Gardens and villas of the Italian Lakes with Kirker Holidays
Where is your dream holiday destination?Ours was an escorted tour with Kirker Holidays packed with art, history, amazing landscapes, gardens and villas, superb food and wine and an excellent tour manager.
We were off to one of the playgrounds of the rich and famous – If you are searching for the likes of James Bond, Richard Branson or George Clooney look no further than the shores of Lake Como.
We were met at Heathrow Airport by the tour leader and then were soon on our way to Milan Malpensa airport. On arrival, we were taken by coach to our hotel, the 4-star Albergo Terminus, situated in a prime position on the south west shores of lake Como and just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral Square.
Our room was befitting the style of the hotel, although we drew the short straw and had a side facing view but if we craned our necks the magnificent views of the lake and stunning landscapes were apparent.
After a quick freshen up we headed for the hotel restaurant where we met up with the rest of our group for evening dinner. The superb dinner seemed an eternity from this morning’s M25 crawl to Heathrow Airport but the trials and tribulations of air travel are soon forgotten although our plane delay was due to a passenger being arrested on board the incoming flight. We had a quick nightcap and then retired for the night, Ann fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow whilst I checked my emails.
After a continental breakfast, our first full day started with a walking tour of Como. The city centre is mainly pedestrianised, with many beautiful pre-17th century buildings, including the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, and the adjacent Broletto, which is 13th century. The church of San Giacomo, the Bishop’s Palace, and Palazzo Cernezzi (Town Hall), were all beautiful buildings, as were many others too numerous to mention!
We then travelled by hydrofoil to Bellagio, which is on the north east shores of Lake Como, passing many fantastic villas (including George Clooney’s and Richard Branson’s!) on the two hour journey. On arrival in Bellagio we had some free time to explore independently, and have a light lunch.
Our group met up again in the early afternoon for the short walk to Villa Melzi, where we had about three hours to explore the lakeside gardens. These were a riot of colour, with many species of trees, including Acers, Sequoia, Plane trees, as well as rhododendrons and azaleas. The gardens were further enhanced by many strategically placed statues, my favourite being a Comolli creation of Dante and Beatrice, which was situated beside a very picturesque Moorish style classical temple.
We gathered for the boat trip back to Como, which was very welcome after so much walking! The day had been pleasantly hot with a breeze from the lake as a welcome extra. In the evening we had dinner in a local restaurant, which was superb.
We were now into day two of our six day escorted Kirker Holidays tour to the 'Gardens and villas of Lake Como and Lake Maggiore'. We caught the ferry to Tremezzo, which is on the western shores of Lake Como, almost opposite Bellagio. Here we visited Villa Carlotta’s museum and extensive gardens. The Villa was given to Princess Carlotta of Nassau as a wedding present in 1856, hence the name. Inside the Villa there are many beautiful sculptures by Canova, Acquisti, and Radaelli, as well as neo-classical paintings, period furnishings, and tapestries. The grounds are very extensive, with a combination of formal Italian gardens, with sculptures, stairs and fountains, and English park, with rhododendrons, azaleas, and every bedding plant imaginable! There is also a new feature – a section of verdant rainforest, which is kept humid with mist being continually sprayed through it.
In the afternoon we were taken by private launch to Villa del Balbianello, which is set on a peninsula just south of Tremezzo at Lenno. The Villa was built in the late 1700s, and after a long and turbulent history was bought in the 1900s by Guido Monzini, a Milanese businessman, but more importantly an avid collector and explorer. One of the rooms is entirely given over to his collection of artefacts amassed during his participation in an expedition to the North Pole in 1971, and the conquest of Everest in 1973. The Villa and Loggia are crammed full of maps, travel books (over 4,000!), and prints of Lake Como throughout the ages. The gardens are set in an almost vertical position, with huge plane trees, wisteria and ivy, and laurel and boxwood bushes. The most amazing horticultural feature is the amazing ‘umbrella’ trees which are pruned into shape every year.
