- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

The first time I saw Lake Como in the Italian Lake District I was 20. My Swiss uncle drove from Basel over the Alps to the elegant old hotel Villa d’Este, originally a 16th-century private villa.

It was August; the sky was a brilliant blue; the water sparkled in the sun; the air was clear and warm. I recall a splendid lunch, and I’ve never forgotten the peach at dessert. Nothing has ever quite since matched that ripe, juicy, fragrant Italian peach.

And there is nothing quite like Lake Como, which Shelley called the most beautiful place in the world. Stendhal used it as background for his “The Charterhouse of Parma,” and it was an inspiration to Byron, Flaubert and Wordsworth. Virgil called it the “greatest” lake. It’s good enough for me, too.

The Villa d’Este, with its fountains and manicured gardens, is as elegant as ever, beautifully refurbished. The kitchen still makes a perfect risotto. Peaches were not in season for a springtime visit, but the mimosas were blooming and azaleas were about to burst into brilliant blossom.

Now, thanks to Alitalia’s new daily nonstop flight from Washington to Milan, it’s easy to get to the Italian lakes. The flight, a route that United abandoned some years ago, makes it possible to get to Italy from Washington without changing planes in New York or Europe. From Milan, it’s easy to connect not only to Lombardy and Italian cities by plane or train, but Alitalia offers connections to cities all over Europe, the Middle and the Far East.

Lake Como is in Lombardy, as is Milan. The province takes its name from the sixth-century Germanic barbarians, the Longobards; it was first settled by the Ligurians from the western part of Italy and later by the Etruscans. Around the lakes, pre-Roman Celtic objects from the ninth to the sixth centuries B.C. have been discovered. The Longobards (so-named because of their long beards) came originally from Jutland. Their invasion of Italy brought about the end of the Roman world.

Lake Como is about 1½ hours from Milan’s Malpensa Intercontinental Airport. The lake, also known as Lake Lario, is of glacial origin and is fed by two rivers. It is Europe’s deepest and Italy’s third-largest. Shaped somewhat like an armless dancing man, Como is the most developed of the Italian lakes, with charming red-roofed villages and imposing Victorian villas dotting the shores.

In the background, rising in magnificent splendor, are the pre-Alps and behind them the snow-capped Alps. Although Lake Como is only a short distance from Switzerland, its vegetation is Mediterranean and its climate temperate — facts that attracted wealthy Romans as early as the second century. Pliny the Elder was born here.

The villas still attract the rich and famous, especially American movie stars, looking for quiet retreats; the locals are quick to point out George Clooney’s villa on the lake and inform you, sotto voce, that Julia Roberts has been looking.

The loveliest, such as the Villa Carlotta or Villa del Balbianello, are not for sale. Villa Carlotta is in Tremezzo, a little town with a pretty lakeside promenade about halfway up the western side of the left leg of the lake. Built in the 18th century, the house was converted into a neoclassical villa in the 19th century and named for Queen Charlotte of England. The villa is famous for its gardens, which include more than 500 species of plants and trees; in the luxurious villa itself are ceiling frescoes and an art collection.

Farther up the lake is Villa del Balbianello, reached by boat. The villa was built on a sheer, forested promontory above the lake in the mid-18th century as a monastery. Little of the original Franciscan monastery remains, except the 13th-century bell tower, and the villa, now government property, retains the look of its last private owner, the explorer Guido Monzino. Aside from the magnificent gardens, Mr. Monzino’s memorabilia from his various trips and hunting expeditions are most interesting, as is his collection of pre-Columbia artifacts and sculpture.

On the tip of the headland splitting the two branches — or legs — of the lake lies the enchanting village of Bellagio, justly called “la perla del lago,” the pearl of the lake, with narrow cobbled streets running up and down the hillside. Bellagio is a medieval town with lots of charming shops, cafes and restaurants.

Perhaps the most delightful village on the lake is Varenna, another medieval village of Roman origin. Varenna was settled by the inhabitants of Lake Como’s only island, Isola Comacina. When the citizens of Como conquered the Comacina fortress in 1169 and destroyed the seven churches on the island, the inhabitants fled to Varenna.

Varenna is famous for two villas — Villa Cipressi, which has lovely terraced gardens spilling down the hillside to the lake; and Villa Monastero, built atop a Cistercian monastery and now a conference center. Varenna also has a charming 19th-century villa, Hotel du Lac, with rooms overlooking the lake, as well as a dining terrace over the water. There’s also a pretty 10th-century Romanesque church in the town square.

