‘What is your favourite garden?’ is one of those impossible questions I’m often asked.  Another is ‘What is your favourite region in Italy?’  I’ve even been asked, as I was towards the end of this trip, ‘Which country is your favourite – Italy or France?’  More on that later when we get to the Veneto, but for now, after a bit of fumbling around I came up with some vague comment about how they are very diversi (different) and mi piacciono tutti i due (both are pleasing to me).  And that is what I say when people ask which is my favourite of northern Italy’s big lakes – Lake Maggiore, Lake Como or Lake Garda.   For bodies of water that are so close, geographically speaking – from Lake Maggiore in the west to Lake Garda in the east is only 200 km –  it really is remarkable how different they are.  Which is what makes visiting this region – Lombardia – so much fun.  But for people who are not comfortable with such woolliness, I think it’s fair to say that for many people the most beautiful is Lake Como – aka Lake Clooney.  And, in the same spirit,  the most beautiful village on the lake is Bellagio.


Bellagio, the ‘jewel’ of Lake Como.  One thing that is not in dispute is that there is not a casino in sight.

Years before I had stayed in one of the hotels that are spread out, front door-like, along the east shore.  Although I’m not a fan of ‘the most beautiful’ this, that or other thing, I have no qualms about declaring Bellagio the quintessential, picture postcard village – gorgeous setting, charming centro storico and lots of places along the shore where you can have a meal or just a drink and rest your inevitably weary legs while you take in the view.  The thing about being IN a beautiful place is,  you can’t actually see it, so this time I’d decided to stay across the lake in Cadenabbia, which although significantly less charming, offered fabulous views of the ‘jewel’.


View of Cadenabbia from Bellagio. The owner of the little place I stayed in suggested I visit the Chiesa di San Martino – the tiny speck half-way up the mountain on the right. Maybe I’ll get around to it next time.

The other thing in Cadenabbia’s favour is that it’s a 15-minute walk to Villa Carlotta, which may, perhaps, possibilmente, be the most beautiful garden on the the lake.


The white building just to the left of the shell cum cherub is Villa Carlotta.

Following the advice of someone known to have had an eye for beauty, I had visited Villa Carlotta years ago in June.  Lake Como has been a popular venue for weddings for some time, especially in May and June, when the gardens along its shores are in full bloom.  The effect is so enchanting that after attending a wedding one lovely June day in the 15th century, one of the guests wrote to all his friends urging them to come at that time of year.


At the entrance, Arion is rescued by the dolphins. June 2006

As beautiful as the gardens would have been when that 15th century wedding guest saw them, the highlight of the gardens today in May and June would have been nowhere in sight.  It wasn’t until the 19th century when foreigners were first allowed into the interior of China that intrepid plant explorers discovered and started bringing back the rhododendron.


The rhododendrons have acclimatized so well to the temperate climate of Lake Como that many of them are 15 metres high.


Rhododendrons and palm trees.  As unlikely a combo as Lake Como and the Himalayas, the native habitat of these spectacular, flowering trees.


And the name of that wedding guest?  Leonardo da Vinci.

I knew that in late September the rhodos would be long past blooming, but I figured there would still be something to make a return trip worthwhile.  I also figured the temperatures would be pleasantly warm – maybe in the low 20’s during the day, mid-teens at night. What I hadn’t figured on was what happened overnight the day after my arrival.

Always a morning person, I came down to the breakfast room early on the off-chance I might be able to get a cappuccino.  I was standing by the window, gazing out in disbelief, when Paola, who runs the hotel end of the Alberghetto Marianna – her husband, Ty, is king of the kitchen – arrived.  She looked at me and said one word – Impressionante.


It’s hard to imagine a drearier view of Bellagio. And yes, that is snow on the mountains behind the village.

Impressionante has none of the upbeat connotations of ‘impressive’.  Instead, it is a dark word, all about dismay and disturbances of the soul caused by unusual forces.  Paola’s daughter, who lives in Milan, had called to say things weren’t any better there – Faceva un freddo da cani. It was a cold fit for dogs.  (If we can say things like ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, I guess the Italians can say what they like about the cold.  I once had a student who, clearly exasperated by idiomatic expressions like these, would refer to them as espressioni idiotiche.  I had to admit he did have a point.  He still had to learn them.)


