Mairead Robinson visits the destination of choice for the jet set, and is captivated by its natural beauty
There are two ways to experience a new destination. The first is to visit as a tourist, either independently or in a group, and the second is to stay as a guest with a friend who is resident there. The latter is without doubt the way to go and offers a far superior experience. With local insight you get to visit the best restaurants and attractions in a relaxed fashion, and get preferential treatment as a valued regular customer. And so like Megan and Harry when they stayed with George and Amal Clooney for a chilled break after their wedding, we also stayed in a beautiful villa with a dear friend and spent days and nights savouring the beauty of Lake Como.
This is a part of Italy that has been celebrated since Roman times for its breathtaking beauty of sky, water and mountains. Lake Como itself is a long lean strip of water surrounded by high tree and shrub covered mountains. Royalty, aristocrats and celebrities have come here through the centuries to enjoy the restorative peace of the panoramic views, lush gardens and laid-back charm. The shores of the lake are lined with beguiling villages and caught-in-time residences in shades of mustard and pink. The ferries can take you on a leisurely ninety minute cruise up and across the lake stopping at many of these pretty villages, one of the most scenic and certainly worth visiting is Bellagio where we enjoyed a sunset meander through its historic streets and a wonderful lake-side meal before taking the hydrofoil back. Home for us was the village of Cernobbio where we braved the steep roads by walking from the centre to our friend’s villa in the mountains. She however would always drive the short distance, like most residents who are used to weaving their way through the tiny streets.
The town of Como itself is of course well worth visiting, and while it contains more tourists than Cernobbio, it is also home to the wonderful fifteenth century Cathedral. It is one of the biggest religious building in Lombardy, and like the Carthusian monastery of Pavia, both were built in the same period. Entry is free, and it is a masterpiece of harmonic mixture of all the historical periods in which it was built – Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. The altars, paintings, stained glass, statues and sculptures throughout this mighty building are stunning and a top must-see in Como.
Our host drove us around to see some wonderful villas – including that owned by the aforementioned George Clooney. She told us that while there was some excitement when he moved to Como, and also when his friend Brad Pitt thought he might have his wedding to Jennifer Anniston here, these days the locals do not take any notice, and he is just another low-key resident who owns two villas connected by a private bridge. It was here, in Laglio, at the Villa Oleandra that George filmed part of his movie Oceans Twelve with Brad Pitt. But nowadays he is just another super wealthy laid-back local, who like most of his neighbours, values his privacy. In fact, when I told our host that Harry and Megan had been there some months previously, she had not even heard about it at all! They are very cool customers, these Como residents and with millionaires from India – Como is very popular with the Bollywood set – and indeed from all over the world enjoying luxury homes there, it does provide a boost for the exclusive hotels and restaurants in the region. One such restaurant she brought us to is on the island of Comacina, and we had to take a small taxi-boat across to the island restaurant – L’Oste della Locanda – following a forty minute drive north from Cernobbio. Once again steeped in history, the little island was originally populated by Greeks who arrived after the Romans, and following the advent of Christianity, the temples that the first inhabitants had built to worship their gods were consecrated as churches. The island went through centuries of plunder and change, and is now home to a very unique restaurant. The tables are all set out overlooking the lake and the food is brought to the table – as is the wine – without a menu or choice offered! You need to bring a hearty appetite and not be in a hurry as this is a gastronomic gem, and with entertaining waiters, and a dozen or so courses, it makes for a great evening.
Food is always at the centre of any holiday, and certainly the restaurants we visited all offered excellent dishes and fantastic wines. I was delighted to see that really they were not expensive at all b y Irish standards for the quality offered. As Switzerland is less than five kilometres away, it came as no surprise to discover many Swiss folk at neighbouring tables as anybody who has visited Switzerland will know how expensive food is there. Indeed our host told us that people regularly drive over from Switzerland to fill their cars with food and wine from Lake Como! Another of my favourite restaurants was Harry’s Bar on Piazza Risorgimento located right on the waterfront which is the perfect people-watching spot in Cernobbio. In fact you can watch the ferries come and go while people walk their dogs – seems every second resident has a dog – while the water glistens on the lake as it competes with the cloudless sky for the clearest and brightest shade of blue.
The little streets of Cernobbio are peppered with small designer boutiques offering shoes and handbags at prices that would buy you an all-inclusive week in a five star hotel in the Caribbean. That is if they even bother to display the prices at all! But it is the chic bars where you can have an aperitif on a flower festooned patio, and the family pizzerias up in the mountains with stunning views that really make for a wonderful stay. And these are certainly affordable, as is visiting all the villages and hamlets scattered around the lake by ferry, and taking a drive up into the mountains to see some of the most exclusive villas in the world. Most evenings we ate dinner and drank wine on the patio while the moon shimmered on the lake and lights from other villas shone like stars. It is undoubtedly a very beautiful place to live and wonderful to visit. If you would like to stay in one of the most authentic luxury villas with panoramic views, you should check out Villa Alba – www.villaalbacomo.ie. Bring the whole family, this lovely house accommodates eight people and has three levels incorporating it s own gym, sauna, and pool and is one of the most beautiful villas we visited. If you don’t have a friend to invite you over, think about renting your own villa where you can live like a local in one of the world’s most treasured destinations.
The nearest airport to Lake Como is Milan. Both Aer Lingus and Rynair operate services from Ireland. You can get a train from Milan to Lake Como which takes about an hour. However most Irish tour operators have packages to Lake Como.
For further information on Lake Como, contact:
Italian National Tourist Board
1, Princes Street | London W1B 2AY
Tel. +44 20 7399 3555 – Fax +44 20 7399 3560