Lake Como. Welcome to Italy’s glamorous core

Lake Como. Welcome to Italy’s glamorous core

Imagine an artwork by a romantic painter: mountains plunging into the lake, at times soft, and at other times restless...

… Lush woods, white pebble beaches or beaches of soft grass, headlands lapped by quiet waters. Stone towns imbued of the history of bygone eras. Grand hotels and fabulous villas with manicured gardens and noble atmospheres evoking the Belle Époque. This is Lario, Lake Como, a place that has inspired artists and poets throughout the centuries.

A guidebook, however detailed, will never be able to really convey how enchanting Lake Como is. The stories told by those who have been fortunate enough to sail up and down its deep waters at the foot of the Alps, and see tourist attractions as well as lesser-known villages, the majestic streets of the city of Como, and the hamlets with breathtaking views, will never do it justice. Lake Como is one of those dreamy places that exceeds expectations, an opera stage of villas, garden geometries, boats and ferries on a 30km-long body of water that resembles a fjord more than a lake.

If Lake Como were nothing more than a beautiful body of water in northern Italy, it would still be one of the country’s top tourist attractions. This place, however, houses one of the most romantic sceneries in the world, an inverted letter “Y,” lined with steep dense forested mountain trails. To the north are the Alps, which are snow-capped for most of the year, while, along the lakeshore, palm trees ornate the many villas. Some of villas on or around lake Como date back to the 16th century.

Lake Como has become very famous in the 21st century, when its name became synonymous of glamour and wealth. This was partly due to the proximity of Milan, as it is less than an hour away, and to Lake Como becoming one of the preferred destinations for the Hollywood star system. It was thrusted at the heart of gossip and rumors on George Clooney, who bought a villa on the lake nearly two decades ago. He brought his liveliness and actor friends the likes of Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and Matt Damon, thus crediting the splendor of the lake as a Made in Italy symbol. Lake Como’s history and traditions, however, are by far more ancient and glorious than the admittedly glittered world of motion pictures.

Indigenous peoples have lived here ever since ancient times. They were then pushed away with the arrival of the Romans, when Julius Caesar ordered 5,000 of his men to drain the swamp at the end of the lake and build there the first Roman city in the town of Como. Wealthy Lombards from nearby Milan arrived in the 16th century, finding a place where imported silkworms could thrive on native mulberry trees. Contemporary fashion gurus, the likes of Versace, Hermes, Ralph Lauren and countless others, have made fortunes with the silk they continue to source here.

Wealthy Milanese merchants built villas, and then, as it happened in those times, they became patrons of the arts. You cannot visit Como without detecting the scent of art and culture: Leonardo Da Vinci painted here, Verdi composed part of La Traviata here, on these shores Bellini worked on his Norma, and a number of writers such as Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Hesse wrote poems praising the lake’s unique virtues.

If you spend enough time here, you will realize that each season has its own distinct characteristics, and each time you discover new things. There is no one best time to visit, although, the scenery is truly unforgettable when, on the eve of summer, the high mountain snow and a white fringe on the peaks to the north still feed the waterfalls; breathtaking.

Regardless of the season, a perfect day on Lake Como is a day spent on the water, looking at the villas, stopping in front of those that allow one to visit, having lunch and swimming. If one’s budget allows it, the boat trip should be on an elegant wooden Riva speedboat heading out on the lake to meet friends in Lenno, or in the more touristy Varenna, where the backdrop for café life and the slow sipping of a prosecco is a hodgepodge of ochre-colored buildings. For those that do not have access to a private boat, the ferry system can easily accommodate all needs, as it goes across the lake and provides access to Bellagio’s waterfront and narrow streets, while also allowing one to explore quiet fishing villages such as Pescallo. The ferry also goes to Tremezzo where one can explore gardens and artwork in Villa Carlotta, one of the lake’s masterpieces and a favorite place for 19th-century writers Edith Wharton and Henry James.

As one travels around the lake, many grand private villas will provide a scenic backdrop. Villa Fontanelle in Moltrasio is one of these. Once owned by Gianni Versace, after the fashion stylist’s passing the villa was sold to Arkady Noviko, one of the most successful Russian restaurateurs, also known as the “Blini King.” Villa Fontanelle can be seen in its full splendor from the water, just as Villa le Rose, which was Churchill’s retreat after World War II. Laglio, on the other hand, is where Clooney and his wife Amal live, at Villa Oleandra, while Villa La Cassinella is said to be owned by Sir Richard Branson (who does, however, deny it, perhaps in the attempt to have some privacy).

Then there’s Villa del Balbianello, which keeps that which is probably the most coveted spot on the lake hidden from view; a promontory near a town called Lenno, topped by an incredible stone complex. The edifice used to be a monastery, and was later bought by private individuals. In the end it became the home of Guido Manzino, heir to the fortune of an Italian supermarket chain, also known as the explorer who led the first Italian expedition to Mount Everest. Villa del Balbianello is now a museum, and still hosts Monzino’s eccentric collections from his travels to the four corners of the earth. It is probably the most photographed villa on the lake.

Filmmakers absolutely adore this place. Casino Royale was filmed here, as was Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (Episode II). This is one of the reasons why it can get very crowded around here, and it’s always best to get moving early in the morning when going for sightseeing tours and excursions.

Villa Melzi is a 10-minute walk from Bellagio’s busy marina. It is a place where one can stroll through acres of gardens and small lakeside ponds, with tree varieties from all over the world. This is where Franz Liszt composed his Dante Symphony. The whole atmosphere here reflects back the image of Lake Como, as it probably was 150 years ago.