With that icy wind and the sound of the waves crashing, it felt more like the north Atlantic than a  charming Italian lake.

I wasn’t at all keen on the idea of returning home with a card full of gardens framed by dark, brooding clouds like those from my last trip to Tuscany.   I didn’t care how ‘dramatic’ they were.  I wanted clear, blue skies and dappled sunlight.  But when Paola checked the forecast – she used a Swiss site – more reliable than the Italian one in her experience – things didn’t look much better for the rest of my stay, so as soon as it stopped raining – one thing I refuse to be a good sport about is visiting a garden in the rain – I set out for Villa Carlotta.


So many years later, Arion is still surrounded by red fibrous begonias.

The villa was built in the late 1600’s by a member of the straordinariamente (straw-or-dee-nah-ree-ah-men-tay) rich Clerici family.  As time passed the property was handed down through the generations until the only heir left was Antonio, the 21 year old great nephew of the original owner.  Like many a young man before and since, Antonio proceeded to engage in a life of legendary fasto – one of those weird words, at least to an native English speaker’s ear, that has nothing to do with speed or deprivation and everything to do with extravagant pomp and splendour – and by the time he died had managed to dissipate most of the fortuna colossale he had inherited.


The rhodos and azaleas were of course ‘resting’. Things still looked extraordinarily lush.

The next owner was one of the many men of low social stature, but great ambitions, who thrived in the profound social and political upheaval that followed the French Revolution.  From relative obscurity Gian Battista Sommariva had crawled his way up the social ladder, accumulating vast wealth, political power, important friendships – Napoleon among them – as well as the prestigious titles of Count and Marquis.  He cemented his high social standing in 1801 with the purchase of Villa Carlotta. But his meteoric rise came to a screeching halt barely a year later when his erst-while friend, Napoleon, passed him over for the position of Vice President of the newly created Republic of Italy, choosing Sommariva’s arch rival, Francesco Melzi, instead.


La Valle delle Felci. The enchanting Valley of the Ferns.

His political career over, Sommariva set his sights on regaining his social stature by other means.  As Cardinal Ippolito d’Este had done a few centuries earlier at Villa d’Este in Tivoli after being passed over for the Papacy (A Cure for Road Rage and Other Modern Ailments, March 1, 2015),  Sommariva reinvented himself. He started collecting art and in a remarkably short time had amassed enough works of art to attract Europe’s richest and most powerful to his door once more.  And to create a sufficiently opulent setting in which to greet his guests, he sent plant hunters to the newly opened frontiers to bring back rare and exotic plants for the spectacular garden surrounding the villa.

The 'Citrus Allee', full of the exotic fruits being brought back from newly discovered corners of the world.

The ‘Citrus Allée’, full of the exotic fruits being brought back from newly discovered corners of the world.

Wandering around the garden today, it is hard to imagine the intense competition that was the real driving force behind its creation.  While Sommariva sought to impress his illustrious guests with his exotic plants and statuary, even more important to him was to create something that would eclipse Melzi’s efforts on the opposite shore.  It was a bitter rivalry that not even death could put an end to.  They each commissioned elaborate mausoleums where they lie, in a kind of defiant, eternal face-off.


At the entrance to the Bamboo Garden, a simple Torii Gate, symbol of the transition from the physical to the spiritual world.


I’m not usually a fan of sculptural ‘installations’ in gardens, but there was something about this one.


Roots of a tree close to the path make a horizontal sculpture.

Given the snow-capped mountains all around, the piante grasse (fat plants) in the Giardino Roccioso looked totally out of place. They are transferred to a greenhouse for the winter, but maybe, with all the strange, new weather patterns, the gardeners will have to start transferring them earlier.


Succulents and snow.  Another unusual combo.


Just past the succulents, a remarkably colourful border for this time of year.


I was so amazed by all the colour I almost missed these two creatures.

