LAKE COMO, ITALY - It’s a brisk autumn morning, and Italy’s Lake Como is glittering like an emerald set not in gold, but among green undulating hills. The frothing wake of my boat creates the only ripples on its otherwise mirror-like surface, which reflects the sorbet-hued villas that cluster around its banks as if admiring their glamorous facades in the water.
Their painted veneers are as mysteriously expressionless as fashion models in a magazine, but my guide, Gabriella, knows their secrets.
“That one was owned by a Russian prince who came here around 1910,” she says, extending a finger towards a turreted chateau grand enough to double as a Bavarian palace. “He tried to overthrow the last czar.”
There’s Villa del Balbianello, another veritable castle clinging to a rocky precipice, which served as the setting for scenes from the 2006 James Bond flick, Casino Royale; a towering yellow villa where Versace once lived; and a pink stucco confection where Winston Churchill used to paint. But of course, the home my friends and I really want to see is the crème-colored mansion belonging to Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney.
Above: The beautiful villas on lake Como are stuffed with treasures.
“He’s not here today,” Gabriella sighs, as our captain slows the motor to allow her passengers time to snap giggling selfies in front of its sprawling expanse. “The shutters are closed.”
There are few places that can evoke such a combination of awe, envy and curiosity as Lake Como, an inverted Y-shaped glacial lake nestled in Italy’s Lombardy region. How we yearn for a peek behind closed doors. How we burn to see how the other half—well, okay, probably just the top 1 pe rcent in the world — really live.
Of course, if you have a spare 540 euro or so, you could book a room at Villa d’Este. Built in the 16th century, it’s one of the oldest grande dames on the lake. Presiding over a princely 25 acres of gardens, it now serves as an exclusive 125-room hotel.
If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to Villa d’Este, you can still “live like a local in luxury,” according to the motto of Palazzo Del Vice Re, for as little (relatively speaking) as 273 euro a night. This jewel box of a villa in the tiny village of Lezzeno is big on charm, with just five guest rooms housing a maximum of 15 guests.
The owner, Alessandro Pertusini, welcomes us in the barrel-vaulted cellar to tell us about the history of the palazzo, which was mostly built between the 15th and 17th centuries. His great-grandfather was the first in the family to acquire the property, and his mother was born here. But the mansion lay abandoned from 1963 until 2003, when Pertusini and his brothers, whose family owns a construction firm, took on the task of reviving it.
During more than a decade of renovations, the brothers made several interesting discoveries, including frescoes — now preserved — in one room and evidence that the cellar where we now stand was part of a watchtower dating back to the 11th century. Most exciting, perhaps, was the discovery of a secret tunnel leading from the courtyard. It remains blocked, but Pertusini expresses a boyish enthusiasm for excavating it. “One day, I hope,” he says with a big grin.
Across the lake, at Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, we step into the rarified world of royalty. The villa, which now operates as a museum, was built at the end of the 17th century. Princess Marianna of Prussia presented it to her daughter, Carlotta, in 1843 as a wedding gift — which definitely beats the heck out of a set of shrimp forks. Inside, the highlight is the collection of finely wrought iron sculptures, including Adamo Tadolini’s erotic Eros and Psyche, and Antonio Canova’s Palamedes, which — although now restored — was broken before it could be delivered.
Above: Lake Como is one of Europe's most beautiful waterways.
On a blue-sky day such as this, however, the villa’s true glory is the garden. Extending over eight hectares, it encompasses citrus tree tunnels, geometric flowerbeds — a riot of colour even in the autumn — and a valley of ferns, some of which are 200 years old. “When I get a fern,” one of my friend mumbles, “I cross my fingers and hope it doesn’t die in two weeks.”
While an army of fern-resuscitating gardeners and centuries-old, multi-million dollar villas may be out of reach for most of us, it’s still possible to bring home a souvenir of la dolce vita to call your own. Because, while gasping at gorgeous mansions may be the number one pastime on Lake Como, shopping ranks a close second.
