The grand villages, lavish gardens and sparkling waters of the palatial Villas at Lake Como have never fallen out of fashion since the Romans lustily constructed them. Today, the Italian Lakes and their magnificent villas are a holiday playground for the well heeled. Mike Yardley luxuriates in the lakeside district on his latest trip to Italy.
Nature has blessed these lakes, where the southern foothills of the Alps sweep down towards the Mediterranean and the fertile plains of northern Italy cluster around these watery jewels. With mild climates, superb food, elegant shopping photogenic towns and villages edging the shoreline, the Italian lakes have got it going on, year-round. (If you’re a floral fiend, head to the lakes in April and May, when the tulips, camellias and azaleas hit full bloom.)
Star-powered Lake Como claims the top bragging rights for wooing the glittery celebrity set. But for all it’s big-screen fame, the place embodies low-key glamour. It’s not squeamishly brash. Situated on the lake’s southern shore, the stylish town of Como comprises a walled old quarter with intimate slender lanes lined with boutiques and swanky alfresco eateries.
Ancient Roman Gothic Architecture
Just 48 kilometres north of Milan, it always astounds me how Como’s leafy lakeside and stone-paved streets seem a world away. You can see its Roman origins in the orderly grid of streets of its historic heart and the remains of the Roman gate, Porta Pretoria. A beloved landmark is the 14th-century façade of Como’s cathedral, which nearly fills one side of Piazza Duomo. It’s pure Gothic, a marble face highlighted by detailed stone carving and statues around a rose window, edged with delicate carved pinnacles. Once inside, you’ll see why this church is hailed as Italy’s finest example of the 14th-century transition from Gothic to Renaissance styles. If you’re energetic, haul your way to the top of the 18th-century dome which is surely one of the top things to do in Lake Como.
I recently returned to Como as part of my week-long romp through Switzerland and Northern Italy with Globus and their new “Alps out Loud” escorted tour product. Choice Touring by Globus is a recent innovation that offers travellers a new and exciting touring style, promising all the wonders of a perfectly planned tour but with an extra level of freedom and flexibility. Complementing the standard guided sightseeing experiences of the banner attractions, there’s the added bonus of YourChoice Excursions, whereby you can curate your touring itinerary with Globus, by selecting from a range of optional excursions. I plumped for the Villas, Villages & Vistas cruise option, drinking in the views on the dazzling, before heading up the funicular to Brunate, the “Balcony of the Alps.”
Even the waters of this fjord-like lake seem extra glossy in this most glamourous of destinations. No wonder Hollywood fawns over Como as a natural movie set. I passed by numerous Belle Epoque pleasure pads including the 18th-century Villa del Balbianello, in Lenno. The Baroque villa, built for an 18th-century Cardinal, is surrounded by terraced gardens, where lake views are framed by columns and balustrades. Not only did it feature in Bond’s Casino Royale but it hosted Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Casino Royale was also filmed in front of Villa La Gaeta, in San Siro, where the final scene shows James Bond shooting Mr. White. I gazed across Sophia Loren’s villa and the late Gianni Versace’s property, Villa Fontanelle. Currently owned by a Russian billionaire, it’s reportedly on the market for 75 million Euro. Then there’s the Opus Dei Villa. Many Italians believe this is really where the next Pope is chosen.
The production team of Ocean’s 12 didn’t have to look too hard for an Italian villa to shoot in, since star George Clooney happened to own an 18th-century property in Laglio, Lake Como. The actor purchased the 25-room Villa Oleandra from the Heinz family in 2001 and hosts many of his A-list friends there. The movie also featured Villa Erba, which you can actually visit, because it isn’t a residential home, but an art museum and exhibition centre. The locals love George and are fiercely protective of his privacy. A famous Como restaurant, Lalacolea, which served the same menu for 75 years sadly went bankrupt as a result of the pandemic. George is currently negotiating to buy and resurrect it. Lady Gaga was another A-lister in town this summer, hired to perform at a society wedding.
Another magical little village is Nesso. It’s home to Orrido, a natural canyon in the rocks, carved by the confluence of two rivers, where the strength of the water through the centuries has opened a deep break in the stone. The union of the rivers explodes in a waterfall 200m high! The Orrido and the waterfall split the village into two parts, joined together by a fairytale stone bridge. But the most glittery village of them all is Bellagio, situated where the lake’s three arms of its inverted Y shape, converge. It’s flamboyantly beautiful with its rainbow-hued villas and baroque gardens, as are the old stone fishing villages of Bellano and Varenna, where medieval castles mingle with elaborate Renaissance gardens by far one of the top sights not to be missed in Lake Como.
Top Panoramic views of Lake Como
Back in town, if you’re up for the best panoramic view of Lake Como’s glossy expanse, jump on board the venerable old Funicular Railway, which has been whisking travellers up to Brunate since 1894. From atop, glance over the epic azure lake, the colourful clusters of traditional Italian houses and sweeping mountainsides.
More elegant Villas
My Globus escorted tour included a two-night stay at Sheraton Lake Como Resort, a swanky base from which to launch yourself at the lakeside. It’s a short walk from the hotel to the village of Cernobbio, home to a trove of palatial Art Nouveau villas, like Villa Erba and Villa D’Este. The latter was built as a Cardinal’s summer residence in the 16th century before becoming a grand Victorian hotel in the 19th century. Prior to that, in 1815, it became the residence of Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of future King George IV. A gala dinner held at the Villa d’Este in 1948 was the scene for the scandalous murder of the wealthy silk manufacturer Carlo Sacchi, shot dead by his lover Countess Pia Bellentani with her husband’s pistol.
Experience Choice Touring by Globus for yourself. 2023 departures on the 8 day The Alps Out Loud: Switzerland & Lake Como by Design tour, are priced at $3,899 per person. That includes touring by private, air-conditioned motorcoach, outstanding excursions, some meals, 7 nights first-class hotel accommodation, hotel taxes, porterage, tips and service charges. www.globustours.co.nz