The speed boat kicked up white spray as it skated across Lake Como. On a sunny day, delicate clouds floated above us in the bright blue sky. Relaxing in the back of the luxuriously appointed boat, we were having a deliciously La Dolce Vita experience.
Our skipper, Laura Perlini was taking us to Nesso, a village built onto the rock face on the eastern shore. But we weren’t stopping to explore the village.
Fighting the strong currents, the engine whined as Perlini maneuvered the boat forward and backward. Our guide, Monica Neroni pointed out the ancient Ponte della Civera arched over the mouth of a wide stream. Amazing to think how many centuries villagers have used that sturdy piece of medieval Romanesque architecture to walk from their homes to the town square and church.
We ducked as the boat glided underneath the stone bridge. On both sides of the channel, houses were built from the waterline up thirty feet. A thick bramble of brush and trees filled the spaces between the houses so our boat was hemmed in. As we pressed on, we lost sight of the sky and sun.
We heard it before we saw it. Neroni gestured for us to look into the dark recesses of the channel. We saw the Nesso Waterfall, looking like a Pre-Raphaelite illustration of wild, untamed nature, torrents of water cascading down a rugged cliff. To give us a closer view, Perlini steered the boat into the current, but in that narrow space, there was no safe way to reach the waterfall. That glimpse would have to do.
She revved the engine, swung the boat around and we charged out of the darkness and back into the glorious light. She aimed the speed boat into the middle of the lake and we headed to our next destination.
Como, the Lake, and Como, the City
Located in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy close to the Swiss border, Lake Como (Lago di Como) has been a premiere destination for centuries. Fishermen prized the local catch pulled from the clean, deep waters of the lake. The Romans appreciated the lake’s natural beauty and temperate climate. In the centuries afterward, artists, aristocrats and the wealthy built homes around the lake. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the children of the European aristocracy completed their education by spending time in Italy. Lake Como was an important part of what was called the Grand Tour.
Notable writers and musicians enjoyed the rustic pleasures of the lake. Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Stendhal, Gioacchino Rossini, Franz Liszt and Vincenzo Bellini all took inspiration from the mountains and the lake.
The building of an extensive road system in the 19th century made the area more easily accessible. To accommodate the many visitors, over time, large villas were converted into luxury hotels.
In 2002 George Clooney added to the lake’s fame when he purchased Villa Oleandra in the village of Laglio. Celebrities followed and so too did the public, including the newly rich, eager to find their place in sun. Given the increasing popularity of the area today, more hotels are being built in towns like Como and in the villages around the lake. Yet, even with the growth in tourism, ninety percent of the villas are still privately owned.
Of the many towns and villages along the lake, the most accessible is Como with two train stations and easy access to Milan.
A Walk Around the Lake
Our exploration of Como began on the broad pedestrian walkway called the Promenade of the Villas (Passeggiata Lino Gelpi or Passegiata delle Ville) that stretches along the western shore. As swans floated by, we walked, talked and made way for bicyclists and joggers. We passed grand villas built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the villas are available for public events like the imposing, neoclassical Villa Olmo that was being readied for a Dolce e Gabbana photo shoot and party.
When we reached the southern tip of the lake, we turned east and stopped at the Aero Club Como to admire their Instagram-perfect small seaplanes. The only seaplane school in Europe that certifies pilots to carry passengers, the Aero Club also offers seaplane rides over the lake, an experience our group was eager to have.
Next door to the seaplane dock, at the Yacht Club Como we watched children having a lesson. They weren’t tall enough yet to crew, but soon enough they would be on a sailboat, enjoying the lake’s pleasures on their own.
Farther east, we stopped to admire the elegant, neoclassical Volta Temple (Tempio Voltiano). The museum and monument are dedicated to the memory of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta. He may be the most important person you don’t know. Without the success of his experiments at the end of the 18th century, our lives would be very different.
Before Volta, scientists believed that electricity could only exist in nature, in lightning or inside our bodies. But Volta demonstrated conclusively that electricity could be created chemically. He built a cylinder containing alternating disks of copper and zinc separated by cloth soaked in salt water. The interaction generated an electric current. Our modern day batteries evolved from his Voltic pile.
