Italian Lakes (2013)

INSIGHT: COMO BOAT TOUR

Slowly cruising past grand villas and their citrus-scented gardens is the best way to enjoy the lake.

The best way to appreciate Lake Como is, of course, by boat – not least because you escape the congested lakeside roads during high season and weekends. From the water you get the sense that nothing much has changed since the Romans first succumbed to the lake’s charms. And although some of the palatial homes built by centuries of the rich and super-rich can be visited or stayed in, many remain resolutely private, meaning that the only way to get a glimpse of them and their magnificent grounds is by boat.

Como is the main departure point, with boats taking a zig-zag route up the western leg to the Centro Lago. From Bellagio, the “pearl of the lake” and its centre, you can head up north (Alto Lago) to Colico, or down the eastern leg (Ramo di Lecco) to Lecco.

The western shore of the western leg (Ramo di Como) has long been a magnet for high society, with a wealth of sumptuous villas owned by the Italian elite and inter­national superstars. Just up the road from Cernobbio’s historic noble residence-turned hotel, Villa d’Este A [map] is the Versaces’ weekend retreat of Le Fontanelle B [map] in Moltrasio; further up in the gorgeous village of Laglio is George Clooney’s summer home, the lemon-faced palazzo Villa Oleandra C [map] , half-hidden by its oleander-lined gardens. On the opposite shore, in Torno, is the Villa Pliniana D [map] (1574–77), another notable patrician house. One of the best examples of Manneristic architecture on the lake, it can only be viewed from the water. Back on the western shore, in Ossuccio, is the opulent Villa Balbiano E [map] , one of the five oldest homes on the lakefront and residence of Como’s Taroni silk king Michele Canepi. Its 18th-century owner, Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, built the resplendent Villa Balbianello F [map] on the nearby Lavedo promontory.

Further up in the Centro Lago is perhaps Lake Como’s most famous villa, Tremezzo’s Villa Carlotta G [map] , a sight to relish as you approach its neoclassical white facade with scissor staircase and terraced formal gardens. Other notable waterfront villas are Bellagio’s Villa Melzi H [map] , the tumbling gardens of Villa Monastero I [map] and cypress tree-filled Villa Cipressi J [map] , both in beautiful Varenna.

Of course, a trip around the lake reveals much more than its wealth of grand houses. Once past Isola Comacina K [map] , the only island and the setting for a magical annual firework and boat display, and the enchanting Centro Lago, the scenery and atmosphere changes. The eastern branch becomes wilder as the rugged Grigne mountain range looms into view, while the northern reach, popular with watersports and camping enthusiasts, becomes increasingly Alpine.

Several types of boat, all run by the Gestione Navigazione Laghi (tel: 800-551 801, www.navlaghi.it ), tour the lake linking the major villages of each leg. You can choose to board a battello (ship), servizio rapido (hydrofoil/fast service), or autotraghetto (car ferry; centre of the lake only); buy tickets before boarding. Cruises touring the entire lake in around eight hours are also available from Como or Lecco, with a restaurant and bar on board. Every Saturday from June to September, evening “romantic” cruises set sail from Como, Lecco and Colico.

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Laglio harbour.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

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