Concorso d'Eleganza: My Heart Stayed And Never Quite Left Lake Como

Concorso d'Eleganza: My Heart Stayed And Never Quite Left Lake Como

James Wong
James Wong
08 Jun 2023
For those not in the know, the Concorso has been running for some 94 years since 1929, set upon the inimitable beauty of Lake Como’s illustrious mansions like Villa D’Este...

It’s feeling particularly frosty at 6am at the Alpine village of Grindelwald, Switzerland. I stirred awake, with the rest of the house still asleep, and still can’t quite believe I’ll be driving to Italy today.

It was not a trip I had expected to embark on. All along I had planned for a family holiday with my folks and my son, erring towards sedate and low stress sightseeing. I did not schedule for a 4-5 hour drive of some 260 km down south to Lake Como.

But I had to. Unbeknownst to me, Concorso d’Eleganza was to take place right at the very dates I’d be vacationing in Europe. For those not in the know, the Concorso has been running for some 94 years since 1929, set upon the inimitable beauty of Lake Como’s illustrious mansions like Villa D’Este. It is, quite possibly, the most delectable car event ever. Once I knew that there was a possibility I could attend, I could not get the thought out of my mind.

So I decided to try. I rescheduled or cancelled our hotel stays, but I would only proceed if I could do it without any penalties. And it happened so quickly and seamlessly - there were no problems changing dates at Gimmelwald (our last stop before heading back to Zurich) and we were fully refunded our planned stays at Liechtenstein and Lake Constanz. It was as if it was decided for me already.

And so I pinged BMW Asia for media accreditation, and all of the ducks somehow fell into row in one fell swoop. I was going to take my trusty Skoda Octavia Kombi and my family to one of the most glamorous car events in the world.

Guten Tag to Buongiorno
The drive from Grindelwald was a little tedious initially as we headed down the mountainous area on the A8, but once we trekked back to Lucerne and took the A2 it was a rather smooth - and scenic - blast down south through the famous Gotthard Tunnel (at 15 km in length, it was once named the longest tunnel in the world when completed in 1882) which runs underneath the mighty St Gotthard Massif. If one feels the length of the KPE is long, wait till you drive through the Gotthard Tunnel. If time allows, one could also take the beautiful St Gotthard Pass instead, which snakes up and down the mountain rather than go under it, but we will not attempt it this time as we’re in a bit of a hurry.

The tunnel or pass brings one from the German speaking Swiss region to the Italian speaking part of Switzerland - the only Canton where Italian is primarily spoken, Ticino. The road sign language even changes halfway in the tunnel to signify this change! It was absolutely fascinating to see how people holding the same Swiss passport can live so differently - from the way they build and design their houses, to their cuisine. I can vouch for the latter, for when we stopped at a service station somewhere near Bellinzona, I am certain the pizza and hot dogs tasted better.

As we approached Chiasso, the Swiss border town, the increasing Italianness of the environment became more and more apparent. For one, the weather was distinctly warmer, even though it was still dreadfully wet and musky. The roads started to bunch up more, twisting and turning around narrowly around the packed conurbation which made things a lot more confusing. In fact, the border crossing was so obscure, it was like driving down one part of Haji Lane to the next. I could not really tell I have entered Italy except for some small notice boards and an obvious change in road sign design. Nonetheless, it was terribly exciting. Ciao, Italia.

Day 1 - Villa D’Este
The first order of the day would be to check in the family to the Airbnb. I opted for them to stay at Brienno, a lovely little down perched along the western leg of Lake Como (it’s shaped like an inverted ‘Y’) which would only take me 15 minutes to get to from Villa D’Este. Choosing to stay on the correct side of the lake was critically important, as if I had stayed across the lake from Villa D’Este I would have easily made my commute 3-4 times as long.

After they were happily settled, including a quick grocery run from the nearby town of Argegno (where we quickly realised things are so much cheaper than in Switzerland), I hopped into the Skoda to head to Villa D’Este.

There were instructions to park at designated car parks nearby, but as luck would have it they were all full by the time I arrived. I aimlessly looked around for a place to park and eventually ended up at Lidl. “A reasonably priced supermarket, how expensive could parking get?”, I asked myself as my man maths machine worked overtime. As I was due for some of the Concorso events I left the car in haste, didn’t think much of the parking situation (more on this later) and walked the 15 minutes or so to Villa D’Este.

Cernobbio, the small town where the Concorso is actually taking place, chokes under the weight of the immense crowd headed for the event. There are supercars, sports cars and classic cars making their rounds trying to find parking, while lines of people string to the entrance of both Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, the two venues for the Concorso that are about 10 minutes apart via walking. Although Villa Erba had concurrent events going on for the public, the things not to be missed on the first day took place at Villa d’Este.

After some moments of getting lost, I managed to find my way to the entrance of Villa d’Este. The lush grounds and a beautiful view of Lake Como first greets guests, before a whole line-up of current BMW sports cars offers the first glimpse of the automobiles in store (BMW Group is the patron of Concorso d’Eleganza this year and has been for 14 times - so far).

The concept cars came next, and it was the Pagani Huayra Codalunga that really captured my imagination. Seeing Horacio casually standing around his car was pretty cool, too.

