The revered lake's shore is dotted with majestic villas, many offering exotic, expansive grounds ripe for discovery, writes Michael Gebicki.
For the past two centuries, wealthy and titled Italians have built summer retreats on the shores of Lake Como. Alongside their villas and palaces they created extravagant gardens, sculpting the steep lake shores into botanical wonderlands planted with exotic species from the far corners of the planet. The affection for this sublimely lovely part of the world continues among the new aristocrats - and since we're talking gardens, it is noticeable that Richard Branson has a fine assembly of phallic-looking cypress trees surrounding Villa la Cassinella, his lakeside home.
George Clooney has only one cypress outside his, although it is a particularly large and handsome specimen. Three of the very finest gardens in the vicinity of the mid-lake town of Bellagio are open for public viewing. Each is a memorial of sorts to the spirit of their times, as well as to the vision of their owners.
In the village of Tremezzo, opposite Bellagio, the 18th-century villa was built for the Clerici family of wealthy Milanese merchants. The gardens took an extravagant turn from 1801, when the villa fell into the hands of Gian Battista Sommariva, a politician, entrepreneur and arts patron. In 1843, the house was sold again, to Princess Marianne of Nassau; it was a wedding present to her daughter, Carlotta, on her marriage to Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen. Georg was a passionate botanist, and it was under his stewardship that the gardens took their present shape.
Set on a steep rise on the edge of the lake, the gardens consist of terraces that create a cascade effect; it's a flamboyant spectacle from the lake as well as in close-up. The initial impression of formality suggested by the clipped hedges, wrought-iron gates and pond of the lower terraces softens as you step upwards and into the citrus gallery, a pergola enclosed by espaliered lemon trees.
The gardens are most famous for their 150-plus varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, which create vivid pillows of spring colour. The bamboo garden has more than 25 different types, arranged with water features interspersed with rocks to evoke the contemplative Zen gardens of Japan. The gardens dip briefly into wilderness in its fern valley, a wild gully with giant cedars and sequoias, and a stream.
The garden owes much of its charm to its sheer variety. Towering chestnut trees, tree ferns and date palms grow within metres of Himalayan cedars.
It's interesting to note that Georg II became an influential figure in the theatre of the time, known for his work in set design. The gardens of Villa Carlotta are nothing if not theatrical.
The details 10am-6pm daily, April to September; 9am-4.30pm daily, October to March and November (closed 11.30am-2pm). Adults €8 ($10), students €4, children (under six) free.
From Bellagio, it's just a 10-minute stroll along the shore to the gardens of Villa Melzi. Built at the start of the 19th century, this was the summer home of Francesco Melzi d'Eril, a Milanese aristocrat who was briefly vice-president of the Napoleonic Italian Republic, the right-hand man to Napoleon, who named himself head of the Italian state.
The garden occupies a narrow strip of land that rises sharply as it retreats from the lake. It's pleasant rather than spectacular, with Egyptian, Etruscan-Roman, Renaissance and neo-classical sculptures scattered among the redwoods, rhododendrons and azaleas. This was Lake Como's first example of an English-style garden and, as a proper English garden should, it aims to echo the natural world, while also incorporating elements from the wider world.
Along the waterfront is a Moorish-style pavilion where Lodovico Melzi, successor to Francesco, would take his tea and listen to music.
The garden also incorporates a bamboo grove, an exotic addition at the time it was planted. A notable feature is the Japanese-style reflecting pond, which is surrounded by acer maples, pretty as a picture when they blush with autumn colour. The classical-style villa is first sighted through an avenue of plane trees that have been rigidly pruned to an umbrella shape, reminiscent of the plane trees that Napoleon ordered planted throughout France to provide shade for his marching soldiers.
The details 9.30am-6.30pm daily, March 28 to October 30. giardinidivillamelzi.it.
Villa del Balbianello
Set on a saddleback promontory surrounded by water, Villa del Balbianello is the most visible of all Lake Como's villas, yet also the most teasingly reluctant to give up its inner secrets. It can be maddeningly difficult to visit.
Built by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini in 1787 on the site of a Franciscan monastery, the villa was sold soon after to Giuseppe Arconati Visconti, a passionate Italian nationalist. It was he who planted the Arbutus menziesii at the villa's entrance, hinting at the colours of the Italian flag with green leaves, white flowers and red berries. Today, it operates under the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the Italian National Trust.
From the little harbour with its striped Venetian-style mooring poles, the path climbs past a chapel to the summit of the promontory, past boxwood, laurel and sycamores pruned into candelabra shapes, interspersed with classical statues.
At the summit, the 18th-century loggia is twined with garlands of ficus, which is trimmed - so they say - with scissors. It's an enchanting, romantic place, at times tangled, wild and mysterious, full of dark passages as it fuses with the rocks and scrub at the base of the peninsula on which it sits. The villa is a favourite for weddings, and also of filmmakers. It was here that Daniel Craig appeared in the role of James Bond in the opening scenes of Casino Royale.
The details 10am-6pm Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday, mid-March to mid-November. Walk from Lenno (about one kilometre), or Luca Venini and his Australian wife, Jennine, of Bellagio Water Taxis, can arrange a water visit, bellagiowatertaxis.com. Garden only: Adults €6, children four-12 €3; garden and villa (with guided tour): Adults €12, children €7.
Singapore Airlines has one-stop return flights to Milan from Sydney, starting from $2268. To get from the airport to Como, take the Malpensa Express train, get off at Saronno and catch the train from there to Como Lago Nord station.
Taverna Bleu is a small, family-operated hotel in the pretty town of Sala Comacina, close to both Villa del Balbianello and Villa Carlotta. Rooms from about €135 ($175) a night for two, including breakfast. tavernableu.it.
Hotel Metropole is one of the best in Bellagio, a recently renovated historic hotel with a big, sunny terrace overlooking the lake. Rooms start at about €130 a night for two, including breakfast. albergometropole.it.