■ The weekend: Four days of ferry-hopping to find your inner lake-dweller
■ Requirements: Romance, lakeside vistas, lavish villas and gorgeous gardens for jaded urbanites
■ Fits the bill: A lazy loop around Lake Como, based in Bellagio, Blevio or Laglio
■ Budget: £700 per person — more if you opt for ‘dowager’ hotels and fine dining
Lake Como suits incurable romantics but you don’t need to be in love to wallow in romance. I’m here alone in Blevio, on Como, and relishing its operatic grandeur already. The musical links on the lakes resemble that ‘five degrees of separation’ game.
On Lake Como, Bellini composed Norma, Rossini Tancredi, and Verdi conjured up Act II of La Traviata. If wishing to hear their lyrics sung, the composers simply summoned neighbours such as Giuditta Pasta, the Maria Callas of her day. And now I’m enjoying the lyrical setting of her former villa, CastaDiva, reborn as a luxury resort in 2010.
From Blevio, it’s an operatic ferry ride north to Bellagio and Villa Melzi’s waterside gardens, passing scenery as lush as a score by Liszt. The lake’s beauty lies in the sweet melancholy of snow-capped peaks, the deep conifer forests, the thin silhouettes of cypresses and the seductive curve of the shore. My spirits soar in spring when a southern warmth takes the chill off the Alps. April’s magnolias, azaleas and camellias will make way for wisteria, silvery olive trees, palms and pomegranates.
The neoclassical Villa Melzi captivated singers and composers, including Liszt. What first inspired him was the Moorish coffeehouse standing over the lake, a bold folly with lofty vistas edged by banks of camellias. Liszt wrote his Dante Sonata on these shores, supposedly inspired by a statue of Dante and Beatrice in Villa Melzi. An intimate mood is created by the ornamental pool framed by cedars, maples, camphor and myrrh. On the formal terraces above, classical statuary gives way to gently rolling lawns bordered by a pine grove. As always here, the glory of the gardens lies in the interplay between villa and lake, and the shifts in mood between the manicured terraces and untrammelled alpine scenery beyond.
Como has been a retreat for weary romantics since Roman times, when Pliny’s villas saved the orator from the stresses of Ancient Rome. The Milanese smart set moved in long ago but since George Clooney bought Villa Oleandra in Laglio, Lake Como has been bathed in Hollywood glamour. The lake represents a realm of enchantment and repose, where even celebrities can potter in privacy. The desire to escape from what the Edwardian writer Holbrook Jackson once called ‘the chatter and clatter and hustle and guzzle’ of high society is motivation enough. Today’s movie stars seek simplicity and so Clooney, like Pliny, wants to feel he can fish from his bedroom window or enjoy what Liszt called ‘the melancholy murmuring of the waves lapping against the boat’.
Yet Como is also the most punctilious lake, a place where Victorian-style promenading is still in vogue. Not that doing Como in style means stuffed-shirt gentility and hushed hotels. The lake lifestyle is sedate not sedated, with blockbuster art exhibitions in Como, summer music festivals in Bellagio, and low-key beach parties on the lidos. Even so, Lake Como is for sophisticates, not cheapskates or hipsters. Splash out on a linen suit and a room with a view; dress for a stylish dinner; swagger over retro cocktails on a time-warp terrace. Stay in a grown-up hideaway and drop into ‘grand-dame’ hotels for fine dining. It might start as play-acting but before long you’ll be yearning to hang out with the Grand Tourists of yore. Whether rakish or rich, the Romantics came for the scenery and a sense of surrender. So far, so contemporary — so Clooney. The lake’s poster-boy loves the smooth lifestyle of his Lake Como home, from his sleek speedboat to the simple dinners of grilled fish and fine Barbera wine, saying that “the Italians have taught me how to celebrate life”.
