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A Celebrated Past - A Gorgeous Present

Ever since Roman times Lake Como has been a playground for the rich and famous, and no less so than during the 18th and 19th centuries when Europe's wealthy flocked to this natural idyll to create a concrete vision of their ideal world complete with grand homes and villas. Today many of these villas are open for our viewing pleasure and tourism has become the lifeforce of the Lake... allowing everyone to enjoy a slice of La Dolce Vita.

Villa Carlotta

Springtime sees Villa Carlotta a riot of colour with vast terraced gardens of azalea and rhododendrons in full bloom; later the blue and white of wisteria, hydrangea and iris, and the vibrant Mediterranean colours of citrus; also subtropical palms, banana, orchids, and arid loving cacti, a fern valley, a bamboo grove, and spectacular camellias among the more than 500 species.

The villa’s interior offers a collection of romantic sculpture including a copy of Canova’s 'Cupid and Psyche' by Antonio Tadolini, and the oil on canvas ‘The last Adieu of Romeo and Juliet’ by Francesco Hayez.

The building of the villa was begun in 1605 by Clerici, and later in competition with an archrival who built Villa Melzi across the lake near Bellagio.  The villa was subsequently passed on and sold a number of times before receiving its current name of Carlotta when it was presented to the daughter of Princess Marianne of the Netherlands on the occasion of her marriage to George II, Duke of Meiningen in 1850.  Carlotta died in 1855 aged only 23.

The villa’s masterpieces were collected by Sommarivi during the 18th century, and the gardens were significantly extended by the Sachsen-Meiningen family until the property was confiscated at the outbreak of WWI.

Open: March – October
Adult: €9.00.  Discounts available

Villa Balbianello

This may be the most magical house in all of Italy.  The villa sits on its own promontory between Ossuccio and Lenno separating the bays of Diana and Venus.  This villa of loggias, palazzini, grand staircases and terraces spills down to the lakeshore through austerely maniquered verdant gardens offering relentlessly picturesque lake vistas.

The original Villa Balbianello was built in the 1780’s on the site of a 12 century monastery for Cardinal Durini.  Over the succeeding years a number of owners let Balbianello fall into disrepair until it was purchased by Butler Ames, an American businessman in 1919 who restored it scrupulously.  In 1974, twenty years after Ames's death his heirs sold the property to Guido Monzino, a son of the prosperous Italian Standa hypermarket-owning family.  Monzino undertook a thorough restructuring of the property including the buildings and the gardens, to acquire their magnificent present aspect.  An Italian adventurer and explorer, Manzino filled Balbianello with his rich collection of books, and artefacts acquired on his expeditions to Patagonia, Mount Everest, and the North Pole.  He died in 1988, and left the villa to the Fondo per l'Ambiente Italiano, the National Trust of Italy.  Its grounds now form part of the Grandi Giardini Italiani, Grand Gardens of Italy.

More recently Villa Balbianello has become world famous for its movie connections featuring in A Month by the Lake (1995), Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002), and Casino Royale (2006).

Open: March - November
Access: Water taxi from the right-hand end of the Bay of Venus in Lenno
Adult: Water taxi transfer return €7.50, Garden and Villa entry with 1-hr guided tour: €13.00

Villa Melzi

Originally built for the Melzi family in 1808 before transition to the present-day Scotti family this Neoclassical villa near Bellagio commands a grand view of Lake Como.  The home stands in grand English-style gardens dotted with statues and follies, singularly impressive trees, and hidden corners such as the Oriental garden with its maples and waterlily pond.  The open park-like setting commissioned from Luigi Canonica and the agronomist Luigi Villoresi is criss-crossed with paths, and cascades in terraced lawns to a lakeshore promenade where banks of azalea, rhododendron and camellia burst forth in springtime, and plane trees provide shade for strolling in summer.

The gardens and lavishly decorated Empire-style family chapel built by the Melzi and now used by the Scotti family, and the Orangerie, now a museum, are open to the public, however the villa itself remains private.  The Melzi were Napoléon’s greatest allies in Italy and the family has passed down the name of “Josephine” to the present day.

Open: March – November daily from 09.30 – 16.30
Adults: €6.50


Villa d’Este

The Villa d'Este, originally Villa del Garovo, constructed between 1565 and 1570 was a Renaissance patrician residence in Cernobbio surrounded by a 10 hectare park.  The park remains intact today as a private site free from overlooking property, and unique for its loggia, follies, temple, nymphaeum, and mock fortress.

In 1815 the villa became the residence of Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of future King George IV.  This Princess of Wales had the grounds landscaped in the English style, axised by a central water cascade.  "Its gardens seem almost suspended in the air", she wrote in her diary, "and form a scene of complete enchantment".  Caroline gave her sanctuary the name of Nuova Villa d'Este after the famous Villa d'Este in Tivoli, near Rome.

In 1873 the buildings were extended and converted into a deluxe hotel, keeping the name Villa d'Este, and maintaining the iconic Italian link with the world of ‘La Dolce Vita’.

Open:  The Hotel opens from Easter until November but access may be restricted at the Hotel’s discretion. 


Lake Como – A Celebrated Past

The town of Como with its superb natural setting has always had a dual identity, as a commercial centre on the one hand, and as a unique tourist destination on the other.  Discovered centuries ago the area around Lake Como was conquered by Julius Caesar in 49 BC to expand the Roman Empire across the Alps.  As a gateway, 'Larius' became an important centre of trade in olive oil, chestnuts, fish, and silk, where the lake's prosperity and unique climate also created a haven for life and retreat attracting the aristocracy and literati, notably Virgil (70 BC - 19 BC) who simply called it “Our greatest lake”.  Pliny the Elder was born in Como in AD 29, the author of 37 books on natural history while his nephew, Pliny the Younger, a poet, owned two villas on Lake Como, one called ‘Tragedy’ believed to be the site of the present-day Villa Serbelloni (private) on the hill above Bellagio, and the other on the lakeshore below called ‘Comedy’.  Much later on Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) would again make Lake Como famous with his book “I Promessi Sposi” The Betrothed, published in 1827.

Stendhal the French writer (1783 – 1842) described Lake Como as an "enchanting spot, unequalled on earth in its loveliness."

Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), is a son of Como and celebrated for his 1800 invention of the battery.

More recently Franz List often picnicked in the grounds of Villa Melzi and wrote to the author Louis de Ronchaud [List writes] in 1837: “When you write the story of the two lovers, place them on the shores of Lake Como.  I do not know of any land so conspicuously blessed by heaven.”  During this visit List also wrote his Dante Symphony (S.109), based on Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, as depicted in ‘The Divine Comedy’.

Today’s international celebrities have included Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, British musician Sting, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, and American actor/director George Clooney (please refer to the tab - Celebrity Cachet).

More images to follow