Across the road from the Volta Temple, the famed architect Daniel Libeskind celebrated Volta’s achievement with Life Electric, a dramatic, supremely modern, 54-foot stainless steel sculpture. Sitting in the lake on the Diga Foranea pier, the striking shape suggests the jagged power of electricity.
Within sight of the Volta memorials, there are others. These are elegant in their own ways, but they celebrate not scientific breakthroughs but calamitous, manmade events.
Closest to the Volta Temple, the Como War Memorial (Monumento ai Caduti) honors those who died in WWI. Made of polished Serizzo granite and Nabresina marble, the tower is stark and defiant. Commissioned in 1931 during Mussolini’s reign, the memorial appears to regard those deaths as heroic.
Around the corner, memorials mark another war and other deaths. The street we walked on, Lungo Lago Mafalda di Savoia, honored the life of Princess Mafalda of Savoy who died in Buchenwald, a victim of Nazi persecution. In an area of a public park with a view of the small craft marina the Monument to European Resistance memorializes the loss of life during WWII.
The artist and sculptor Gianni Colombo created a group of memorials. To mourn those who fought in WWII, he constructed a sculpture made of stone walls that encase a shallow staircase that goes up but leads nowhere.
In addition to Princess Mafalda, victims of the Holocaust are remembered by a granite slab topped with quotations from some who died, including a short passage from Anne Frank’s Diary. In the same area, shaded by over-hanging trees, a rusted steel slab sculpture honors those who died in Hiroshima. The human scale of these memorials adds to their emotional effect.
We didn’t have time to linger, but I would recommend visiting the memorials and then spending time in the public park with views of the marina and the lake. Ideal for sitting and enjoying the sunny Como weather, benches are placed conveniently in the park and along the lakeside promenade. For refreshment, an outdoor café run by the Café Maya chain serves a full menu and a variety of beverages.
Our next destination was the Old City. We left the lake behind us as we walked across Piazza Cavour with outdoor cafes and classic hotels bordering the wide expanse.
The Old City
The narrow streets in the Old City were busy with people walking side-by-side, their dogs on leashes. Bicyclists peddled by as we reached the Cathedral of Como (Basilica Cattedrale di Como) which dominates Piazza Duomo. Built over several centuries, the cathedral was one of the last Gothic-style churches built in Italy. Construction began in 1396 and was completed in 1770. Placed on the façade are human and animal sculptures, some faded by centuries of weather.
When you visit the church, you will want to walk up to the main entrance and have an up-close look at the remarkable statues of Pliny the Elder (23-79) and Pliny the Younger (63–c.113), notable Roman politicians and artists.
The actual entrance to the cathedral is around the corner on the north side of the building. Neroni directed us to the Door of the Frog. A funny name for the entrance to a church. But, she explained, secreted on the left side of the doorway about six feet up, was the sculpture of a frog. If we touched it, she said, we would have a year of good luck.
We scanned the high wall covered with sculptures of enough animals to fill an ark. For the life of me, I couldn’t see a frog in the menagerie. With her help I found it. After centuries of people touching the soft stone, the frog was barely identifiable. Not one to walk away from the promise of a year’s good luck. I reached up and gently touched the frog. Mission accomplished!
Inside there was so much to appreciate. Light streamed in from the large windows overlooking the altars. The architecture of a building constructed over so many years had touches of gothic, Renaissance and baroque styles. An art historian might find fault with that amalgamation, but to me, there was a harmony in all the elements.
When you tour the Cathedral, allow time to appreciate the stained glass windows, altars, statues, tapestries and paintings. As befits the largest church in an important city, the Cathedral definitely felt majestic, but the scale was very human. Beautiful and grand without being intimidating.
