“Lake Como, in mood, if not in reality, is the lake most swept up in the days of grand dukes and dowager empresses, of fin-de-siecle balls before the chill winds of democracy swept away the doomed, cobweb-encrusted carapace.
As the most glamorous lake, it has been a retreat for weary urbanites for several thousand years. Pliny the Younger, poet, orator and Senator, sang the praises of his two waterside villas, retreats from the cares of the world. Named Comedy and Tragedy, the porticoed villas saved him from what passed for stress in Ancient Rome. If Villa Commedia is traditionally sited in Lenno, where the young poet fished from his bedroom window, Villa Tragedia straddled a ridge in Bellagio and boasted superlative views of the Alps. Here, as in most of the lakes, the sights are subordinate to the mood. Bellagio is a summation of all the cliches yet somehow rises above it.
Como’s icing on the cake comes in the form of Villa Carlotta and its gorgeously saccharine gardens. This central stretch of the lake, embracing Bellagio, Tremezzo and Varenna, is the most seductive. Near Varenna, the brooding woods and wild limestone peaks inspired Leonardo da Vinci to use the shadowy landscape as the setting for his Virgin of the Rocks. Stendhal, based in Milan, partly set his masterpiece The Charterhouse of Parma on these shores, and offered a clear-sighted look at love and the pursuit of happiness.
Naturally, it was on Como that the locals controversially claim John Kennedy romanced Marilyn Monroe. But even in Henry James’ day, Lake Como had a reputation for naughtiness: “It is commonly the spot to which inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion.” Ever wise, James was the first to sanction snatching happiness: “Lake Como is the place to enjoy a deux - it’s a shame to be here in gross melancholy solitude.”