Italian Lakes (2013)

LAKE COMO

For over two millennia, the rich, the powerful, the artistic and the romantic have been drawn to Lake Como. The distinctively forked shores of the lake offer the quintessence of romantic Italy – opulent villas, glamorous hotels and absurdly pretty villages that tumble down the dark green mountain side.

Main Attractions

Como’s Duomo

Villa d’Este

Centro Lago

Villa Carlotta

Varenna’s Gardens

Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero

Bellagio Waterfront

Lombardy’s Lake Como is the most dramatic of the lakes. In a prime position between the Alps and the Po Valley, it’s rich in both natural beauty and man-made grandeur. Lario, as it is known locally (from its Latin name, Larius, named after the Roman household deities, the Lares), is shaped like an upside-down “Y” and is fed by the Mera River, while the Adda flows from the lake at its southeastern tip. Stretching 50km (32 miles) between Como and Sorico, it is at its widest (4.4km/3 miles) between Fiumelatte and Cadenabbia, and its surface area of 146 sq km (56 sq miles) makes it Italy’s third-largest lake (after Garda and Maggiore). The Ramo (branch) di Como has more glamour and charm than its austere twin Ramo di Lecco, while its northern reach, Ramo di Colico (or Alto Lario) offers Alpine scenery and watersports. The Centro Lago, where the three branches meet, is by far the most beautiful part of the lake.

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Lake Como waterfront.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

City of Como

The city of Como 1 [map] (pop. 83,000) lies at the southern tip of the western branch. It draws the crowds largely because it is the perfect starting point for exploring the rest of the lake, but it is worth a quick visit for its atmospheric old quarter, and a remarkable cathedral. Climbing up the dark-green wooded hillside behind the lake is a funicular leading to wonderful views. Beyond lies the industrial heart of Europe’s greatest silk manufacturers.

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Piazza Cavour, Como.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Como began life in the nearby hills during the early European Bronze Age; it moved to its present waterside location when it was decreed a municipality by Julius Caesar and renamed Novum Comum. The Franks led by Charlemagne followed, and it became a centre of commercial exchange until it was partially destroyed during the Ten Years War with Milan (1118–27). Rebuilt with the help of Frederick Barbarossa, it became part of the Ducato of Milan (1395–1797) and then flourished under Austrian rule as the silk industry got under way. The town became part of the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy under Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1895, an action commemorated in the many streets, museums and piazzas in the area bearing his name.

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The Città Murata

To see Como at its best, arrive from the north by boat and enjoy the views of its horseshoe-shaped front, bounded on either side by Villa Olmo and Villa Geno. The rectangular old quarter spreads southeast from the promenade’s rather pedestrian Piazza Cavour .

Starting at the centre of the bay, head southeast through the main square into the Città Murata , the old quarter still bounded in parts by its medieval walls. Within a minute or two’s walk along busy Via Plinio (named after Como’s most famous sons), you will arrive at the city’s main draw, the busy Piazza Duomo . Dominating it all is the Duomo A [map] (Cathedral) (1396–1740), (Mon–Sat 7.30am–7.30pm, Sun until 9.30pm; www.cattedraledicomo.it ; free) remarkable for its Gothic-Renaissance style. Designer Lorenzo degli Spazzi’s original Gothic design was constructed over the next five centuries and was only completed when Filippo Juvara added the 20-metre (75ft) high cupola in 1744. Giovanni Rodari and his sons sculpted much of the statuary, including the two incongruous seated figures of the (non-Christian) Plinys framing the west door. Works by Bernardino Luini (Adoration of the Magi) and Guadenzio Ferrari (Flight from Egypt) brighten the dark interior, while two 9th-century lions support the fonts, paying homage to the church that once stood here, Santa Maria Maggiore.

