Saturday 27 December 2014

Like George Clooney, Lake Como is only lovely...

Published 23/06/2014 | 02:30

ASTONISHINGLY PRETTY: Bellagio, known as ‘the Pearl of the Lake’, is full of cobblestone lanes, quaint cafes and shops selling the best of Italian goods
ASTONISHINGLY PRETTY: Bellagio, known as ‘the Pearl of the Lake’, is full of cobblestone lanes, quaint cafes and shops selling the best of Italian goods
GOTHIC CATHEDRAL: Duomo di Milano, a staggering piece of architecture which took nearly six centuries to complete

Look to your left and after the church spire and the very tall cypress tree you will see a villa with a lot of chimneys and that is his villa.’

We’re on a bus tour of Lake Como in Northern Italy, and the owner of the villa which our tour guide is referring to is 
. . . you’ve guessed it, George Clooney. It seems George is now synonymous with this beautiful part of the world, as almost without fail the question people asked when I said we had spent a week on the lake, was did we see the Hollywood star’s villa?

We did, and Villa Oleandra in Laglio on Lake Como is ridiculously alluring, and we could only imagine how Clooney’s new fiancé, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, must feel when she wakes up in the 30-room villa and looks out at the swans gliding across the shimmering lake and over at the quaint stone villages across the lake.

Possibly delighted with herself, we thought, as Lake Como, which is 48km in length and the third largest lake in Italy after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore, is a very uplifting place.

It’s astonishingly pretty even on the few overcast days we had in early May when the mist clung to hills which drop dramatically into the lake and we could see the snow-capped peaks in the distance, and yet not in the least bit celestial. Heavenly but down-to-earth, which is probably down to how the Italians don’t make a song and dance about this beauty spot and instead are pleasantly friendly and allow the tranquillity of the lake to talk for itself.

Indeed Clooney’s fiancé Amal wasn’t the only lady of the lake to make an impression on visitors — as the lake is full of stories of women who have loved it, and sadly some who have tragically lost their lives there.

Myself and my mum stayed for a week — a good bit of it sunny — in the Grand Hotel Cadenabbia in Griante, and our lake-view rooms looked across the lake to the picturesque town of Bellagio which is known as the Pearl of the Lake.’ You can catch a boat over to this town with its cobble-stone lanes and quaint cafes and shops selling all sorts of Italians goods, including bags, shoes and food.

Lake Como is dotted with fairytale-like pastel-coloured villas with stunning gardens, not least the Villa Carlotta, which was right beside our hotel, with its magnificent gardens which were alive with dozens of specimens of camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons. A lady of the lake who made an impression was Carlotta, the daughter of Princess Marianne of Nassau who bought the house in the middle 19th century, and made a present of it to Carlotta on the occasion of her wedding to Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen.

The villa was originally built for the Marchese Clerici as a summer home away from Milan — which is an hour and a half drive from Lake Como — at the end of the 17th century. Carlotta’s glorious view from the main balcony of the villa (about 20 people could fit on it) and which today is filled with works of art and beautifully painted ceilings, would have been of stunning sloping lawns, fountains, a fish pond, flowers and of course Lake Como.

Talk about a house with a view, and while Carlotta could only have adored what lay before her, tragically she died shortly after her wedding, and the home which her mother had so generously gifted to her went to her fairly new husband.

We travelled with the Travel Department, and the tour’s itinerary included a day visit to both Milan and St Moritz in the Swiss Alps. Milan was a surprise, as for some reason we hadn’t expected Italy’s second-largest city and its business and fashion capital to be so manageable. Basically you can walk comfortably to all the main tourist sites, including the very imposing Duomo di Milano, a Gothic cathedral and staggering piece of architecture which took nearly six centuries to complete. The queue to get inside moved very quickly and entry was free.

For classical music lovers, La Scala opera house in Milan, which first opened in 1778, has been where many of the greats have premiered their operas down through the years, including Norma by Vincenzo Bellini in 1831, Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi in 1831, and Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini in 1904. You can tour the inside of the opera house, with its vertiginous boxes and gloriously hushed atmosphere in anticipation of the next aria.

A singer who made a big impression and not just for her performances, was Giuseppina Maria Camilla, a noted Italian contralto and key singer at La Scala who was a lover of both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington — though at different times — and romantic lore has it that this association was a reason to further inflame fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.

