Italy: Livin’ La Vida on Lake Como
After we spent less than a day visiting Lake Como during our 2014 European Adventure, we had to go back to the most beautiful place on earth. There’s a reason why actor George Clooney and billionaire Richard Branson have their own villas on the lake. In addition to magnificent villas, there are quaint little towns scattered around the lake.
Our Airbnb place was located in a town called Cadenabbia right next to the ferry port of Griante. It also had a cute patio with the best views across the lake to the towns of Bellagio and Varenna.
Crossing over by ferry, we stopped by both towns again, and they still remain some of our favorites. With their pretty cobblestone streets, walkable promenades, and beautiful views, they are as exquisite as ever! The only issue we had this time around was the high amount of tourists clogging the streets and cafes. But, the great thing about the Lake Como region is that all the towns are spread out far enough to where they don’t feel overwhelmingly crowded like other tourist towns.
We walked up and down the lakefront promenades from the north (Menaggio) to the south (Tremezzo and Lenno) and back again. The lakeside walkway goes all the way down south to Como itself, however, there are no consistent sidewalks, so we found ourselves dodging traffic as Italian drivers whizzed by. One sunny day we walked to Menaggio — a bigger town on the west side of the lake. It was full of families eating out and sitting in the sun. Although we could have done activities like hiking and kayaking, we erred in favor of exploring the towns and villas.
We stopped by Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo visiting its expansive botanical gardens and museum with sculptures by Antonio Canova and Luigi Acquisti. Here’s a writer inspiring me to keep on dipping my quill into ink and scribing away. While Mars and Venus took center stage in the villa’s main hall, we returned in the evening for a tone-deaf jazz concert, but it was interesting to hear the sounds of the guitar reverberating off their heads!
Majestic villas and views make luxury par for the course on Lake Como. And, the ultimate location where that’s no better illustrated is at the infamous Villa Balbianello. The villa is situated on the tip of a peninsula in Lenno, a small seaside town. Villa Balbianello boasts a few stories of verdant gardens and palatial digs. One such scenic balcony view was featured in Star Wars Episode II where Anakin and Padme share their first kiss — thereby sealing the fate of the universe!
Last time we struggled up the hiking path to the gates with our heavy suitcases. This time we took the same hike sans suitcases and it was still pretty challenging. However, unlike last time where we kept to the gardens, this time we toured the mansion’s interior. As if its beauty didn’t seem unreal enough, the story of the place and its owners was straight out of a history book. The place started as a Franciscan monastery and its two bell towers still stand on the grounds today. Then, it fell into a cardinal’s holy hands for awhile until it was turned over to his nephew. It remained in the hands of Italian nobility and hosted the members of the Carbonari as they discussed the unification of Italy. But, as Italy fell into recession, Villa Balbianello was sold to a World War II American businessman and after a few decades his heirs finally sold it back to a notable Italian explorer. The last, yet unforgettable owner, Guido Monzino is even buried on the grounds just off a garden path in a crypt called the Ice Cave (more on this in a minute!). Mr. Monzino bequeathed the villa to the Italian cultural preserve who opened it up for daily paid tours.
We learned so much about the villa this time around, but nothing impressed us more than the incredible story of Guido Monzino — who reminded us of a particular mountain man from back home (ahem, Alex Yunerman). Guido is best known as the man who led the first Italian expedition to Mount Everest. Growing up as the son of a rich department store magnate, he sold the family business and then started his career as an explorer at 28 years old. He led world-renowned expeditions across some of the world’s most dangerous places, including Everest and the North Pole — the latter of which nearly broke him in every way. But, coming back from those voyages in one piece helped him carry on his legacy that lives on till this day: Villa Balbianello.
A man with a refined eye and great taste, every little thing — every detail and every inch of space — was planned to perfection as he drew upon his world travels for inspiration in the architecture and design of the villa. The walls were covered in Tibetan silk rather than rudimentary wallpaper. The maps used during his expeditions were featured in his Map Room along with a regal Spanish chest. His office was modeled after some of the most stately British offices from the 19th century. Walls upon walls of sculptures, figurines, and paintings were on display collected from his expeditions all over the world. He also received countless awards, including medals from dozens of countries for his harrowing journeys, which are on display in a second floor off-shoot of one of many parlors. It’s up an oak staircase modeled after a navy ship’s staircase, and the glass shelves harbor regalia from his many conquests. In one of the cases the actual clothing he wore for his trek to Everest is on display.
As careful as he was to accentuate the little things, he installed some pretty cool big things in the villa too. An entry room for guests with a bookshelf behind a counter was not that at all, but a bar hiding cocktail glasses and shakers behind its book facade. Fond of cigars as any rich gentleman would be, the smoking rooms’ walls are made of a special wood that does not hold any smoke; in order to put them in without cutting the pricey lumber he lowered the floor a couple of feet beneath the ground to accommodate them — as one does! The smartest thing he did was create a disjointed secret passageway from the house to an outdoor patio in the garden by the dock so he could escape by boat if the mafia ever came after him. They didn’t, but creating one last adventure through such paranoia was pretty admirable.
Walking around the gardens, Monzino’s legacy was swirling about from the umbrella tree to the family crest stamped on buildings. Even the hedges climbing up the exterior columns in a snake-like form were modeled after those in his family crest. From the trees rising up to the sky to the mansion mirroring the Garden of Eden to almost every window in the living quarters framing the lake and mountains, we were reminded that: “You can take the man out of the mountain, but not the mountain out of the man.”