Como, Milano, Roma: Brilliant Sky over Lake, Treasures of Art, History

Article excerpt

Corinna Lothar is a writer for The Washington Times.

The first time I saw Lake Como in the Italian Lake District I was 20. My Swiss uncle drove from Basel over the Alps to the elegant old hotel Villa d'Este, originally a sixteenth-century private villa. It was August; the sky was a brilliant blue; the water sparkled in the sun; the air was clear and warm. I recall a splendid lunch, and I've never forgotten the peach at dessert. Nothing has ever quite since matched that ripe, juicy, fragrant Italian peach.

And there is nothing quite like Lake Como, which Shelley called the most beautiful place in the world. Stendhal used it as background for his The Charterhouse of Parma, and it was an inspiration to Byron, Flaubert, and Wordsworth. Virgil called it the "greatest" lake. It's good enough for me, too.

The Villa d'Este, with its fountains and manicured gardens, is as elegant as ever, beautifully refurbished. The kitchen still makes a perfect risotto. Peaches were not in season for a springtime visit, but the mimosas were blooming and azaleas were about to burst into brilliant blossom.

Now, thanks to Alitalia's new daily nonstop flight from Washington, D.C., to Milan, it's easy to get to the Italian lakes. The flight, a route that United abandoned some years ago, makes it possible to get to Italy from Washington without changing planes in New York or Europe. From Milan, it's easy to connect not only to Lombardy and Italian cities by plane or train, but Alitalia offers connections to cities all over Europe, the Middle, and the Far East.

Lake Como is in Lombardy, as is Milan. The province takes its name from the sixth-century Germanic barbarians, the Longobards; it was first settled by the Ligurians from the western part of Italy and later by the Etruscans. Around the lakes, pre-Roman Celtic objects from the ninth to the sixth centuries B.C. have been discovered. The Longobards (so-named because of their long beards) came originally from Jutland. Their invasion of Italy brought about the end of the Roman world.

Lake Como is about 11/2 hours from Milan's Malpensa Intercontinental Airport. The lake, also known as Lake Lario, is of glacial origin and is fed by two rivers. It is Europe's deepest and Italy's third-largest. Shaped somewhat like an armless dancing man, Como is the most developed of the Italian lakes, with charming red-roofed villages and imposing Victorian villas dotting the shores.

In the background, rising in magnificent splendor, are the pre-Alps and behind them the snow-capped Alps. Although Lake Como is only a short distance from Switzerland, its vegetation is Mediterranean and its climate temperate--facts that attracted wealthy Romans as early as the second century. Pliny the Elder was born here.

The villas still attract the rich and famous, especially American movie stars, looking for quiet retreats; the locals are quick to point out George Clooney's villa on the lake and inform you, sotto voce, that Julia Roberts has been looking.

The loveliest, such as the Villa Carlotta or Villa del Balbianello, are not for sale. Villa Carlotta is in Tremezzo, a little town with a pretty lakeside promenade about halfway up the western side of the left leg of the lake. Built in the eighteenth century, the house was converted into a neoclassical villa in the nineteenth century and named for Queen Charlotte of England. The villa is famous for its gardens, which include more than 500 species of plants and trees; in the luxurious villa itself are ceiling frescoes and an art collection.

Farther up the lake is Villa del Balbianello, reached by boat. The villa was built on a sheer, forested promontory above the lake in the mid- eighteenth century as a monastery. Little of the original Franciscan monastery remains, except the thirteenth-century bell tower, and the villa, now government property, retains the look of its last private owner, the explorer Guido Monzino. …