As a reward for walking around the Old City, we stopped by the outdoor patio at the Infinity Bar at Hotel VISTA Palazzo Lago di Como. The only 5-star luxury hotel in the center of Como, the eighteen room VISTA is located on the corner of Piazza Cavour just across from the lake. We looked at the panoramic view of the lake as we enjoyed appetizers and a chilled glass of sparkling Prosecco. Never did the setting sun look so beautiful.
The Silk Trade
Lake Como is a luxury destination, known for beautiful gardens, magnificent lakeside villas, fine dining restaurants, meticulous service, beautiful scenery and charming villages. But for centuries it was the production of silk that made Como famous and wealthy.
Today, if you know where to look, there are buildings everywhere in Como that supported that trade. In fact, the hotel where we were staying, the wonderfully modern and comfortable Hilton Lake Como was originally a silk factory.
At the end of the 15th century, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508) was a visionary and a patron of the arts. Among the many artists he supported was Leonardo da Vinci. Ludovico commissioned The Last Supper. Besides supporting artists, to invigorate the local economy, he had mulberry trees planted to feed silk worms. The trees thrived in the microclimate. So did the silk worms.
For centuries afterwards, silk worms were raised and their cocoons were harvested to create raw silk thread, which was then dyed and woven into cloth. Hundreds of factories and thousands of workers produced silk products that were sold around the world.
After WWII, as happened elsewhere, lower cost Chinese goods flooded the market. The factories in Como that manufactured silk thread closed and the silk industry contracted. But while the number of factories declined, silk products are still manufactured in Como and they are as highly regarded as ever. Armani, Dolce Gabbana, Valentino and many other designers have their silk accessories and clothing made in Como.
At the Silk Museum (Museo della Seta), Ester Geraci gave us a tour and explained how the silk worm is cultivated and how the slender threads of its cocoon are transformed into glamorous, colorful designs. When you think about it, the process is quite astounding.
Organized chronologically, the museum showed how silk fabric production evolved over time. What began as artisanal and handmade was revolutionized several times by technological developments. As machines were introduced into the manufacturing process, prices came down. Silk garments and accessories were still highly prized, but they became affordable.
In a special exhibit space, there were displays of clothing designers who worked with silk. I especially liked the display of the Como designer, Titta Porta (1934-2014) whose light-as-a-feather dresses shimmered in the light.
Before we left, we stopped in the gift shop. There were silk purses, wallets, key cases and ties, all exquisitely made and colorful. But I had my eye on the scarves.
The colors were vivid. The designs delicate. Most amazingly, the scarves I held in my hand seemed to weigh next-to-nothing. I couldn’t resist. I bought a scarf with muted turquoise and green tones of for my wife and a delicate pink scarf for her mom. Perfect gifts for the holidays.
We also stopped at Villa Bernasconi in the neighboring town of Cernobbio. Cavalier Davide Bernasconi (1849-1922) prospered as the founder of the Silk Textile Company. A hard working visionary, when he decided to build a new home, he constructed an Art Nouveau villa.
From the exterior, the building appears modest. Nothing about it screams wealth, but Bernasconi used his resources to create a finely crafted structure, a home designed with an exquisite attention to detail. Vibrant flowers, plants, fruits, seeds and images taken from the silk trade decorate the walls, windows and the exterior.
Today the house is a museum and art gallery. A lover of modernity, Bernasconi would appreciate that his home has become a technological wonder, a “talking house” museum. Instead of docents guiding visitors around the building, the house speaks.
Walking from room to room, there were interactive opportunities to learn about the history of the silk trade and Bernasconi’s story. On one floor, by placing oversized Monopoly-style game figures onto a large table illuminated from below, a voice was activated and shared facts about Bernasconi, his family, the technological advances he embraced and the history of the building, which is now owned by the Municipality of Cernobbio.
On another floor, what appeared to be a long cabinet with twenty drawers was actually an interactive display. Open a drawer and more facts came spilling out, courtesy of a disembodied voice.
Part of an upper floor was reserved as a gallery space. When we visited there was an exhibit of the evocative steampunk sculptures by the industrialist and artist Roberto Gavinelli (1941-1998).