Fact

Born in Como, Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), Roman naval and military commander, lawyer and scientist, wrote the Naturalis Historia, an ancient scientific encyclopaedia. His nephew and fellow author, Pliny the Younger (AD 61–13), wrote an account of his uncle’s death while witnessing the eruption of Vesuvius. Also a lawyer and magistrate, the younger Pliny owned two villas at Bellagio and wrote about the lake’s beauty in his Epistulae (Letters).

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Piazza del Duomo, Como.

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Next to the Duomo, the grey-and-white-striped marble Broletto , the 13th-century town hall and campanile stand proudly above the throng of shoppers exploring the more commercial side of the piazza. Close to the cathedral stands the apricot-coloured church of San Giacomo , partly demolished to make room for the Duomo, and the 11th-century Bishop’s Palace. Just beyond, on the other side of the railway tracks, stands what is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture, the functional rectangular block with loggia that is the Palazzo Terragni B [map] . Named after the Rationalism pioneer and local architect Giuseppe Terragni, it was built by him in 1932 as the Casa del Fascio, or former Fascist party headquarters. Today, it is home to the Guardia di Finanza.

Back in the Città Murata, the Basilica di San Fedele C [map] (daily 8am–noon, 3.30pm–7pm; free) stands in the Piazza San Fedele, the city’s former marketplace. The 10th-century building houses Renaissance and Baroque artwork and Romanesque decorations in its gloomy interior. Continuing along Via Vittorio Emanuele II brings you to the Piazza Medaglie d’Oro and the Museo Archeologico D [map] (Archaeological Museum; tel: 031-252 550; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm), which tells the story of Como’s past with Iron Age finds, Roman glass and Risorgimento memorabilia. Head down Via Giovio to see the Porta Torre (1192), which formed part of the defensive system built under Frederick Barbarossa’s rule, with Baradello Castle. Continue along the street to the Pinacoteca E [map] (Via Diaz 84; tel: 031-269 869; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm), with its medieval and modern paintings.

South and east of the city

Over on the southwest side of the city, a short walk from San Giovanni train station, stands the Basilica Sant’Abbondio , founded by Benedictine monks in 1013. Chances are you will have this church to yourself. The 14th-century frescoes of the Life of Jesus make it worth the trip.

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Silk scarves for sale in Como.

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Silk

Como is to silk what Venice is to glass – pura seta di Como is a phrase known the world over.

Today, some 75 percent of Europe’s silk comes from Como. Both the Duchess of Cornwall and the Crown Princess of Spain wore it on their wedding days, and leading ladies such as Penelope Cruz have sashayed down the red carpet in it at the Oscars.

The industry originated in 1510, introduced either by Friar Daniele or Pietro Boldoni from Bellano. It did, however, take a considerable time for the industry to develop. Rudimentary manufacturing only got under way in 1554, when wool producers, faced with stiff competition from Northern Europe, eventually embraced the new textile. However, since weaving was for centuries restricted to domestic use, the process became more refined only in the 19th century. By the second half of the 1800s, Como and its surroundings were filled with factories as the processes of weaving and dyeing expanded. But it was the production of power looms in the late 19th century that led Como to become the world leader in fabricating highly refined woven and printed silk.

Silk production

The production of silk is extremely time-consuming and complex, which explains both its appeal and its high prices. The natural textile fibre is produced by silkworms, which are fed huge amounts of mulberry leaves for around a month. Today, the process is scientifically controlled and the mulberry leaf is being replaced by an easier substitute. Once satiated and at its full size, the silkworm spins a cocoon. It is the thread from this cocoon which is then reeled off, once done by hand-dipping the cocoons in basins of hot water in the spinning mills still found throughout the area. Several threads are joined together to make a yarn, which is cleaned, twisted (“thrown”) and steamed. It takes 100 cocoons to weave one tie, and 630 cocoons to make a blouse.

As silk is rarely used in its natural colour (a yellowy-white), it is dyed, before or after weaving, and then printed by block, screen or roller, a process now controlled by computer. The final stage is the “finishing”, a highly technical and specialised process for which Como companies are justly renowned. Known as “ennoblement” for its ability to improve the product’s final look, the finishing processes were for decades a closely guarded secret, with specialised handmade machinery and rare chemical products used to give the fabric certain effects such as pleating, softness and veining.

