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Wednesday
Jun232010

Villas & Gardens on Lake Como

As we motor over calm water past a stunning villa, we notice a large hand-lettered sign on the iron railing of the lush gardens in front which proclaims "NO GEORGE" with an arrow pointing southward--presumably in the general direction of the actual villa of George Cluny. Lago di Como is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and it's easy to see why those with the means, like George, and his general-direction neighbor Richard Branson have shoreside villas here. We are touring the lake and some of its villas and gardens in a lovely wooden Venetian water-taxi, one of two trucked here by Italian Luca Venini and his Aussie wife Jennine who together operate Bellagio Water Taxis. Como is shaped like an inverted 'Y' and Bellagio, our base, is a village situated on a point at the conjoin of the two southern legs of the three-part lake. The lakefront part of town is a string of cafes, shops and hotels in pastel shades of lemon, ochre and sienna that seem to glow in the late afternoon sun. Its cobbled streets crawl steeply up the hill to the main square overlooked by the simple and elegant 12th century Church of San Giacomo.  The view from our terrace on the first floor of the Hotel Florence is simply breathtaking: a 270 degree sweep of blue water, steep, forested slopes that plunge into the lake, glowing, golden villages that tumble down the hillsides to the shore, and snow-capped craggy peaks of the Alps in the background. It's literally mesmerizing, and easy to spend hours sitting on the terrace, or in a cafe below sipping a glass of prosecco and drinking in the view.

Villas here date back to the 1500s, and have been the preserves of royalty, princes of the church, and simple rich industrialists for centuries. Such notables built architectural monuments in styles ranging from romantic to neo-classical and very often magnificent gardens of acres and acres to complement their summer homes. (In winter, the bitter cold and snow take the lakeside population down considerably--just to the hearty locals who live here permanently.)  On the hillside above Bellagio, the Villa Serbelloni, commenced in 1802, sits in almost 50 acres of manicured formal gardens, olive and cypress groves laced with over 13 km of paths. Owned since the '50's by the Rockefeller foundation, the villa houses the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio which operates a residence program for scholars from around the world.

A ten-minute walk south from the center of Bellagio brings us to the entrance to the park-gardens of the Villa Melzi. The neo-classical villa was built in 1810 for Francesco Melzi d'Eril, the Duke of Lodi, designed by architect Giocondo Albertolli. Its simple horizontal lines and white color both stand out viewed from the lake, and harmonize with the surrounding gardens.  The English-style park landscaping was planned by the architect Luigi Canonica and by botanist Luigi Villoresi. Dozens of acres undulate along the lakefront hillside. One enters the park through a serene Japanese garden with multi-colored maples surrounding a pond. The paths wind over the grassy hillsides dotted with immense azaleas and rhododendrons in flaming bloom, bordered by camellia hedges and punctuated by huge specimen trees--the gardens essentially incorporate an arboretum that includes Cryptomeria japonica, giant Sequoia, Lebanese cedar, Sylvester pine, Chilean palm and of course the iconic Italian cypress.   There are very few visitors on a weekday this early in June, and the garden is a calm and meditative place to stroll.

Melzi's political rival in the era was Giovan Battista Sommariva, who bought the 17th century villa across the lake at Tremezzo. His heirs sold it in 1843 to Princess Marianne of Nassau, who gave it to her daughter Carlotta in occasion of her wedding with Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen, at which time it took its current famous name of Villa Carlotta. The villa itself is now state-owned and a museum, and features marble sculptures from the workshop of Antonio Canova as well as a few notable paintings such as the portrayal of The Last Kiss from Romeo and Juliet by Franceso Hayez. The baroque ceilings and beautiful intricate terrazzo floors give a glimpse of the luxe life of the time. The almost 20 acres of gardens stretch north and south of the villa along the lakeside. The hillside here is steep, and formal terraced gardens stair-step from the villa's front veranda to the lakefront below. Descending, one passes through twin limonaio arbors, tall hedges of camellia japonica, and sculpted topiary. To the south is the 'old' or formal garden. To the north stretch grassy hillsides laced with paths and the enormous azaleas and rhododendrons--over 150 species--as well as a steep valley of ferns with a tumbling waterfall, and a bamboo garden at the top. It's a lovely place well worth wandering for a couple of hours. Incidentally, the town, Tremezzo--which literally means 'three middles'--is the exact center of the lake, equidistant from the end of each of the three legs.

Our destination on our lake-tour with Luca and his water taxi is Villa Balbianello--perhaps the most famous and certainly the most oft-photographed villa on Como; the outdoor villa scenes of the Bond film Casino Royale were shot in front of Balbianello. The villa sits on a promontory at the end of the Lenno penisula, and cascades over several levels down to the lake. Built originally by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century as a summer retreat, Balbianello's most recent private owner was the businessman and explorer Guido Monzino, who was the first Italian to reach the summit of Everest. The villa's interiors are preserved as he lived in them, and are a small museum of pre-Colombian, Chinese and African art, as well as his various expeditions. On his death, Monzi left the villa and all its contents to FAI, the Italian equivalent of the National Trust. The villa consists of three separate buildings--the topmost of which is an open three-arched loggia designed by the Cardinal, espaliered with one long twining Ficus repens vine. Flanking the open loggia are two symmetrical rooms: a library on one end and map/expedition room on the other. These, together with his office in the main house, Monzi furnished in the English style, whereas all the living areas are decorated with French furniture. The bottom-most building incorporates the chapel of a former Capuchin monastery, whose twin spires now house a stair and dumbwaiter serving the dining room from the lower kitchen. The gardens wrap around the villa, and meander and terrace down to the lakefront. An iconic feature of the property are two huge plane trees which are manicured by the gardeners into umbrella shapes in order to preserve the lake views from the villa (there is a photo showing them standing on very tall ladders, sticking up through the canopy, and shaping the trees from above). While not as extensive as the gardens of many other lake villas, the whole of the garden and architecture at Balbienello is very harmonious and lovely.

That evening, as the sun drops below the mountain across the lake, we sit on our terrace sipping cool rose and thinking—maybe next time we’ll rent a small one of those villas, with boat attached, and stay for a while to learn the rhythms of the lake.

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