I am a fairly highly (ignore the oxymoron) wired person. Close friends and family might say that I have a hard time staying still, that I am still learning the art of ‘far niente’ and that one hour without activity or productivity is an art which I have not yet mastered. Lago di Como is the closest thing I’ve found to a natural calming agent, and each and every time I arrive at the lake, I feel its medicinal calming powers instantaneously. Perhaps the noble Italian families did as well, with the hypnotic changing colors of the lake throughout the day, the reflection of the green mountains in the glistening waters, the way it positively glitters in the morning and in the early evening sun, and how it opens up at various points to majestic views of the Italian Alps.
It is interesting how a geography with so much drama can have such a tranquillising effect. Add to that spectacular gardens and villas for the eyes further delight, and one is all but recovered from stress and preoccupations. Indeed it is the only place in the world where I have actually lay on a dock in the Giardini di Melzi, and another time on a stone wall inside Villa Monastero, and have successfully closed my eyes and fallen asleep for an hour or two. This might not be saying much if you are an easy napper, but for the author, nicknamed ‘Constant Motion’ and sufferer of non-dormant anxiousness, the effects of this magnificent lake are nothing less than magical.
To describe these world-renowned properties as ‘gardens’ must be regarded as an insult by some; as they are exquisite, timeless, hugely impressive works of art to be appreciated for less than twenty euros each. Villa Monastero is a vibrant watercolour of flora and fauna; tropical, exotic, and romantic all at once. Villa Carlotta, next to the fabulous Grand Hotel Tremezzo, is a vertical masterpiece built at the end of the 17th century, with tiers of sculptures stone staircases, fountains, and a botanic lovers dream design. The Spring is awash with rhododendrons and azaleas, while roses climb the front staircases and a citrus pathway introduce visitors to the bamboo garden and century old cedars beyond.
I giardini di Villa Melzi are one of the most understated and elegant garden and villa properties on the lake, with vast green lawns and a graceful villa facing the lake. It is a welcome respite from the crowds of Bellagio. My personal favourite is the row of plane-trees along the lake, a photo that I have taken dozens of times, from when the trees are bare after winter to the first crisp and breezy days of Fall. They are immaculately pruned to represent the shape of umbrellas. On the hill above the villa are greenhouses and former tennis grounds. Just before you exit, if you are on your way to Alle Darsene for lunch, you will pass an unexpected bamboo grove. The color scheme is in line what that of the lake itself: simple greens act as a mind cleanser. A walk through Villa Melzi gardens is a mental and emotional ‘hush.’
The gentle finale of the garden lands you right at the doorstep of one of the most charming restaurants on the lake, Alle Darsene, where you will dine under an ancient arbor covered in vines, in metal chairs and tables set on white gravel. Recipes are just creative enough and ever-changing, fish is either from the sea or the lake, and service is crisp, professional, and gracious. It is especially dreamy on a weekday off season, at the end of September or beginning of October, when the visitors have all but gone and the days are still warm enough to dine outside.
Villa d’Este is a magnificent garden in itself, set on 25 acres inside a private park. The gently sweeping driveway along the lakes edge is the stuff dream approaches are made of. Breakfast at the water’s edge overlooking the lake, dining on made-to-order eggs, divine pastries, world class salmon, cheeses, and all the fruit possibly found in Italy while good-spirited and expertly trained white-jacketed men are at your side before you’ve even realised you need something, is simply without comparison. While Grand Hotel Tremezzo is famous for its captivating floating pool, the grandest secret is its gorgeously landscaped in-ground pool in the rear of the property, surrounded by enviable landscaping and steps from its indoor spa pool overlooking the lake. Wherever you lay your head, that luminous lake sparkle follows you like a portrait painting. Leave your medications at home; you shall need them not on Lago di Como.