Business Times - 02 May 2009
A little slice of heaven
Lake Como is one of those natural wonders that simply couldn't have been designed any better, no matter how many times you try. By Geoffrey Eu
LONG before George Clooney became a resident and turned it into a personal Italian playground for him and his Hollywood pals, Lake Como was a popular destination for papal representatives, European royalty and well-heeled businessmen who built expansive (and expensive) villas in some of the choicest spots around the lake. These homes provided wonderful views and welcome relief from the rigours of the real world.
There's a good reason why Lake Como has attracted the rich and famous to its shores for centuries. It may have something to do with the pristine scenery and its prime location in the northern Italian Lake District, within sight of the Alps and between the commercial centre of Milan and the Swiss border. There are also numerous ski slopes nearby, and swish resorts like St Moritz are just a two-hour drive away.
Thanks to its unique topography - featuring snowcapped mountains and green hills that spill down to its shores - and a slim, inverted 'Y' shape that allows for plenty of frontage and unobstructed views of the opposite shore, Lake Como is one of those natural wonders that simply couldn't have been designed any better, no matter how many times you try.
At about 46km from top to toe and 120km all the way around, the lake is home to about 180,000 people, spread across larger towns like Como, Lecco and Varenna as well as dozens of much smaller communities. During the lengthy tourist season, which runs from early April to late October, the population swells considerably and the roads around the lake are likely to be crammed with tour buses and weekend traffic.
Still, you won't have to go far to secure that away-from-it-all feeling. The clear, deep waters of the lake are an obvious choice - and ferries run between several of the larger towns - but the great outdoors also beckons from the hills, with several charming villages perched hundreds of metres above the lake.
The western section of the lake has several places that deserve detailed exploration. The walled part of Como, which dates back to Roman times, is possibly worth a visit, although most of the rest of town is uninspiring and downright ugly. There is, however, a funicular railway to the village of Brunate, where a series of inviting walking trails awaits.
Heading north from Como up the western finger of the lake, there are beautiful settings on both shores, including must-see places like Cernobbio, where Villa d'Este, the most famous estate on the lake (and one of the world's most beautiful grand hotels) can be found.
The villa was built in the 17th century for a cardinal and acquired in 1815 by Caroline of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales. She was reasonably pleased with her new digs, and persuaded friends to visit by writing: 'I shall be happy to see you in my little nutshell, which is pretty and comfortable, and my gardens are charmant.'
The villa was converted to a hotel about six decades later, but not much else has changed - the terrace cafe and bars within the hotel's 25-acre grounds are popular watering holes for gentlemen in dinner jackets and ladies in pearls and summer hats.
A few minutes by car up the road is Moltrasio, a hillside village typical of the many smaller communities around the lake. Further on is Laglio, the quiet town that was single-handedly put on the visitor map several years ago by a certain Hollywood star, who spends a significant amount of time there. He has bought three adjoining villas so far, attends town hall meetings and works from home on occasion - scenes from Ocean's Twelve were filmed there.
Clooney-spotting is just one of the more recent pastimes in the area, but celebrities, wealthy politicians and other privileged types have always enjoyed access to some of the nicest places on the lake. The late-fashion designer Gianni Versace was well-known for holding court at his lakeside villa, while Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi also has a vacation home here. One of his predecessors in the job, the fascist ruler Benito Mussolini, had a less happy fate here - he was captured by Communist partisans at the end of World War II and executed, along with his mistress, outside the gates of a villa.
Several of Como's more traditional activities, along with its historic sites, can be found near the central point in the lake where the two legs of the 'Y' join. These include the nearby towns of Menaggio and Tremezzo and in-between them, Villa Carlotta, a luxurious, art-filled building dating to the 18th-century and named for a Prussian princess. The villa occupies beautiful grounds, complete with terraced gardens.
Across from Menaggio on the eastern shore of the lake, the ancient town of Varenna is considered to be among the finest of the Lake Como communities, with many beautiful homes on the lakefront and the hills above the lake. Meanwhile, another old-world hotel, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, occupies a fabulous spot in Bellagio, at the tip of the peninsular that juts into the middle of the lake.
From Bellagio, it is possible to take a boat tour of the lower eastern leg of the lake, where steep cliffs tower over the coastline and give the area a picture-perfect quality. An excursion out onto the lake will give you a unique perspective, depending on the vessel of your choice. Select from a simple rowboat or ferry to romantic steamer or private yacht. Seaplanes are also a common sight around the lake - they are available to shuttle visitors from one end of the lake to the other, and also to various nearby lakes, such as Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda.
As anyone who's been to this part of northern Italy will know, Como also has decent shopping options for those seeking to take a break from the haute couture offerings in Milan. As Como is the centre of Italy's silk-making industry, it is no surprise that a number of the factory outlets in the area specialise in silk products. After stocking up on ties and scarves, bargain hunters will also be keen to seek out other made-in-Como goods, including various furniture brands and designer cutlery.
An American newspaper columnist once made the assertion that while the exact location of heaven on earth has never been determined, Lake Como could very well be the spot. That's a little corny-sounding to say the least, but there is a nugget of truth to it. I'd ask Mr Clooney for confirmation if I could - but I suspect I know what his answer would be.