survived service in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Some in the Aero Club’s stable are more distinguished yet. They include a rare Republic Seabee amphibian and a 1935 Caproni CA 100 open biplane, still on her original wooden floats. “The joy of these aircraft is that, like thoroughbred horses, they need regular exercise or they seize up,” explains Baj. “And there is a growing number of private pilots who aspire to master them. If you can handle the Macchi MB 308 on floats, then you should be able to fly just about anything.”
Italophiles might want to read up on the wonders of the Tuscany countryside in Chianti’s Castello di Ama. Meanwhile, our man discovers a supercar club with a supercar lifestyle, and high fliers will be thrilled by this boy’s own Spitfire flight experience.