On the hills above the village are the ruins of the Castle of Vezio, where, it is said, Queen Theodolinda of the Longobards died in the seventh century. Surrounding the village were the quarries for the black marble used on the floor of the Milan Cathedral.

It is said that during the epidemic of the 17th-century plague, the people of Bellagio avoided infection because of the geographic formation of their peninsula and grew uninfected corn used for making bread for the people of Varenna. The exchange took place on a boulder not far from the shore on which the bread was left. The money for the bread was left in a jar filled with vinegar, which acted as a disinfectant. Until it was blown up as a danger to navigation, this was called the “sasso del pane,” the bread stone.

Not to be missed is the small city of Como at the bottom of the western leg of the lake. Founded as Comum by the Romans in 196 B.C., the city sided with Barbarossa against Milan in the 12th century. It fell under the rule of the Visconti and later Sforza families of Milan, shared Milan’s fate under Spanish and Austrian domination, and became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1859.

Como is famous for its silk production (and there are shops selling Como silk in all the towns around the lake). It produces about 80 percent of Europe’s silk. Silkworms were imported to Como as early as the 14th century, and mulberry bushes, on which the worms feed, have been cultivated there since the Middle Ages. Silk fabric and accessories are sold at more or less wholesale prices at La Tessitura, a large silk factory just outside the center of town.

The medieval town hall, the Romanesque tower and the beautiful Gothic cathedral are in the central Piazza del Duomo. Narrow streets, replete with shops displaying elegant and often witty fashions, fan out from the square.

Moving a few miles farther eastward from Lake Como lies Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, another glacial lake of spectacular beauty, beloved by the likes of Dante, Goethe, D.H. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. The pearl of this lake is Sirmione, a small town on a tiny peninsula at the south end of the lake.

The main attraction in town is the 13th-century Castello Scaligero, a fortress with medieval and Roman remains, drawbridges and an inner basin that served as shelter for Veronese boats.

On the western side of the lake, about 20 minutes from the historic town of Salo, in the charming little village of Gargnano, is the Villa Feltrinelli, once the home of Benito Mussolini during the days of the Salo Republic.

The Salo Republic, headed by Mussolini, was the name given to the Italian Social Republic, the puppet government set up by the Germans after Italy signed a separate peace with the Allies in 1943. Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, had been rescued by the Germans from their imprisonment by the interim Italian government under Pietro Badoglio.

Mussolini and his wife, Donna Rachele, lived in the Villa Feltrinelli; Petacci was housed in another villa nearby, with all of Il Duce’s ministers living in villas between the two. When Mussolini’s wife discovered that his mistress was living nearby, she went to Petacci’s villa to confront her rival. Apparently the two-hour dispute ended with both women in tears. Informed of the confrontation, the brave Duce decided his best course of action was to spend the night in his office.

Today, Villa Feltrinelli is anything but the “gloomy and unfriendly” place described by Mussolini. Built in 1892 by the prominent Feltrinelli family, the villa has beautiful carved wood panels, stained glass windows and painted ceilings.

Hotelier Robert Burns bought the villa and has restored it to life. Located right on the lake, with lovely gardens, a croquet lawn, a charming limonaia (covered, terraced lemon groves) and a swimming pool, the Grand Hotel and Villa Feltrinelli is a dream hotel. The rooms are supremely comfortable, the bathrooms magnificent, the food outstanding (with breakfast pastries still warm from the oven), the public rooms beautifully decorated for comfort with witty touches of the 1920s.

Between the Villa Feltrinelli and Salo, on the Gardone Riviera, lies the Vittoriale degli Italiani, the villa built by Mussolini for Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. Not only a poet, d’Annunzio became famous for his adventures as a pilot during World War I, his occupation and rule of Fiume in 1919, his love affairs and his long-time relationship with actress Eleanora Duse, as well as his fascist sympathies.

The villa is in a large park in which the poet’s mausoleum is built into the mountain. The plane from which d’Annunzio bombed Vienna in 1918 hangs in the auditorium. The house, the Prioria, is a series of rooms filled to overflowing with books, photographs, paintings, furniture, sculpture and kitschy objects of all sorts. The rooms are dark because light bothered his poor eyesight. It is difficult to know whether the entire house is a satire, but its bizarre furnishings make it worthwhile to visit.

Another attraction on the Gardone Riviera is Giardino Botanico Hruska, a botanical garden with more than 2,000 alpine and Mediterranean species of plants.

During the season, motor boats connect the towns on both lakes, making it easy for visitors to view the villages and villas from the water. The lakes are warm enough for summer swimming. From about November until March, almost everything closes down. The summer is crowded; spring and fall are beautiful.

