Lake Effect

Nestled in the foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy, Lake Como is truly the aquatic paradise its A-list guests make it out to be.


Celia Shatzman

Published date: 

Feb. 22, 2017

What do George Clooney, Star Wars and James Bond have in common? Lake Como, of course. The actor is the stunning town’s most famous part-time resident, while Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones and Casino Royale were filmed at Villa Del Balbianello, a palazzo whose lush gardens and hidden staircases are fit for cinematic glory.

Villa Del Balbianello is so otherworldly that a visit there will make it feel like you’re in a galaxy far, far away. When the only way to get there is by boat, you know it’s a seriously impressive abode. As you walk up the winding path from the dock, you’ll instantly realize why it’s considered one of the most dramatic locations in Lake Como — if not the world. Sign up for an hour - long tour to see what’s inside the magnificent former home. Built in 1787 on a Franciscan monastery for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini — two bell towers of the old church are still standing — it passed through several owners until its final resident, Count Guido Monzino, bought it in 1974. When he died in 1988, he left his home to the National Trust of Italy.

Monzino was an entrepreneur and renowned explorer, and led the first Italian expedition that climbed Mount Everest. His sense of adventure oozes from all over the villa. The loft serves as a museum that showcases artifacts he collected from around the globe, from Patagonia to Africa to the Himalayas. African masks mingle with Inuit sculptures, as well as the dogsled from his 1971 North Pole expedition, maps, and crafts, making it a veritable mini natural history museum. When Monzino restored the villa he filled the rooms with Flemish tapestries, Chinese pottery, pre-Colombian sculpture, English and French furniture, and a collection of rare 18th century paintings on glass from the Veneto region. The library, with floor to ceiling oak bookshelves, was refitted in traditional English aesthetic, with an antique Spanish treasure chest boasting more than a dozen locks. But the villa’s heart -stopper is the panoramic elaborate terraced gardens, with views of Tremezzina to the north and the base of Comacina Island.

Wandering through such a spectacular estate works up an appetite, so take a quick boat ride over to Comacina Island - according to legend, once home to the Holy Grail. Previously the site of a Roman fort and medieval village, the island held out as a Byzantine stronghold when northern Italy was invaded by the Lombards. As punishment for its loyalty to Milan, the village was razed by Como in 1169, and the ruins of the Romanesque Chiesa di Sant’ Eufemia remain. Nab an outdoor seat overlooking the water at Locanda dell'Isola, the only building on the island, where culinary magic meets theater. Comacina Island was said to be cursed by the Bishop of Como in the 12th century, so at the end of every meal the restaurant’s owner performs an exorcism ritual. They've been doing the same exorcism by fire and serving the same nine-course meal since the restaurant opened in 1947. Each course is incredibly simple, but the freshness of the ingredients and expertise with which the food is prepared creates an unforgettable meal. The antipasto is a slice of tomato topped with a slice of lemon, oregano, extra virgin olive oil and salt; eight different vegetables; and prosciutto and bresaola, guaranteeing that you’ll never look at the produce aisle at your local grocery store the same way. And that’s just the first course! Next is fresh salmon trout cooked on a wood grill, wood oven cooked chicken, a piece of Parmigiano- Reggiano cut right off the cheese block at the table and then topped off by fresh peach slices with their homemade vanilla gelato drizzled with their “crema all’isolana” sauce. Finally, the meal is capped with the exorcism — at the ringing of the bell, the owner cooks brandy in a large pot while explaining the tradition, then pours it into coffee and shares with guests.

While you can’t learn all of the secrets of Italian cuisine in one trip, you can pick up a few during a cooking class at The Grand Hotel Tremezzo. You’ll learn how to make a pasta dish — we’re talking noodles and sauce completely from scratch — as well as a traditional main course and a dessert. To dig a little deeper into the local vino, take a winetasting class at their wine bar, L’Escale. With more than 300 Italian labels to choose from, you can select the grape or region and the chef will prepare canapés to compliment it.

You’ll want to rest your head at The Grand Hotel Tremezzo, an Art Nouveau palazzo with a prime location. The only problem is once you see the floating pool on Lake Como, you may never want to leave. That could also be the case if you nab one of the rooftop suites with sweeping views of the lake. No hot tub in your room? No problem. Just head down to the T Spa, where you can soak in the striking infinity pool, stretch out with a class in the yoga studio, or experience a traditional Turkish treatment in their Hammam Suite.

You can't leave Italy without doing a little shopping, and the charming village of Bellagio is perfectly picturesque, with locally owned boutiques mingling with restaurants and beautiful old churches. Wander the winding cobblestoned streets and stairways and you’ll find art and antique shops, bookstores, clothing boutiques, and just the right amount of tchotchke shops. There are plenty of cute cafes and gelaterias to keep you fueled up.

Amble over to Giardini Villa Melzi, a stunning park that lines the water's edge. Gardens are kind of a thing in Lake Como, and this is one of the most popular. It was built between 1808 and 1810 as a summer residence for one of Napoleon’s associates, and it’s clear that’s where the neoclassical French style comes in. Walk through the garden’s winding paths to see the Roman statues and Egyptian sculpture, exotic trees and Japanese pond with water lilies surrounded by Japanese cedar and maple trees.

Another can't-miss garden is at Villa Carlotta. Just a five-minute walk from The Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the centuries-old massive estate includes a traditional Japanese garden. The palace was given as a wedding gift to a Prussian princess in 1847 from her mother. Now a museum, the upper floors are preserved in period furniture, giving a glimpse into her life.

For more culture, explore the town of Como, particularly the historic district, where you'll find Teatro Sociale di Como. Built in 1893, in 1943 it became temporary home to La Scala, drawing performers like Toscanini and Muti. It shares a similarly opulent interior. The town is also known for the Gothic Como Cathedral. Take a stroll along the waterfront promenade, or for a view from the top, take the Como-Brunate funicular. Since 1894, it has been used by tourists and locals alike. As you look out over the vista, you might start to wonder how you can buddy up with George Clooney to get in on a villa here.