Engraved on the entrance to the Villa del Balbianello is, ‘Fais ce que tu voudras’ (Do whatever you want), words that allude to the proverb coined by Francois Rabelais.

If you know nothing of the French renaissance writer and humanist, allow me to steer you in the direction of my theme. In his first work, Rabelais writes of the Abbey of Thélème, which was built by the giant Gargantua. Presenting the abbey as a utopia, it is here that the Thélèmites lived according to a life free of laws, statutes and rules. Eating, drinking, working, sleeping when the fancy took them, ‘Do what thou wilt’ was their one abiding rule, ‘because people who are free, well-born, well-bred, and easy in honest company have a natural spur and instinct which drives them to virtuous deeds and deflects them from vice; and this they called honour’.


The Villa del Balbianello, viewed from the approach on Lake Como

The Villa del Balbianello is located on the tip of the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d’Avedo, on the western shore of the south-western branch of Lake Como. A Franciscan monastery, which had existed here since the 13th century, was converted into a villa in 1787 by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini. The property passed through several hands after his death, before being acquired by Count Guido Monzino, whose father Franco founded the Italian supermarket chain Standa.


The narrow facade of the church on the Villa del Balbianello, characterised by the twin bell towers

An introvert by nature, Guido Monzino did whatever took his fancy, including selling the family business aged 30 in order to pursue his passion for adventure. With trips to Patagonia, Equatorial Africa, Greenland and the North Pole, in 1973 he led the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest. Having left the exterior essentially unchanged, Monzino had the interior of the villa completely re-decorated. Living in constant fear of being assassinated, he even added an elaborate system of hidden passages. His incessant wanderlust, however, saw him only ever spend a month of each year at the property. Even his mother, for whom he had installed an attractive apartment on the ground floor, chose never to overnight here.


A number of feature films have used the setting of the Villa del Balbianello, including Casino Royale

A chain smoker, upon his death in 1988 from lung cancer, Monzino left the villa along with most of the small wooded peninsula and an endowment to pay for maintenance, to the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano, the National Trust of Italy, and today it is one of the most visited attractions in the country. Accessible only by boat, visitors step on to the jetty and into a world frozen in time. The luxuriant garden which frames the villa is created vertically. From the plane trees pruned in candelabra shapes alternating with wisteria and ivy vines, visitors pass to a large terrace bordered by laurel and boxwood bushes. From here, a sloping path leads gently upwards along the English-style lawn to the open portion of the Loggia, the true heart of the garden. Numerous statues complete the incredible picture. It is easy to understand why a number of feature films have used the setting for location shoots, including scenes for ‘Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones’, and James Bond’s ‘Casino Royale’.


The elegant Loggia on the Villa del Balbianello functions as a bridge between the library and map room

The library and map rooms are exactly as Monzino had left them, the former containing over four thousand volumes, mostly on geography and travel; pages never to be turned, maps, old and new, and a rare collection of old prints of the lake, never again to be poured over. It is at once a fascinating, strangely romantic and frustrating legacy. The rooms, which are arranged over various levels, offer an extraordinary insight into the man and his mind. Important pieces of English Georgian and French antique furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries, Beauvais tapestries, French boiseries and Oriental carpets decorate some of the rooms. In others, display cases house rare and ancient objects from lost African civilisations, the Aztec culture, Parisian marble, Mayan terracotta figures and Chinese ceramics from the Tang and Ming dynasties. Gracing the guest room is a rare collection of paintings created in glass from the 18th century, Venetian school.

Monzino converted the attic to his private museum, which today contains the equipment used during his expeditions, centre stage being given over to the huge wooden sled which he and his team of men and dogs hauled across the frozen wastes on his 1971 expedition to the North Pole. Pinned to the wall is the tattered Italian flag, which had been so proudly planted on the summit of the world’s highest peak.