Shifts in the industry

Back in the 1950s, Italy had around 40,000 spinning mills but in the 1970s it totally abandoned raw silk production, unable to compete with low Chinese silk prices. In 2014, however, the Italian textile industry vowed to create 1,000 silk worm factories in the following five or six years and in 2015 around 100 of them were already operating in the Veneto region. This move followed a sharp increase in the cost of silk exported from China – mulberry trees, on which silk worms feed, are fast disappearing in China as a result of the overuse of insecticides.

Silk is Como’s most famous contribution to industry, proudly commemorated in the Museo della Seta F [map] (Via Castelnuovo 9; tel: 031-303 180; www.museosetacomo.com ; Tue–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–1pm). The museum provides a unique look at the entire silk-making process with its large collection of weaving machinery and finishing equipment. The Fondazione Antonio Ratti Museo del Tessuto (Lungo Lario Trento 9; tel: 031-338 4976; www.fondazioneratti.org ; Tue–Sun 2.30–5.30pm; by appointment only; free) has around 6,000 examples of antique textiles and sample books.

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Como centre.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Via Regina Teodolinda, which runs parallel to the Regionale Parco Spina Verde , eventually takes you back to the lake. Dedicated, along with several other monuments, to the local-born physicist Alessandro Volta, the temple-museum Tempio Voltiano G [map] (Viale Marconi; tel: 031-574 705; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm) is home to the world’s first battery. Further along the bay, you pass the Terragni-built Monumento ai Caduti (War Memorial), the stadium, strikingly odd in its modernity, and the seaplane club before reaching the magnificent park of the neoclassical Villa Olmo H [map] , named after a giant elm tree said to date from the time of Pliny the Elder. The ochre-coloured building is now a villa that hosts conferences, but its ground floor, gardens and lido are open (villa Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, gardens daily Apr–Sept 7am–11pm, Oct–Mar until 7pm; lido June–Sept daily 9am–7pm; villa and gardens free, lido charge).

A stroll along the promenade in the other direction takes you past busy Piazza Matteotti and its bus station to the Funicolare (Piazza de Gasperi 4; tel: 031-303 608; www.funicolarecomo.it ; daily 6am–10.30pm, Sat until midnight, every 15–30 mins, until midnight daily June–mid-Sept), a delightful trip 500 metres/1,640ft up the hillside to Brunate I [map] , a 19th-century village with a distinctly Swiss atmosphere – and fabulous views. From here, you can head on a number of excursions, notably a two to three-day hike or cycle to Bellagio along the “Backbone of the Lario Triangle”. Back on the corniche, a 10-minute stroll further round takes you to a headland occupied by the Villa Geno J [map] and its grounds (tel: 031-306 127; daily 9.30am–7pm summer, until 6pm winter; free), with a lido, restaurant and lovely views back to Como.

Ramo di Como

As you leave the city to explore the rest of the lake, head north for the stars – this bottom-left branch of the lake has been dubbed “Comowood” by some. The best way to see both shores is to hop on a boat and zig-zag between the two quite different shores (for more information, click here ). Heading up, the western side, with its collection of charming villages such as Cernobbio, Laglio and Cadenabbia and the prestigious villas in between, is more popular, which can make wandering through the quieter towns on the eastern shore such as Torno, Nesso and Lezzeno all the more attractive in high summer.

Fact

Smuggling over the Swiss border has long been a cause for concern to the finanzieri (customs officers). Two museums, one in Como’s Customs Police headquarters, the other in the Val d’Intelvi’s Erbonne (Piccolo Museo della Guardia di Finanza e del contrabbando, San Fedele Intelvi; tel: 333-238 4179), explore the time when bags of sugar, coffee and cigarettes were loaded into bags and sneaked into the country by spalloni (smugglers).

