It may be no secret these days, but Italy’s greatest lake still takes your breath away
‘Oh, it’s that boring lake again,’ I exclaim to one of my companions as we sit down to a light lunch at T Beach, the restaurant of the lakefront ‘beach’ and WOW (water-on-water pool) of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lake Como.
‘I dare you to start your article with that remark,’ she replied. ‘Done,’ I said.
Of course, I didn’t mean my flippant observation. Lake Como is anything but boring, and besides, I love lakes. Can’t get enough of them. That was on the last day of our three-day visit, which took place in that antediluvian time before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. (Happily, for UK residents, trips to Italy are back on the agenda – at the time of writing, at least – thanks to an air bridge between the two countries.)
The Grand Hotel Tremezzo, dating from 1910 and family-run, is located at the heart of Como. From the hotel’s dining room, bar and lakeview rooms, you look across to the low promontory that divides the lake. Lake Como is shaped like an inverted Y and this promontory culminates at its tip in the village of Bellagio, with the privately owned Villa Melzi directly opposite us. Each branch of this inverted Y is several kilometres long, with the town of Como at the bottom end of the left branch and Bellagio at the point where the branches meet.
We flew in to Milan, where the hotel’s car met us and took us on the oneandahalfhour journey to the town of Como and beyond that to Tremezzo. An external elevator took us from the roadside to the hotel lobby. (You can also arrive by train from Milan to Varenna and then take a short ferry journey to Tremezzo.)
At the back of the hotel is a large swimming pool with a pizzeria, tennis courts and a short hiking trail up the hillside to an observation point where an enormous teddy bear awaits selfie-inclined visitors. For my part I was happy just to sit there and gaze across the lake towards Bellagio and Villa Melzi, a neoclassical summer residence built between 1808 and 1810 by Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi, who had served as vice-president of the Napoleonic Italian Republic and later promoted Italian unification. The villa’s magnificent English Gardens are open to the public from spring to autumn.
I spent much of that Saturday afternoon sunbathing by the hotel’s WOW pool and later enjoyed a massage in the spa, which boasts a wonderfully elongated indoor infinity pool with sun-loungers pointed towards that inescapable lake. Aperitifs and dinner on our first night were at L’Escale Trattoria & Wine Bar, one of the hotel’s eating experiences.
After a restful night’s sleep, I opened the curtains and French windows and gazed out across the shimmering lake. After breakfast we were given a private boat tour of the lake, piloted by Vito, who pointed out the various mansions of the rich and famous, such as Richard Branson’s Villa La Cassinella, which can be reached only by boat or helicopter, and La Fontanelle, a 1776 villa formerly owned by Gianni Versace, which was sold for $52 million in 2008 to Arkady Novikov, a Russian restaurant entrepreneur known as ‘the Blini Baron’. The grounds and gardens were restored by Sir Roy Strong.
Russian oligarchs arrived in significant numbers at the beginning of the millennium, but quite a few have since sold up. However, the Italian flat rate tax regime for non-doms introduced in 2017, whereby you pay €100,000 per annum in tax in return for 183 days’ residence in the country, continues to attract wealthy buyers.
At the tip of the same wooded peninsula as the Branson villa is the splendid Villa Balbianello, which is noted for its impressive wisteria and extraordinary topiary. Built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787 on the site of a Franciscan monastery, its gardens are impressive in their variety of trees and shrubs and in their elegance and restraint.
After the cardinal died, the villa was left to his nephew, an Italian patriot whose republican activities resulted in his exile, whereupon he sold it to the Arconati Visconti family. An American general and politician, Butler Ames, bought it in 1919, restoring the house and its garden, and summered there each year until 1954, with the exception of the war years. It was left to his nephews and nieces.
Then, from 1974 to 1988, it was owned by Count Guido Monzino, whose family owned the Milanese department store chain La Standa. But Guido himself was more interested in exploring far-flung corners of the world than being a shopkeeper. Indeed, he was an Arctic explorer and led the first Italian expedition to climb Everest in 1973. In keeping with his interests, for example, the old music room became a map room. On Guido’s death in 1988, it was bequeathed to the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the Italian equivalent of the National Trust.
From the lakeside jetty we passed two bell towers, remnants of the original Franciscan monastery, and walked past terraces and jardinières containing geraniums. The house is built on three levels, hugging the contours of the promontory, and when we reached the belvedere with its three arched open loggia we enjoyed the gorgeous view across the lake.
It was under Guido’s direction that landscape architect Emilio Trabella created the layout and distinctive character of the gardens as they are today. There are London plane trees and sycamores pruned candelabra style, evergreen oaks pruned into large domes, Italian cypresses, holm oaks, magnolias, camphor laurels, junipers, cedars and pines, while the paths are lined with hedges of boxwood, bay laurel and viburnum tinus. Other plants include rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, giant agave and mondo grass.
Two gardeners are required to do the pruning. Tending to the enormous domes of evergreen oak, one ventures inside the topiary while another trims the twigs and leaves from outside. The trees on the estate take a whole month to prune. They say there are two microclimates here.
Another path leading back down to the jetty is lined with pruned plane trees sporting ivy collars, white hydrangeas in terracotta pots and classical sculptures.
The extraordinary beauty of the place is all down to the relentless clipping and pruning. It is no surprise to learn that the Villa Balbianello was used for a scene at the end of Casino Royale (2006) and also, with some digital adjustments, for the lake retreat scenes in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002).
Our dinner on our second night was at La Terrazza, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, where the ‘Total Cuisine’ created by the late triple-Michelin-starred chef Gualtiero Marchesi is recreated by executive chef Osvaldo Presazzi, who trained under him. We taste one of Marchesi’s signature dishes, a saffron risotto decorated with a square of edible gold leaf.
On the Monday we took a ten-minute ferry ride across the lake to Bellagio, a charming village with fine hotels and shops where you can buy cheeses, confectionery and clothing. A midmorning coffee, down at the quayside where the ferries arrive, rounded off our visit, but we could have stayed to explore the gardens of the Villa Melzi. Instead, we had an appointment to view the wonderful Villa Sola Cabiati before our departure. We were taken there by boat so as to take in the view from the lake again and experience the mooring.
Is there a more beautiful house on the shores of Lake Como than the Villa Sola Cabiati, once the summer residence of the Dukes of Serbelloni and now owned by the Fondazione Serbelloni? You can now hire this residence for a landmark birthday or a wedding. The five suites and one twin bedroom are on the ground floor, as are a dining room and large reception hall with an online sound system. While there is WiFi throughout, the rooms have barely been touched since electricity was installed in the late 19th century, using elegant knob-and-tube wiring with porcelain insulators.
A pool, outside barbecue and picnic area are in one of the terraced gardens, which rise up a steep hill behind the villa. Catering and a butler are provided by the Grand Hotel Tremezzo a short a ride away. The villa sleeps 12, but your other guests can be accommodated at the hotel.
From the large reception room on the piano nobile you gaze out across an exquisitely tonsured garden and the main lakeside road to the lake itself. Once again, there are spectacular views, especially from the piano nobile-drawing room, of that inescapable and magical lake. We savoured our last glimpses of it as we were driven back to the town of Como and on to the Milan bound motorway, and suddenly I was missing it already.