If you are hard at work during EXPO 2015 a day off is well-deserved. There is much to be discovered outside the city including the stunning lakes and mountains of northern Italy.
Lying just north of Milan and reachable in under an hour by car or train the historic and beautiful Lake Como provides a welcome antidote to the busy modernity of city life. Certain spots on the lake, like Bellagio, are overloaded with tourists due to overexposure in guidebooks. But getting off the beaten track allows you to really experience the lake's serene beauty and explore its colourful past.
Comacima, the lake's one and only island on Como's east side, serves as a mini history lesson in itself. Besieged many times during the Lombard domination between 568 and 774 A.D., this idyllic spot also contains Ancient Roman ruins, Medieval Age fortifications and some of the earliest Christian churches in the region.
Further north along the coast sits the village of Lenno, with its picturesque Villa Balbianello jutting out majestically into the water. Originally a Franciscan monastery, Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini transformed this villa during the Late Baroque period to include a stunning garden. Villa Balbianello boasts a breathtaking view and a beautiful collection of Chinese porcelain, pre-Columbian artefacts, Louis XV and XVI furnishings, Agra and Indian Rugs, as well as Persian and Russian Samarkand. The museum is only open for visits by appointment, so call ahead. Closed on Mondays and Wednesdays, Villa Balbianello is open from 10.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.
Lenno itself with its beautiful 11th century church of San Stefano and the Lido di Lenno is not to be missed. The Lido is arguably the best beach on the lake, a sandy oasis and pool where you can relax by day and party by night at the hip outdoor bar.
Further north lies Tremezzo, a village whose charm belies a tumultuous past. Here ruins from the Middle Ages lie alongside remnants of the Visconti 13th century rule and signs of damage from the two World Wars. Old wartime tunnels and trenches can be seen throughout the village, and the palatial building here served as military hospitals.
Tourism only recovered very slowly in this area following the wars. But now Villa Carlotta is glorious proof of Lake Como's post-war comeback as a tourist destination. The extensive, beautifully landscaped garden is filled with blooming azaleas, with classical sculptures and a lovely villa chapel. Villa Carlotta is open every day from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. and the museum with 19th century art is closed from noon to 2.00 p.m.
Less famous than Villa Carlotta but without doubt more exclusive are Castello Vezio, Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero, all located in the medieval town of Varenna, which is well worth a visit across the water from Tremezzo. If Varenna sounds familiar, it may be because the Pirelli tyre company was founded here, and the celebrated Italian black marble Nero di Varenna is mined just outside town.
Varenna is a wonderful place to get a glimpse of how Italian aristocrats spend their summers. Villa Monastero, the former Convent of Santa Maria, is popular amongst Lake Como's most exclusive visitors for its position right on the water, and for its extensive gardens with a huge number of immaculately-tended exotic plants. A world apart, Villa Monastero and neighbouring Villa Cipressi rival for the title of the most beautiful villa on Lake Como.
This iconic lake, with its towering mountains and deep blue waters, has always been a mecca for the rich and beautiful Milanese. A place to slow down, relax and watch the world go by. So after a day of exploring Como's history, do as the locals do: relax with a leisurely meal at one of the lake side eateries or perhaps lounge on a speedboat in the sunshine.
WHERE TO EAT
Il Crotto dei Platani
A romantic restaurant overlooking the east side of Lake Como serving local dishes with boat docking.
Via Regina 73, 22010 Brienno, Tel. +39 031 814038, www.crottodeiplatani.it
Located in a 19th century villa outside Como this hidden retreat serves fish, meat and garden-fresh produce.
Via Giuseppe Velzi 4, 22100 Como, Tel. +39 031 308080, www.ristorantenavedano.it
Contemporary Italian served in the centre of Como.
Via Cinque Giornate 62B, 22100 Como, Tel. +39 031 240834, ilpomodorino.playfun.tv
Stunningly situated on the island of Comacina this restaurant serves up lovingly prepared local dishes. The view is to die for.
Island Comacina, Como, Tel. +39 0344 55083, www.lacomacina.it
HIRING A BOAT
If you want to do as the locals do then get out of the water to laze in the sunshine. You can hire smaller boats without a licence, just make sure you follow the rules of the water.
Comacina island: www.hiringaboat.com
Lake Como boats: www.lakecomoboats.com