Lake Como in the alpine foothills is a sparkling sapphire touched by history, fiction and all that's in between
YOU’D BE forgiven while strolling along the shores of Italy’s Lake Como for thinking you’d just walked onto a “Star Wars” set. There are no X-wing fighters or death stars, but there is the unsurpassed beauty and romanticism of the garden at Villa del Balbianello.
This is where Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker picnicked in “Attack of the Clones”, in which locales around the picturesque lake became Naboo in a galaxy far, far away.
This is where he trembled over the “kiss you should have never have given me”. She was trembling too. “I think our lives are about to be destroyed,” she said.
The spectacular view across Lake Como from Menaggio continues to mesmerise visitors of all backgrounds, just as it enchanted so many famous personages of the past.
Just a couple of kilometres away is the equally elegant Villa Belmonte in the charming town of Giulino di Mezzegra, where real lives were destroyed. There, Benito Mussolini’s mistress, Claretta Petacci, insisted on dying with him when fate arrived armed with clubs and pitchforks. They tried to flee across the nearby Swiss border, but the partisans were hunting for them.
The dictator often asked Petacci if she thought he was as good a leader as Napoleon. She assured him he was. Napoleon made an imperial victory lap of the area in the early 1800s and once stayed at the stately Villa Pliniana across the lake.
Lago di Como simultaneously stimulates and soothes like few other landscapes with built-in drama that’s been attracting visitors for millennia. Shaped like an upside-down “Y”, it nestles under gorgeous mountains in Italy’s pretty, more posh north.
Eyes are drawn to pristine peaks along the Swiss frontier and then to some of Europe’s deepest waters, powerful emotions reflected in their countless shades of blue. It’s certainly an ideal place to take a permanent holiday.
The visual symphony inspired the virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt. “When you write the story of two happy lovers,” he said, “let the story be set on the banks of Lake Como.”
Winston Churchill, after overseeing victory in Europe in 1945 and suffering a shock election defeat just two months later, retreated to a lakeside villa in Moltrasio to discover “a landscape which exudes absolute tranquillity”.
Having led Britain through its darkest hour, Churchill found that, in addition to blood, sweat and tears, he had plenty of oil as well – oil paints – and took to depicting gathering storms and other aerial phenomena by the moody lake carved out by glaciers.
“When I get to Heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject,” he said. “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.”
The wondrous Villa del Balbianello is where James Bond wooed Vesper Lynd in the 2006 film “Casino Royale”.
For hours at a stretch, Churchill created bucolic scenes along the shore where Mussolini had been killed just weeks before. (Yes, there are related conspiracy theories.)
While he found more than a quantum of solace at Villa le Rose in countryside he noticed was “unravaged by war”, back at Villa del Balbianello, a compatriot also in service to the British crown – at least in the imagination – underwent experiences even more cathartic.
In the 2006 franchise reboot “Casino Royale”, James Bond’s |love affair with Vesper Lynd |plays out in crucial scenes, lakeside, in ways fully expressing how 007 |is sometimes known – particularly in Italy – as “Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”.
In the original novel, Bond channels the intensity of love, life and loss whenever he hears the airy “La Vie en Rose”. The embrace of life here in its fullest, in regards to his thoughts for her, also inspired his signature drink, the vodka martini, and its preparation technique – shaken, not stirred.
On the grounds of the villa common to the two most iconic movie franchises of the late 20th century – it was a Franciscan monastery in medieval times and the bell tower still stands – a sign reminds film fans, “The true and undisputed protagonist is the lake.”
All villages and countless villas on Lake Como offer various accommodation options. Non-members of the jet set can consider homestays above pizzerias. There are friendly interactions with simpatico locals, impeccable cuisine and, of course, views to die for.
Winston Churchill, licking his wounds after being ejected from office in 1945, retreated to a lakeside villa in “a landscape which exudes absolute tranquillity”.
George Clooney owns a villa in Laglio, where scenes for his film “Ocean’s Twelve” were shot. Menaggio, a former hangout of prominent fascists who fled to the lake country to avoid Allied bombs falling on Milan, offers hillside strolling opportunities.
Bellagio is perfectly positioned at the intersection of the lake’s arms. Arriving by ferry is particularly enchanting.
Chic Milan, the ideal entranceway to the lake and a classic destination in itself, is a pleasant hour away by train – or by car on roadways tracing Mussolini's springtime ride in 1945. The route is bursting with azaleas come summertime.
Beyond the escapism of history and fiction, the lake offers even deeper discoveries.
Ferries that are rarely crowded and private boat tours are ready to take visitors off to drink in the beauty. Out there, timeless themes of war and justice, forbidden love and making the galaxy great again dissolve on alpine breezes.
On the open water between destinations, the indelible blueness of Lake Como cultivates spaces of the mind, allowing new canvases to be filled with thoughts flowing like cirrus clouds, whipped into longer, ethereal gelato drifts, above tragedies real or imagined, where latent dreams sweeter and more evocative may surface.