The western shore

Cernobbio 2 [map] is an attractive town made up of a cluster of 16th-century houses and prominent villas. Hugging the slopes of Monte Bisbino, whose summit marks the Swiss border, Cernobbio’s chief attractions are two sumptuous villas standing aloof from the compact lakeside piazza and centre. The 19th-century former home of film director Luchino Visconti, Villa Erba ( www.villaerba.it ) is now a conference centre (closed to visitors).

Close by is the 16th-century Villa d’Este (for more information, click here ), one of the grandest – and certainly most famous – hotels on the lake. Commissioned as a home for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in 1568, its magnificence has been attracting royalty, heads of state and the very wealthy ever since. Acquired by Caroline of Brunswick in 1815, it was converted into a hotel in 1873 and has since changed little of its extraordinary interior lavishness and glorious 10-hectare (25-acre) gardens. If your bank balance is not quite that of pop-star proportions, then you can content yourself with a visit to its dining room or grand cocktail bar.

Passing though the pretty villages and hamlets of Moltrasio , Carate-Urio, Laglio and Brienno , you may glimpse some resplendent villas among the old balconied houses that fringe the shoreline. These are home to the Italian elite and international celebrities, including George Clooney, the Versaces and Sir Richard Branson.

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Villa d’Este.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

It is between the small town of Argegno on the western shore and Nesso on the eastern shore that the lake bed drops to the greatest depth (410 metres/1,345ft) of any lake in Europe. There is a road from here marking the start of the Val d’Intelvi , a high valley with lovely walking and driving up to the Swiss border; the “Balcony of Italy” at Lanzo d’Intelvi has dramatic views over Lake Lugano and the Alps. For magnificent views of Lake Como, take the cable car from Argegno to Pigra (800 metres/2,624ft).

Another small detour, this time 400 metres/1,312ft into the hills above Ossuccio, is the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio 3 [map] (for more information, click here ), one of a group of 15–17th-century chapels and now a Unesco World Heritage site, reflecting its architectural and artistic importance. Opposite Ossuccio and Sala Comacina is the lake’s only island, Isola Comacina 4 [map] . Separated from the west shore by a stretch of water so smooth it is known as the Zoca de l’Oli (basin of oil), the island’s wooded wilderness hides a fascinating history amongst its ruins and olive trees. One of the earliest settlements in the area, it was sacked in 1169 in retaliation for allying with Milan in the Ten Years War (1118–27). It was then abandoned until the 20th century, when local Augusto Caprani bequeathed it to King Albert of Belgium, who returned it to Italy in 1920 to use as a retreat for Belgian and Italian artists. Today, it is home to a few artists and an exclusive restaurant.

Fact

Diners at the Locanda dell’Isola Comacina take part in an “exorcism of fire” at the end of their meal. Drinking flambéed liqueur coffee is said to ward off a curse laid on the island in 1169 by the Bishop of Como during the Ten Years War between Milan and Como: “The bells will ring no more, stone will not be placed upon stone, no one will ever play host, on pain of violent death”. A dazzling annual firework display is held here on the Saturday following St John the Baptist’s Day.

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Isola Comacina.

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The eastern shore

The rugged eastern shore along the Lariana, the coast road from Como to Bellagio, is much sleepier and less visited; this is reflected in the quietness of the narrow roads and the intermittent boat services – check the timetable carefully.

Standing out from the steep shores, Villa Pliniana , in Torno 5 [map] , has hosted many distinguished guests since 1575, including Stendhal, Rossini, Byron and Shelley. Torno has a pretty medieval centre overlooked by the Romanesque church of San Giovanni.

Nesso 6 [map] , with its cluster of stone houses jostling for space on top of one another, is the largest town between Como and Bellagio. The former fortified town is divided into the pretty hamlets of Castello, Vico and Careno and is home to some spectacular scenery, notably the Nesso Gorge and the Masera grotto, with its inner lake, one of several caverns in the area. Further towards the tip of the Triangolo Lariano is Lezzeno 7 [map] , directly opposite the Isola Comacina, which has Celtic and Ligurian origins and some notable churches. Its main attraction, however, is the Carpe Grotto , also known as the Bulberi or Blue Grotto for the remarkable colour beneath the walls of the Sassi Grosgalli.

