The hardest thing about writing this blogpost was selecting the photos. So prepare to be swamped with photos of lago di Como, more specifically, Villa del Balbianello.
On my first visit to Lake Como back in July 2013, this spectacular palazzo had me crazily snapping photos as we swept by on the ferry. Situated on its own little peninsular, surrounded by terraced gardens, Villa del Balbianello captured my imagination. I wondered, who lives there now?
Perhaps it is the residence of a certain famous Hollywood caffeine addict, or the holiday home of an old noble Milanese family, or maybe it is the most recent purchase in a Russian oligarch's European property portfolio.
Actually it's none of those. Villa del Balbianello is one of many historic houses open to the public through the management of the Fondo Ambiete Italiano (FAI), an organisation similar to the National Trust. The Villa has a fascinating history, as we discovered when we visited on a day trip from Milan.
We'd been waiting for the spring opening of Villa del Balbianello, so under bright blue skies and with temperatures predicted in the early 20s, we caught the 9.55am train from Milan to Como and then jumped on the fast ferry to Lenno (details HERE). By 11.30am we were strolling round the lake to the Villa. (Click HERE for the Villa ticket prices and opening hours.)
Villa del Balbianello was built by Cardinal Durini in the 1700s on the site of a small Franciscan church and monastery. The Cardinal acquired the site for his personal use as a haven where he could relax and pursue his interests in literature and music. He built an open loggia connecting two living areas, one his personal library and the other, a music room.
The Villa changed hands many times over the centuries until the last owner, Guido Monzino, a prominent Milanese businessman, acquired it in 1974. During a guided tour of the property we learned a little more about Signore Manzoni, as our guide Daniella recounted anecdotes about his fame as an artic explorer and mountain climber. He spent four years, and hundreds of billions of lira, completely restoring Villa Balbianello to accommodate his extensive collection of art, including rare 18th century paintings on glass, as well as memorabilia from his expeditions to the North Pole and Mount Everest. Signore Manzoni led the first Italian expedition to successfully climb Mt Everest, but he couldn't make it to the summit due to a life-long passion for cigars and cigarettes. This was the one obstacle he could never conquer. The tour of the house was fascinating as it remains exactly as it was the final time Guido Manzoni visited, even down to the last pack of cigarettes still resting neatly on his desk.
According to our guide, Signore Manzoni was a playboy who never married and left no heirs. He willed the entire property, and a separate trust fund, to the FAI so that the people of Italy, as well as visitors from around the world, could enjoy this fabulous house and magnificent gardens.
To return to Lenno we chose the longer walk over the hills behind the Villa. It took less than an hour and was a lovely walk to end our visit. We only wished that we'd bought a picnic as there were plenty of picnic tables with sensational views of the lake.
It seems that the more we visit lago di Como, the more we love it. We are showing our credentials as 'stranieri' by admitting this love of Lake Como. The Milanese prefer the ocean, especially the Ligurian coast.
Allora, fino prossima volta...