Northern Italy’s most glamorous lake, Como has inspired countless artists over the centuries and still makes the perfect base for a lazy, laidback weekend
Enchanting lakeside villages, nestled at the foot of steep forested mountains, and opulent villas with sculpted gardens have earned Lake Como a reputation as one of the most elegant and romantic beauty spots in Italy. A playground for the rich and famous, it has inspired artists, including Liszt, Verdi and Mark Twain, through the centuries. In more modern times, the likes of Billy Joel and Whitney Houston have graces the corridors of the Villa D’Este
in Cernobbio, one of Europe’s most famous hotels, and the perfect place for a treat weekend. You may not want to stray far from its floating pool but for the energetic there’s swimming in the lake, walking through the olive groves, cycling and horse riding.
Taking to the water
The real beauty of a weekend here is spending it on the water. Hiring a yacht is an option, but most people are happy to head on the ferry upstream, past scenic towns and villages, getting off to meander through villas and gardens, poke around boutiques and dine al fresco.
Although the jewels in Como’s crown are the triangle of towns, Bellagio, Menaggio and Varenna, there’s plenty of interest en route. The ferry cruises past sights such as the stunning Villa Arconati outside Lenno, cypress trees standing to attention on its spotless lawns. However, if you want to visit just one villa, make it the graceful 18th-century Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo (second ferry stop). Here, a tree-covered walkway drips ripe grapefruit, lemons and bergamot oranges, and art treasures within include the romantic Cupid and Psyche sculpture by the famous French Sculptor Canova. Don’t forget to look at the ornate ceilings and use the unusual lift.
Around the lake
Lunch has to be at La Locanda dell’Isola on the tiny Isola Comacina, the only island on the lake. A walk afterwards uncovers the archaeological remains of a fascinating medieval history of wealth and betrayal.
Bustling Menaggio is perhaps the best base for easy short walks and the place to hire mountain bikes to cycle to Lake Lugano on the Swiss border. Bellagio, proposed as ‘the most beautiful town in Italy’, is all low-key ambience and style. Its waterfront and steep cobbled streets are a compact shopping haven, with silk from Como, carved olive wood or candles, handmade shoes, etc, at surprisingly reasonable prices. But I lost my heart in the small, sleepy fishing village of Varenna - a picture-perfect world. A lakeside path leads to Villa Monastero’s gardens, stretching temptingly along the water’s edge, and a short climb to a cute castle founded by the Lombard Queen Theodolinda.
A tranquil and elegant spot for the weekend, Lake Como's tourism is low key, yet there is a surprising amount to do. I left with the image of those pretty pastel-coloured houses by the cool blue water, and dreams of coming back.
British Airways and Alitalia both fly to Milan Malpensa, and tour operator Citalia offers packages to the area.