Elegant Villas, Star Wars and Fine Dining - Exploring the Lake in a Speed Boat
I enjoyed everything we did on the trip. But if there was a first among equals, it was the day we spent on the lake in our La Dolce Vita speed boat. Hiring a private boat is pricey, but well worth the cost. Having the ability to scoot from villa to villa or restaurant to public park was a delight. And, if we stopped nowhere, just being out on the lake, enjoying the scenery on a beautiful day was a pleasure without measure.
After visiting the Nesso Waterfall on the eastern shore, we headed west to Villa del Balbianello.
Famous for the role it played in several feature films most notably Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002), the villa is constructed on the Dosso di Lavedo peninsula. We walked out on the terrace awash with color from the bright red geraniums planted in large terra cotta pots. People took selfies or asked friends to take photographs of them against the backdrop of the lake and the eastern shore.
In 1785 Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini (1725-1796) acquired the 13th century Franciscan monastery. He redeveloped the property, creating a large villa and terraced gardens. Over the centuries the villa had many owners. In 1974, the explorer Guido Monzino (1928-1988) purchased the villa. Making few changes to the exterior, he redesigned the interior to house his literary interests and the large collection of artifacts and antiques he had collected on his travels. Villa del Balbianello was his refuge from the world until his untimely death in 1988. His will bequeathed the property to the National Trust of Italy.
Easily reached by ferry, water taxi and private boat, the villa is popular with visitors who come for the day and for weddings where it is in great demand. Allow enough time to explore the grounds and enjoy the serenity of the gardens and the views of the lake.
Our next stop was a visit to Pescallo, a fishing village. Like a scene from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, we stepped from boat to boat to meet Carlo and Carla Tettamanzi who leave their day jobs during high season, May-September, to guide visitors on the lake in their small fleet of sailing boats.
We sat on their 42’ sailboat, built in Germany in 1998 for racing and now outfitted with comfortable cushions. While the water lapped against the sailboat, they served appetizers and chilled white wine. That moment fulfilled all my fantasies about Lake Como’s elegance and glamor!
Their boats can be chartered for part of a day or all day, with a skipper or without, if the visitors have appropriate training. During the warm months, Carlo told us, he will take a group out with a picnic lunch. Once the boat is moored in one of the many sheltered coves, he invites his guests to dive from the boat and enjoy swimming in Lake Como’s cool waters.
We didn’t have time that warm day to do just that, but we all agreed that sounded like a good way to spend a summer afternoon.
Back in our speed boat, we were off to visit villa hotels.
We stopped at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Framing the entrance was a floating pool next to a shaded outdoor bar and a small private beach.
Neroni told us that the majority of the hotels on the lake were originally private villas. The Grand Hotel Tremezzo was the first grand hotel actually built as a hotel. Family owned, the hotel was opened in 1910. Villa Amelia, next door and originally a private home, was incorporated onto the hotel grounds.
With Belle Epoch details reflecting the early 20th Century construction, elegant wrought iron staircases and deep weave carpeting give the hotel an elegant, welcoming feeling.
Besides the floating pool in front of the hotel there is also a pool in the garden area behind the hotel and an infinity pool in the three story Spa.
The rooms are decorated with a mix of contemporary and historical design with an emphasis on classic elegance. To invoke the past, the lounges and lobby are furnished with vibrant green, purple and burgundy colored plush velvet furniture.
Our next stop was one of Lake Como’s more famous hotels, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. General Manager Antonio Calzolaro gave us a tour of the historic hotel and then we settled down to a delightful lunch on the covered terrace at La Goletta Ristorante.
Perfect on a warm summer afternoon, we had a glass of chilled dry white wine branded by the hotel (Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Nuragus di Cagliari) and a plate of impossibly thin and tender slices of bresaola topped with arugula leaves and curly slices of parmesan.
The second course was, of course, pasta. A good portion of fusilli was dressed with a tomato, basil and eggplant sauce. I am fairly certain a red wine was offered, but I was happy with the chilled Nuragus di Cagliari. For dessert, we were served that classic Italian dessert, tiramisu served in a tall glass, dusted with cocoa, topped with one bright red raspberry, a plump blue berry and one fat blackberry.