Approach to the jetty on the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d’Avedo

It is so easy to get lost in one’s thoughts here. Forget the day and the time and the hotel where you dropped your bags. It is a time of reflection, and, yes, sadness, that Guido Monzino, after a decade of renovating his beautiful home, had so little time to enjoy it. A man who had cheated death on the frozen icecap, and high in the mountains; a man who chose to live his life without boundaries, was to face his own mortality so young, like his father, at only 60. I cannot help but feel that he should have been born of the time of Shackleton and Scott, great men with a passion for life, who felt the most alive when danger came knocking, surviving on their wits and intelligence and good luck. Guido Monzino was a man I would have liked to have known. Today, walking in his footsteps through his home and around these gardens, soaking up those same views that he so adored, I have to be satisfied with his spirit, which lives on, here on the Lavedo peninsula.

The imposing Hotel Grand Cadenabbia on Lake Como

Set against the foothills of the Alps, Lake Como is surrounded by striking landmarks and attractive resort towns, including Bellagio, which lies at the junction of the three slender branches that make up the lake. Whilst many of the waterfront villas around the shore remain in private hands in this playground for the wealthy, there are others, like the Villa del Balbianello, which are open to the public.


The Villa Carlotta today functions as a museum, housing artworks and sculptures

The Villa Carlotta was built at the end of the 17th century by the Milanese marquis Giorgio Clerici, and today functions as a museum, housing artworks, including sculptures by Antonio Canova. The property is fronted by lovely gardens with a range of cultivated blooms, and sits alongside the shore close to the 4-star Hotel Grand Cadenabbia, where I am staying for two nights. This rather imposing building dates to the early 19th century, and has retained much of its original charm, the main hall being decorated with ancient stuccos, mirrors, frescoes and majestic columns. As one of several accommodation options offered around Lake Como by TUI Lakes & Mountains. It is also the perfect location from which to reach the ferry point across the road and enjoy the short trip across the water to Bellagio.


The Hotel Splendide in Bellagio has a terrace restaurant serving a selection of local and international dishes

Set on a promontory, the village is renowned for its narrow, cobbled streets and elegant buildings. Visitors disembark along the attractive tree-lined waterfront, itself dotted with pleasant cafés and restaurants, Known as the Pearl of Lake Como, most tourists take a wander uphill along well-worn steps to Via Garibaldi, and on to the main square, which is dominated by the Romanesque Basilica di San Giacomo.


The imposing blue-roofed pavilion in the gardens of the Villa Melzi

After a pleasant a la carte lunch on the waterfront terrace of the Hotel Splendide, I take a leisurely stroll to the attractive sloping gardens of the Villa Melzi. Designed by architect Luigi Canonica and botanist Luigi Villoresi between 1811 and 1815, prominent features include the shaded water garden and the imposing blue-roofed pavilion, which nestles by the water’s edge.


View of Isola Bella from Lake Maggiore, one of the most popular attractions in Italy

Should Lake Como take your fancy, then I can guarantee that Lake Maggiore will, too. With its backdrop of the Alps and magnificent views from the summit of Monte Mottarone, the town of Stresa offers a true lakes and mountains resort from which to discover the various islands that rise majestically across the crystal-clear water like a serpent’s tail. Elegant villas, some occupied, others in various stages of tragic decay, jostle for position alongside Art Nouveau hotels that stretch luxuriously along the lakeside, adding touches of intrigue, sophistication and glamour to the setting.


Isola Bella was a barren rock before it was occupied by a baroque palace and terraced gardens


Views across Lake Maggiore from the uppermost terrace on Isola Bella


Many fine statues stand guard on the multi-terraced gardens of Isola Bella

TUI Lakes & Mountains has a number of hotels on its books in the town, including the sumptuous Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées & Spa, which lies across the road from the palm tree-lined promenade. It is here that author Ernest Hemingway once stayed, adding a touch of history for bookworms. Stylish shops and independent cafés can be found along Stresa’s three main piazzas and along narrow, cobbled, traffic-free streets in the old quarter away from the lakeshore.


Colourful pheasants roam freely around the grounds of Isola Madre

The town overlooks the stunning Borromean islands of Isola Bella, the most admired destination on Lake Maggiore, and Isola Madre, where it is possible to tour sumptuous palaces and ornate Italianate gardens. You can wander freely amongst rare plants and brush past peacocks, parrots and brightly coloured pheasants that roam wild against exotic backdrops.


