La Bella Vita: A day on Lake Como

Lake Como, Italy – June 2019

Another day, another conference.

There’s a meeting held every two years in Lugano, a lovely lakeside town in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland bordering Italy. I attended for the first time this year. After arriving in Milan, the closest big airport, I headed north and across the Swiss border by train. With one day to spare before the conference properly kicked off, a day trip was planned to perhaps the most famous lake in Italy – Lago di Como, Lake Como.

It was shaping up to be quite a warm summer day when I met with my colleagues after breakfast at the Lugano train station. We crossed the border back into the northern Italian region of Lombardy. Como (the town on the southern tip of the lake) is actually a stop along the railway line from Milan, and perhaps a 40 minute trip from Lugano. It’s actually not that easy to tell that there’s any huge difference between Italy and this Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, at least on the surface. The language, the food, and the architecture seem to be the same. Of course, you certainly notice it once you get your wallet out, not just because Swiss francs and euros look different, but the conversion rate is definitely not the same.

A short while later we were out exploring the town of Como. (Which to be honest was a nice town but had nothing over Lugano, really.) We walked towards the main square where we were hoping to find a way across the water. On the way, we stopped for gelato; we were in Italy on a bright summer day after all. What could be better?

We found a boat and were soon making our way across the green water of Lake Como.

The lake is an inverted Y shape (if north is up) and Como (the town) is on the tip of the southwest arm. As we travelled north, we passed many towns with names I don’t know.

We went past Villa del Balbianello, a villa built in the 12th century which has featured in several blockbuster film franchises including James Bond (Casino Royale) and Star Wars (Attack of the Clones). I would have liked to stop and visit if we had more time. Perhaps next time.

We stopped at the sleepy medieval fishing village of Varenna, on the eastern shore where the three arms of the lake meet. It was a quaint village with wooden signs pointing towards different villas and gardens. We strolled along a lakeside promenade of wood and stone called the Passarella, between fishermen’s cottages and mansions to the Villa Monastero.

Villa Monastero, as the name would suggest, was a Cistercian convent built in the 1200s and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen. After it declined as a convent and was eventually dissolved in the mid 1500s, it was bought by a noble family and turned into an eclectic villa. The gardens have grown over time and now stretch over a kilometre, containing different citrus trees, pine trees, cypresses, and many other species of tree.

It was acquired by the government in more modern times and has become an international cultural and scientific centre, hosting summer courses for the Enrico Fermi International School of Physics. At least thirty-four Nobel Laureates have given lectures in the conference centre at the villa.

After walking around in the hot sun we all felt like sitting down for a drink. We stumbled upon a spot called Restaurant Du Lac, which importantly had an open air terrace and garden facing the lake. Very soon, we were into the aperol spritzes.

A brief aside: the now ubiquitous spritz came about during the time of the Austrian Habsburg empire, which dominated much of Europe including northern Italy during the 1800s. Habsburg soldiers, diplomats and merchants in Veneto found the wines somewhat boozier than they were used to back in Austria, and started asking the Italians to spray (spritzen in German) a bit of water into their drinks to dilute it down. The original spritzes were thus diluted sparkling white wine or red wine. Nowadays the generally accepted recipe is three parts bubbly, two parts bitter, one part soda, add citrus. Aperol spritzes are popular everywhere now as an aperitivo.

After downing our drinks we realised we were hungry and decided to get lunch. I didn’t take any photos of our food but I’ll just say my ravioli was probably one of the best I have ever had. (And we paid Italian prices too, which is a win in my book.)

After lunch we walked around the village a little longer before getting back onto the lake.

Lake Como has, for most people, become associated with George Clooney (and Amal) since he bought the eighteenth-century Villa Oleandra in Laglio in 2002 (you can google it to see pictures). But rich and famous people have been coming here for aeons, drawn by the steep hills and rugged peaks, the mild climate, and I suppose the main attraction – the water. Since the Renaissance, Italian nobles have built sumptuous villas along the lake; the Victorians would always stop here on their tours of the European continent. The poet Shelley wrote that Lake Como “exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty.” Mark Twain too said “nowhere else than on the Lake of Como can there be found such a paradise of tranquil repose.”

It has also been the setting of more sinister affairs. The lake’s most famous hotel, Villa D’Este, was converted into a Nazi hospital in 1943. In fact, there are local rumours that Nazi officials had plastic surgery here after they lost the war, to escape to South America with new identities. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress also stopped at the villa while attempting to escape Italy to Switzerland after the war ended in 1945, supposedly disguising himself as a drunk German officer, but they were caught and allegedly executed nearby.

The Clooneys weren’t the first famous couple to live it up on Lake Como either. (In fact they had just hosted the Obamas a few weeks before we were here.) Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner honeymooned at Lake Como. Edward VII and Wallis Simpson were first photographed as a couple at a villa here.

Winston Churchill and his wife came to Lake Como after he lost the election in 1945, and he sat around painting the lake to get over his defeat. (There are rumours too that he ordered the assassination of Mussolini as part of a plot to destroy potentially compromising secret letters he had sent the Italian dictator. And that this was the reason why he chose to come to Lake Como: to get rid of the evidence. All rumour, however.)

We didn’t have many more hours left in the day, so we settled on Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo as our last stop.

The villa itself was gorgeous, but the real highlight was the botanical gardens, covering eight hectares, and full of ancient trees, palms, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and many other plants (over 500 species, according to the pamphlet). Besides the usual perfectly manicured gardens you’d expect to find, there were also century-old cedars and sequoias, a Japanese bamboo grove, and most surprisingly an entire valley of ancient ferns complete with a waterfall. It was quite strange but wonderful to walk out from amidst the tall hedges straight into a mini-rainforest.

Eventually it was time to head back to Como to catch the train to Lugano. The boat trip itself was so enjoyable and the views of the towns and villages scattered along the lake were delightful.

Even though it was in the middle of peak season, the tourists weren’t overwhelming in my opinion. Pretty much everyone has heard of Lake Como, but as with anything, it’s popular for a reason. It is an absolutely charming part of the world and yes, it really is as picturesque as all those Instagram photos show. And only an hour away if you’re coming from Milan.

We definitely didn’t see enough in one day, and I’m bound to return at some point. Or at least, I’d like to. I mean, it’s nice to have a taste of the life of luxury once in a while. Maybe next time I’ll run into George and Amal?

I ask myself, Is this a dream?
Will it all vanish into air?

Is there a land of such supreme
And perfect beauty anywhere?
Sweet vision! Do not fade away;
Linger until my heart shall take
Into itself the summer day,
And all the beauty of the lake.

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Cadenabbia

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