Lake Como: Italy's greatest lake
My first evening at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the terrace is filled with people dancing after a party. The mood is exultant, stilettoes clattering and twirling across polished parquet flooring. 'We're sorry for the noise! For the music!' say the staff, laughing as they bring round little plates of saffron risotto, not that anybody is complaining.
Later, everyone sleeps like logs until the empty lake moves through its shades of dawn silver, the moon still hanging alabaster in the morning sky, and the only sounds are of shutters opening and the hungover thwack of a tennis ball in a court behind the hotel, edged in clover.
Virgil called Como 'the greatest lake', and Pliny the Younger had a villa here where he said the porch was 'always like spring'. It's the deepest lake in Italy and an unusual shape: a sprawling, upside down Y, with villages and villas strung along its shore, some converted into magnificent hotels, some private homes of huge neoclassical dimensions from the Grand Tour era of Shelley and Boswell. Many buildings rise from the remains of pre- medieval convents or the gilded palaces of princes and bishops.
Everybody has their favourite of the 30-plus towns and hamlets, all linked by one scenic road following the Antica Strada Regina, which is jammed on Sundays with cyclists and little buses taking ladies to church in Como Town. Many adore Bellagio - between the two southern branches of the lake - where old women in black crêpe carry baskets of dried porcini down cobbles and smart couples fuss over pugs at Bar Rossi on the waterfront, spruce waiters dispensing espressos like pharmacists. Others champion Varenna, on the eastern shore, founded in the sixth century and still with its ancient layout, its raised boardwalks and balustrades, its shop windows full of white lace nightgowns so modest they might belong to an Edwardian schoolgirl.
One morning I wander through Como Town on the lake's southern tip with my teenaged friend Lucia, talking about Milan, just 30 minutes away by train and where many of the young people in Como go to college. 'Oh,Milan,' Lucia grumbles. 'Nothing but models and singers and cars.'
Around us, the piazza del Duomo fills with children wearing the headdresses of Roman legionaries, on their way to be extras in a summer pageant. As the cathedral bells pound, Lucia leads us through the back streets, past handsome violinists busking on via Plinio, and window dressers unwrapping the new season's pale fur wraps from boxes in the boutiques along via Francesco Muralto. A seaplane buzzes companionably overhead, one of the defining sounds of the lake. And when we eventually make it to the steps of the monumental 19th-century Teatro Sociale, Tosca is being played through loudspeakers, Mirella Freni singing voluptuous regret across medieval cobbles.
Although many Milanese come here for holidays, Lucia's boyfriend drags his heels a little whenever he visits her because 'nothing happens in Como'. Lucia looks at me, outraged. Non succede mai niente a Como? But George Clooney has a place here! Villa Oleandra in Laglio! Her eyes, green as spring lichen, remind me how close we are to Switzerland. That the Alps are ever-present, vast and dreamy. That the climate in Como is never too hot, never too cold. That here is Italy, but almost not. In the more northern towns along the lake - where the water still doesn't quite freeze in winter - strudel is served in cafés, and wherever you are, whatever the month, the sense of zinging healthfulness hits you in the face, powerful as a streetlamp.
Later, hurrying to catch a water taxi, I pass the funicular railway on the edge of town. Two hikers sit on Thirties wooden benches waiting to be deposited 720 metres up to walk the stony mule track towards San Maurizio, their eyes closed, enjoying the creeping afternoon warmth taking the chill off the mountains. Another time, I come across three old guys from Derby, who had just hiked an old drovers' road across the border and down to the lake, sitting politely in itchy woollen socks eating sandwiches, burned faces exultant. And I suppose it is true: nothing much more than this does happen in Como. George Clooney is probably the most all-out exciting thing to have happened here since Mussolini was shot by partisans in 1945 in the village of Giulino di Mezzegra. But that's the point of Como: it's a polite and ordered place. A place of manners, and salad-fresh swimmers and the smell of just-roasted coffee.
When the great romantic novelist Rosamunde Pilcher (whose grandson took the photographs for this piece) visited in the 1970s she was escaping from a book tour in Milan. She told me that Como's infinitely sedate elegance made her think of Trieste. 'I loved that there were no pushy diversions. Nobody trying to force you on bus tours. It was one of the only times in my life when I felt I'd had a bit of time away.' No nightclubs to speak of. No casinos. Just the water being crisscrossed with small private boats and modest ferries.
Down on a pontoon on the waterfront beyond the railway, a 50-something sailor leans over the side of his taxi, his indolence so perfectly poised it's like a cinema projector has stopped mid-scene, holding him perpetually in dark glasses and peaked cap. Looking up, he grins. 'A bona!' (it's not hard to get a compliment on a blue day in Italy). Then, swearing wonderfully, he weaves us out of the mooring and eastwards, dropping me 10 minutes away at the village of Tremezzo. I jump off and labour up the winding stone lanes, foliage dotted with cabbage whites bursting from the cracks in brickwork, daisies overhanging yellow walls as the paths grow narrower. Little pale lizards flit past my feet and I feel like I'm on a staircase in a palace open to the sky, crunching dried acorns underfoot, climbing through the blazing sunshine until… the steps just run out, as though someone forgot what they were building them for some time in the unrecoverable 1700s.
The view down is of private gardens and hidden porticos and small pools, vines slung amateurishly over terrace dining tables, and great swags of fig. And in the distance, the small figures of pedestrians idling towards Lenno, with its busy public park where a family of terrapins live in a fountain featuring a gorgeous nymph carved in the style of a Tantardini.