Bond & Baroque Villas
There’s nowhere better to celebrate life than in Bellagio, Lake Como’s calling card. The resort commands the promontory of Punta Spartivento, ‘the point which divides the winds’ and splits the lake into two. My eyes lap up the genteel promenade, pastel-tinged facades, steep cobbled alleys and bijou craft shops — Bellagio is a litany of lakeside cliches. In summer, I’d daydream over sunset cocktails at the Lido di Bellagio beach club before lake fish at Silvio, but today it’s Cava Turacciolo for dawdling over wine and cheese in a cosy cellar bar. I drift into a delightful reverie about fin-de-siecle glamour and cypress-spoked slopes during the ferry cruise back to Blevio.
Next morning’s cruise explores the western shore, with the most magnificent waterside villas and gardens. The ferry criss-crosses the loveliest arm of Lake Como, moving from the shady eastern shore to the sunny western side. The cliffs on the dramatic eastern shore evoke the Amalfi Coast while the tamer west shelters the best resorts, villas and gardens. At Lenno, the final short stretch to Villa Balbianello is by fishing boat. Set on a rocky spur, this beguiling villa was James Bond’s retreat in Casino Royale. As ever, 007 has impeccable taste. Mirrored in the lake, Balbianello boasts 18th-century gardens studded with cypresses, magnolias and planetrees. Neither a classical Italian affair nor a romantic English retreat, this is a wayward garden framed by wisteria-clad views accentuated by artful arches.
Just one landing stage north of Lenno, Tremezzo is an appealingly mothballed spot, despite a recent revamp. A short stroll leads to Como’s icing on the cake — Villa Carlotta’s gorgeously opulent gardens. The baroque villa, a wedding present from a Prussian princess to her daughter, plays second fiddle to the grounds, despite its excellent art gallery. In spring, the vivid azaleas and camellias offset the villa’s cool neoclassical interior. The profusion of pink and white frames a theatrical staircase leading to the citrus terraces. An ornamental pool, rockery and rhododendron grove act as stepping stones to a moody glade and rushing stream.
The planting plots an exotic map of the world, from cedars of Lebanon to Egyptian papyrus reeds, Japanese maple, Chinese bamboo and Indian tea — all by way of Mediterranean agaves, New Zealand ferns, Australian eucalyptus trees, and giant South American sequoias.
After a day of wistfulness in grand gardens, I want to experience the lake more intimately, in a kayak. Based in Pescallo harbour, Bellagio Watersports offers refreshing tours, including the paddle I take across the water to Varenna. This central stretch of the lake, embracing Menaggio, Bellagio, Tremezzo and Varenna, is the most seductive. Rivalled only by Bellagio, Varenna is perhaps the lake’s quintessential village, shaded by pines and planetrees but less picture-postcard perfect than Bellagio. Completing the scene are un-touristy cafes, terraced gardens, a turreted castle and Italy’s shortest river, which flows only from March until October. Nearby, the brooding woods and wild limestone peaks inspired Leonardo da Vinci to use the shadowy landscape as the setting for his Virgin of the Rocks.
Finally, my ferry sweeps south to grand moorings and gourmet delights on Cernobbio. Villa d’Este is where celebrities come for peace, quiet and the exceptional grilled fish. With only Henry James’s writings for company, I settle for a Champagne cocktail on the terrace. Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent, later George IV, sought a fresh start in this frescoed palace, where she installed her Italian lover in 1814, and scandalised polite society. Not that naughtiness is anything new on Lake Como. In Italian Hours, a collection of his travel essays, Henry James notes that Como is ‘commonly the spot to which inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion.’
Devoid of inflamed young gentlemen, my last day is devoted to Como, the lakeside capital. A centre of the silk trade since the 16th century, Como still supplies the top Milanese fashion houses with expertly finished materials. Centred on the sublime cathedral, Como’s delightful medieval core echoes such craftsmanship, weaving Romanesque architecture into the city fabric. Over coffee and cake in Pane e Tulipani, my friend Layla praises the lively cultural scene and the art exhibitions at Villa Olmo, before bemoaning the recent decline in the city’s silky skills that has led her beloved Como to fall behind Lugano, just over the border in Switzerland. While Como is installing controversial flood barriers along its lakefront, the resort is not at its prettiest, but remains an engaging springboard to the timeless waterfront villages.
