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Lake Como

Just half an hour from noisy, bustling Milan, Lake Como is a jewel-like oasis of tranquillity, a magical combination of lush Mediterranean foliage and snowy alpine peaks. One of the best vantage points for this breathtaking view is in Piazza Cavour, on the banks of the lake in the town of Como. The cathedral here is often cited as the best example of transitional architectural styles: to immediately understand what this means, compare the stunning gothic façade with the 18th-century dome above it.

At the heart of Como's walled Old Town, Piazza San Fedele has many 400-year-old buildings and the basilica, one of the masterpieces of the maestri comacini (masters of Como). At the top of Via Cantù you'll see the old wall's most spectacular standing tower, the Porta Vittoria. Nearby is the very austere church of San Abbondio. Rest awhile in its cloisters, then climb the hill behind it and go to the top of the Baradello Tower, for a lovely view of the entire lake. Next, walk back down the hill and visit Como's third great basilica, the early romanesque San Corpoforo.

Walking (or driving) along the western perimeter of the lake, you can stop in at the Tempio Voltiano, a surprising classic temple with marble columns and mosaic floors, housing the apparatus of Alessandro Volta, inventor of a battery that was the first reliable source of electricity. His name lives on today in the term "volt." Walk a bit farther in this direction if you want to visit the beautiful formal gardens and wild park of Villa dell'Olmo, a sumptuous lake home named after an elm forest mentioned by Pliny the Younger in the days when Como was a flourishing Roman outpost. Before leaving Como, be sure to take the funivia up to Brunate for a truly spectacular view (and a change of temperature!). If you're a hiker, take the footpath up to Monte Boletto.

From Como, it's just a short drive to Cernobbio, whose old town features a delightful collection of picturesque houses and narrow alleys. This is the site of the fictional Villa Baglianello, the elegant family-home-cum-pensione featured in the film A Month by the Lake. Nearby is one of the grandest hotels in all Europe, the Villa D'Este, whose rooms are almost like museum galleries and whose grounds boast Italy's only "floating swimming pool" (it actually sits atop the lake). Up the road is Toriggia, where you can visit Villa Passalacqua, a late 18th-century home where Vincenzo Bellini once stayed.

As you travel north you'll see Como's only island, Isola Comacina. This may be the most curious island on earth: basically little more than a forest, it looks like a dark green powder puff floating on the silvery waters of the lake. Yet concealed within these thick woods are two jewel-like churches well worth the visit. The best day of the year to take the ferry over is the weekend after June 24th, when St. John's Day is celebrated with a mass in the ruins of the S. Eufemia basilica, followed by a costumed procession and night-time fireworks.

Of course, Lake Como is best known for its exquisite villas and, George Clooney notwithstanding, the most famous one is probably Villa Carlotta. Built in the 17th century, this place of rare beauty perfectly combines luxurious interiors (beautiful stuccos, lovely ceiling frescoes and a great art collection, including an Eros and Psyche by Antonio Canova) with luxuriant exteriors (over 500 species of plants, trees and shrubs from all over the world), making it a must-see for any garden lover.

Tremezzo is another lovely lakeside town. There's a classic lakeside promenade, as well as many wonderful old villas (some of which have been converted to hotels). But it may be Varenna that's the most picturesque town on the lake. A leisurely stroll along its steep winding alleys lined with charming homes, flowering balconies and lace-curtained windows is bound to delight even the coldest heart! Just above it is the ancient castle where Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, is said to have died in the 7th century. Two famed villas to visit here are Villa Cipressi, with terraced gardens cascading right down to the shores, and Villa Monastero, a true showcase.

On the southern shore is Bellagio, la perla del lago (the pearl of the lake). Thanks to its narrow cobbled streets, breathtaking views, impeccable homes and glorious villa gardens, many consider this to be the most beautiful town in all of Europe.

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