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Centro Lago

The spot where the three branches of the lake meet is home to the popular towns of Tremezzo, Bellagio, Menaggio and Varenna. The luxuriant Mediterranean gardens, alluring villages and mild climate make it hard to leave at any time of year. A frequent triangular boat service running between Bellagio, Varenna and Menaggio reflects their popularity.

On the Lavedo promontory just outside Lenno is the breathtaking Villa del Balbianello 8 [map] (tel: 0344-56110; www.fondoambiente.it ; mid-Mar–mid-Nov Tue, Thur–Sun 10am–6pm). Facing Isola Comacina and Tremezzo, its glorious panoramic views and fairytale villa complete with towers and a portico have drawn visitors and film-makers alike (parts of Star Wars Episode II were filmed here). Built in the 18th century, the house and its valuable art collection and sumptuous gardens were donated to the FAI (Italian National Trust, for more information, click here ) by the famous explorer Count Guido Monzino. Access is by boat from Lenno, but on Tue, Sat, Sun and public holidays you can walk the kilometre (just over half a mile) from Lenno.

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Picture-perfect Tremezzo.

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Inland from here is Mezzegra 9 [map] , best-known as the town where Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were shot dead by partisans on 28 April 1945. A cross marks the place of their execution.

Tremezzo and its neighbour Cadenabbia just north of Lenno are filled with grand hotels from the Belle Epoque, attracting famous guests such as Giuseppe Verdi, Stendhal and Queen Victoria. A large English community soon followed, resulting in one of Italy’s first Anglican churches. Today, visitors from all over the world are drawn to the sedate area by the renowned Villa Carlotta ) [map] (Via Regina 2; tel: 0344-40405; www.villacarlotta.it ; daily Apr–mid-Oct 9am–7.30pm, first half of Mar, mid-Oct–late-Oct 10am–6pm), an exceptionally photogenic majestic villa with glorious gardens. It was built in the late 17th century by Marquis Giorgio Clerici, the heir to a fortune made in the silk trade. In the 19th century, businessman Gian Battista Sommaria lavishly filled it with precious works of art, including sculptures by Canova and Thorwaldsen. In 1843, his heirs sold it to Princess Marianne of Nassau, who gave it as a wedding present to her daughter Carlotta. Its 6-hectare (14-acre) formal terraced gardens are as big a draw as the startlingly white house and its art, with fountains and statues carefully arranged among 150 types of rhododendron, camellia and azalea.

Where

Como is home to the oldest seaplane school in the world (founded in 1913). Tourist planes leave from the town’s lakefront to wherever you choose – making virtually every bit of the lake accessible. Aero Club Como, Via Masia 44; tel: 031-574 495; www.aeroclubcomo.com .

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Every garden was designed to frame the view and every building designed to enhance nature.

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Menaggio

Menaggio ! [map] , where the Via Regina forks west to Switzerland and northwards up the lake, is bustling. The 19th-century waterfront is lined with cafés, bars and hotels. Its beach and lido (late June–mid-Sept daily 9am–7pm) make it a popular stop with tourists, as can be seen by the excellent and frequent boat links. Watersports, golf and hiking are particularly good here; the tourist office (Piazza Garibaldi 3; tel: 0344-32924; www.menaggio.com ; 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–6pm, closed Sun, Wed) has details of walking routes, including some into the beautiful Parco Naturale Val Sanagra and to Rifugio Menaggio (1,400 metres/4,593ft), the “balcony”, with views over Lake Como, Monte Legnone, Corni di Canzo and the Grigne peaks.

If you want to get away from the throng, head up the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval town, once a major military stronghold; you can still make out the remains of a 10th-century castle and the fortifications that once encircled the hill down to the harbour.

