Gardens of Delight: Lake Como in the spring
“I know no place in the world where the sky has been more generous”, said the romantic pianist Franz Liszt on Lake Como. And he should know a thing or two on this fabulous speck of water, Italy’s deepest lake – certainly the most famous – since he spent some happy times perusing its waters, during his elopement with Countess Marie D’Agoul (née Flavigny). Lake Como is splendid any time of the year, the light reflecting subtle hues on its shores, soaring mountains crowing its glory, but it’s in the spring that this fabled lake comes alive, the flowers in its world-famous gardens a triumph of scents and colours.
The shoreline of Lake Como is, in fact, dotted with historic villas adorned with lush gardens; visitors go back in time and can experience the life of the well-heeled and noble families who lived there, the writers and artists who feel in love and were inspired by this Italian marvel.
Let the allure of the lake guide you in this voyage of discovery, where elegance and finesse are the bywords and the superb natural landscape adds fascination to a picture-postcard setting.
Beauty through art and nature
Lake Como epitomises the perfect combination of old-world elegance and new-world luxury; here, villas are not merely an ornament, but the necessary crowning of the concept of a house. Gardens and houses are created together in a single, organic architectural concept. The history of gardening may be seen as an aesthetic expression of beauty through art and nature, the demonstration of an individual’s philosophy, as well as display of private status. On Lake Como, you will encounter gardens crafted in various epochs and embellished following numerous fashions; up to 1700 you can see the ornate, elaborate Italian and French style prevailing, while in 1800, following Romanticism, the design goes from geometric to pictorial, and thus refined, expensive Italian-style gardens were slowly replaced by a new taste.
In view of this multi-faceted variety, the gardens on lake Como illustrate a highly interesting cultural evolution, with visitors identifying a leitmotif that leads to impressive, original discoveries.
Legendary villas and dazzling gardens
A first glance at Lake Como may have you feeling overwhelmed at the sheer scale and beauty of the landscape, along with the vast number of majestic villas, in what looks like a beauty contest, where glamour never falls short. Many are now private residencies or glitzy hotels, but several villas open their gardens to visitors in the spring and that’s when their essence is best caught.
One of the most celebrated gems on the lake, Villa Melzi d’Eril, speaks the language of harmony, achieved with the regular rhythm imposed by its windows, and by the impressive, varying vegetation in the background. Located in Bellagio, it was built between 1808 and 1815 for one of Napoleon’s associates;
Franz Liszt composed his Dante Symphony here and Stendhal was a regular visitor, along with emperors and various members of the elite. Its gardens are open to the public and are a feast of rhododendrons, azaleas, ornamental lemon trees, palm-trees, camellia and even a sequoia. Richly decorated with statues, the park is the first English-style one on the lake.
English roses in the Romantic garden, a citrus tunnel, aromatic and monumental plants, tropical plants, a bamboo grove, a Zen-style rock garden, a fern valley and then a triumph of camellias, azaleas and some of the finest rhododendrons in Europe: the gardens of Villa Carlotta in Tremezzina are hard to beat. Built in 1690, Villa Carlotta contains exceptional statues by Canova and Hayez, with a sensational frieze by Thorvaldsen; do not miss the Cupid and Psyche room, containing the statue by Adamo Tadolini, Canova’s favourite pupil. If it’s a quieter affair you are after, head to the Teresio Olivelli Park in Tremezzina. The park features centuries-old trees, superb azaleas, manicured hedges and an imposing stairway leading to a splendid 17th century villa, containing a relevant collection of statues and a museum. A small oasis of tranquillity, you will enjoy the sweeping views on Bellagio and the lake, sipping an aperitif and just enjoying life.
A triumph of nature, an explosion of light
Touring Lake Como means combining a love for tranquillity, superb panoramas and the pleasure of cultural discoveries, such as the joyful surprises you will see in the 18th century Villa del Balbianello in Lenno (part of Tremezzina). Perched directly on the lake, this villa’s last owner, the famous Himalayan explorer and collector Guido Monzino, left a considerable collection of Chinese, African and Columbian art, as well as 4,000 volumes dedicated to mountaineering and polar expeditions. Numerous films were shot here, such as scenes from Star Wars Episode II and the 2006 remake of James Bond’s Casino Royale: the view from Loggia Durini, in the upper part of the villa, is mesmerizing and one you will not easily forget.
Wandering around the lake, you will feel that history, charm and refinement merge in unison - Villa Erba in Cernobbio, now a congress centre, once hosted Winston Churchill – harmony being the trait d’union of countless other villas, such as Villa Taverna in Torno, now a private residence, or Villa Monastero in Varenna, where you can visit its stupendous park hosting cypresses, agaves and pine trees, stretching for over a mile.