"You can't get off at Colonno. There's no ferry station there," says the jowly fellow at the ticket desk. Massive eye roll from Liz, my wife and walking companion. Why would anyone construct a walking trail that begins in a town with no ferry station when ferry is the main transport around the lake? Only in Italy. We're setting out to walk the Greenway, a 10.5-kilometre stroll along the western shore of Lake Como – now nine kilometres since we're disembarking at Sala Comacina, the closest ferry stop to the start of the walk.
All is forgiven, though, the moment we leave the ferry at Sala Comacina. The shoreline of Lake Como, and in particular this part of the western shoreline, makes souls flutter.
Since Roman times Lake Como has been a favoured summer holiday hangout for the wealthy and titled, and now some of the most bankable names in the entertainment world. We just sailed past George Clooney's villa at Laglio and Donatella Versace and Madonna are just a couple of the more recognisable names among the industrialists and Russian oligarchs who own mansions on the water.
It's the setting that draws them. Lying close to the Swiss border, the tuning-fork figure of the lake is dotted with villages crowded hard against the shoreline, creating huddled, cubist townscapes in amber and red petering out on the hills that climb sharply into snow-dusted peaks. The lake also brings a stabilising presence to the climate, a minor wonder that allows palm trees to flourish alongside rhododendrons and azaleas, and the lakeside gardens are a miracle second only to the villas. It's this juxtaposition of sculpted, formal gardens, Romanesque churches, vernacular architecture and neoclassical villas set against toothy mountains that takes Lake Como into the realm of the supernatural.
From the wharf we pick up the Greenway at the 12th century Church of San Giacomo and climb along Via Castelli for a gorgeous view over the water with the bell tower of Saint Maria Maddalena as a centrepiece. After the trail dips back toward the lake, just past the Lavedo Hotel, a walking trail turns towards the water and wanders through lovely woodland towards Villa del Balbianello. It's a detour but, for my money, this is the finest villa on the lake, and the finest garden.
Constructed on the site of a Franciscan monastery at the pointy end of a woodsy peninsula, the villa passed through a number of curious hands – a bishop, an Italian patriot, an American general – until, in 1974, it fell into the lap of Guido Monzino, heir to the Standa megastore brand, who rescued it from decay and left it to the Italian state.
Most of the six-level villa is hidden away in the contours of the hill. At its crown is a classical loggia with a map room on one side and a library on the other. It's a slice of pure brilliance, the arched aperture of the loggia framing a sublime view of lake and mountains. The rooms are mostly small and masculine, crammed with maps, books and mementos of Monzino's adventurous life, which took him to the North Pole, the Karakorums in Pakistan, Greenland, the Sahara and Mount Everest. There's a smoking room with a hint of tar in the air, which perhaps explains why Monzino never made it to the summit of Mount Everest even though he led the first Italian expedition that did.
It's nudging early afternoon when we stroll along the waterfront at Lenno, the village to the north of Villa del Balbianello. The shaded restaurants along the water look inviting and Hotel Plino is a perfect choice, my three fat tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach glistening under a buttery sauce with granules of snow-white parmesan.
Just before it hits stately Hotel San Giorgio, at the far end of Lenno, the Greenway scoots sharply upwards to avoid a section of the coast road too narrow for a pedestrian footpath.
Away from the lake the scale expands. The houses are newer, with big gardens with olive trees and ornamental shrubbery. After about 10 minutes we realise we're on the wrong road. We should be parallel, one street higher up the hillside, but then a miracle. When we stop in the shade to slurp from our water bottles at a fork in the road there's a cross in the wall with words "Benito Mussolini, 28 April 1945". It's Villa Belmonte, and on this very site Mussolini was shot with Claretta Petacci after they were captured, by partisans toward the end of World War II, trying to flee across the border into Switzerland. Whoever constructed the Greenway walk should suffer the same fate, against this very wall. Can you imagine making a walk and leaving out this fascinating historic site?
We're still cussing when we find ourselves short of breath standing in front of the Church of San Abbondio. A portly chap has just abandoned his walking poles and knapsack and comes panting towards us. "Where are you going? You can't possibly go down that way," when we tell him the path we're following. "There's nothing to see. It's a goat track, all total bullshit." Father Pierre, he introduces himself, the local priest. "You know about Mussolini?" He herds us up to the side of the church and through the gates of a cemetery and stops at the grave of one Trieste Mazzola. "This is the man who shot Mussolini," he says. "Nobody knows about the history of this place. Julius Caesar lived just down here."
He pulls out a tea towel with a map of the lake which he says he designed and begins covering it lavishly with pointers – Leonardo da Vinci's vineyard here, a villa belonging to Dolce and Gabbana there, a cryptic note about Codex Atlanticus.
"Madonna stays here when she comes to Italy," he points to a pantiled roof below us, from which extends a large garden. "She comes with five bodyguards. Last time she came she gave me $30,000. And here," he points to substantial buildings above Madonna's house, the municipal offices, he says. "This is where Italy signed the surrender documents to the Allies in 1945. This is your history as well, 50,000 Australian boys died fighting to free Italy from the fascists."
Bollocks. "Come here and I'll show you the house where my mother served Mussolini his last meal." It's the last straw. We scarper. He's heading down an alleyway and we're not. "If you were a gentleman you would give something for the church," are his parting words as we flee.
Back down at the lake we take a break in Parco Mayer, and have a good laugh. It's a honeyed spot, a formal, classical park with big trees and steps leading into the water from where you can swim in summer. Pretty Bellagio sits on the far shore, better from a distance than in reality.
We're nearing the end of the walk when we stop off for a gelato in Tremezzo and Liz points to a tea towel hanging at the front of a souvenir shop. The very one "Father" Pierre said he'd designed all on his own.
The gateway is the city of Como, about an hour from Milan and easily reached via train. From Como a ferry service links towns around the lake.
Villa Mirabella is a small, family-operated hotel overlooking the lake at Cadenabbia, close to Villa Carlotta and opposite Bellagio. From $190, including VAT and breakfast. See villamirabella.com
Michael Gebicki travelled at his own expense.