Garden Exploring along Italy's Lake Como

Article excerpt

Westerners will feel right at home in Bellagio, on Italy's Lake Como just over an hour's drive from Milan. Como's lakefront gardens reveal a surprising number of" plants that are typical of coastal California and the Pacific Northwest.

Here, in view of the Alps, you'll encounter familiar temperate-climate plants such as azaleas, Mediterranean fan palms, oleanders, rhododendrons, star jasmine, and windmill palms. Why'? The mountains shelter the lake from cold winter storms.

Because Bellagio is on a promontory partially surrounded by water, it's warmer than other Lake Como towns. Lakeside temperatures rarely fall below freezing, though on the hills they're similar to those in Seattle.

To enjoy the beautiful vegetation of the area, be sure to visit two of Lake Como's outstanding gardens: Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni. This month, the azaleas and rhododendrons are at peak bloom (but May weather is unpredictable, so be prepared for rain or shine).

This and that at Villa Melzi

A short walk southwest of Bellagio along the shores of the lake is Melzi, a neoclassical villa designed by architect Giocondo Albertolli and built in the early 1800s.

In contrast with other gardens around the lake, which in the main are formal and highly manicured, Villa Melzi's grounds reflect a range of styles from informal hillside plantings reminiscent of an English country garden to a Chinese-inspired water garden to a neoclassical avenue of pollarded sycamores.

Melzi is well-known for dramatic displays of azaleas and rhododendrons, Japanese maples, huge bald cypresses, Montezuma cypresses, golden English oaks (Quercus robur 'Concordia'), and redwoods.

It also has a fascinating array of sculpture including a third-century B.C. urn depicting Medusa's head, two Roman busts, and ancient Egyptian statues from the time of Ramses II, acquired in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. All sit against backdrops of greenery and lake. …