“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That old quote, from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, has nothing to do with the weather, or with Italy either, and yet during four days in Lake Como, I couldn’t get it out of my head in connection to both of those things. Miserable weather can be just as idiosyncratic.
Lake Como. You probably know it as George Clooney’s summer hideaway, or where Milan’s wealthy families escape on the weekends. A land of sparkling waters and sprawling villas, and exactly the kind of place you’d want to see a forecast for days on end of 28 degrees and sun, which is what the Weather Network’s website told me to expect some two weeks out. Of course, as one of my friends pointed out, that much in advance you’re as likely to get an accurate prediction from a psychic. As my trip neared, the long-term forecast deteriorated into four days of overcast haze and rain.
Before arriving, I pictured Lake Como as an Italian version of Muskoka, Toronto’s luxe cottage outpost, the difference being that that if I was in rainy cottage country in Ontario, I’d sequester myself under a knitted blanket and read magazines. But I didn’t come all the way to Italy to have a bunk day, I reminded myself on the drive out from Milan’s Linate airport.
It takes about an hour to get to Lake Como from Milan, along a long, flat four-lane highway that feels a lot like southern Ontario’s Highway 400 (but swap the Tim Hortons for Autogrill). That said, there’s a reason 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had to pinch himself the first time he laid eyes on Como, asking “Is this a dream? … Is there a land of such supreme and perfect beauty anywhere?’’ From my first flash of the lake, glimpsed between tunnels carved into the mountains that hide it from the rest of the world, I got his point.
On a map, Lake Como looks like a wide, upside-down Y, but in reality the shoreline is a network of promontories that make the best views elusive
Once you exit that first tunnel, the road narrows and becomes a frustrating tease, full of turns and shorter underpasses that offer peekaboos of the lake. On a map, Lake Como looks like a wide, upside-down Y, but in reality the shoreline is a network of promontories that make the best views elusive. As we drove down towards my accommodations in Tremezzo, one of dozens of towns (some no more than a couple of buildings) along Como’s shore, I smacked my head on the window trying to get a better look.
I might have saved myself the pain. Opposite the water, the entryway to my hotel, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, is a mirrored archway that reflects the muted blues and greens of the hazy lake and mountains across the street. Inside, the dining levels, where I stopped to have my first cappuccino of the trip,are terraced and glass, designed to mesmerize. But best of all was the view once I finally reached my room, one of the hotel’s rooftop suites. The full length of it is a glass wall that opens onto a terrace facing out towards Bellagio — curling up under a blanket didn’t sound like a bad plan after all, considering that the sky seemed to transform the entire vista every few minutes. A sheer mist softened the hills and a spotlight of sun pulled my attention to one of the smaller villages across the way. From my terrace, the town looked like elephant toes at the mountain’s sturdy base. I was transfixed.
Though the sky threatened, and the sun continued its peepshow, the rain held off, allowing me to see the lake the way it needs to be seen — from the water. From that vantage, Como is an exercise in scale: 47 kilometres in length, its branches are up to 4 km across, and the surrounding mountains climb sharply to peaks of up to 2,400 metres. If the sky had been clearer, we’d have been able to see the Swiss Alps, less than half an hour west by car. That narrow groove feels expansive; no doubt the wide-open feeling is boosted by air so cool and pristine that you remember how you’re really supposed to breathe: all the way down to your belly.
We caught the ferry to Bellagio and, the next day, our hotel’s Venetian-style launch, or water taxi, over to Villa Balbianello, a former Franciscan monastery-turned-private villa that belongs to the Italian National Trust. Accessible only from the water, the Balbaniello’s steep gardens climb to a house that once belonged to Guido Monzino, the leader of Italy’s first Everest expedition. There’s the modest museum he built chronicling his journeys, but otherwise the home is a love letter to Lake Como, with lithographed maps and drawings of the region and picture windows in every room with walls wrapped in Como silk. Classic Roman-style statues throughout the gardens all gaze out at the water, as though the owner wanted them to enjoy the view more than he wanted to enjoy his art. You get the sense that for Monzino, who died a bachelor, Lake Como was a one true love.
When it finally did rain, it let loose so hard that the lake looked like it was spraying upwards. By then, we’d finished at the villa and were enjoying a cozy Saturday lunch at Crotto dei Platani, a restaurant on the water that’s been run by the same family since it opened in 1855. We tucked into plates of lavarello tartare — lavarello’s a lake fish caught right off the same dock we’d cruised up to — blanketed with Umbrian black truffles, and perch ravioli topped with house-made bottarga. It was the kind of weather that made you feel justified ordering another glass of wine, and perhaps some homemade gelato for dessert (as we did). By the time we finished, the sun was poking out across the lake again and the terracotta roofs in Bellagio, some 11 km away, glistened like tiny glass mosaic tiles. Days of uninterrupted blue skies never seemed so ho-hum.