From the centre stretch three charming hamlets: Nobiallo, Loveno and Croce. The first is a former fishing village extending northwards 1km (0.5 mile) along the shore; above is the glamorous Loveno , home to the wonderful 18th-century Villa Mylius Vigoni , a 25-minute uphill walk from the Menaggio landing stage. Now an Italian/German conference centre, its spectacular park is open to visitors when no seminars are being held (tel: 0344-36111 or 232; access on year-round guided tours only: 2.30pm Thu only, except Aug, reservation compulsory; www.villavigoni.it ). Croce (443 metres/1,453ft) enjoys panoramic views of Lake Como and Lake Piano to the west, particularly from its splendid viewpoint of La Crocetta (505 metres/1,657ft), a 25-minute walk from the hamlet. Croce is also home to the renowned Menaggio and Cadenabbia Golf Club , one of the oldest in Italy ( www.menaggio.it ).

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A steep street in Bellagio.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Varenna

Arrive by boat, with ancient Varenna @ [map] slowly coming into view as the 13th-century campanile of San Giorgio chimes a welcome and you will never want to leave. This absurdly pretty spot is not only a delight to look at, but also a wonder to look out from: standing on a rocky promontory, it has an enviable view of all three branches of the lake. Once there, the passarella is a scenic walkway hugging the rocks along the lakeside. The oleander arcades along the promenade are just the spot to enjoy a gelato, while a short walk up narrow, crumbling steps takes you to the main square, Piazza San Giorgio and the tourist office nearby (tel: 0341-830 367; www.varennaturismo.com ; Apr–Sept Tue–Sat 10am–1pm, 3–6pm, Sun and holidays 10am–1pm).

Further along are the enchanting gardens of the neoclassical Villa Cipressi , now a hotel, with exquisite grounds sloping down to the lake. The adjacent Villa Monastero (tel: 0341-295 450; www.villa­monastero.eu ; Mar–Dec, opening times for both house and garden vary greatly, check website; museum only open when there are no conferences), a former Cistercian monastery built in the 13th century, is used as a conference centre, but its gardens are open to the public, and a museum inside the villa holds antiques and furniture belonging to the villa’s former inhabitants.

A steep 20-minute climb up Mount Fopp from Villa Monastero or the landing stage reveals stunning views and the chance to explore the old town of Vezio and its semi-ruined 7th-century Castello di Vezio (tel: 348-824 2504; www.castellodivezio.it ; Mar, Oct Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm, Apr–May, Sept Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–7pm, June–Aug Mon–Fri 10am–7pm, Sat–Sun 10am–8pm). A falconer gives demonstrations in the grounds. A shorter walk south of Varenna takes you to a hamlet that is home to the Fiumelatte (River of Milk). This claims to be the shortest river in Italy (just 250 metres/820ft), its creamy-looking waters inexplicably flowing only between March and October.

Bellagio

Bellagio £ [map] , the “pearl of Lario”, lies at the tip of the triangle formed by the two southern branches, the Triangolo Lariano. Its location and scenic waterfront complete with ice-cream-coloured grand hotels and steep cobbled steps that serve as alleyways, bring out the poet in everyone who comes here – not least Pliny the Younger, Shelley, Flaubert and Mark Twain.

Two Serbelloni villas

Now home to the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (for more information, click here ) and its Michelin-starred restaurant, Mistral, the jet set flock here – as do day-trippers. Away from the jacaranda-lined waterfront, the tiny Borgo (the medieval part of town) and maze of stepped streets lined with delis, eateries and silk shops is a delight to explore. Peering down on the town is the Romanesque church of San Giacomo and its tower, survivors from Bellagio’s medieval fortifications. The tourist office is at the landing stage on Piazza Mazzini (tel: 031-950 204; www.bellagiolakecomo.com ; Apr–Oct Mon–Sat 9am–12.30pm, 1.30–5.30pm, Sun 10.30am–12.30pm).

