I had planned to walk the trail from the Lenno dock to Villa del Balbianello overlooking Lake Como, I am sitting on a taxi boat instead. The trail is closed on Mondays but glimpsing the villa through the trees couldn’t have matched its awesome setting from the water.

The villa is known for its garden on a wooded promontory, and the last owner’s eclectic collection of memorabilia–Guido Monzino was an explorer. Never mind, I am here after seeing in a magazine the pictures of a romantic wedding set in the garden, and views of Lake Como. Besides, the curious curvy vine that outlined the arched loggia had also captured my imagination.

Getting Situated on Lake Como

On a map, Lake Como looks like a scrawny blue giant plodding between mountains. Bellagio (the pearl of the lake) would stand at the junction of its two ‘legs.’ From there, Tremezzo would be on the western ‘hip’ of the leg that ends in Como. Varenna would be on the eastern hip of the other leg where, past Lecco, the river Adda flows away from the lake.

We are staying in Tremezzo, and from there, the pleasant 15-minute ferry ride to Lenno feels like a mini-cruise. I am gazing at mountains plunging into the gleaming 400-meter-deep lake, and clusters of colorful villages dotting the shores.

When we approach the private pier, the villa seems to cascade to two belltowers left from its monastic past. The ivory color of the filigree-style balustrade outlines terraced levels, and a holm oak shaped like a dome. The human-sized statue of an archer stands guard in the corner.

Past and Present

Cardinal Durini built the villa, in 1787, on the ruins of a Friars’ convent. It might seem too romantic a sanctuary for a solitary clergyman, but as did other local villa owners, he often had guests. Some of the leading composers and writers of the day came to this inspiring place. Rossini, Liszt, Stendhal, and Shelley, to name a few, found their muse on Lake Como.

As time passed, so did the various owners, including the American General Butler Ames who restored the long-neglected villa, in 1919. In 1988, Monzino’s heirs willed the estate to the Fundo Ambiente Italiano, which safeguards properties “for the landscape, art, and nature, forever, for everyone.”

Villa del Balbianello even made it on the big screen. In 1995, A Month by the Lake (with Uma Thurman and Vanessa Redgrave) was filmed here. In 2002, it became Planet Naboo in Star Wars. In 2006, it was the hospital where James Bond (Daniel Craig in Casino Royale) was seen in a wheelchair in the garden. And in 2016, it was the location of the disaster film His Demise with Paul Zukowski.

A Garden With An Attitude

We moor by four botanical pillars topped with large amphora, all wrapped in the same serpentine vine seen in the pictures of the loggia. We then walk up the graveled alley where the attraction is not in the details of the garden but in the way it follows the lay of the land.

Tucked within the lake micro-climate, palm trees, and other Mediterranean plants grow in the shadow of snow-covered mountain peaks. Along the path, allium, roses, wisterias, azaleas, campanulas, and miniature cyclamens grow against lush grasses, and a wall garland-trimmed with ivy retains an English-style lawn. It’s the end of September, and there are few blooms around, but the garden proves that a natural design can bestow grace and interest in any season.

The Loggia And The Creeping Fig

At the top of the promontory, the loggia stands like a temple to Lake Como. On one side, the balustrade outlines serene views of the lake and the shore beyond, and vegetation cascades on the other. I am even feeling in tune with the romance that inspired the wedding location, cherubs entwined in the filigree of the balustrade appearing as the purveyors of love.

As for the vine that caught my interest, it’s a creeping fig (Ficus pumila). Said to grow like a weed, and pollinated only by the fig wasp, this one is more than a century old, and bonsai-ed by a gardener obsessed with curves. If only this vine could talk.

Exploring the Promontory

I stroll among plane trees pruned like chandeliers, cypresses shooting for the sky, a cone-shaped magnolia, fragrant bay bushes, boxwood topiaries, beech trees, ilex hollies, and other rhododendrons. Each one seems eclectically dispersed, yet combined with dramatic statuary, it guides my eyes to a landscape vignette.

I find the entrance to the villa last, tucked in a small courtyard where a bulging hydrangea offers its last blooms. For a moment, I imagine the wedding marquee set along the filigree balustrade, the crunching steps of guests, and the bridal party walking down the stairs to the San Giovanni Church.

Villa del Balbienello at Lake Como (MCArnott)
Creeping fig wrapping the pillars at the dock (MCArnott)
Miniature cyclamen and grasses at Villa del Balbianello (MCArnott)
The loggia with the intriguing vegetal arches (MCArnott)
A creative trimming of Ficus pumila or creeping fig (MCArnott)
The balustrade and the statue of an archer overlooking Lake Como (MCArnott)

Previously published Buckettripper – revised 2022