In 1913 Mario Prada opened his first shop in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, aiming for an exclusive store selling leather bags, trunks, beauty cases and luxury accessories. We popped our heads into the original Prada store and were a little put off by the stuffy atmosphere, yet by the time we got to the Armani Megastore on Via A Manzoni, we had grown accustomed to the sombre church-like atmosphere of high fashion retail, even if we did speak in whispers while checking out the fab bags which were each displayed like a work of art.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, designed in 1861, is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and has fabulous glass ceilings which leave it light-filled and perfect for people watching. For tea-aholics out there, a cuppa can cost up to €8 here, and a Coke around €5, so don’t arrive too thirsty.

The food in the Grand Hotel Cadenabbia where we stayed for the week was very good — a good spread for breakfast and delicious fish for dinner, including melt-in-your-mouth salmon, swordfish and trout. You had a starter, first course, main course and dessert. Portions were well-sized, so we didn’t ever have to try to resist the always-delish pasta.

At Lake Como, three places to be enjoyed hugely are Varenna, Lenno and Mezzegra. Varenna is a small fisherman’s village a short ferry boat away from Grand Hotel Cadenabbia and feels untouched and authentic even with its requisite touristy lake-front cafes and bars. It’s fair to say we ate our way around the lake, and whether it was bruschetta in Villa Carlotta (€5 each) or pizza with ham and arugula in Bellagio (€9), everything was stuff-your-face gorgeous. It was certainly bye-bye moderation when it came to the pistachio and almond ice cream in Lenno, a steal for €3.50 for two cones.

Lenno is a lakeside village where you’ll find a market on Tuesday mornings selling all kinds of local produce and kitchen-y utensils to the locals, but with enough clothes and bags for a happy browse. Yet another lady of the lake who won’t be quickly forgotten is Clara Petacci, who at age 33 was the mistress of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was 28 years her senior. It must have been true devotion because she fled with him to the Como lakeside village of Mezzegra at a time when Mussolini was being pursued by Communist partisans in 1945.

Unfortunately you have to wonder if she got time to admire her beautiful surroundings or the gorgeous olive and mulberry trees of the area, as the couple were swiftly captured and executed.

Later Mussolini and Petacci’s bodies were taken to the Piazzale Loreto in Milan where they were hung upside down in front of a petrol station.

Everyone on our tour bus raved about the journey through the Swiss Alps to the glitzy ski resort of St Moritz, the spot where Pippa Middleton first confirmed her relationship with her banker boyfriend Nico Jackson by appearing with him on the ski slopes.

The views of snow-capped peaks as you make the ascent are utterly breathtaking—the highest summit in the Eastern Alps, the Piz Bernina, lies a few kilometres from the resort. St Moritz is glitzy too — a toasted sambo costs €17. Yet it’s whatever rocks your boat at the end of the day, and in the end we were much happier back down at Lake Como, looking out at the swans gliding across the lake and thinking that they were a couple of very lucky swans indeed.

 

GETTING THERE

Anna and her mum Claire travelled with the Travel Department on their Lake Como, the Swiss Alps & Milan package — 7 nights, 3* or 4*options available — half board and breakfast and evening meal included. Organised excursions include a day trip and guided tour of Milan, a full day excursion which includes the Alpine towns of Tirano and Chiavenna and the Swiss town of St Moritz, taking in the beautiful scenery of the Bernina Pass en route and returning via the Maloya Pass.

There is also a half-day guided excursion on Lake Como by boat, including a visit to the town of Bellagio.

Optional excursions, at extra cost, include an afternoon trip to Villa del Balbianello, and a visit to Lake Lugana.

Prices start at €759 and go to €959.

www.traveldepartment.ie

 

TAKE THREE

Film Set

A number of well-known movies have been shot at the Villa del Balbianello in Lenno on Lake Como, including Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Casino Royale (2006).

It’s truly a treat to see, and was originally built in 1787 for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini. In 1974 it was bought by the explorer Guido Monzino. Today, it’s owned by the National Trust of Italy, and can be visited by foot or by boat.

Risotto

While Italy is most often associated with pasta, it is now the biggest producer of rice in Europe. It mostly grows rice which is proven to absorb liquid when cooked, which is why the Italian dish risotto has both a firm bite and a creamy texture. The earliest documentation of rice cultivation dates to 1475, when following an impressive yield, rice became big business during the Italian Renaissance, and its popularity continues today.

Light a candle

Lake Como is full of beautiful churches in which to light a candle, yet perhaps one of the most special churches in the region is that of the Pilgrimage Basilica of the Madonna Di Tirano in Tirano, which we passed through on the way to St Moritz. The shrine is dedicated to the appearance of Mary to Mario Degli Omodei on September 29, 1504, which pilgrims credit with lots of good events locally.

 

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