From Pliny the Younger to today's movie stars, everyone loves Italy's Lake Como. The setting is dramatic: in the foothills of the Alps, steep hillsides flank a lake that has a hundred favourite views. It's an easy drive from Milan and, in spring and summer, is festooned with azaleas. The world's rich and famous come to enjoy private lakeside villas. The not so famous flock to hotels ranging from luxury to reasonable – where they soak up the lake, the sun, water sports, the stars if they are lucky, good restaurants and the truly splendid gardens that are open to the public.
There are three arms to Lake Como. Imagine an inverted Y; the north/south arm splits at Bellagio, the self-styled "pearl of the lake", from where an arm runs down to Como itself, another to Lecco. Most activity is on the Como or left arm. That's where George and Amal Clooney have their villa, at Laglio, on the way down to Como. It's where you'll find the Villa d'Este too; further south, closer to Como. And while Como has its attractions, the real action is up in the central lake at Tremezzo and Cadenabbia, at Menaggio, Varenna and Bellagio, where the marvellous ferry system encourages ready movement among these towns.
I first experienced Lake Como's charms, not in the summer but in the winter, at Christmas, nearly 50 years ago, when my parents took us to lunch on Isola Comacina, the only island in the lake. My mother's diary of December 30, 1968, reads:
"The padrone is a complete character in cords, colourful waistcoat and knitted pirate type beanie but in presenting the food he is a master … pictures of visiting [movie stars] all around. We ate antipasti with both raw and cooked ham, fennel, celery, olives, carrots etc then freshly broiled trout removed from the bone for serving, crisp chicken with salad and a dolce of sliced oranges with banana liqueur and ice cream … cheese and red wine before the sweet – white wine throughout otherwise. Oh, and a huge roll of bread stretching from one side of the table to the other … Coffee was a ceremony … the tubby host … came in with a bottle of cognac, a jug of coffee and a basin of sugar and with much chanting of the history of the of the place heated [it] all together. The result was a glass each of a sort of Irish coffee. Great!"
Nothing has changed. Except the padrone and the price. Today it costs $100 and is worth every penny. Best to book.
Perhaps the lake's greatest attraction is its gardens. Most famous is the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. A steep hillside accommodates the villa – where Canova's sculptures are the star attraction – and, in a natural basin, the extensive garden features rhododendrons, azaleas galore, ferns, ancient cedars and sequoias, camellias and more.
In Varenna, where the Villa Monastero enjoys a mild climate, its botanic garden hugs the lake for two kilometres. Set out in a series of small terraces along the lake are exotic plants from the Americas and Africa plus European classics like roses and wisteria, it all being designed to flower serially throughout the year.
The gardens of the Villa Melzi in Bellagio, created by Napoleon's (on and off) man in Italy, extend from lily ponds near the lake up a slope flowing with rhododendrons and azaleas set among the Egyptian and Roman sculpture. It is an easy walk from downtown Bellagio. The favourite of movie makers (Casino Royale), however, is the Villa del Balbianello. On its own peninsula, a good walk from Lenno's ferry stop, it's not so much the gardens as the incredible site, the building and its contents that make a visit worthwhile. (There are reasonably priced water taxis from Lenno.)
High on the promontory at Bellagio, dominating the three arms of the lake, is the Villa Serbelloni and its extensive park. It has been owned by the Rockefeller Foundation since 1959 and serves as a retreat for artists and academics. (And the venue for John F Kennedy's dalliance with "a lady of some note in Europe" overnight on June 30, 1963, between his, "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech and his audience with the new Pope Paul VI.) Daily tours are handled by excellent multilingual guides. The views up and around and on top of the site are truly spectacular: you can see up all three arms of the lake and take in all the nearby towns – Varenna, Menaggio, Tremezzo. One can understand how, in centuries past, whoever owned this site controlled the trade and commerce of the region.
Tremezzo now boasts a truly fancy hotel: the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. It has swimming pools, in and outside the hotel, even on the lake, a spa, restaurants smart, casual (and expensive), all brilliantly squeezed into a sloping site near the Villa Carlotta. In Bellagio you can get away from the crowds at the five-star Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (no longer related to the Villa Serbelloni), which sits on the lake, or up on the ridge, about 10 minutes walk from downtown Bellagio, at the four-star Villa Belvedere; it too has every comfort imaginable – except, of course, that up there you cannot swim in the lake. The Florence, at the Bellagio ferry wharf, has style and comfort at a more reasonable price.
For a great meal I cannot recommend Alle Darsene di Loppia ("at the boatsheds of Loppia") highly enough. Stephania and her boyfriend, chef Matteo, run this small restaurant by the tiny port of Loppia, just south of the Villa Melzi. The food is terrific and the service impeccable. My wife, an expert on zucchini flowers and pigeon, says Alle Darsene's are the best she has ever had. My own four-course menu for $64 (asparagus, bean soup, roast pork and home-made ice-cream) was outstanding. The setting, under an extensive tree canopy, promises romance for us all. Good wines by the glass too.
All major airlines operate frequent flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Milan. From Milan, rent a car or take the train to Lecco, Varenna or Como; see fsitaliane.it
The most famous and perhaps most luxurious hotel is Villa D'Este, at Cernobbio. It has a great restaurant, wonderful setting, gardens and pools (including one on the lake). Rooms start at $815. See villadeste.com
Equally well set up is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, at Bellagio, which sits on the waterfront with swimming in the lake and in its fine pool. It has a famous Michelin-starred restaurant, bistro and spa. Rooms start at $460. See villaserbelloni.com
The four-star Hotel Belvedere sits on the ridge on the edge of Bellagio town with all the required amenities: spa, pool, dining inside or out on the large balcony. Rooms from $170. See belvederebellagio.com
SEE + DO
Simply taking a trip on a ferry anywhere on the lake is a delight. See navigazionelaghi.it
The famous villas and their gardens are all worth a visit: Villa Carlotta, at Tremezzo (villacarlotta.it); Villa del Balbianello, at Lenno (visitfai.it); Villa Monastero, at Varenna (villamonastero.en); and Villa Serbelloni, above Bellagio, provides a panoramic set of vistas up and down the lake (bellagiolakecomo.com).
Alle Darsene di Loppia, just beyond the Villa Melzi in Bellagio, has some of the best food on the lake (ristorantedarsenediloppia.com) and Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, on the Isola Comacina, provides a unique dining experience $100 a person, cash only (comacina.it).
Nicholas Whitlam travelled at his own expense.