Sunday, 13 April 2014

Love Lago di Como

The hardest thing about writing this blogpost was selecting the photos.  So prepare to be swamped with photos of  lago di Como, more specifically, Villa del Balbianello.
On my first visit to Lake Como back in July 2013, this spectacular palazzo had me crazily snapping photos as we swept by on the ferry. Situated on its own little peninsular, surrounded by terraced gardens, Villa del Balbianello captured my imagination. I wondered, who lives there now? 

Perhaps it is the residence of a certain famous Hollywood caffeine addict, or the holiday home of an old noble Milanese family, or maybe it is the most recent purchase in a Russian oligarch's European property portfolio. 

Actually it's none of those.  Villa del Balbianello is one of many historic houses open to the public through the management of the Fondo Ambiete Italiano (FAI), an organisation similar to the National Trust. The Villa has a fascinating history, as we discovered when we visited on a day trip from Milan.

We'd been waiting for the spring opening of Villa del Balbianello, so under bright blue skies and with temperatures predicted in the early 20s, we caught the 9.55am train from Milan to Como and then jumped on the fast ferry to Lenno (details HERE).  By 11.30am we were strolling round the lake to the Villa.  (Click HERE for the Villa ticket prices and opening hours.)

Villa del Balbianello was built by Cardinal Durini in the 1700s on the site of a small Franciscan church and monastery. The Cardinal acquired the site for his personal use as a haven where he could relax and pursue his interests in literature and music.  He built an open loggia connecting two living areas, one his personal library and the other, a music room.  

The Villa changed hands many times over the centuries until the last owner, Guido Monzino, a prominent Milanese businessman, acquired it in 1974. During a guided tour of the property we learned a little more about Signore Manzoni, as our guide Daniella recounted anecdotes about his fame as an artic explorer and mountain climber. He spent four years, and hundreds of billions of lira, completely restoring Villa Balbianello to accommodate his extensive collection of art, including rare 18th century paintings on glass, as well as memorabilia from his expeditions to the North Pole and Mount Everest. Signore Manzoni led the first Italian expedition to successfully climb Mt Everest, but he couldn't make it to the summit due to a life-long passion for cigars and cigarettes. This was the one obstacle he could never conquer.  The tour of the house was fascinating as it remains exactly as it was the final time Guido Manzoni visited, even down to the last pack of cigarettes still resting neatly on his desk. 

According to our guide, Signore Manzoni was a playboy who never married and left no heirs.  He willed the entire property, and a separate trust fund, to the FAI so that the people of Italy, as well as visitors from around the world, could enjoy this fabulous house and magnificent gardens.
It was the perfect time of year to admire the beautiful terraced gardens.  This two hundred year old tree is one of two on the property, both of which are clipped once a year by gardeners who climb up through the canopy to prune it from on top.  Each tree takes a week to sculpt.

To return to Lenno we chose the longer walk over the hills behind the Villa. It took less than an hour and was a lovely walk to end our visit. We only wished that we'd bought a picnic as there were plenty of picnic tables with sensational views of the lake.
After lunch in Lenno, and a gelato (a fairly ordinary gelato!) we caught the ferry across the lake to Varenna and returned to Milan by train.
It seems that the more we visit lago di Como, the more we love it.  We are showing our credentials as 'stranieri' by admitting this love of Lake Como. The Milanese prefer the ocean, especially the Ligurian coast. 

Allora, fino prossima volta...


  1. Jenny , you should show your Aussie pride by letting them know that the Ligurian coast is not really the ocean. Not a wave in sight worth having. :) Thank you for the beautiful photos and memories of lago di Como.

  2. Ok, so I'm a little slow with keeping up with the blog ... have just seen this now, Villa del Balbianello is absolutely stunning. Expecting a young Sean Connery to pop out of the background!

  3. ok a bit late... the name of the villa's last owner is actually Guido Monzino. His father was one of the Monzino brothers who founded STANDA (an chain of department stores once common in italy and now sadly defunct). His uncle, Italo Monzino, also created the Centro Cardiologico Monzino, an hospital specializing in advanced heart surgery in the Milan district of Ponte Lambro.


  4. I hope to get to Lake Como one day. I have been to Liguria and I loved it there. I prefer the ocean full time, but the Lake would be great for a short time. My friend went there for a wine festival and really enjoyed it.