CHIAVARI, Italy - On these hot summer days with the temperatures hovering in the 90's, I’ve been thinking about a trip I took to Lake Como a couple of years ago with a friend of mine from my Conde' Nast days. The plan was to take the ferry to Cernobbio and have lunch at the opulent Grand Hotel Villa d'Este.
The villa, a Renaissance residence, was originally called the Villa del Garovo and the villa, and the 25-acre (100,000 m2) park which surrounds it, has seen many changes since it was built in the sixteenth-century as a summer residence for the Cardinal of Como.
Today it is a luxury hotel with room rates averaging €1000 ($1400) a night and top suites averaging €3500 ($5000) per night, and has been called the best hotel in the world by Forbes Magazine.
The restored villa is set in a large Italian Renaissance garden, complete with a rippling waterfall that starts at the fountain of Hercules and ripples down a stone staircase. Inside, the villa is furnished with museum quality antiques and crystal chandeliers.
With the sun high in the sky, we decided to have lunch under the tall chestnut trees on the Villa’s lake front terrace. We picked a lakeside table with a view of the sapphire blue water, and with the sound of the lake softly lapping against the shore, it was impossible to not get caught up in the magic of this sweet dolce vita.
In the afternoon we took the ferry north, along the west side of the lake to visit the Villa Carlotta. In 1843 the Princess Marianne of Nassau, the wife of Prince Albert of Prussia, bought the villa and gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding gift. It was Carlotta’s husband, Georg II of Sacen-Meiningen (don’t you love their titles!) who took charge of the garden and the planting of the 150 varieties of spring blooming rhododendrons and azaleas you see there today.
The Villa Carlotta is just about mid-way around the lake, at the Tremezzo/Cadenabbia ferry stop, where the lake is at its widest and most beautiful. Here the sparkling water is framed by the mountains that hug the border between Italy and Switzerland, opening up from the spur that makes up the inverted Y shape of the lake.
The fairy tale pink Castello Maresi is impossible to photograph as it sits behind high stone-walls and heavy wrought iron gates in a lush, flower filled park-like estate. It’s tall towers and turrets add to the castle's secluded romantic atmosphere which is why it was, and still is, the perfect place for a secret rendezvous.
The beauty and languorous melancholy of Lake Como has long attracted lovers from all around the world. Even famous ones. It was rumored that Prince Charles secretly rendezvoused with Camilla at Castello Maresi in nearby Griante when he was still married to Diana. The rumor was hotly denied by castle employees, but of course they would have to say that wouldn’t they.
From the ferry dock in Tremezzo it is only a short ride across the lake to Bellagio. The white neoclassic Villa Melzi, known for its exquisite gardens, anchors the town at one end and at the other end is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, the playground of the rich and famous.
During the 18th century the Russian and European upper classes and royalty often made the hotel their own. It was no surprise for hotel guests coming down to breakfast to see the Empress of Russia, Prince Metternich or Queen Victoria buttering their toast in the hotel dining room. Even the 19th century French writer Stendhal considered Bellagio the most beautiful place in the world and confesses to having spent his happiest summers here enjoying opera, fighting duels and falling in love.
With the sun starting to set behind the mountains, it was time to board the ferryboat and return to Como. Standing at the rail, watching the lake unfold before us, the light soft and sheer, it was easy to see why, since the days of the Romans, all who pass fall this way not only fall in love with Lake Como, but continue to dream about it for the rest of their lives.