Stendahl, D.H. Lawrence, and other writers have heaped all sorts of praise on the lakes region, and on Lake Como in particular. Italy’s best-known tour guide, Virgil, labeled it succinctly as our greatest lake. At 416 meters, or about 1,200 feet, it is unquestionably the deepest. Alpine foothills tumble vertically into the water. The roads are lined with the kind of trees and flowers you might expect in the tropics, framed by snowcapped peaks in the near distance. It is a mystical garden suspended between the austerity of Switzerland and the relative hedonism of Italy below.
Its shape, famously described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, is an upside-down Y, with the southeastern leg called Lake Lecco. The most prominent villas cling to the steep banks of the opposite leg, which stretches up from Como, continues first to Tremezzo and Menaggio, where the two legs join, and then onward to the tip of the lake and the beginning of the mountainous Valtellina valley.
Once a hilly redoubt for wandering authors and a haven for tennis-playing aristocracy, Lake Como has become a home for Hollywood stars. They retreat here from the flashbulbs of Milan’s catwalks, where they often show up to give designers that extra pinch of publicity. Giorgio Armani’s poster boy, George Clooney, recently purchased a villa here, and Madonna often visits her friend Donatella Versace at the designer’s lakeshore mansion.
Other villas have a bit more history behind them. The Villa d’Este, just outside of Como in Cernobbio, started life as the private residence of Tolomeo Gallio, the local cardinal. Throughout its 400-plus-year existence, it has been owned by a ballerina, a Napoleonic general, a queen, and a Russian empress. Today, it houses minor aristocracy as a luxury hotel. Italian and international business leaders hold their gala conferences in Cernobbio, which even today exudes a princely air.
The Villa Carlotta, farther up the lake, was built in 1690 by a family of wealthy textile merchants. It was then bought and sold by an aristocratic family before being purchased in 1843 by Princess Marianne of the Netherlands. She gave it to her daughter Charlotte, for whom it is now named. The highlight of the villa is the exotic garden that runs along the lakeshore. The towns around those two historic properties have arguably the most beautiful real estate on the lake and, as a matter of record, the highest prices.
Around the Villa d’Este, it is difficult to find any hidden jewels for sale. They’ve been snatched up by very well-to-do Italians and foreigners. There are, however, still a few deals to be had near the Villa Carlotta, in the area around Menaggio and Tremezzo, the series of towns known as the Tremezzina. When people tell you they’re going to visit Lake Como, this is generally where they mean. Tremezzo and Menaggio are packed with German, English, and North American tourists in the summertime, more often than not in their late 60s or 70s, enjoying lengthy meals at hotel gardens and waltzing the night away.