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Lake Como: Five glorious gardens to visit this spring

Lake Como's landscapes are considered some of the most beautiful in the world. And with spring in the air, what better way to celebrate than by planning a trip to some of its gardens?

Lake Como: Five glorious gardens to visit this spring
Villa Melzi is just one of the stunning estates that surround Lake Como. Photo: Lake Como Tourist Board

Here are some to put on your list.

Villa del Balbianello, Lenno 

Star Wars lovers, you know the scene. The film is Episode II – Attack of the Clones, the setting is a lakeside terrace where Anakin and Padmé kiss, and the backdrop one of the most romantic views you’ll find on the whole of Lake Como at Villa del Balbianello in Lenno.

And it’s not just famous as a film location. Built upon the wishes of Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century, it was a popular venue for literary retreats with intellectual and high society figures. When Durini died, it then passed to his nephew Luigi Porro Lambertenghi, the Italian patriot who hosted major figures of the Risorgimento, including Silvio Pellico, Giuseppe Arconati Visconti and Massimo d’Azeglio.

READ ALSO: A local's guide to Lake Como

It was Cardinal Durini who was responsible for the gardens, no mean feat due to the rocky nature of the promontory itself (known as the Balbiano from which the villa takes its name) that made both a formal Italian garden and romantic English garden impossible. The result draws from both, with sloping lawns surrounded by box hedges and laurel, terraces and much more.


Photo: Provincia di Como – Servizio di Turismo – Lake Como Tourist Board

Come in spring for the flowering of the rhododendrons and azaleas, and take the spectacular walk up from the church to the top of the promontory with its large sycamores, wisteria and statues.

Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo

This Lake Como favourite overlooking the Grigne mountains is named after Carlotta, daughter of Princess Marianne of the Netherlands, who gave her daughter the villa as a wedding present in 1850. Unfortunately Carlotta was unable to enjoy it for only a short time. Five years and four children later, she died an early death, and the villa passed to her husband.

READ ALSO: 17 of the most beautiful parks and gardens in Italy

Dating from the end of the 17th century, Villa Carlotta – or Villa Clerici, as it was originally known – was built by the Milanese marquis Giorgio Clerici. The marquis also commissioned the gardens, a 17th-century Italianate layout with staircases, statues, fountains, terraces and geometrically shaped box hedges.


Photo: Provincia di Como – Servizio di Turismo – Lake Como Tourist Board

Eight hectares of gardens include cedars, olive trees, sequoia trees and exotic and rare plants, while the end of the 19th century saw the planting of the azaleas and rhododendrons, more than 150 species of which flower in April and May.

Don’t miss the rhododendron woods, planted to recreate those of the Himalayan mountains. Gustave Flaubert stayed here in in spring 1845 and loved both the garden, the villa and its art collection assembled in the early 19th century. Works include sculptures by Antonio Canova, Luigi Acquisti and Adamo Tadolini.

Villa Erba, Cernobbio

More links with the film world, this time at Villa Erba. The villa was where Luchino Visconti, Count of Lonate Pozzolo and one of Italy's most highly regarded theatre, opera and cinema directors, spent summers with his mother and brothers. More recently, it was used as a location for Ocean’s Twelve.

Way before that, between the 12th and 18th century there was a monastery of Benedictine monks on the site. The monks left in 1785 during the Austrian occupation, and around 1815 the Countess Vittoria Calderara had the villa built. The one you see today was rebuilt at the start of the 20th century, but the gardens date back it to its original construction, when the monks’ vegetable gardens were transformed into an English-style park.

Its lakeside gardens include ancient trees, beautiful flowerbeds, exotic flowers, and an elegant greenhouse designed by architect Marco Bellini. Don’t forget to look for the Japanese zen garden too.


Photo: Provincia di Como – Servizio di Turismo – Lake Como Tourist Board

The villa is now an international exhibition and congress centre. To visit Luchino Visconti's rooms, you’ll have to book in advance.

Villa Melzi d'Eril, Bellagio

The villa was built as a summer residence for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi and vice president of the short-lived Italian Republic during the time of Napoleon. The gardens were entrusted to architect Luigi Canonica and the botanist Luigi Villoresi, who also designed the park at the Royal Villa of Monza.

READ ALSO: Six delightful day trips within easy reach of Milan

The garden houses ancient trees, exotic varieties, some of which are very precious, and huge camellia, azalea and rhododendron bushes. There are also classical statues, including one of Dante and Beatrice that is said to have inspired Franz Liszt to compose his Dante Sonata in the villa's Moorish temple.

Photo: Provincia di Como – Servizio di Turismo – Lake Como Tourist Board

Don’t miss the Japanese pond with its water lilies, cedar trees and Japanese maple trees, while the Orangery has a collection of Napoleonic memorabilia and prints. 

Villa Monastero, Varenna

Villa Monastero takes its name from its original function: monastero means monastery. It started life at the end of the 12th century as a convent of Cistercian nuns. Then in 1567 the order was abolished by Pope Pius V, the nuns had to leave and the villa was sold.

It was bought by the Mornico family who named it Villa Leliana, and it remained in their hands for the next three centuries. In 1869 Carolina Maumari Seufferheld, a widowed Milanese noblewoman, bought the villa. Maumari was a relative of Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed, the famous 19th century novel set around the lake. She filled the villa with personalities from the world of arts and society during one of the estate's most illustrious times.


Photo: Provincia di Como – Servizio di Turismo – Lake Como Tourist Board

Come and visit the villa’s famous botanical garden, which continues for 2km along the lake and contains over 900 indigenous and exotic botanical species with terraces filled with cypresses, palms, citrus trees and yuccas. Visit in April to enjoy the flowering of the camellias and wisteria, and in early May for the hydrangeas and roses.

WEEKEND WANDERLUST:

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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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