In Como, you can snap up everything from leather goods to lingerie (although not leather lingerie, as far as I’m aware). Among the most popular shopping areas are Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Via Cinque Giornate, and the Piazza Duomo, where chichi boutiques line up across from the 14th-century Gothic cathedral. Two minutes’ walk from the square, Coin department store houses four floors of wares, topped by a fifth-floor restaurant and bar offering far-reaching views over Como’s red-tiled rooftops toward the town of Brunate, perched atop a hill surmounted by a 19th-century funicular.
Above: The trendy shops cater to the richest people in Europe.
My favourite shop in Como, though, is Lopez Jewelry Museum on Via Vitani. Open by appointment only, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of gem-encrusted accessories, vintage clothes, well-loved toys and nostalgic housewares where — unlike most museums — nearly all the treasures are for sale.
In Cernobbio, a short ferry ride north of Como, I’m tempted by an array of 1920s-style handmade hats at Circe. Nearby, Italyssima deals exclusively in Italian-made goods, ranging from leather bags to perfume to silk scarves from Como, which is famous for its textiles. Vini & Affini Enoteca, meanwhile, sells bottles of wine and whisky in a cozy wood-paneled room furnished with tables, chairs and stacks of paperback novels which patrons are encouraged to borrow. How can you not love a village with a library that sells liquor?
Above: The area's colourful streets are great to walk or ride.
In Bellagio, which occupies a verdant promontory where all three branches of the lake meet, shopkeepers are understandably proud of their history. At Bellagioseta, which stocks silk scarves, neckties and rainbow-hued leather handbags produced in Italy, a smiling saleslady slips an old postcard of the town into a bag with every purchase. Tacchi’s Wood Shop, atop the cascading steps of Salita Serbelloni, has produced finely crafted wood sculptures, ship models, toys and household accessories since the mid 19th century.
And at Pasticceria Gelateria, the oldest ice cream shop in town, the gregarious white-haired gent manning the counter eagerly gestures towards a black and white photo of himself scooping gelato here more than 50 years ago.
I hand over a few coins and leave clutching a cone, savouring a taste of the sweet life that will live long in my memory — and on my hips.
Getting there: The southwestern tip of Lake Como, where Como lies, is about 50 kilometres from Milan Malpenso Airport. / When to go: Between spring and early autumn, Lake Como is extremely quiet in the winter, when many hotels and shops close. / Where to stay: Grand Hotel Tremezzo, across the lake from Bellagio, originally opened in 1910 and counts Greta Garbo among its former guests. With three pools (one of which floats in the lake itself), five bars and restaurants, a spa, and a selection of rooftop suites serviced by a butler, its head-turning status should be assured for decades to come. www.grandhoteltremezzo.com/en/home/ In Como, Airbnb host Luisa advertises a “family suite one step from the lake.” Not only can you view the lake from a balcony, but the apartment also offers A/C, wireless internet, a kitchen and washing machine. https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/5613415?s=sDyPV0wh The Sheraton Lake Como Hotel is situated in a 2.7 acre (1 hectare) park, a short stroll from Cernobbio, about a 10-minute ferry ride to Como, and approximately 55 kilometres from Milan. This sleek, modern hotel was built in 1990 but completely refurbished and reopened as a Starwood property in 2015. www.sheratonlakecomo.com / Also, the aforementioned Villa d’Este in Cernobbio, www.villadeste.com/en/13/home.aspx, and Palazzo Del Vice Re in Lezzano, www.palazzodelvicere.com / Tourism info: www.lakecomo.it/en,www.icbellagio.com/home.html / Shop and eat: Coin department store restaurant, LOFT, Via Pietro Boldoni 5, Como,www.loftcomo.it / Lopez Jewelry Museum, Via Vitani 26 & 32, Como. Tel: 031 242043, e-mail: email@example.com. Book ahead to make an appointment. / Circe, Via Regina 55, Cernobbio / Italyssima, Via Regina 77-C, Cernobbio / Vini & Affini Enoteca, Via Regina 18, Cernobbio / Bellagioseta, Via G. Garibaldi 61, Bellagio / Tacchi’s Wood Shop, Via Garibaldi 22, Bellagio, www.bellagio.co.nz/tacchi / Pasticceria Gelateria, P. Della Chiesa 7, Bellagio