By Frank Mitzel.
Starting in 1989, I've visited the Lake Como region of northern Italy five times during the eighteen trips to Italy that I took with my beloved husband, Bob Babboni, who passed away in October of 2016. Bob had dual citizenship with the small country of San Marino, which is land-locked within Italy near the Adriatic Sea, not far from the cities of Bologna and Florence. Bob spoke Italian, which made it easy to visit his relatives and our numerous friends throughout Italy. Besides the food, the amazing gardens and the regal beauty of the country kept drawing us back year after year.
Bellagio in northern Italy is the perfect destination point to start a tour of Italian gardens. Most flights from California arrive in Milan around 8 AM. Since there isn't much to see in Milan in the way of gardens, I prefer to just jump in my rental car and make a two-hour beeline drive along the eastern shore of Lake Como to the Hotel Florence, right in the heart of Bellagio on the lake shore.
The three-star rated Hotel Florence is more moderately priced than the famous Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (five-star rated) and offers lake-facing rooms with terrace balconies. And you can always book a dinner reservation at the Serbelloni if you feel the need to bust the bank. You'll want to stay here for two days to help decompress and feel rejuvenated after the long flight to Italy.
After your morning arrival and hotel check-in, try to avoid the urge to give in to the jet lag by crawling into bed. Instead, take a ten-minute stroll to the enchanting Giardini di Villa Melzi right on the shores of Lake Como. The sprawling, English-style terraced gardens with mature sequoias, oaks, pines, huge Japanese maples, and rhododendrons will welcome you to the splendor of "The Jewel of the North," a term coined by locals to refer to Bellagio.
Villa Melzi is open April through September from 9 AM to 6:30 PM for free. The best time to visit is the last week of April into the first week of May when the rhododendrons and camellias (as big elephants), azaleas (as large as Volkswagens), and other shrubs like Brunfelsia pauciflora 'Floribunda' (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) are in spectacular full bloom.
After a leisurely lunch in one of the charming outdoor cafés, you may want to make the trek up the hill to see the panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains from atop Villa Serbelloni. Now run by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Villa and its terraced gardens with native and some drought tolerant plants offers a breathtaking view in all directions.
Or, forego the climb up to Villa Serbelloni and instead take a reposo (the Italian afternoon break) and relax. Try to avoid fare un pisolino (taking a nap), or you may not wake up in time for dinner! There are numerous wonderful restaurants in the little town, The Hotel Florence's ristorante being one of them.
Wake up the next morning and hop on the ferry in your macchina (automobile) for a short trip to the west shore of Lake Como to visit the elegant 18th-century Villa Carlotta and its stunning garden. You'll see a floral array of spectacular rainbow colors, all perfectly maintained in a natural garden setting. Open daily from April to September, this is one of my favorite gardens in all of Italy.
After a couple of hours, you may want to take the drive further south along the shore to the world famous 16th-century Villa d'Este. The only caveat is that you must have a reservation to dine for lunch or dinner to gain access to the gardens if you are not staying at the hotel. I prefer to make a noon lunch reservation (after visiting Villa Carlotta), then take a leisurely stroll to see the wonderful water chain fountain and the neatly manicured grounds.
You can then head back north along the shore to Villa del Balbianello, one of the most uniquely exquisite gardens anywhere in Europe. Only accessible by small boat to the gated water landing, this remote garden, once owned by Cardinal Durini, is truly an enchanting sight to see from the water. Large oak, cypress, London plane, and cypress trees surround a small casino with loggia and stately columns seemingly supported by clinging Ficus repens (creeping fig) vines and nothing else. And oh, the breathtaking wisteria! Undulating and cascading, lavender-colored plumes blanket the ceiling of the terraces and pergolas, creating a fairy tale setting upon the lake.