Andrea Montgomery travels to Como in search of George Clooney and finds murder, espionage and money along the way.
“I have a request,” says our guide. “Please can some people move to the right hand side of the boat so that the captain can move us forward?”
I turn my eyes inward and realise we are all huddled port side, causing the boat to list visibly and severely hampering our progress across the lake. Reluctantly, I move to starboard and sit down.
It’s all George’s fault.
From the moment we boarded the boat and set off across the silver surface of Lake Como, hugging the western shoreline where the elegant faces of villas peered out from behind straight-backed cypress trees, most of us were mentally focussing our minds and lenses on one villa in particular, George Clooney’s, and we knew it lay off the left side.
To be fair to George, the lake’s geography has to shoulder some of the blame. Arguably the most picturesque of all the Italian Lakes, the slopes of the Prealps rise steeply from the shoreline of Lake Como, blocking out the sun from the east flank for most of the day. As a result, the majority of villages and villas are located along the western shoreline where the winter sunshine floods their stately drawing rooms and manicured gardens.
Now suitably on an even keel, we make progress, passing Mezzegra and the point at which Mussolini and his girlfriend, Clara Puttaci, were captured and executed on April 29th 1945, their bodies taken the following day to Piazzale Loreto in Milan where they were hung upside down from posts in the Esso garage. A little distance further, we pass Villa Le Rose where Winston Churchill stayed in 1946, allegedly to relax and paint watercolours but rumours abound that he was trying to locate potentially incriminating letters that had been in Mussolini’s possession when he was seized by the Communist partisans. Or was it to try to locate the treasure amassed by Il Duce that has never been found? In the hushed stillness of the winter sun, it’s hard to imagine the bloody scenes and silent espionage that forged the lake’s 20th century history, the symmetrical façades of its grand villas concealing their secrets well.
Onwards we sail, leaving the ghosts of bygone wealth and power to arrive at the 21st century face of new money and celebrity status. The gleaming white frontage of a newly renovated villa is now owned by a 24 year old Russian girl. A few minutes later, the captain cuts the engine and we glide past the three villas owned by Lake Como’s most famous celebrity and coffee drinker. The shuttered windows and closed boat house of the pristine, white façade of Villa Oleandra signal the absence of its owner. I return to my seat on the starboard side to find disappointment sneaking into my heart. I came all this way to see him and he can’t even be bothered to be at home.
Returning to quayside, we enjoy a sumptuous lunch at Ristorante Caffe Teatro (www.ristorantecaffeteatro.it) in Piazza Verdi before taking a tour of the city with the Como Chamber of Commerce who peel back the many layers of its history to reveal the city’s singular character.
Walking between the statues of Como’s literary luminaries, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger who stand astride its entrance, the portal to the eclectic duomo is unique in Italy. A regular victim of flood waters from the lake, the ground outside was raised so steps were no longer needed and it became the only duomo in the country that you don’t have to bend a knee to enter.
In the Piazza San Fedele we gaze up at the façades of the 16th century homes of merchants. Over the Alps they came, en route to Milan and settled in Como, bringing silks, fine arts and the latest building techniques that have helped to ensure the preservation of their legacy. Originally constructed with towers, symbols of prestige and power in the city, if a family lost a battle, honour dictated they remove the tower. Many battles were fought and lost and no towers remain.
Within the walls of the 13th century merchants’ quarter of Citta Murata, the houses are so tall they block out the winter sun from the narrow streets at their feet. Fittingly, the area today is still a centre of merchandising, a popular shopping district where purveyors of vintage clothing, second hand books, paintings and specialist foods fill their windows with beguiling displays.
Around the corner, in Piazza Alessandro Volta, we end our tour beneath the gaze of the piazza’s eponymous hero, the man who invented the electric battery; took the first steps towards the creation of the combustion engine; and gave his name to the unit measure of an electric current.
The centuries that have shaped Como’s streets and the shores of its lake have seen many names consigned to the annals of its history and will no doubt continue to do so. By the time we headed for our hotel I had completely forgotten any twinges of disappointment I may have felt on the lake.
Images copyright Andrea Montgomery.
I visited Lake Como, Como and Brescia with the British Guild of Travel Writers as a guest of WonderfulExpo (www.wonderfulexpo2015.info), the official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy, (available both in B2B and B2C) containing information, updates, descriptions, images and videos about the beauties of the area, as well as a range of proposals of travel, accommodation and services offered by Lombardy to its visitors.
Andrea Montgomery, freelance travel writer, guide book author and travel blogger specialising in Tenerife, the Canary Islands and in hiking. You can find her blogging on Buzztrips (http://buzztrips.co.uk) and tweeting @NativeTenerife and @BuzzTrips