The loveliest of lakes

By Lydia Gard, Evening Standard

Last updated at 10:30 11 May 2007

Lake Como

Lake Como is the third largest in Italy, and by far the deepest. It lies in a crooked Y shape, with the town of Como at the foot of the western arm and picturesque Bellagio at the fork. Many poets have been inspired by its beauty including Shelley, Wordsworth, Parini and, memorably, Henry Longfellow. He wrote: 'No sound of wheels or hoof-beat breaks/The silence of the summer day/As by the loveliest of all lakes/I while the idle hours away.' Idle hours can still be whiled away today by glittering waters trimmed with cypress trees among which tiny villages wind into the foothills, their straggling streets suddenly opening onto mini-piazzas. Vespas prop up against the walls of the local trattoria. Vast villas flank the shores, their topiaried gardens dripping over the waters edge like wax from a candelabra, above which balconies look out onto the moonlit lake, just crying out for Romeo encounters.

Behind it all, the dark, still mountains reach up majestically, wrapped in a duvet of lush green and occasionally capped in sparkling, white snow.

Save for the occasional hum of a speedboat it could be the 19th century. But the pace of life has been raised since one such vast villa was bought by George Clooney, who snapped up Villa Oleandra in the village of Laglio for €8 million.

The possibility of experiencing one of Italy's starlit piazzas while sitting next to Brad Pitt has made Como the holiday equivalent of getting a seat at the Oscars.

However, while tourists drive the 40km north of Milan hell-bent on a sighting, the locals are far too laid back to make a fuss. Being the closest lake to Milan, they are accustomed to having influential guests and residents.

Wealthy city slickers have treated it as a weekend bolthole for centuries, escaping the frenzied heat of the city for clean air, cool breezes and illicit trysts complete with spectacular backdrops.

In 1833, English scientist William Fox Talbot stayed there on honeymoon and was so taken with the view that he tried to transfer its image onto a piece of paper, leading to the creation of one of the world's first photographs. Since then, it has drawn the great and good from all corners to its sparkling shores. When the extraordinarily opulent Villa d'Este opened as a luxury hotel in Cernobbio on Como's south-western shore in 1873, there was a mass influx of Europe's well-heeled, titled and famous, which set the tone.

Besides the celebrity and general lavishness, the lakes are also coming back into vogue for active holidays. Hike three hours uphill, through Europe's most northerly olive groves, and along ancient trade trails, and the view that this effort delivers is extraordinary.

For those after something less strenuous a hop across the water on the ferry or, better still, a private speedboat will bring you to pretty boutique shops selling fine leather, silks or Bardolino wine in the villages of Sirmione or Limone.

Como itself is more developed and a little less charming. Of course, grandmothers still sit in the cafés languidly sipping their coffee, savouring a quiet moment before carrying the week's supplies back across the water for Sunday lunch; but its high street is intent on upstaging Capri, with a stellar line-up of Prada, Gucci, Christian Dior, Fendi, Cavalli - the list goes on.

If you stay at Villa d'Este, the most dangerous temptation is not to leave its grounds.

If you don't mind Madonna seeing you in a bikini, then luxuriate by the pool, which (literally) floats over the lake, curiously boasting a nymphonium - such a fountain is apparently a symbol of good taste and not, as you might imagine, a peacock-like display of wealth.

When the sun shines, the wooden decking becomes a silent Botox catwalk, where even the men have had a preparatory pedicure.

For those who rate food over fashion, the lake has its own mini-gastronomy. Though some of the touristy lakeside 'restaurants with views' tend to be unduly impassioned by lake fish (perch, trout and incredibly salty dried lavarets, a sort of large, smoky anchovy), the winding backstreets are full of trattorias that will satisfy a craving for pizza, pasta, game and the local speciality - polenta.

So all that is left is to make a very difficult choice. Either you eat, drink and generally indulge in the sheer beauty and romance of Italy's most chi-chi lake, or you think of the poolside, hold back on that main course and pray to God that if George and Brad turn up, you'll at least get a double-take.

Way to go Inghams Lakes & Mountains (020 8780 4433, Seven nights at the four-star Grand Hotel Menaggio cost from £655pp half-board including return flights to Milan with British Airways and transfers. Inghams offers 10 hotels around Lake Como.

When to go: spring and autumn.

Need to know: Como Osteria del Gallo (Via Vitani, 16) serves snacks and a good wine selection. Riva (Via Cairoli, 10) is a slick restaurant with a good variety of pizzas (e8) and main-course salads (seafood, rocket and bacon), about e13. For picnics pick up fresh focaccia from Peach Pit (Via Diaz, 41). Keep up with the Clooneys ... a four-bedroom, three-bathroom villa with views of the lake and mountains costs €1.6 million (£1.1 million). See

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