The most important villas for most visitors to Lake Como include the Villa Olmo in Como, the Villa D’Este and Villa Erba in nearby Cernobbio, the Villa del Balbianello near Lenno, Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, Villa Monastero in Varenna and the Villas Serbelloni and Melzi near Bellagio. They stand out because of their size, position or beauty; and because they allow limited public access to certain areas, at certain times, or for specific purposes.
With the notable exception of the Villa Carlotta, they are not primarily ‘sightseeing’ attractions but rather working buildings – hotels, conference centres or the headquarters of important organisations. As a result, they typically open the gardens, but little or none of the interior space, to the general public. That may not sound like very much, but there are many privately owned villas by the Lake that remain completely closed to visitors.
- Villa Olmo
This neo-classical building is in Como, at the opposite end of the lakeside promenade from the funicular railway. It’s the home of the Centro Di Cultura Scientifica “Alessandro Volta’’, a non-profit making organisation named after one of Como’s most famous sons, who invented the Voltaic Pile, or battery.
Public access is normally limited to the grounds, which house the beach of Villa Olmo and two swimming pools in the summer season. And directly in front of the house is a lakefront Italian garden, which is said to be a popular place to have a photograph taken in costume during the carnival season.
However, the building is also used for special cultural events. When we were there, we were able to get inside to see an exhibition of paintings from Vienna. This gave us the opportunity to photograph at least the entrance hall and magnificent staircase above it. But unfortunately most of the apparently very elegant interiors are not routinely open to visitors.
- Villa D’Este
Possibly the grandest of Lake Como’s grand 5 star hotels, the Villa D’Este occupies a lakeside position in Cernobbio, close to Como. It offers its guests the unashamed luxury of a bygone era, together with state of the art sports and conference facilities. It also houses a collection of sixteenth century art and sculpture. But it’s a hotel, not a gallery.
The villa has a stormy history. It was once owned by the Marquis Caldera, whose wife had an affair with one of Napoleon’s generals, Domenico Pino. Husband and lover fought a duel, in which the Marquis was killed. The General then married the widow and became the owner of the villa. This seems to highlight one or two loopholes in the law of that time, with regard to both property transfers and homicide.
- Villa Erba
The Villa Erba, in Cernobbio, is highly organised for big business. The original Mannerist building has been supplemented by a dramatic steel and glass state of the art conference centre. This is one of very few examples at Lake Como of mixing modern architecture with historic structures. Within the old villa there is a museum open to the public called ‘The Rooms of Lucino Visconti’ celebrating the famous Italian film director, who once lived there.
- Villa del Balbianello
This stunning looking villa is probably the most distinctive on the Lake, because of its position on a promontory jutting out into the water and because of the stepped arranged of its terraces. It’s owned by the Italian Environmental Foundation, which has managed to cast it in more films than some actors have played in. They include: A Month by the Lake; Ocean’s Twelve and Casino Royale. But the villa is perhaps best known as the location of Princess Lea’s wedding in Star Wars.
The villa was built by a Cardinal Durini as a ‘place of delights’ and guests are welcomed by the slogan ‘Fay ce que voudras’ which translates to ‘do what you like’. You can’t help thinking the Cardinal must have been a rather unusual kind of priest, a sort of Italian Father Ted.
The villa opens every day except Mondays and Wednesdays, from 17 March to 4 November. It opens on public holidays, whatever day they fall on. It can be reached by boat, or by foot, both from Lenno; except that access by foot is allowed only on Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday and on public holidays.
You can tour the garden for five Euros (children of four to twelve years, two and a half Euros). Or you can take a ‘compulsory guided tour’ of the garden and villa, which of course just means you have to have a guide, not that you must take the tour.
There are two kinds of guided tour – without reservation and with prior reservation. The first costs eleven Euros (children six Euros) and the second, eight Euros. But the guide for the second (reserved) tour (only) is a ‘specialized guide’, who costs an extra fifty Euros – not per person, but per group – which can be up to a maximum of fifteen people per tour. The guide for the unreserved tour is not ‘specialized’, so doesn’t seem to cost extra.
So, nothing complicated about those arrangements then. For further information go to the Villa del Balbianello website. Alternatively, if you’re already at the Lake, you could call in at the tourist information office in Lenno.
- Villa Carlotta
The outstanding internal feature is an extremely sensual sculpture of Cupid and Psyche on the first floor. The most famous external attractions are the more than 150 kinds of azaleas and rhododendrons that bloom in spring.
Because of its high profile, we’ve written a detailed review of the [post=119], based on a recent visit.
- Villa Monastero
Situated on the lakefront on the outskirts of Varenna, about halfway between the centre and the Fiumelatte, this former convent is now a conference centre. The gardens can be visited between nine o’clock and six o’clock, from April to October.
For more information go to the official Villa Monastero website.
- Villa Serbelloni and Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
One is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, located between the centre of Bellagio and the end of the mid lake promontory. This is one of only three Grand five star hotels at Lake Como and possibly the best located.
The Villa Serbelloni, behind the Grand Hotel, is home to the Rockefeller Foundation. There is no public access to the Villa but tours of the gardens are available:
- at 11 am and 3.30 pm
- every day except Monday
- from April to early November
- starting from the medieval tower in St. Giacomo Square
- lasting about an hour and a half
- for a minimum of six people and maximum of thirty,
- with groups having to book in advance.
For further information see the Promo Bellagio
- Villa Melzi
Still privately owned, the house is not open to the public but the garden can be visited together with a chapel and ‘museum’, between nine and six, every day from 1 April to 31 October.
To get an idea of what’s there, have a look at the photographs on the Villa Melzi website.