The Luxurious Province of Como

The Luxurious Province of Como

The Province of Como is located in the north of the Lombardy region and runs along the whole of the western shore of Lake Como, including the peninsula at the center of the lake. It borders the provinces of Sondrio and Lecco to the east, Monza and Brianza to the south, Varese to the west and Switzerland to the north. The province used to be larger, but with the creation of the Province of Lecco in 1994, it was reduced by one-third.

The famous and fantastic Lake Como was called Larium by the Romans. Under the rule of Julius Caesar, wealthy citizens began cultivating olive trees and building exquisite villas for holiday retreats, a practice that still continues two thousand years later.

Although, in relative terms, the province is small, it has a great variety of landscapes, from the snowcapped Alpine portion, to the warmer climates in the south and it is said that within an hour’s drive, you can go from winter to summer. The area around Lake Como is subtly affected by the great waters, creating a climate that is not too warm nor too cold.

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The province has the richest collection of lakes in Italy, created by a great glacier the moved southward, carving a deep gorge between the mountains. Lake Como is the deepest of the three major Italian lakes; the other two being lakes Garda and Maggiore, at 1,350 feet deep and one of the deepest in Europe.

In the Middle Ages, the area fell under the rule of the Lombards, but in the 10th century, was given over to the Bishop of Como. In the late 13th century, the area came under the control of the Visconti family of Milan. In 1533, Francesco Sfondrati bought the fiefdom and for two centuries of his descendants contributed to the progress of economy, developing the silk and candle industries and promoting trade.  It was during the 19th century that many of the ancient palazzos became refined hotels catering to the elite and nobles during the Grand Tour.

The town of Como sits at the southern end of the lake and is known for its lively streets and busy waterfront with excellent transport connections. It is only 30 minutes by rail from Milan and only a few miles to the border with Switzerland.

Como is more urban and sprawling when viewed against the smaller Lake Como resorts, but if you head to the piazza set within the historic center, the charms of the town become apparent. The centro storico (old town), is a network of cafes, intimate piazzas connected by quaint streets and alleys, some bustling with shops, while others are rather quiet and peaceful. Since it has been a successful town since Roman times, there is a sense of purpose that seems independent of the tourism that has grown to world-class levels in other towns around the lake. The most important sight in town is the cathedral, the Duomo. This imposing church was built over a period of several centuries, from 1396-1740 and shows a clear range of influences, primarily Gothic and Renaissance. The facade dates from the 15th century, while the dome, designed by Filippo Juvarra, was not constructed until three centuries later. Alongside the Duomo is the Broletto, Como’s 13th century striped-marble town hall.

Visitors should also take in the imposing Porta Torre, the gateway through the walls into the town. Stroll along the narrow arcaded lanes and take note of the tower houses along the wall, a legacy of the many wars that took place in the region during the Middle Ages.

By the lakeside, the narrow lanes of the historic center give way to open spaces and lake views. A stop at Piazza Cavour is well-worthwhile to visit the shops and enjoy a drink or espresso in one of the cafes that face the waterfront. Nearby is the 18th century Villa Olmo, one of the grandest buildings on Como’s waterfront.

Como was an important town in the silk trade and around the lake you will still find shops selling high-quality Como silks. There is a museum dedicated to the textile, the Museo della Seta, located just outside the center of town. To get a better view of the locale, take the funicular railway up the hill from Como to Brunate, where you can admire the glorious view that captures miles of the lake’s coastline.

One of the most well-known towns in the province is Bellagio. The town is actually a small village at the tip of a long hilly promontory between the two southern branches of Lake Como. It is an elegant and long-established tourist resort, which still retains considerable charm. The historic village of Bellagio has a population of only about around 200, but remarkably, there are more than 70 hotels, ranging from tiny B&Bs to the five-star Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni and Tremezzo. The tiny town is an excellent place to while away an afternoon or to spend a relaxing, romantic and luxurious weekend.

Passenger ferries stop alongside a tree-lined waterfront. Across the road is a lovely arcade with cafes and restaurants. From the central waterfront, stepped and cobbled lanes rise up the hill from the town’s main street, Via Garibaldi, where you’ll find more shops, cafes and Bellagio’s main town square, Piazza San Giacomo, dominated by the town church, the Romanesque Basilica di San Giacomo, which is worth a visit for its frescoes and statues.

One of the main sights in the town is Villa Serbelloni (not to be confused with the hotel of the same name), located on the slopes of the Bellagio promontory. The villa itself is not open to the public, but the gardens and grounds can be visited on tours. In addition to the views, you can see the botanical plantings, flowerbeds and ornamental water features, as well as a grotto under the summit of the hill and the ruins of the old defensive fortress which once commanded the point. The garden of Villa Melzi is another beautiful area. Two of the prettiest features of the garden are a little blue-roofed pavilion at the water’s edge and a shady water garden. With lovely views, upscale boutiques, picturesque lanes and great restaurants, Bellagio is one of Italy’s premiere vacation destinations. Its polished atmosphere reflects a sophisticated, yet relaxed way of life.

Not to be missed is the luxurious Villa D’Este in the town of Cernobbio. Built in 1568 as the summer residence of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, it was transformed into an exclusive hotel in 1873, becoming a favorite destination for the European aristocracy. The property is surrounded by 25 acres of park with centuries-old trees and statues. Known world-wide for its exceptional service and attention, each of its 152 rooms are unique and are furnished with antiques. It is both an icon of the hotel industry and a gleaming gem of Lake Como, while its gardens are considered to be one of Italy’s botanical treasures.

Further north is Mandello del Lario, situated below the Grigna Mountain massif. It is the home of the famous Moto Guzzi motorbikes. Not just a pretty open lakefront, it’s worth walking up to the center of town to explore its narrow streets. Taking the road upwards to the pretty medieval hamlet of Maggiana will bring visitors to Torre del Barbarossa, the tower and residence of Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. There is an undeniable symmetry that permeates this unique province. On one level, it is a place where people go about their lives and work, while on another, it is the dream destination for tourists from around the world. In either case, both groups seem to be delighted with the result!

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