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Virgil called Lake Como &ldquo;the greatest lake,&rdquo; said John Powers in <em>The Boston</em> <em>Globe.</em>

Virgil called Lake Como “the greatest lake,” said John Powers in The Boston Globe. Franz Liszt spent his honeymoon there. A few years later, Henry James sang its praises. “It’s all so unreal, so fictitious,” wrote James, “so elegant and idle.” More recently, George Clooney bought two eight-figure lakeside villas, and he and his Hollywood pals have brought renewed attention to Lake Como and its hilly shoreside towns. Still, the area—known in Italy as Lago di Como—is very much like it was when James stayed there in 1872.

Seen from an airplane, Lake Como looks vaguely like a modern dancer as drawn by cartoonist Jules Feiffer—arched spine, head tossed back, right leg lifted. The twisting roads around the lake make it almost impossible to admire the views by car. “The best way to see things is the same as in Venice, by boat and on foot.”

A view of the villas lining the shore can be breathtaking on a sunny day, and “spookily splendid” on a foggy one. The city of Como, founded by Julius Caesar as Novo Comum in 59 B.C., lies at the lake’s southwestern tip—it’s easy to drift by boat from village to village. Cernobbio, just to the north, “is home to the magnificent 17th-century Villa d’Este.” A hotel for the past 135 years, it took 45 years to build. If you’re in a mood to splurge, “a double room is just under $1,000 a night.” Further on, in Tremezzo, is the 18th-century Villa Carlotta, “with its acres of lavish gardens” and “a Noah’s ark” of plants, including sequoias and cactuses.

But the “pearl of the lake” for at least two millennia has been the town of Bellagio. Its magnificent views look out on all three branches of the lake. On a clear day, you can see the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, Bellagio now is also crowded and expensive. A wonderful alternative is Varenna, a few miles away. From there, you can even catch a train to Milan. If you see Signor Giorgio Clooney, “give him a cheery ‘Buon giorno!’” Maybe he’ll invite you in for a glass of Barolo.Contact: Guidecomo.it

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