We’ve just spent the half term break staying in Tremezzo on the shores of Lake Como, northern Italy and I’m struggling to find words to describe it. The scenery is breath-taking, awesome, overwhelming. In fact it is so beautiful and so perfect that by about the third day we were becoming desperate for a graffiti’ed industrial estate, preferably with some razor wire, to even things up a bit.
The view from our window
Night falls on Tremezzo
You get the peculiar feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a very luxurious Hollywood film set (or at the very least the set of the 1960’s cult show, The Prisoner). The buildings, although old, are well cared for and painted in hues of soft ochre and terracotta (none of the crumbling shabby-chic that is so de rigueur in Venice); the mountains are snow-capped and tumble down to the lakeside in a riot of greenery while the small towns which fan out along the water’s edge are awash with pots and tubs of flowers – not a weed to be seen. There is no litter, no dog mess, the people are friendly and the food is fantastic.
Restaurants, cafes and bars abound. Stopping for a drink elicits bowls of olives, nuts and crisps. A cup of coffee usually comes with a tiny biscuit. Lunch can be a snack or a full-blown Italian meal – whatever you have or however long you linger, you’ll be welcomed.
So what is there to do? Getting around is easy – just buy a day pass for the ferry and you can chug all around the lake, getting on and off as many times as you like, lurching from coffee in one place to lunch in another and then a drink or gelato somewhere else later on. Eating and drinking therefore plays a large part in what there is to do.
There’s walking, of course. With nice flat terrain along the lakeside it’s easy to follow the ‘greenway’ path, winding along for several kilometres on the picturesque west side. You can chart your progress with the map of the route, helpfully displayed at strategic intervals along the way.
Visit Bellagio, an attractive little town containing a plethora of shopping opportunities along its steep alleyways which then unexpectedly open out onto hidden piazzas with shady umbrellas.
Bellagio from the ferry
Even though the place is full of tourists from early in the morning till late at night, the place retains a stylish charm. For somewhere equally as scenic but less commercial head to Varenna with its medieval heart and tiny church, currently in the process of renovating its recently discovered 12th century wall paintings.
Uncovering and restoring 12th century wall paintings in St Giorgio
But it is the villas with their Italianate gardens for which the area is famous. There are hundreds of them, dotted all around the lakeside and in the hills beyond. Many of them are no longer private residences – some have been turned into hotels and some have been bequeathed to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, Italy’s equivalent to our National Trust. We managed to visit three of them during our stay.
Acers and goldfish pond at Villa Melzi
The first, Villa Melzi, stands a little outside Bellagio and has a stunning garden created on a hillside featuring Acers amongst ponds in a Japanese style garden, stepped grasses and a waterside walk under immaculately pollarded Plane trees. The villa is closed to the public but you can see the Orangery and the Chapel (at a supplement) or just wander around the grounds, between rhododendrons and azaleas and the odd statue or two.
View across Como from Villa Melzi
Pollarded Plane tree pathway
Across the lake from Villa Melzi, stands Villa Carlotta, named as such because in 1843, the villa was acquired by Princess Marianna of the Netherlands to give as a wedding present to her daughter, Carlotta. This garden is less formal, with winding uphill pathways taking you through a forest of lush green plants, cacti beds and bamboo with waterfalls and fountains as well as seasonal displays of flowering herbaceous plants.
Lush greenery in the gardens of Villa Carlotta
The tropical garden at Villa Carlotta – a steep walk up a waterfall
The rockery garden – a riot of planting
Looking from Villa Carlotta across to Villa Melzi in the distance
On our way back to Milan airport we stopped off at Villa del Balbianello, strangely familiar because this most wonderful of settings was used in the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, when our hero was doing a bit of convalescing. And where better to pick up some strength for his next mission?
The shaded garden of Villa del Balbianello
From the terrace looking north towards Bellagio
A peaceful spot for 007 to convalesce…
Near the small town of Lenno, the villa stands on a wooded headland with far reaching views up and down the lake. Take a walk from the town, up a very steep gradient, through woodland with glimpses of sparkling water below until you arrive in front of a set of very impressive gates feeling hot and sweaty. From here it’s a relief to find out that it’s downhill all the way and that a private boat will whisk you back to Lenno’s jetty at your visit’s end.
We had planned to take a cable car ride from the little town of Argegno to some ‘stunning bird’s eye views’ of Lake Como. Alas, when we arrived, it was shut for lunch and we had a plane to catch. There was nothing else for it – we just had to have another meal (minestrone soup – yum) sitting next to the lake before queuing up with all the other orange ‘Speedy Boarders’ at Malpensa airport. Lake Como was already a world away.