There is a compelling reason why actors, poets and painters have been drawn to Lake Como through the ages. Every superlative used to describe it is true.
It is indeed a “treasure”, as English poet William Wordsworth wrote, and a contender for the title of the most beautiful spot on earth, as Wordsworth’s compatriot Mary Shelley declared. Perhaps even life-changing as George Clooney, an artist of another time and form, has said.
Lake Como is also an uncommon entity in that man has not stuffed up Mother Nature’s best efforts in the name of progress. Its dazzling physical attributes – deep glacial lake edged in shades of green against a backdrop of mountains – are complemented by villages, some world-famous for their sophistication, others quaint and beloved by locals, as well as elegant villas and grand hotels with elaborate gardens and parklands.
To top it all off, despite its alpine location in far-north Italy on the border with Switzerland, Lake Como enjoys long summers, gloriously mild autumns and springs and tepid winters.
The pleasures that established it as a fixture on any grand tour of Europe hundreds of years ago are what enchant and attract in this century, namely beauty, history and nature, and a serenity that belies its high profile and tourist intake.
That said, if you want to see the lake at its best, avoid August. I joined Peregrine Adventures’ Italian Lakes Discovery trip in mid-September and not only was the weather ‘perfetto’, especially for a tour that promised, and delivered, lots of different walks, but there was plenty of room to move, eat, shop and drink, as evidenced by the fact we encountered only one traffic snarl. (And that was predictable given we were idling near Laglio on the western side of the lake to snap George Clooney’s Villa Oleandra.)
Anyway, the state of the roads isn’t an issue here. The preferred form of transport from village to village is boat, and gliding into the Bellagio wharf, watching the town’s elegant harbour with its grand hotels come into focus, is a memory that will take some beating in my lifetime.
Bellagio has long been a byword for beauty, so much so that US billionaire Steve Wyn pinched the name for a Las Vegas hotel – an edifice that couldn’t be further from the beauty of the original.
Spread across the shady promontory where the three branches of the lake meet, Bellagio is the most popular of Lake Como’s villages, and while the medieval alleyways snaking up its steep hills are buzzing, there’s a palpable sense that Bellagio has a beating heart driving a life beyond tourism, which is a rarity among beauty spots around the world.
Varenna on the eastern shore might not enjoy the sunshine of the western side or the gloss of Bellagio but it has bucketloads of charm. It’s also home to a most romantic passerella, a lakeside path that dips under vines and juts out over the water, and is favoured by brides and eternal romantics.
There is little to do in Varenna once you’ve walked the passerella, explored the glories of the gardens of Villas Cipressi and Monastero and had a peek at the 14th century frescoes inside the Church of San Giorgio. And a good thing that is, too. The hale and hearty could opt to stride up the mountain to the Roman fortress of Vezio, but I went for the sybaritic option: a glass of wine in a cafe overlooking Varenna’s tiny beach. I was as content as I have ever been.
Menaggio, 4km across the water from Varenna, has been welcoming visitors since Roman times. It has the pick of the lake’s beaches, including pools right on the shore, and is the place to hire a boat or get a guided tours of the stars’ villas.
Menaggio sticks in my mind for the limone gelato I treated myself to in its cafe-lined square after hiking the mountain trail behind it. It was a challenging but enthralling trek that took us up 650m from teensy Breglia, all stone cottages with window boxes of red geraniums, to Rifugio Menaggio, a rustic hut serving mountain food. The pay-off? A panoramic view of shimmering Lake Como as the morning’s mist cleared. Priceless in any language, even a poet’s.
Gardens of Como
No visit to Lake Como is complete without visiting its glorious villas and gardens. Most are from the 19th century and are open from March to October.
Villa Melzi, Bellagio. The park-like English garden laid out in the Napoleonic era is an oasis of harmony with pools, lakes and its own chapel.
Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio. French writer Stendhal described it as a sublime and enchanting spectacle.
Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo. One of the stopping points on the fabled Grand Tour. A romantic Italian garden with dramatic terracing and banks of rhododendrons and azaleas.
Villa del Balbianello, Bellagio. The most photographed garden of the area, with cascading terraces and views all around.
Villa Cipressi, Varenna. Terraced, views and exotic plants.
Villa Monastero, Varenna. This is a splendid example of a 19th century lake garden with palms, citrus, roses, oaks and wisteria interspersed with statues and fountains.
Villa d’Este, Cernobbio. Unfortunately, the magnificent 16th century 10ha parkland garden is not open to the public. You will have to book into the hotel to see it. But with rooms starting at $1000 a night, it’s likely to remain on the bucket list for most of us.
Kay O’Sullivan was on Peregrine Adventures’ Italian Lakes Discovery tour. Peregrine is a partner with RACV Cruises & Tours, and members save 5% on any tour booked through RACV. Call 1300 850 884 or go to racv.com.au/cruisesandtours.