With its Belle Epoque society spirit, Art Nouveau mansions, grand hotels and ornamental gardens against a backdrop of snow-capped Alps, Italy’s three great lakes—Maggiore, Como and Garda—conjure a veritable lotus land. Not for nothing, this arresting corner of the northern Italian region of Lombardy has attracted pleasure seekers since Roman times, when the erotic poet Catullus built a holiday villa at Sirmione (the ruins of which you can still visit), on the south shore of Garda.
Almost two thousand years on, the Italian decadent Gabriele D’Annunzio made a permanent residence out of Il Vittoriale, a monumental estate at Gardone on the west side of the same lake. Lake Maggiore is famous for Stresa, a town immortalized by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, the Villa Taranto Gardens, with plants from every corner and clime of the world, and the Borromean Islands, where trattorias serve local dishes featuring fresh fish from the lake (think risotto with tench and stewed pike). Lake Como, with its mild micro-climate–hence fine villas with luxuriant gardens–enchanted Stendhal so much that he was moved to describe it as “the most beautiful place in the world.” Smaller, but charming in their own right, are Lake Iseo, near the wine-producing district of Franciacorta, and Lake Orta in Piedmont, an oasis of green peace with an islet complete with a medieval basilica at its center.
To access the best retreats in this region, we’ve tapped our sources to deliver these four coveted escapes on Lago di Como just for PRIOR members. During your stay, we can help you take in the Lakes Region with a private seaplane flight over Lake Como to a private dinner at the home of a prominent writer, whose home is reachable only by water.
The Yellow Villa
Amid the old-world residences lining Lake Como, this five-bedroom retreat, with its creamy yellow exterior offset by dark green shutters, offers a refreshing modern twist on lakeside living. Set within the village of Lenno, the property is just a two-minute water taxi ride from Villa Balbianello, a landmark featured in James Bond: Casino Royale.
The villa received a stylish update from its owners two years ago. Iron balcony railings and a small loggia wrap around the exterior, while inside, the common areas and bedrooms, with their original wood and stone floors and arched windows, are filled with bold splashes of color: teal-blue sofas, magenta ottomans and walls painted in floral patterns. Throughout the house, elegant floor-to-ceiling glass doors let in splashes of light and offer glimpses of the Isola Comacina, a tiny, wooded island with a church and a trattoria just offshore.
A Dancer’s Retreat
Restored by a famous Romantic-era ballet dancer named Maria Taglioni, this early 19th-century villa looks like a dollhouse from afar–and the interiors are picture perfect, too. Located along Como’s eastern shore in Blevio, a commune of sleepy fishing villages, the seven-bedroom retreat’s mosaic-floored entryway leads to a lakefront living and music room, which has received such notable guests as composers Gioacchino Rossini and Franz Liszt.
The common areas and seven bedrooms are filled with frescoes, chandeliers and arched windows that frame views of the town of Cernobbio and the famous Villa d’Este, and a large outdoor terrace hovers directly over the water. The property’s seven-acre private park, with two pools and a church next to a garden, sits right next to the lake, where a private dock allows guests to land by seaplane.
A Cardinal’s Palazzo
The largest privately owned palazzo on Lake Como, this former cardinal’s residence on Lake Como’s western side is an astonishing showcase of old-world opulence. The property—close to 70,000 feet over three floors—dates to the 10th century, but it was expanded by a cardinal who bought it in the 16th century to conduct clerical meetings and host lavish parties.
Legend has it that a subsequent cardinal-owner in the 17th century had so much gold that he buried it somewhere on the property’s five manicured acres—though it has never been found. Nearly everything within the villa feels museum-worthy: centuries-old frescoes and sculptures by visiting Italian, French and British artists are beautifully preserved, and original chandeliers still hang from the ceilings. A recent renovation by French architect Jacques Garcia refreshed the six marble-floored bedrooms and updated the kitchen with sleek stone and wood surfaces.
The Pink Villa
One of the fairytale-like manses to be built in the 18th and 19th centuries in Menaggio, on the western side of Lake Como, this pink-hued property showcases a bygone era, with 18th-century frescoes, heavy coffered wooden doors, original mosaic floors and a winding wooden staircase leading up to the property’s upper three floors.
The 10 individually designed bedrooms feature antique dressing cabinets and headboards, and each has a bathroom in pink, green, or blue. The property offers plenty of activities to fill afternoons next to the glittering lake, whether you’re in the swimming pool, on the tennis court, or strolling through the 33,000-square-foot English-style garden lined with century-old sequoias, cedars, oaks and palms.
PRIOR’s Bespoke team can design a trip for your group based at any one of these houses, safely helping you explore the surroundings when you are ready to travel again. Inquire at email@example.com.
At Home on the Italian Lakes