Villa del Balbianello

My first glimpses of Italy were in the movies. Mostly I watched American or British films - "A Room with a View," "Stealing Beauty," "Roman Holiday," "Enchanted April." It was the quirky British film "A Month by the Lake" that really captured me. I don’t know if it was the unconventional romance, the pre-war time period, or the charms and accents of the Italian actors that first drew me in but it was definitely the unforgettable setting of Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como that most grabbed my imagination. Could such a place be real or was this just movie magic?

 Vanessa Redgrave skipped down this staircase in the movie "A Month by the Lake" (1995). The villa has also been used in filming other movies, including "Casino Royale" and "Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones."

Vanessa Redgrave skipped down this staircase in the movie "A Month by the Lake" (1995). The villa has also been used in filming other movies, including "Casino Royale" and "Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones."

I saw the villa in person for the first time in 1996 from the deck of one of the boats that crisscross Lake Como. I wasn’t able to visit the villa on that trip, but I vowed to return someday. Someday came last fall when I had the chance to tour the villa and its spectacular gardens. No movie magic needed – the reality was even better than what was captured  on film.

 Villa Balbianello as seen when approached by motorboat.  Note the boat landing, lower left.

Villa Balbianello as seen when approached by motorboat.  Note the boat landing, lower left.

The villa sits high on a spit of land jutting into Lake Como, just outside the town of Lenno. It is surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by dense woods. Could there be a more beautiful landscape? The villa dates to the 18th century, even earlier if you count the monastery that predates it, part of which was incorporated into the villa’s structure.

 The villa incorporates a tower from an earlier Franciscan monastery, seen here through the trees above a beautiful carved balustrade that winds its way through the terraced gardens.

The villa incorporates a tower from an earlier Franciscan monastery, seen here through the trees above a beautiful carved balustrade that winds its way through the terraced gardens.

It is thanks to the most recent owner, Count Guido Monzino, that this stunning property is open to the public. It remains much as it was at his death in 1988, giving visitors a peek into the home of the larger-than-life Monzino, an adventurer and explorer. He loved the villa so much that he chose never to leave – he is entombed on the grounds. I like to believe that he continues to enjoy the pleasure his home gives to all who visit.

 A view toward the lake from the path that winds up to the gardens and loggia.

A view toward the lake from the path that winds up to the gardens and loggia.

There are two ways to arrive at the villa. The first is by land, over a somewhat steep path. The second is by motorboat from the village of Lenno and this is what I recommend.  The drama of disembarking at the private boat landing and climbing the steps to the garden transports the visitor to an earlier age and a different, glamorous lifestyle.

 The private boat landing at the villa.

The private boat landing at the villa.

The house is a marvel, complete with secret passageways, dramatic views, art, artifacts, and beautiful furnishings. I was most envious of the apartment within the villa, commanding one of the best views of the lake, which the Count designed as the private quarters of his mother (if my children are reading this, settling one’s mother in an apartment within a villa on Lake Como is a splendid idea).

Without doubt the most stunning aspects of the property are the loggia, perched on a rise above the house with glorious views up and down the lake, and the terraced gardens with winding walkways lined with flower-filled urns, greenery, manicured trees, and beautiful statues, all with dramatic lake views.

 Villa del Balbianello as seen from the lake. The three arches of the loggia, which are flanked by the map room and the library, lie at the top right of the photo. Both loggia rooms, as well as the interior of the villa, can be seen on a guided tour of the property.

Villa del Balbianello as seen from the lake. The three arches of the loggia, which are flanked by the map room and the library, lie at the top right of the photo. Both loggia rooms, as well as the interior of the villa, can be seen on a guided tour of the property.

 One of many beautiful flower-filled urns which line the garden paths.

One of many beautiful flower-filled urns which line the garden paths.

 The drama, beauty, and history of Villa del Balbianello make it a must-see on any visit to Lake Como. The villa, a Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI) property, is open from mid-March through mid-November (closed Mondays, Wednesdays, and some holidays). Please visit the official website for current hours and guided tour prices. And don't miss the gift shop!                                                                                -post by JB

 Statues line the path up to the loggia.

Statues line the path up to the loggia.