Historic Villas

Ah Como, bella Como.

Lake Como is considered one of the diamonds in a tiara of lakes found approximately 30 miles north of Milan. The deepest lake in Europe, it rests between the granite mountains of the lower Alps, with its three fingers extending between the mountains as they rise up to the sky.

For centuries, aristocratic Italians and wealthy families have mingled at Lake Como, enjoying the temperate climate and the gorgeous scenery that enhances the presentation of their villas and, at the same time, their social standing. Even the ancient Romans built villas here. Pliny the Elder (23 A.D.-79 A.D.), a famous historian and writer, had a villa in Como. Pliny the Younger (61 A.D.-112 A.D.), a famous military officer and statesman who chronicled the existing Roman legal system in a series of letters to his friends and associates, built two villas here. In the 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci visited Bellagio and Lake Como. Napoleon visited his Grand Chancellor of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, at Villa Melzi in Bellagio.

One of the prettiest villages on Lake Como’s shore is Bellagio. The village rests on a promontory that extends into the center of the lake with a view from all sides; it seems to keep a sleepy watch. The road to Bellagio begins at the town of Como and weaves up the peninsula, coming to an end at the village. It is chiseled out of the sides of the mountains at 90-degree angles, and as you drive through the mountains, you wish that you were reincarnated as a mountain goat-it would be much easier to navigate the roads.

Today, Bellagio is a small village, with cobbled streets that favor foot traffic. The narrow sidewalks angle upwards into the hills and form the center of the town. The main promenade stretches along the waterfront, with the exclusive hotels and quaint cafes facing out towards the lake. A perfect afternoon can be spent sitting at one of the cafes with a good book, enjoying the sun.

Huge ferries dock at Bellagio every few minutes, with different itineraries depending on which village you want to visit that day. The easiest way to get around the lake is by taking the ferries to the various villages, which means that you can avoid navigating the winding trails they call roads. The ferries churn the waters all day long, unloading the tourists. There are car ferries that can take you to Menaggio, where you can then drive to Lugano in Switzerland, or enjoy a leisurely afternoon visiting the villages along the other shoreline for lunch. Then there are the hydrofoil ferries that make numerous stops up and down the lake. It’s not difficult to find the ferries or the stands that sell the tickets; they are located at the shoreline for each of the villages.

Lake Como is well known for the luxurious villas and gardens that are scattered around its shores. The Versace family, George Clooney and Richard Branson all have villas here. But theirs aren’t the ones you’ll want to explore. With Lake Como’s illustrious history, several villas still remain that offer a glance backward into another era. Today these villas and their gardens are maintained as museums and are the major attractions around the lake.

One of the most unique (and also one of the oldest) villas on Lake Como is Villa Balbianello, located in Lenno, built on the site of an old monastery by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durin during the late 1700s. The cardinal tried to incorporate elements of the monastery into the design of his villa. Today, the villa is a living monument to the life of Count Guido Monzino, an Italian explorer who bought the villa in 1974. Monzino was the first Italian to climb Mount Everest; his explorations took him to every continent in the world. In the villa, he created elaborate displays of his collections from his travels. Some rooms are filled with indigenous art from the Incas of South America to the art of the Eskimos at the North Pole. Being an Italian did not prevent him from collecting elaborate French antique furniture from the 1700s or paintings by English artists who practiced the beautiful art of reverse painting on glass. Surrounding the villa are intricate gardens designed to grace the slopes of the hills as they reach down to the lake.

Just down the road in Tremezzo is Villa Carlotta; built by the Clerici, an aristocratic family from Lombardy in the late 18th century, and later purchased by a Prussian princess. The villa has a rather imposing presence as it stretches along the border of the lake. But if you like gardens, Villa Carlotta has about 20 acres of them. Stepping inside the gates, you’re surrounded by private enclave of camellias. The main entrance is a typical formal Italian garden with an enchanting 18th-century fountain of a cherub and dolphin. A series of terraces and staircases extend upward the villa. As you walk toward the gardens, you’re enveloped by a sense of serenity and peace. The gardens seem to extend forever; long expanses of green lawn are lined with exotic and tropical plants. The climate around Lake Como is very conducive to a variety of gardens because the temperature very seldom drops below freezing, so many of the plants collected at Villa Carlotta have been there for centuries. Tropical palms, redwood trees, azaleas, rhododendron and fern grottos are all part of the gardens.

There are many villas to visit at Lake Como: Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero in Varenna, Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, Villa Balbianello in Lenno, and Villa Pizzo and Villa d’Este in Cernobbio. Each day, take the hydrofoil from Bellagio to a different village, visit the villas, enjoy lunch, and then catch the last ferry back to Bellagio.

When you leave Bellagio, take a car ferry to the other side of the lake, and drive back along the opposite shore where you can enjoy a leisurely ramble along the shoreline.

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