After lunch we had time to stroll around Bellagio. The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni anchors the southern edge of the village. The main street traces the outline of the lake while the side streets lined with shops veer off up the hill.
Having spent a good hour walking up and down the cobbled hillside streets, I needed a refreshment. Just across from the ferry landing, there was a gelateria on the ground floor of the Hotel Excelsior Splendide. Usually I like lemon but none was available. I sampled several and decided on a cup of melon gelato.
Sitting under the shade of a giant tree, watching couples and families waiting to board the ferry, I relished each spoonful of icy gelato. I was very happy.
As hotel development around the lake increases, so do the choices. There are the classic hotels, like the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. And, now there are architectural marvels like Il Sereno Lago di Como.
Approaching from the lake, Il Sereno makes a dramatic statement. With a concrete, glass, copper and stone profile this is a modern re-interpretation of a Lake Como villa. Add to that an infinity pool, a bright turquoise rectangle that juts out over the lake and the hotel makes a remarkable design statement.
With 30 rooms, Il Sereno is where you go when you need peace, quiet and a home off-the-grid. You will be tempted to spend your entire stay on the property, taking advantage of the infinity pool, spa and 1-Star Michelin restaurant. But you should certainly walk around Torno and its four villages, Rasina, Perlasca, Montepiatto and Piazzaga. If you would rather do your exploring on the lake, the hotel has classic Cantiere Ernesto Riva speed boats available for guests.
On our last evening, we visited Villa d’Este, Lake Como’s most revered hotel, a destination remarkable for being both grand and intimate.
With its vast landscaped gardens, 15th Century mosaic grotto, elegant service and meticulously furnished rooms, Villa d’Este is a modern portal into an elegant world that recalls Belle Epoch grandeur.
After a tour of the grounds with Isabella Brusco, Marketing Manager, and Danilo Zucchetti, Managing Director, we had dinner seated on the open terrace facing the lake. Just below us, waves splashed against the stone wall. While we contemplated the extensive menu and wine list, a duck familiar with the restaurant walked between the tables, hunting for favors before taking up a position on the stone wall where he kept an eye on the diners.
Our server confided that If what we wanted wasn’t on the menu, the kitchen would prepare anything we would like to eat. But, no worries on that front, the menu hit all the high notes of Italian cuisine.
The light was fading as the first course, an amuse bouche appeared. A delicate, bright green pea soup with foie gras puree, rich with texture and flavor, a sprinkle of crunchy dehydrated strawberry crumble was scattered on top for a contrasting texture and color.
The meal progressed, providing everyone exactly what they wanted. Bitter green salads. Exquisitely prepared al dente pasta. Poached lobster. Caponata. Risotto. Gnocchi. Chicken. Fish. Beef Filet. Pork Chop. And, of course, for dessert an amazing collection of gelato and a selection of grappa.
As we ate, the sun hung low in the sky and then vanished, leaving lake and sky one color indistinguishable. The wind picked up and the lights strung across the terrace swayed back and forth. We all agreed, dinner at Villa d’Este was the perfect way to say goodbye to Lake Como.
And, we all knew we would return to Lake Como. There is so much more to explore.
WHEN YOU GO
For information about the area, consult the websites for Lake Como and Como. Both have colorful photo albums of the area and lists of attractions including information about restaurants, hotels, parks, churches, museums, local products, music venues, water sports, golf courses, hiking and bicycling.
For a downloadable tourist guide go to Lago di Como: World Within a World.
For an insider’s view, the English-language newsletter The Como Companion has articles about topics as disparate as the quality of lakeshore beaches, interesting bits of history, an e-biking recommendation and appreciations of local food and wine.
Information about Lake Como ferries is available on the Navigazione Lago di Como website, with prices and schedules. The website for the hotel Il Palazzo del Vice Re has a helpful description of the different ferries that crisscross the lake.
