Just 50 miles north of Milan, Lake Como has attracted celebrity residents since the first century. Today a clutch of fashion designers and movie stars maintains the tradition. The most famous villas include the 17th-century Villa Carlotta (described in Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma”); the Villa Serbelloni, a study center managed by The Rockefeller Foundation; and the Villa d’Este, built in 1568 and later home to the estranged wife of King George IV of Britain. Lake Iseo lies midway between lakes Como and Garda and is also a place of great scenic beauty. Lake Garda stretches for 34 miles from the high Alps to the plains of Lombardy. Its western shore is especially picturesque.
Local specialties in the lakes feature a variety of freshwater fish, including perch (persico), tench (tinca), shad (missoltini) and lavaret (a species of whitefish). The local polenta is renowned, as is the tangy Bagòss cow’s milk cheese from the region around Brescia.
Garden Villas Around Lake Como
Among the many villas with magnificent gardens around Lake Como, I always make a point of visiting two. The Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo is especially notable for its 14 acres of grounds that in spring contain dazzling displays of camellias and azaleas. The beautiful Villa del Balbianello near Lenno dates from 1787 and is surrounded by gardens lush with wisteria, laurel and rhododendron.
The Panorama of Monte Generoso
Perhaps the most famous panorama of the entire region is from the 5,581-foot summit of Monte Generoso, which lies 15 miles northwest of the town of Como on the Swiss border.
Delightful Shops Abound
During a recent trip to Lake Como, I discovered three delightful shops. Tucked away in an 11th-century monastery, the charming Abbazia di Piona (Via Abbazia di Piona 55, Colico) sells goods made by the monks, including excellent limoncello, perfume, skin creams and beeswax soap. Also, Vanini olive oil is prized for its delicate artichoke-and-almonds taste. The Vaninis of Oleificio Vanini Osvaldo (Via Pellico 10, Lenno) have been producing oil since 1850 and won a gold medal at the turn-of-the-century Paris Exposition. Demand has since invariably outstripped supply. Finally, run by the same family since 1856, Sartoria Orefice (Via Regina 16, Cernobbio) carries a superb selection of the finest Italian fabrics and has made bespoke suits for everyone from Clark Gable to European crowned heads.