The villa on Isola Madre, with its magnificent gardens


Gianfranco Guistina

French novelist Gustave Flaubert said of Isola Madre, ‘It is the most voluptuous place I have ever seen in the world.’ The largest island of the Isole Borromee archipelago, today Isola Madre is a green Eden, world renowned for its award-winning botanical collections. Visitors are greeted by gardens laid out in the English manner, having been replanted by Henry Cocker in the 1950s. A former student gardener at Kew, Cocker was experienced in sub-tropical horticulture, and went on to create a British-fashioned park resplendent with shady boulevards and panoramic views of Lake Maggiore. Today, the gardens remain in the highly experienced hands of curator Gianfranco Guistina, master gardener to the Borromeo family, who also tends to the splendid greenery of Isola Bella.


The award-winning botanical garden on Isola Madre is laid out in the English manner


Isola Madre’s British-fashioned park is resplendent with shady boulevards

For a lunch to remember, take a boat to Isola Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island), its rustic appeal oozing from its cobbled streets, attractive houses and the ancient church of San Vittore. The island has been home to a fishing community for centuries, and it is worth taking a peek inside the tiny fisherman’s museum. Around fifty people still live alongside the day-trippers that daily flock to its restaurants, offering freshly caught lake fish on their menus. I enjoyed a superb lunch at the Restaurant Belvedere, with its spectacular lakeside views across to Stresa.


Fish four ways at the excellent Restaurant Belvedere on Isola Pescatori

On my final morning, I walked to the cable car, a couple of hundred metres from the 3-star Hotel Della Torre, where I had overnighted. This traditional, unpretentious hotel serves excellent cuisine. Outdoors, guests may relax by the private pool, potter around the flowered garden, or enjoy an aperitivo on the porch from the poolside bar.


The magnificent view from the summit of Monte Mottarone, the ‘Mountain of the Two Lakes’


Mountain bikers prepare for a fast downhill descent of Monte Mottarone


Visitors can enjoy panoramic views from the top of Monte Mottarone, high above the town of Stresa

It takes around twenty minutes to reach an altitude of 1,491 metres on Monte Mottarone, with a stop halfway up to change cars. It is then possible to take a chair lift to the summit. Mottarone is known as the ‘Mountain of the Two Lakes’, thanks to its strategic position between Lakes Maggiore and Orta. Despite the morning haze, it was possible to see as far as the Po Valley, and the seven surrounding lakes. I could not resist having a ride on Alpyland, a 1.2km bobsled ride on rails. It was to prove an exhilarating end to a magical and enriching few days, and I am pleased to report that for 2019, Tui Lakes & Mountains will be looking to offer a two-centre holiday option on Lakes Como and Maggiore, blending relaxation and culture in enchanting settings, complete with artistic, historical and botanical appeal.


The Sky Bar of the Hotel La Palma in Stresa overlooks magnificent Lake Maggiore


TUI Lakes & Mountains (0208 610 3139, www.tui.co.uk/holidays/lakes-and-mountains) offers holidays with loads of things to see and do, making the most of the local territory and cultural experiences

Lake Como – Prices are from £986 per person for a week’s all-inclusive at the four-star Grand Hotel Cadenabbia on Lake Como, including flights from Gatwick to Milan and transfers departing in September 2018. Direct flights from most regional airports are available at a supplement starting from £20

Lake Maggiore – Prices are from £860 per person for a week’s all-inclusive at the three-star Hotel Della Torre in Stresa on Lake Maggiore, including flights from Gatwick to Milan and transfers departing in September 2018. Direct flights from most regional airports available at a supplement starting from £20

If you wish to employ the services of a guide for your visit to Stresa and Lake Maggiore, contact Luca Gemelli, managing director of Tomassucci Travel Agency, (+39) 0323 30341, email luca@stresatravel.com and website www.stresatravel.com

  • Words and Images | © Michael Cowton | Essential Journeys