The easiest way to reach Lake Como is to travel to Milan and then transit on to Como. Trains travel between Milan and Como on a regular basis, arriving at two stations operated by two different train services. Trenord Como Nord Lago is across from the lake. The other, Trenitalia Como San Giovanni is within walking distance of Piazza Cavour, the main square facing the lake.
Aero Club Como, Viale Massenzio Masia, 44, 22100 Como, +39 031 574495. With eleven aircraft, the maintenance hangar is across the street from the seaplane dock. Book at least a week ahead, especially during the busy summer season. Flights can be arranged for a sightseeing tour above the lake or as a special occasion “taxi” to reach another Lake Como town, hotel or a lakeside villa with an appropriate dock. The small planes are cozy and that size can be an issue for passengers who have issues with claustrophobia.
Bellagio Sailing, Pescallo Pier, +39 338 8540078, firstname.lastname@example.org. 2 hour, 3 hour and all day tours are available. Carlo and Carla Tettamanzi will create a relaxed experience as you explore the lake in the comfort of an elegant sailing boat.
Café Maya, Via Bernardino Luini 51, 22100 Como, +39 031 279398, a local company with many locations in the area serving meals, desserts and beverages. The outdoor cafe near the monuments is located in a shady spot in the park, ideal for people-watching while you have a snack.
Cathedral of Como (Basilica Cattedrale di Como), Piazza del Duomo, 23, 22100 Como,
+39 031 311 2275.
Como War Memorial (Monumento ai Caduti), Viale Giancarlo Puecher, 22100 Como.
Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Via Roma, 1, 22021 Bellagio. Notable for classic and stately rooms, this is a grand hotel with a great history. Among the many celebrities who have been guests, JFK stayed in suite 133.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo Lago di Como, Via Regina. 8, 22016 Tremezzina, +39 0344 42491, email@example.com. Besides the 90 rooms, the hotel also has available an additional 6 bedrooms in the nearby Villa Cabiati.
Hilton Hotel Lake Como, Via Borgo Vico 241, 22100 Como, +39 031 338 2611. The 172 room Hilton makes a modern design statement in a building that once housed a silk textile factory. The facade you see from the street reflects the original look. The interior was artfully expanded, using an elegant minimalism to create public spaces and guest rooms that are comfortable and inviting.
Hotel VISTA Palazzo Lago di Como, Piazza Cavour 24, 22100 Como, +39 031 5375241, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Il Sereno Lago di Como, Via Torrazza 10, 22020, Torno, +39 031 547 7800.
Monument to European Resistance, Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia, Como, +39 031 252352. The artist and sculptor Gianni Colombo used an area in a shaded public park to commemorate those who perished in World War II, including victims of Nazi concentration camps and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Ristorante Imbarcadero Lago di Como, Hotel Metropole & Suisse, Piazza Cavour 19, 22100 Como, +39 031 269 444. Located on Piazza Cavour, the restaurant serves Italian classics indoors or on the outdoor covered patio.
Ristorante Raimondi, Hotel Villa Flori, Via per Cernobbio, 12, 22100 Como, +39 031 33820. The elegant restaurant offers indoor and patio service with an expansive view of the lake and Brunate, the towering hill above Como and Cernobbio.
Tasell Company, Via Alessandro Manzoni, 18, 22100 Como, email@example.com, +39 031-304084. The company motto says it all: “Seeing the lake from the lake.” Tasell provides water taxi service and private boat rentals. For our day-long tour of the lake, Laura Perlini was our skipper.
Villa Bernasconi, Lago Campanini 2, 22012 Cernobbio, +39 031 334 7209.
Villa d’Este, Via Regina 40, 22012 Cernobbio, +39 031 3481. One of Lake Como’s most notable hotels. At Villa d’Este you chose how you want to relax. Walk the expansive grounds and lose yourself in the quiet of exquisitely manicured gardens, swim in the floating pool at the front of the property or have a leisurely meal on the terrace facing the lake.
Volta Temple and Museum (Tempio Voltiano), Viale Guglielmo Marconi, 1, Como, +39 031 574705.