On the hilltop stands the Villa Serbelloni with splendid views of all three branches of the lake and the mountains from its park. It is run as a study centre and is not to be confused with its namesake, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, below.

The two were once linked. In 1907, the hotel, then known as Grand Hotel Bellagio, bought and converted the then abandoned hilltop mansion; the hotel later changed its name in honour of the former residents, the Serbelloni family.

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The appealing Bellagio waterfront.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The villa is now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation and closed to visitors, but there are guided tours of the garden on Tue–Sun mid-Mar–Oct at 11am and 3.30pm leaving from the medieval tower in Piazza San Giacomo (tel: 031-951 555; groups of 6–30 only; booking ahead essential). If you cannot do the tour but want the view, take the road running alongside the park to Punta Spartivento and the small harbour at the very tip of the headland, which is a lovely spot for a dip. Head south along the lakeside promenade and past the lido (tel: 031-950 597) to Bellagio’s other magnificent residence, Villa Melzi (tel: 031-950 204; late-Mar–Oct daily 9.30am–6.30pm) and its neoclassical chapel, museum and outstanding Mediterranean gardens. Further around takes you past the hamlet of Loppia , the landing docks of the old Lake Como gondolas, to the village of San Giovanni $ [map] (30 minutes on foot from the centre) and the Museo degli Strumenti per la Navigazione (Museum of Navigational Instruments; tel: 031-950 309; www.bellagiomuseo.com ; daily 10am–1pm or by appointment), a collection of telescopes, compasses and marine chronometers. Other walks include one to Pescallo , a charming fishing village 10 minutes west of the centre on the Lecco side of the promontory.

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The elegantly solid Villa Melzi.

Anna Mockford and Nick Bonetti/Apa Publications

The Triangolo Lariano

This triangle stands between the two southern legs of the lake. From Bellagio at its northern tip, the triangle opens southwards onto a wealth of delightful hamlets, historical sites and walks, ending in the five Brianza lakes and the town of Erba. Two roads run through it, the Lariana (the coastal road from Bellagio to Como) and the Valassina, running directly through the middle from Bellagio to the Brianza lakes. Outstanding views of the Alps to the north and the Pianura Padana to the south can be found at the peak of Monte San Primo (1,686 metres/5,528ft) – if you don’t mind a steep two-hour climb. The Valassina is home to holiday resorts such as Canzo , at the foot of the rocky peaks of the Corni; viewpoints of Monte San Primo, Piano del Tivano and Piano Rancio become ski resorts in winter.

Where the Larian Triangle mountains and the plains meet in Alta Brianza are five lakes stretching from Como to Lecco, described as little drops left behind by Lake Como. Tiny Lago Montorfano % [map] (7km/4 miles from Como) is overlooked by the prestigious golf course Villa d’Este and is perfect for swimming; Lago di Alserio (5km/3 miles from Erba) was once connected to Lago di Pusiano (4km/2.5 miles from Erba), and both are found in the Parco della Valle del Lambro ^ [map] and are ideal for afternoon picnics and strolls; Segrino , too is in Como province, while Annone is in the prealpine Lecco province. The green Brianza plains were a resort for noble Milanese families; today the area is more industrial – a fifth of all Italian furniture is made here.

Fact

Cyclists can make a pilgrimage to their patron saint, Madonna del Ghisallo. The church stands at Passo Rancio (755 metres/826yds) and houses an exhibition of cycling memorabilia. With a café and parking area, it also makes a popular stopping point along the panoramic route from Erba to Bellagio.

Lago di Lecco

Lake Como’s southeastern fork is less popular than its twin, perhaps due to its starker atmosphere with the craggy Grigne range looming over the rather prosaic villages.

The western shore between Bellagio and Lecco (20km/12 miles) has little by way of diversions once you leave Pescallo, but the eastern shore has a few interesting stops before reaching Lecco. The ancient settlement of Lierna , just south of Varenna, is the last alluring spot on this shore before the modern places such as the industrialised town of Mandello del Lario and former silk town Abbadia Lariana . Boats zigzag their way between Bellagio and Mandello throughout the year, adding in Lecco only during the summer season.

