Luisa Malagoli is a history teacher from Verona, the northern Italian city that forms the backdrop to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She is my flight companion on Emirates airline from Dubai to Milan, the nearest airport to Lake Como. Intertwining history and culture with copious digressions on the seven-hour flight, she fills me in on the rustic appeal Lake Como had way before George Clooney and his A-list friends moved in with their glamour and style.
Some of the first outsiders to build villas here were the Romans, who made it a base camp for their expanding empire, she tells me. Throughout the Middle Ages, powerful dynasties dominated the region. It was only in the 19th century that Lake Como became a playground for the rich and the famous.
The hour’s drive from Milan to Lake Como takes in winding roads and towering cypress trees. All along the dark blue waters of the lake are grand villas that belonged to European noble families as far back as the Renaissance period. Clooney’s Villa Oleandra in Laglio was built in the 18th century.
Capture the scenic beauty
The funicular railway line to Brunate, which has been running since 1894, offers a panoramic bird’s-eye view, so don’t forget to pack a camera and lens suited for stunning landscape photography on the seven-minute ride up to this peak in Lombardy.
Back at lake level, the shores are peppered with small villages that you can spend hours exploring. The food focuses on local cuisine and, of course, fresh fish.
With its prime location, Bellagio is perhaps the most famous town on the lake. The quaint village is a maze of steep stone staircases with red-roofed and green-shuttered buildings. The big shopping secret here is silk and this scenic town produces about 80 per cent of Europe’s silk.
A 15-minute ferry ride away is the famous Villa Carlotta, built by a wealthy textile merchant in 1690. It was given as a wedding present to Princess Carlotta of Prussia by her mother in 1843 and is the most visited villa on the lake. Its extensive gardens will keep you busy for at least an hour.
But if you’re feeling starry-eyed, take the ferry to Isola Comacino, the lake’s only island. The restaurant here is said to be a favourite with the A-list, particularly Clooney and best mate Brad Pitt. The Locanda dell’Isola Comacina has been doing the same six-course set menu since 1947; the grilled trout swathed in salt and lemon and olive oil is worth swimming across for.
There’s more Hollywood not far away. Villa del Balbianello, located on the tip of a small wooded promontory on the western shore of Lake Como, doubled as a film set for Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones in 2000. More recently, Casino Royale was shot here as well.
If you fancy, you can book a Star Wars-themed wedding at the Villa, with storm troopers included.
A ten-minute walk from the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, where we stayed (see box), is Villa Sola Cabiati, a unique historic villa on the shores of Lake Como. The mansion was the 18th-century vacation home of the wealthy Duke Gabrio Serbelloni. The ground and first floors showcase the family’s frescoed rooms and ornate stucco work while the top floor displays violins, fine china and furnishings from Palazzo Serbelloni in Milan where Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife briefly stayed. Legend has it that Napoleon spent many nights in the villa.
Last nugget of history from Malagoli —the medieval town of Como that is worth a morning of anyone’s time. Its narrow cobblestone streets are great for sightseeing and souvenirs such as handmade olive oil soaps and home-made chocolates. The old city’s extraordinary Roman remains is as impressive today as it was then.
Spots you can reach easily from Lake Como
Known for its namesake carbonated mineral water, San Pellegrino is a day trip from Lake Como. The place is famous for its thermal baths that were built in 1840. The most important spa resort is San Pellegrino Terme, which offers saunas, Jacuzzis, steam baths and relaxation rooms.
A trip to St Moritz by train makes for a memorable journey. The Bernina Express connects the Italian Alps with the Swiss Alps and spectacular views greet you at every turn. Board the train at Tirano, two hours from Lake Como, to start your trip on one of the world’s most scenic rail routes.
If you are travelling with kids, a trip to Lugano in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland is a must. A main attraction is Swissminiatur, an open-air miniature park featuring Swiss landmarks. The 45-minute bus trip requires a border crossing between Italy and Switzerland, so carry your passport.
Forty-five minutes by car from Lake Como and you arrive at Italy’s shopping capital, Milan. Home to some of the world’s renowned fashion brands and football clubs, the place is also rich in art and culture. The city is home to the Duomo di Milano — the grandest Gothic cathedral in the world.
Room with a view
There’s something special about a hotel with a colourful past. No matter how opulent the rooms, impeccable the service or exceptional the amenities, an atmosphere that is alive with rich history leaves guests with a unique and unforgettable experience. The imposing Grand Hotel Tremezzo, opened in 1910, has been owned by three Italian aristocratic families. Most hotels in Como boast spectacular views of Italy’s most famous lake, but few rival the breath-taking vistas from every vantage point of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
A stay at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo is like stepping into the past with oil paintings, chandeliers, marble busts and even a billiard table from the 1800s. A warm buongiorno from the doormen and a ride up the lift bring you to the hotel’s reception splashed in red.
Done up in art nouveau, the formal hall opens on to the left to an intimate bar. To the right is La Terrazza Restaurant that overlooks the lake, perfect for leisurely breakfasts and candle-lit fine dining. If you want a casual option, try L’Escale Fondues & Wine Bar. To feast on an Italian classic, go to T Pizza set amid sloping gardens at the back of the property. When the sun comes up, the popular spot is T Beach on the lakefront, a must-try for grilled fish and meat.
With 90 rooms and suites, three swimming pools and a clay tennis court surrounded by private gardens, the hotel ticks all the right boxes. Guests can enjoy its ESPA spa set in an 18th-century stone villa, which now holds additional treatment rooms and a lake-facing relaxation lounge. To settle in for my two-day stay, I opted for the deep muscle massage with hot stones. The suite I stayed had all the usual trappings of luxury. All in all, the staff were efficient and friendly, the services were excellent, the views great, and the location couldn’t be better.
A two-night stay in a luxury suite with breakfast costs €950 (about Dh3,759) a night.
— The writer was a guest of Grand Hotel Tremezzo