The best game to play on an afternoon in Como is to hire a boat and follow the shores, bingeing on the villas. Who owns that one? I quiz 26-year-old skipper Ricardo as he steers his Riva, finished in mahogany and hand-varnished 20 times. Ricardo is from Nesso, further along the lake, a village split in half by a waterfall. In the entire region of Lombardy, he assures me, shaking Michelangelo curls, there are just three towns not worth visiting. All the others have very obvious treasures. 'Cremona: violins,' he starts, 'Pavia: the old university. Mantua: the Gonzaga family. Vigevano: shoes. Como: silk. And the lake. The lake…'
Beyond is Villa Làrio, a small hotel with an external lift hugging the sheer cliff down to the water for its handful of guests. Someone is swimming off the private pontoon with one eye idly on Clooney's villa over the water, shuttered and surrounded by what looks like a mini forest. Then, villa on villa. The curved pediment summits on one, the great vaulted ceilings on another. This one coloured a dusty orange, another grey as a kitten. 'E quella di chi è?' Ricardo keeps up a purling commentary - that one belongs to the 17-year-old daughter of a Russian oligarch who likes to play on a Steinway and who turns up now and again at parties, blonde hair streaming down her back, looking bored. And that one to a Neapolitan barone who has come and gone discreetly for a decade. That one to Berlusconi. Several seem long-abandoned. Ricardo says he likes to imagine they belong to warring siblings, unable to settle on its fate. High above us, Villa Annetta, an immense, Edwardian masterpiece in sumptuous cream stucco, now near-derelict. A couple of days before, I'd inched through its decorative railings and spied on a dresser in the abandoned hallway a family portrait from the 1910s with everyone wearing bloomers and wooden skis.
As the late afternoon light flits through its shades of oyster, we pass the real treasures of Como, even closer to the shore: the countless ingeniously carved hidden grottos, the boat houses and mysterious octagonal maritime follies covered in shells. Glinting behind a wall, a mossy statue of Ceto, the goddess of ocean dangers. Stampedes of ichthyocentaurs wreathed in vines. Bobbing about in the water on the south-eastern shore, a tremendous gathering of swans around the new hotel Il Sereno, its 30 rooms clad in carved walnut like a rationalist-inspired chalet, everything made of stone and glass and copper-piped steps that seem to float boldly: unlike any other building on the lake, and yet immaculate against the mountains in the distance. Guests are drinking cocktails in front of a flower-studded vertical garden, a living installation by French botanist Patrick Blanc. Il Sereno is the talk of the lake; everybody is curious to hear about it. Hotels have always been intrinsic to Como. Mark Twain wrote fondly about the bad English translations on the printed cards he collected when staying here in the 1860s. 'This hotel and most superb is handsome locate, do offer all commodities…'
As the light fades we pass Nesso, where local boys strut bare-chested and a group of bridesmaids in dolce vita dresses pose on the old Roman bridge that cuts across the waterfall. Ricardo mock-shivers. The water in this spot is fantastically cold. A Riva glides past with a family of little girls who sit, bare knees to their chins, watching their father drive back to Villa d'Este. The grandest place to stay on the lake, it seems to occupy its own island next to the sweet village of Cernobbio, where the mundane sits so perfectly hugger mugger with luxury - the hardware shop selling seed packets of borlotti beans and crimson bougainvillaea opposite a lingerie shop frothing with eye-watering silk. Ladies at the lavanderia steam white tablecloths all day long, puffing out their cheeks, while children gather on the steps of Jimmy Choo two doors down, sharing slices of pizza.
The evenings at Villa d'Este are candlelit, guests forking quail and cherries. By anybody's standards, it is the very definition of a grand hotel, its gleaming 16th-century corridors lined with antique prints of mail-coaches and hunts. Sons of sultans parlaying with French officers next to majestic oil paintings of peacocks. Porters totter with gigantic trunks, and on the large terraces overlooking the lake, couples sit and decide where to visit tomorrow… if they can bring themselves to move, if they could only stop looking.
Everyone in Como spends an unusual amount of time in contemplation because everyone spends so much time gazing out across the water, towards the other shore, towards other towns. In Menaggio on the western side, with its spruce lido, you gaze on Bellano over on the east, with its museum for old gramophones. In Nesso you consider Toriggia, where Bellini preferred to stay. Once, during a day in Bellagio, I found I could only think of Varenna's distant piazza San Giorgio where on Thursdays there are stalls selling fine-fingered leather driving gloves and olive-wood spinning tops. And of a time when a great rally of vintage Fiat 500s - 50, 60, perhaps more - streamed past tooting their optimistic horns as the sun glinted off the frescoed yellow hand of Christ on the exterior wall of the cathedral.
Eventually, Ricardo drops me off in the village of Torno. About 20 people are sitting on the stone wall around the little port, some reading, some talking, as they have done for centuries. Most are drinking aperitifs and waiting patiently for the chef at the local bar to arrive and start cooking. As I begin up the long, wide steps of the town, the seven o'clock bells peal distantly over the water from Chiesa di San Bartolomeo, where ripple-stomached cherubs hold back swagged curtains to reveal Mary in the chapel of our Lady of Sorrows.
Rounding a corner, the waited-for chef, flushed in his striped trousers, hurries past me on his way to work, a giant courgette in one hand and a bunch of basil in the other. Above him on a gate, a jewel-collared Siamese cat, its blue eyes impersonated by the shutters of its villa, dangles its paw, as though lazily catching both sound and fragrance.
Source: Condé Nast Traveller.