On our return to Como, again by private launch, we were free to dine as we pleased in the evening. As there was a lot of thunder rolling ominously around, after a short stroll along the lakefront we headed back to the hotel for an enjoyable evening meal.
I was up early the next morning, intending to have a stroll before breakfast but with some forty or so emails waiting a reply, I did an 'hour in the office' beforehand.
Departing the hotel at 0930, we were taken by coach to the principal town on Lake Maggiore, Stresa. We then boarded our private launch to the Borromean Islands, stopping first at Isola Bella. This island’s palace and gardens are designed to look like a galleon in full sail, with a beautiful tiered Italianate garden, complete with fountains and statues. The palace is full of amazing and priceless works of art, and the grounds are spectacular.
We then visited Isola Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) where we enjoyed a superb seafood lunch, then travelled on to Isola Madre. There were many species of exotic birds (including white peacocks) strolling through the gardens. In front of the villa was a large Cashmir Cypress, which had been the largest in Europe until it was devastated by a storm in June 2006. After many years of tender loving care, the tree is slowly recovering, although it has had to be supported by steel cables; it is still an amazing specimen.
We then travelled back to Como, and had a free evening. A few of us ate at the ‘Teatro’ restaurant, which, as the name implies, is part of the theatre building.
It’s day four already and we travelled by coach in the morning to visit the Villa Cicogna Mozzoni by Lake Lugano, which, unlike the other Villas we visited, is still owned by the family who built it in the 15th century. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Jacopo, the current incumbent, who was extremely proud of his ancestral home and gardens. After a very interesting tour, we were treated to lunch within the Villa.
We then visited Villa Della Porta Bozzolo in Casalzuigno, which had many well preserved artefacts, including paintings, tapestries, and an amazingly equipped kitchen! The Gardens were equally impressive, with sweeping stairs, statues, and a beautiful rose garden.
On our return to Como we dined on the lakefront, although fortunately we ate inside, as there was torrential rain for most of the evening!
Today was our penultimate day, the morning was bright and sunny, and we had free time for a walk around Como before heading to Villa d’Este in Cernobbio (by boat) for a sumptuous lunch. This Villa (which is a luxury hotel) really is the playground of film stars and millionaires! Set in its own beautiful gardens, the villa is absolutely stunning, and the meal and service we received could not have been better.
On our return to Como, we had a trip on the funicular to see the panoramic views of both the lake and the town – stunning!
Our last evening was spent with some of our group in ‘Ristorante Sociale’ just round the corner from the hotel. It was set in an old building which had been the family home of Pope Innocent XI, and the proprietor showed us round a room upstairs which had an enormous fireplace built in honour of Innocent becoming Pope. We had a very pleasant final evening, with good company, wine and food – although none of us were particularly hungry after our wonderful lunch!
After breakfast, on our final day, we reluctantly waved goodbye to Como. We were returning to England from Linate Airport, so stopped en route in Monza to visit the cathedral and its famous relic, the Iron Crown. Legend has it that the interior ring of the crown was made from a nail from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It has been embellished with six gold plates, all decorated with gemstones and enamel. There was also an extensive underground museum.
Our return flight was punctual and uneventful, and I think everyone was sad to be saying goodbye – we had had a fantastic six days and the group had got on very well.
Without doubt, this tour was exceptionally well organised, and although we visited so many places, at no time did we feel rushed. Our tour leader, Christopher Monckton was superb – he seemed to have the knack of appearing if he was needed, but he was never obtrusive. He was extremely knowledgeable, and a joy to listen to, with his many droll observations!
This was a trip that was truly memorable.
More about John ChatterleyJohn is a retired accountant and publican. A keen amateur photographer from an early age, his interest started when his parents bought him a 'Brownie 127'. Travel gives John the chance to talk with locals about their lives, and the many people he meets are only too willing to share great stories and insights.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays