I am sitting on a taxi-boat instead of walking through a trail from the Lenno dock to Villa del Balbianello on the wooded promontory. The trail is closed on Mondays. Things must happen for a reason because glimpsing the villa through the trees couldn’t have matched the stunning setting I see from the water.
The villa is known for its garden and for the last owner’s eclectic collection of memorabilia – Guido Monzino was an explorer. But never mind that: I had wanted to come to Villa del Balbianello because I had seen romantic magazine pictures of a wedding set in the garden. I also wanted to take in the views of Lake Como from the villa’s spectacular arched loggia. And, I wanted to see up close the curious curvy vine that outlined its arches, and had captured my imagination.
Getting Situated on Lake Como
On a map, Lake Como looks like a scrawny blue giant plodding between mountains. Bellagio (the “pearl of the lake”) stands at the junction of its two “legs.” From there, Tremezzo is on the western “hip” of the leg that ends in Como. Varenna is on the eastern hip of the other leg where, past Lecco, the river Adda flows away from the lake.
We are staying in Tremezzo, which is a pleasant 15-minute mini-cruise from Lenno. The ferry ride to Lenno is a commute I could get used to: Views of mountains that plunge into the gleaming 400-meter deep lake, and clusters of colorful villages dotting the shores.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Romance-inspiring Lake Como is legendary.
- It is an uncharacteristically quiet place in Italy.
- For tourists, serenity seekers, wedding planners.
A Villa with a Past
Dosso di Lavedo is the promontory where Cardinal Durini built the villa, in 1787, on what were the ruins of a Friars’ convent. As we approach the private pier, details come into view: The villa cascades to two bell-towers left over from its monastic time; the cream-color concrete of the filigree-style balustrade defines lush terraced levels and a huge holm oak shaped like a dome; an otherwise plain grey wall emerges from the water, topped with statues.
It seems all together too romantic a sanctuary for a solitary clergyman, but Durini, like other local villa owners, often had the company of guests. Some of the leading composers and writers of the day came here. Over the next century, Rossini, Liszt, Stendhal and Shelley, to name a few, would find their muse on Lake Como.
As time passed, so did the various owners – including the American General (Butler Ames) who restored the villa, in 1919, left unattended for 40 years. Since 1988 and according to Monzino’s will, the estate is under the safeguard of FAI (Fundo Ambiente Italiano). The Italian National Trust works to preserve properties “for the landscape, art and nature, forever, for everyone.”
The villa has also enjoyed a share of celebrity: It was “the hospital” where James Bond (Daniel Craig in Casino Royale) was seen in a wheelchair in the garden. And, it has been Planet Naboo in Star Wars.
A Garden with a Design of its Own
As we moor, four botanical pillars topped with large amphora are outlined with the same type of curvy vines that had caught my attention in the picture of the loggia.
It does not take long to walk up the graveled alley. Here, the attraction is not in the details of the garden, but rather, in the way it follows the lay of the land.
The lake obviously creates a micro-climate: Palm trees and Mediterranean plants grow under the shadow of snow-covered mountain peaks. On one side of the path I see alium, roses, wisterias, azaleas, campanalas, and miniature cyclamens set against lush grasses. On the other side, a stone wall with garland-trimmed ivy retains an English-style lawn. It’s the end of September, there are few blooms around. Yet, the garden shows that a good design will bestow grace and interest in any season.
The Loggia and its Creeeping Fig (Ficus Pumilia)
And finally, here it is: The loggia I saw in the magazine stands at the top, almost like a temple to Lake Como. As I stand still under its arches, I am feeling in tune with the romance that had inspired the wedding location: Serene views of the lake and of the shore beyond are outlined by the balustrade on one side, and by the cascading vegetation on the other. As for the cherubs entwined in the “filigree” of the balustrade, I see them as the purveyors of love.
Finally, I see the vine that had caught my interest in the magazine pictures. And I find its name: creeping fig (Ficus Pumilia). Said to grow like a weed, this one is over a century-old and appears to be “bonsai-ed” by a gardener obsessed with curves. If only this vine could talk.
Exploring the Garden
I stroll among plane trees pruned like chandeliers, cypresses shooting for the sky, a cone-shaped magnolia, fragrant bay bushes, boxwood topiaries, beech trees, ilex hollies, and other rhododendrons. All seem eclectically dispersed, yet combined with the dramatic statuary, each guides my attention to a pleasing view.
I find the entrance to the villa last, tucked in a small courtyard where a bulging hydrangea offers its last blooms. A picture comes to my mind: the bride and her party walking down the stairs to the (San Giovanni) church. As I stand on the graveled landing, I can visualize the wedding marquee set along the filigree balustrade. I almost hear the crunching steps of guests.
- The navigation system is the best way to travel from village to village: hydrofoil boats for rapid transport across the lake – hotel private boats (with cheese/wine basket).
- Ferry/boat fare: Tremezzo/Lenno 5€ – water-taxi to villa del Balbianello: 5€.
- Tickets for garden: 7€ – including villa: 12€.
- Pedestrian access: Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, holidays.
- Challenging site for persons with physical limitations.