Just adjacent to the concept cars is the Villa d’Este mansion proper - an iconic 150 year old establishment originally built as a summer residence for the Cardinal of Como, Tolomeo Gallio way back in 1568. It has a colourful history, even falling into the hands of the Princess of Wales in 1815, who gave it the name Villa d’Este - which stuck. Today it is a luxury hotel and events venue.

As I walk along the beautiful tree-lined vista, I also spot some guests arriving via high-speed boats on Villa d’Este’s jetty. What a way to make an entrance to the Concorso! But wait, there is even more - some even arrive by their own seaplanes - like one gentleman, Phillip Sarofim (owner of the 1979 Porsche 935) who flew his 1951 Grumman HU-16 B seaplane all the way from Los Angeles to Lake Como. Of course, Villa d’Este’s guest car park was worth a walkaround in itself, considering the significant number of enthusiasts who drove themselves down from all over Europe.

Wading through the rain, I looked at the luxurious mansion and found myself asking: “Can I enter? Do I need a special pass?” I stepped in anyway and nobody stopped me, and got a sneak of the beauty within. I saw rooms with high ceilings brightly lit by chandeliers partially concealed by half-closed doors, and inside them men and women dressed as if it was in the early 1900s, with the strong pungent smell of cigars giving the air a muggy haze. There were grand staircases and glorious restaurants that were no doubt packed because of the rain. It was like travelling back in time!

But time to go back to the cars. Standing proud at a prime spot of the gardens was the Rolls-Royce Spectre, the brand’s first fully electric production vehicle. What struck me was how familiar it looked and felt, almost like a soft update of the Wraith. Seeing its striking colours inside and out made me realise how little we see such variety back home.

Sitting close to Spectre is the BMW Touring Coupe concept, which is probably the most talked-about car of the whole Concorso. My verdict? BMW should totally bring it to production. It just feels so right, and gives BMW a good dose of quirkiness back.

I then arrived at the heart of the Concorso, where the historical cars were all on display. It was where things were a lot more lively, as cars were started up and revved periodically, or even driven around, presumably to prepare for the Parade which really was the best part of the day.

These static cars would be driven one by one to Villa d’Este’s terrace to be appraised, while their rich history and story would be shared. There is even a live band! Special mention has to go to the emcee Simon Kidston, who gave such an incredible account of each and every one of the cars. I sat through a good 3-4 hours of the Parade just because it was so riveting to hear how the cars came to be, what they achieved and where they were residing now. For the highlights, head on to OneShift’s Instagram Stories!

Day 2 - Villa Erba
The second day at Villa Erba was a lot more relaxed as it was meant as a public, family-friendly event. I made sure I was early and managed to secure a parking lot nearby! Now the back story on Lidl: when I got back to the Skoda after 7 hours, I eventually had to pay 50 euros for my parking, because the first 2 hours are free after which it got exorbitantly expensive. So top-tip, if you’re doing long term parking at a supermarket, beware!

In addition to the cars we’ve already seen the day before, there are more historic, current and future vehicles from BMW, auction vehicles from RM Sotheby’s on display, an entertainment area for kids and even an artistic performance by Yoann Bourgeois (well worth checking him out on YouTube).

My son must have been one of the first to drive and ride on the BMW ‘vehicles’ around the play area, and he even got a driving licence while at it. He also enjoyed the BMW radio controlled cars so much that we went back a second time to play.

But we couldn’t stay all day as there was, as I found out, another Concorso happening at the same time and well, I couldn’t miss that, right?

Day 2 - Fuori Concorso
I only discovered about Fuori Concorso the day before and it seemed like the more atas version of Concorso d’Eleganza. It’s less well-known, but it’s expensive to access at 199 euros. Although, they had a free area called the Open Museum at Villa Olmo which is where I went to, and it was dedicated fully to Porsche and its 75th anniversary this year.

Fuori Concorso seemed better planned as they had a dedicated free parking area for guests and pre-arranged regular shuttles that brought people to the event from the car park. It was totally seamless and stress-free, unlike my experience at Concorso d’Eleganza!

It was a good nostalgic moment visiting the Open Museum as I had seen a number of the Porsches on display at various parts of the world before - some in Singapore at the Mandala Club, some at the Porsche Museum itself and some at the various press events over the years. Yet it was also fascinating to see some cars for the first time as well, like the 992.1 GT3 RS which I missed at Porsche World Road Show in Singapore this year!

The highlights for me have got to be the 993 GT2, followed by my perennial favourite the Carrera GT. I guess the latter does not need much explanation.

As for the former, I have somehow grown in appreciation for the 993 much more in the past year or so, especially after having a short drive of the 993 C2 manual (albeit a Cabriolet) in Stuttgart. So seeing the GT2 was really, really special for me and I hope to be able to own the 993 one day.

After Fuori Concorso, I took a leisurely drive up the western coastline from Cernobbio. I had heard so much about Bellagio, however it was on the eastern side of the shore and it would have been dark by the time I got there by car. So I went to Tremezzo instead, which is the nearest town opposite to Bellagio. And no regrets, indeed - the scenery really opened up tremendously as I headed north. The mountains got higher and the views more stunning. I passed by many beautiful, grandiose villas and noted them down for my next visit.

I really fell in love with Lake Como that evening, and I want to come back one day. Maybe also for the two Concorsos again next time!

Head on to our gallery for more drool-worthy photos.

Photos by James Wong


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