A stroll west from Piazza Cavour to Villa Olmo passes the pleasure palaces of the Milanese nobility and, tempted by the clear skies, we take the seven-minute funicular up to Brunate and lofty views of the Alps, art nouveau homes and the sparkling waterfront below. Our half-hearted meanderings along mule tracks are rewarded with lunch in Trattoria del Cacciatore, a rustic inn where the sage ravioli and cheesy polenta owe more to the encircling mountains than the lake. Definitely not a George Clooney haunt, decides Layla, who, like gorgeous George, is more at home in Cernobbio’s stylish Trattoria del Glicine.
Out on the lake, the sluggish steamers are as stirring a sight as the snow-clad peaks and the rolling hillside. Clooney thinks nothing of tearing around these steep slopes on his Harley, drinking wine with his boatmen, or playing tennis with the locals. But the star’s dolce vita lifestyle also stretches to tete-a-tete dinners in the palatial Villa d’Este. As Henry James concludes on Lake Como: ‘It’s the place of places to enjoy a deux — it’s a shame to be here in gross melancholy solitude.’ If only he’d told me in person.
■ 9am: Feel the elemental drama of the lake on a kayaking foray near Bellagio. Start on Pescallo beach, below rugged cliffs, and let Bellagio Watersports guide you across Punta Spartivento to Varenna.
■ 11.30am: Explore the cobbled alleys of Bellagio and lap up the lake views from the graceful gardens of Villa Melzi.
■ 1pm: Near Villa Melzi, lunch at Silvio, a rustic fish restaurant (free shuttle from Bellagio) where Silvio himself might persuade you to go out fishing with him.
■ 2.30pm: Once back on the Bellagio waterfront, use your day pass to hop on a ferry and make the five minute crossing to Tremezzo, the lushest part of the lake.
■ 2.50pm: Explore Villa Carlotta, the lake’s loveliest villa and gardens.
■ 5pm: Take a ferry from Tremezzo to Cernobbio.
■ 6.40pm: A stroll and cocktails in Cernobbio — push the boat out at Bar Terrazza, in the celebrity-studded Villa d’Este, or settle for the simpler Harry’s Bar.
■ 8pm: Dinner in Cernobbio, beneath the wisteria pergola of Trattoria del Glicine, or in Il Gatto Nero, one of George Clooney’s favourite dining spots.
British Airways flies from Heathrow, EasyJet from Gatwick, Luton and Edinburgh, and Monarch from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester to Milan Malpensa. Drive the 45 minutes from here to the lake or take the Malpensa Express to Saronno and then to Como Lago (80 minutes in all). www.ba.com www.easyjet.com www.monarch.co.uk
Average flight time: 1h55m.
Hire a car from Milan Malpensa and use the ferries or hydrofoils on its shores. www.navigazionelaghi.it
When to go
From spring to late autumn. Many of the hotels close for winter.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.19.
International dial code: 00 39.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Villa Balbianello. www.villabalbianello.com
Villa Carlotta. www.villacarlotta.it
Pane e Tulipani (cafe), Como. www.pane-e-tulipani.com
Brunate cable car, Como. www.funicolarecomo.it
Trattoria del Cacciatore, Brunate. www.trattoriadelcacciatore.it
Ristorante Silvio, Bellagio. www.bellagiosilvio.com
Trattoria del Glicine, Cernobbio. www.trattoriadelglicine.eu
Il Gatto Nero, Cernobbio. www.gattonerocernobbio.com
L’Espressino, Cernobbio. www.lespressino.it
Where to stay
Albergo Terminus, Como. Doubles from €125 (£105). www.albergoterminus.com
Castadiva Resort & Spa, Blevio. Doubles from €380 (£319). www.castadivaresort.com
Hotel Florence, Bellagio. Doubles from €150 (£126). www.hotelflorencebellagio.it
Relais Villa Vittoria, Laglio. Doubles from €180 (£151). www.relaisvillavittoria.it
Insight Guides: The Italian Lakes. RRP: £14.99.
How to do it
Four nights in Albergo Terminus plus flights from £698 per person. www.kirkerholidays.com
Railbookers offers a four-night package to Lake Como via the Swiss Alps from £699 per person.
Published in March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)