Moving eastward from Lake Garda, it’s a short distance to Verona, which, in turn, is close to Venice. To the north are the Alps and Switzerland, and to the south lies Milan, a commercial and industrial center well worth visiting. It offers first-class museums, interesting public buildings, the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-story glass-covered shopping arcade in the center of the city, and the spectacular Gothic cathedral that took five centuries to complete. If the weather is clear, the view of the city from the cathedral’s terrace, reached by elevator for about $6, is magnificent.

The city has wonderful hotels, excellent restaurants and one of the world’s great food emporia — Peck — where prepared foods, fabulous cheeses, the finest prosciutto, wines from around the world, pastries, breads, olives and condiments can only be described in superlatives.

Milan is also the capital of the Italian fashion industry, some say of the world. Italian fashions are lively, avant garde, stunning and chic. The shop windows are tempting, although prices, especially for holders of the weak dollar, are somewhat daunting.

Street markets sell knockoffs of some trendy items, such as shoes, handbags, sweaters and sometimes dresses, at reasonable prices, and the hustle and bustle of the markets are more fun than the fancy shops. Wherever you find yourself in the city, style is the name of the game in Milan.

Milan’s Castello Sforzesco was built in the 14th century as a fortress by the Visconti and later embellished and turned into a Renaissance residence by the Sforzas. The castello contains an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo, a pergola painted to look like an open-air space by Leonardo, and 12 beautiful tapestries representing the months and signs of the zodiac.

Milan is also home to Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” The fresco, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, was restored five years ago and now only 25 visitors are allowed in at a time. Reservations can be made, but only a long time in advance, and it is virtually impossible to see it on the spur of the moment.

Milan’s famed opera house, La Scala, has been undergoing renovations and is scheduled to open in December.

An excellent afternoon’s excursion from Milan is to the Carthusian Monastery at Pavia. Begun in the 14th century, the monastery is still inhabited by monks, no longer Carthusians, but Cistercians, who have lived in the monastery since 1968.

The spectacular facade of the church is adorned with medallions of monarchs, famous historical characters, allegorical figures and angels carrying the coat of arms of the Sforzas and the Visconti families. To the side of the church are the cloisters and the cloister gardens. Several of the monks’ cells of medieval days, with small individual gardens, can be visited. The monastery, like so many places in Lombardy, is a place of serenity and solitude.

Fly to Milan, see great sights

Alitalia has daily nonstop flights from Washington Dulles International Airport to Milan’s Malpensa Intercontinental Air-

port.

Buses go directly from the airport to Lake Como or to the train station in Milan for transportation to Como.

MILAN

The Four Seasons Hotel Milano, a former convent in the heart of Milan’s elegant shopping district, is a quiet oasis in the middle of a bustling city. It is on Via Gesu between the city’s two major fashion streets, Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga. The convent dates to the 15th century, and a portion of the original frescoes still exist, carefully preserved. The rooms are spacious and luxurious and the high-ceilinged rooms facing the inner courtyard with its trees and flowers are spectacular. It’s an expensive hotel, but worth it — well run, elegant and beautifully appointed. It was the Four Seasons’ first hotel in continental Europe. Via Gesu 8, 20121 Milan, Italy; 39/02-77088; fax 39/02-7708-5000

The Milano Park Hyatt overlooks the entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and is around the corner from the duomo. It’s a cool, elegant, contemporary hotel set in a classical building dating from the 1870s. Colors and fabrics are elegant and sophisticated, as well. Via Tommaso Grossi 1, 20121 Milan; 39/02-874-257; fax 39/02-8698-4696.

LAKE COMO

Villa d’Este, Via Regina 40, 22012 Cernobbio; 39/031-3481; fax 39/031-348-844; closes for season Nov. 14.

Hotel du Lac, Via del Prestino 4, 23829 Varenna (Lecco); 39/0341-830-238; fax 39/0341-831-081. A romantic 19th-century house on the lakefront. Rooms on the lake have a gorgeous view. Medium price range.

LAKE GARDA

Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, 25084 Gargnano.; 39/0365- 798-000; fax 39/0365-798-001.

ATTRACTIONS

Vittoriale degli Italiani, Gardone Riviera; 39/030-968-900; fax 39/030-968-9243

La Tessitura, Viale Roosevelt 2/a, 22100 Como; 39/031-321-312; fax 39/031-321-310

Province of Como Tourist Office, Via Borgo Vico 148, 22100 Como; 39/031-230-448; fax 39/031-230-444

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