As time went by the Sommariva clan was struck with the usual vicissitudes and in 1844 the property was sold again, this time for rather a bargain, to the Prussian Princess Marianne. It was to be a wedding gift for her daughter, Carlotta, who married a German Duke. Strangely, there is no mention in the English translation of the guide, that this was a marriage of love, with none of the political or power allegiances typical of such unions at the time.


On the opposite shore, above the duck’s head, Villa Melzi.

Unfortunately the love-struck couple’s happiness was short-lived.  Like many of her era, princess Carlotta died in childbirth a few years later, when she was only twenty-four.


A theatrical element in the ‘Theatre of Greenery’.


Close to the villa a few camellias were braving the elements.

On the west side of the villa is the Giardino Vecchio.  The Old Garden.  I expected to find the geometrically clipped boxwood hedges, central path and symmetry of the classic Renaissance Garden.

Not what I expected to see in an 'old' garden.

Not what I expected to see in an ‘old’ garden.

I don’t usually buy much as I travel around, but if they’d had some miniatures of this giant slug in the gift shop I would have picked up a couple.  The perfect gift for garden friends.


Did they have a different team of gardeners over on this side?


Another ‘shoe shot’.

It started to drizzle as I was strolling around the unusual, old garden so I headed back to the villa.


It would take a real downpour to blot out Villa Melzi.


From the shelter of the villa entrance.

Since it didn’t look like the rain was going to let up any time soon, I made my way down the oddly named scalinata a tenagliatenaglie are pincers – towards the exit.  As I was leaving a group arrived.


Sometimes, even in the rain, the garden visit must go on.

In the end, I lost one and a half days (out of four) of my stay on Lake Como to rain. Luckily it didn’t rain the whole time and although I wasn’t able to make it to one of the gardens I had hoped to revisit, I did visit three others.  Villa Melzi was one of them.


On the way to Villa Melzi, a rare view of Villa Carlotta under blue skies.






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6 Responses to Impressionante!

  1. Paul S says:

    Your photographs are beautiful and brought back a lot of happy memories. I like the fact you captured the lakes oldest service boat, Milano on your view from Bellagio.

    • donnafenice says:

      Thank you Paul. I had no idea it was a boat of such significance. I had already taken a few photos of when it started making its way across the lake and I thought ‘Yes, that’s the one’. Grazie, Donna

  2. Ishita says:

    Amazing. I can’t get enough of this post!

    • donnafenice says:

      Thank you, Ishita, I’m not always sure when I send these things ‘out into the ether’ so it’s wonderful to have such positive feedback. Grazie, Donna

      • Ishita says:

        I love your posts, Donna. May I ask what camera you use? Keep them coming 🙂

      • donnafenice says:

        E’ lecito domandare” is one of those wonderful set phrases I often find myself wishing we had in English. When you’ve been asked a question you hadn’t expected, it gives you that little bit of time to decide whether you want to answer or not, and if not, ‘It’s permitted to ask’ sounds a lot less harsh than ‘Yes, I do mind.’ (Oddly we talk about a lot of illicit (illecito) things in English, but as far as I’m aware, no ‘licit'(lecito) ones.) In any event, now that I’ve collected my thoughts, to the consternation – sometimes even exasperation – of many camera-carrying people I have run into, I use what’s rather disdainfully referred to as a ‘Starter’ camera with an equally derided ‘Kit’ lens – the Canon Rebel T2i. Occasionally, after being told in that imperious tone some people feel is OK to use when giving you unsolicited advice, I’ve felt sufficiently unbalanced that I went to the local Black’s store, where a consistently honest, warm-hearted salesperson talked me out of buying the VERY expensive, VERY heavy lenses the random ‘experts’ told me I absolutely had to have. (Hopefully the company’s going out of business had nothing to do with my non-transactions.) In a nutshell, for a non-techie like me, one’s choice in cameras is best summed up by a friend who hales from an era long before political correctness was invented – ‘It’s the shooter, not the arrow that counts.’ And now, thanks to your question, I’ve got that off my chest. Cheers, Donna

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