Italy's lavish lakes that will leave you speechless
Michael Gebicki | Fairfax Media | theage.com.au | Originally published: October 2 2016
Whichever way you've come to the lakes of northern Italy – from Venice via the Swiss mountain passes, from the Cote d'Azur or the toy villages along the Ligurian Sea – you're probably running short of superlatives.
Yet the Italian Lakes, sandwiched between Milan and the Alps, delivers the knockout punch, leaving you stricken for words.
You're in good company. From Lizst to Longfellow, writers and artists have tried to capture the sheer ethereal beauty of the Italian Lakes – and mostly failed. Carved by glaciers and imprisoned by soaring mountains, dotted with glorious little towns featuring stone bell towers and noble villas, these long, narrow lakes are a swooning delight, a perfect combination of raw nature and style. Where else can you sit under a palm tree in the garden of a neoclassical villa, surrounded by a colosseum of snow-capped peaks?
The megastar is Lake Como, and the way to see it is aboard one of the ferries that zigzag from one shore to the other, dancing past villages with cobbled squares at the water's edge, lemon groves, avenues of oleanders and ochre villas, built as the summer retreats of wealthy and titled Italians.
Today, instead of Milanese industrialists and merchants, there is a new kind of tenant in town. One villa was bought for $37 million by the 22-year-old daughter of a Russian oligarch, who then spent the same amount again on improvements. Over there is the Clooneys' villa with its single enormous cypress tree, and George are you showing off? The view is one of wealth as a geological stratum, the villas of the rich and famous lining the lake's edge, becoming ever more agricultural as they rise up the slopes.
A noble villa required a garden and the aristocrats who have holidayed here for centuries surrounded their houses with botanical wonderlands planted with exotic species from the far corners of the planet. Villa Carlotta is the most famous but it's a one-hit wonder, frothy with colour when the azaleas bloom, a bit of a let-down otherwise.
The standout for me is Villa del Balbianello, set on a saddleback promontory. From the little harbour with its striped Venetian-style mooring poles, the path climbs past a chapel to the loggia – an open-air gallery – at the summit of the promontory, its columns twined with tendrils of ficus, leading to a map room and a library.
The garden is sculpted and precise but further on it becomes an enchanting place, at times tangled, wild and mysterious, full of dark passages as it fuses with the rocks and scrub at the base of the peninsula. Villa del Balbianello is a favourite for wedding parties ... and movie makers. Daniel Craig appeared here as James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale.
Lake Como also comes with a full complement of stylish extras, beginning with the waterside village of Bellagio. From first sight Bellagio has you snared, improving with every moment as your ferry approaches, rising steeply in citrus and pastel colours from a waterfront lined with cafes and bistros where white-shirted waiters attend to sockless men in linen shirts and Prada-accented women draped in languid postures. Something quieter? Lenno, on the opposite shore close to Villa Balbianello, is a simple delight.
To the west is Lake Maggiore and its crowning glory, Isola Bella, anchored off the village of Stresa. From the lakeside, Isola Bella looks like a floating wedding cake, a series of ascending tiers with statues and columns rising from its corners. Up close it feels like the work of someone with ridiculous amounts of money under the influence of powerful hallucinogens. It's garden architecture as opera – overblown and shockingly theatrical, but also strangely dreamlike, right down to the white peacocks that strut around the lawns.
Lake Varese sits beside an absolute honey of a city. Tucked into the alpine foothills just west of Lake Como, Varese is style central, a city with bags of personality where most locals look like they've just come from a fashion shoot.
Its specialty is footwear. Nobody in Varese dares to step outside with anything less than gorgeously shod feet, and it is only fitting that the pedestrian precinct, Corso Matteotti, is a fashion catwalk. There's also a lovely walk past the shrines that line the pilgrimage path, Sacro Monte.
Varese's dining and bar scene is super friendly. Sit down in a restaurant and the waiter will usually bring you a plate of bread and the best parmesan you'll ever taste. If you want to sample a wonderful, compact Italian city with style, charisma and zero tourists, put it on your wish list, and treat your feet.