Lecco & [map] itself is most famous as the setting of a classic book by Italy’s cherished Romantic novelist Alessandro Manzoni. “Lecco is built on the shore of the branch of Lake Como that extends southwards,” begins I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), but today there is little to inspire romance. Once the home of the Goths and Lombards, the commercial town has retained a few interesting historical sights. The reconstructed bridge, Ponte Vecchio(originally built 1336–38), indicates Lecco’s past as a medieval site of importance; other medieval remains such as the Torre Viscontea survive around the Piazza XX Settembre and Piazza Cermenati. The tower, once a prison, is now the Museo Civico del Risorgimento e della Resistenza (Civic Museum of the Risorgimento and the Resistance). There is also Pescarenico , an old fishing village, and nearby, the Villa Manzoni art gallery (Tue–Fri 9.30am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm) and the 18th-century Palazzo Belgiojoso , containing the Natural History and History museums, as well as a Planetarium ( www.museilecco.org ; museum Tue–Fri 9.30am–2pm, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm, free; Planetarium Mon, Tue, Sat 9.30am–noon, Fri until 9pm).

Lecco’s attraction really lies in its scenery: look up above the factories and traffic and you’ll see it is surrounded by mountain peaks: the harsh Grigne and Monte Resegone on one side; on the other the gentler Corni di Canzo and Monte Barro. Several interesting excursions head into the hills, including hikes into the stunning southern Alpine valley known as the Valsássina. The tourist board (Piazza XX Settembre 23; tel: 0341-295 720; www.provincia.lecco.it ; Mon 9am–12.30pm and Tue–Sun also 2.30–5.30pm).

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Lecco and Monte Resegone.

Bigstockphoto

Ramo di Colico – Alto Lario

Heading along the northern limb of the lake, the scenery becomes increasingly dramatic, with the dazzling villages and patrician villas giving way to wild mountains. This branch is dotted with popular campsites, caravan parks and watersports centres making the most of the Breva, the mild but constant breeze. Inland, good hiking and cycling exertions are rewarded with traditional trattorias and stunning vistas.

The main draw on the rough western bank is Gravedona * [map] , which, together with Dongo and Sorico, formed the medieval republic of the Tre Pievi. On the lakefront is the imposing Palazzo Gallio , built in 1586 for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, while the Santa Maria del Tiglio (daily summer 8.30am–7pm, winter until 5pm) is an important Romanesque church with several 12th-century frescoes. The neighbouring churches of San Vicenzo (1050) and Santa Maria delle Grazie , built by Augustinian monks in 1467, are also worth a look.

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Como’s misty light has filled the dreams of many a poet.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

A little further south, Dongo ( [map] is today known chiefly as the site where Mussolini and his Fascist officials were stopped from fleeing to Switzerland by partisans (before being taken to Mezzegra and shot; for more information, click here ). The events are remembered in the Museo della Resistenza (Como Resistance Museum), housed in the neoclassical Palazzo Manzi.

On the eastern shore, Bellano , [map] is famed for its spectacularly steep gorge called Orrido di Bellano , which was formed by the waters of the Pioverna gushing through the rocky passage. A suspended footbridge takes you close to the water (though it is not for the faint-hearted).

The final stop on Lake Como is the northernmost town on the eastern shore. Industrial Colico is at the foot of Mount Legnone. Built by the Spanish in the 17th century, it has since been destroyed by foreign troops, plagues and the flooding of the Adda River. Around 5km (3 miles) south, perched on the peninsula, is the medieval Abbazia di Piona (tel: 0341-940 331; daily 9am–noon, 2.30–6pm; www.abbaziadipiona.it ), occupied today by Cistercian monks.

Heading north into the lower Val Chiavenna and the Alpine passes leading to Switzerland and Austria is the reclaimed marshland of Piano di Spagna, one of the largest nature reserves in Lombardy.