On Como, one of Italy's loveliest lakes, Verdi wrote La Traviata, while Rossini and Liszt sought inspiration gazing across the peaceful waters to the mountains soaring up from the shore
Once known as the Lake of Music, Italy’s Lake Como is breathtakingly beautiful and a haven of tranquillity. But wait… what’s that racket?
Sitting by the lakeside, I almost choke on my prosecco as an expensive speedboat screams round the bend. At the wheel is an overweight and overtanned medallion man. Snuggled up next to him, and with her hand caressing his glistening bald pate, is a voluptuous female young enough to be his granddaughter. The well-heeled – and sometimes noisy – Milanese do like to take to the water at weekends. But for most of the time Como remains an idyllic escape.
George Clooney, Richard Branson, various other celebrities and Milan’s big-name fashion designers clearly agree, having invested fortunes in opulent lakeside villas where they can recharge their creative batteries. But ordinary mortals don’t need a speedboat, or even a car, to discover the best of lake life. We based ourselves at Bellagio, ideally located for exploring by ferry.
At the lakeside Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, we strolled through immaculately maintained grounds ablaze with colour. This elegant building dates back to the 17th century and its gardens are famous for their 150 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, camellia hedges, tropical plants and citrus-fruit pergolas.
Another trip took us past Villa Rosa, resplendent in lobster pink with bright blue shutters and only accessible by boat. I recognised it from those flickering 1930s newsreels as the place where a pipe-smoking Duke of Windsor spent much of his time cavorting in baggy, pre-Versace shorts with Mrs Simpson.
But for the ultimate in lakeside living, my villa vote goes to Balbianello, a honey-coloured haven built on a promontory with astonishing views. We toured its gardens before seeking the shade of a creeper-clad loggia fanned by the Breva, the welcoming breeze that blows across the water.
Lake Como is great for walkers, both casual and serious. From Varenna we marched up the hillside along tree-shaded tracks for a couple of miles to discover the source of the Fiumelatte, Italy’s second shortest river and a curious natural phenomenon. It’s known as the River of Milk because of its white appearance, caused by the fast-flowing foaming waters. But the mystery is, why does it begin to flow in late-March each year, only to disappear in October? Even Leonardo da Vinci failed to come up with the answer. The point at which the river gushes out of the rock was refreshingly cool on a scorching day and a pleasant spot for a picnic.
Nowhere on Como will have much appeal if you’re looking for rave-ups. The whole area retains a genteel charm and although you can go water-skiing, wind-surfing, sailing, horse-riding and play golf in different parts, it remains a good deal quieter than, say, Lake Garda.
Bellagio’s big attraction is its surrounding hills, where you walk past buttercup and clover-covered fields to discover tucked-away hamlets with geranium window boxes and gardens of giant purple hydrangeas. The town itself, like so many on Como, has changed little over the last century. There’s an attractive old church and some friendly shops on the narrow main street. Take any of the steep cobbled steps down from here and you’re on a promenade lined with more shops, hotels and a good choice of bars and restaurants.
Best of Bellagio’s lakeside hotels is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, an imposing ochre-coloured five-star worth visiting for a drink on the spectacular terrace if you can’t afford a room (from around €445 a night for a double).
From our verandah at the excellent and more affordable Hotel Belvedere (from €259), we surveyed mountains that were magnificent – whether shrouded in early-morning mist, bathed in sunshine or lit up at night by a dramatic electric storm. Below us were wooded slopes and a view over the terracotta-tiled roofs of Pescallo to fishing boats bobbing at anchor. The terrace of La Pergola restaurant was our favourite place for an inexpensive lakeside lunch of fresh fish.
For a bit more bustle, hop on a bus or boat for the one-hour ride to the town of Como – or pay more for the 35-minute hydrofoil trip. You’ll find a splendid Renaissance Duomo and plenty of shops. Silk fashions are a speciality.
Naturally, no dedicated follower of fashion will want to miss Milan. After visiting the city’s immense gothic cathedral and taking a fascinating tour of the La Scala Theatre museum, the family went window-shopping at the smart designer stores. Meanwhile, I sat with an extravagantly-priced coffee at a pavement café watching the world’s best-looking and most elegant Armani and Gucci-clad people glide past. It was enough to make any self-respecting Brit chuck his anorak and sandals straight in the lake.