Lago di Como is definitely one of the most beautiful lakes in Italy, nestled in the mountains and surrounded by lush green and charming villages, it attracts people to retreat here already since Roman times. The rich and famous have built beautiful opulent villas on the shores and many of them have very attractive gardens as well. Thanks to the vast body of water the shores of the lake are blessed with a microclimate that can be discribed as humid subtropical. We were lucky to be able to visit this beautiful place without the normal crowds of tourists, which added even more to the charm.
Lake Como has of course more than 5 gardens you can visit, but this is a nice selection around the central part of the lake to start with and all within easy reach of the beatiful town of Bellagio. The best way to reach the gardens is by the public ferry service that runs on a regular schedule (more info : https://www.navigazionelaghi.it/ ) So let’s get started…
We start our garden journey with the cracking Villa Carlotta. This beautiful estate dates back from 1695, when Georgio Clerici, than senator and president of the senate in Milan, decided to build a country estate. The garden was first mentioned in 1699. The villa itself is now a nice museum with some beautiful sculptures and other artworks on display.
The main showstopper is the 8 ha garden. The garden is most known for its spring display of a vast amount of rhododendrons ans azalea. We were here in September and even then it has a lot to offer. For me the highlight was definitely the fern valley with many tree ferns near a little creek. But also on the level of impressive trees Villa Carlotta is a must. Check out the large Lirodendron trees or the old rhododendron tree forest. Of course also the 17th century terrace garden with its citrus tree tunnels and fountain is more than worthwhile the visit. For the rest it also boasts a bamboo garden, farmland, camelia garden, rock garden…and so much more. More info : https://www.villacarlotta.it/
VILLA DEL BALBIANELLO
Only a short boat ride away from Villa Carlotta is Villa de Balbianello. Maybe more striking than the garden and villa itself is the location of this estate. At the tip of a beautiful forested peninsula with stunning views over the lake. Most visitors here will not come here for the gardens, but the fact that it featured in many movies (Casino Royal, Star Wars). We were lucky to see it without the crowds though. There are two options to get here, a nice stroll over the peninsula, or by boat. Already in the 13th century there was a monastery here, and the church on the estate is still a remnant of these times. It was Cardinal Durin who bought the property in the 18th century and made it in a luxurious retreat. The famous Visconti family lived here as a well, but it was explorer and businessman Guid Morzino who brought it all back to its former glory. Now it is owned by the FAI, Italy’s equivalent of the British National Trust. It was not easy to establish the gardens on this rocky underground. But thanks to this the garden has its own special feel, with winding paths, and dead end secret terraces. This is a green garden, where camphor trees, plane trees and cypresses bring structure together with some very interesting topiary. It is this pruning that gives the character to the garden. From the Ficus pumilia that winds around the loggia to the very impressive umbrella holm oak on the lower terrace. Try to visit this garden on a calm moment to really be able to take in the charm and the magnificent setting…and maybe to feel a bit like James Bond. More info : https://www.fondoambiente.it/villa-del-balbianello-eng
VILLA MELZI D’ERIL
Time to cross the lake and head to the charming town of Bellagio to visit our next garden. Villa Melzi D’eril is true pearl in neo-classical style, built between 1808 and 1810 for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Vice President of the Italian Republic under Napoleon. It is set in a beautiful park packed with statues, a beautiful chapel, an orangery and even a Moorish pavilion. Right at the entrance of the garden you start with an oriental garden including a pond and a beautiful collection of Japanese Acers. You can enter this garden by a fake grotto that takes you to the pond.
If you walk further on the lake shore you will see the Moorish kiosk in front of the beautiful Dante and Beatrix monument. This place was used as a tea house. A beautiful plane tree drive guides you further along the shore to the terrace in front of the house. The beautiful sober play of symmetry makes a strong statement here. The egyptian style lions in front of the house look like a regiment of guards. Don’t forget to enter the chapel at the most southern point of the garden. The quality of the sculptures in here is extraordinary. In a side room you can even admire a small depiction of the Last Supper completely made of different kinds of marble. Back in the garden you’ll see some greenhouses built up on the slope. As warm air goes up they could make a very efficient heating system with a boiler on the lower level and the heat crawling up from the lower greenhouses up to the higher ones. Pop in the small orangery museum before you continue your stroll up the slope, to the belvedere. The path will lead you back to the entrance zone…time to have a drink on one of the many terraces in Bellagio.
We left Bellagio behind and took a ferry to the picture perfect town of Varenna at the east shore of the lake. The town with its steep alleys and beautiful old harbor is home to two of the last gardens we will mention in this post. First up : Villa Monastero. As the name suggests, on this site there used to be a Cistercian convent, built in the 12th century. In the 17th century the property was bought by the Mornico family, who turned it into an eclectic style villa with gardens on this narrow strip of land. Later the garden and house was extended by Walter Kees from Leipzig. Narrow terraces were made along the shores of the lake and planted up with a wide range of botanical species.
As I mentioned before, the shores of the lake have a very mild microclimate, which makes it possible for you to find many exotic species. A wide range of palms, citrus trees and yuccas adorn the garden. Also here the garden is dotted with beautiful sculptures, a small temple, a loggia and many other gems. I was impressed by the lovely citrus tree collection, but also the whole atmosphere of the garden is a true delight. Different kinds of Jasmin makes it a pleasure for all the senses. They also have a nice collection of hydrangeas and wisteria. If you want to know more about what species you can find then click here for a link to the botanical brochure. When you are done taking it all in, don’t forget to have a drink at the garden’s nice coffee bar with a terrace embedded in the garden near the water. More info : https://www.villamonastero.eu/index.php/en/giardino-botanico-en
For our last garden we just have to hop to the neighbors of villa Monastero. Villa Cipressi is a complex of buildings that date back from 1400 to 1800 and curently houses a hotel. Smaller than the Monastero gardens, but still pleasant to visit. Also here you can find narrow terraces, lushly planted with many species. In the larger meditation area you find a stunning old magnolia near the Camelia garden. Although the garden has its own merits, it also has beautiful views on the neighboring Monastero garden. My favorite parts of this garden are the succulent garden and the narrow terraces starting at the old jetty towards the main house. More info : https://www.hotelvillacipressi.it/1/86/EN/The_Botanic_Garden_of_Villa_Cipressi_Varenna.htm
So this was a small introduction to some of the beautiful gardens in the central part of Lake Como. I definitely need to return to visit some more around the city Como and Cernobbio. Hope you enjoyed it…