When the New Canaan Garden Club first approached me about planning a garden trip for 2020, I presented two options: England and the Chelsea Flower Show or The Lakes of Italy. I illustrated my presentation with photographs, detailing the horticulture wonders of England and those of Lake Como and Maggiore. Perhaps the snow outside (it was a bleak January snowy day) made the images of sunny and balmy Italy particularly appealing. In any case, Italy won hands down. We were all set to travel in May 2020 when the pandemic forced us to cancel. As you recall it took a while for group travel to pick up again, so we were thrilled to finally be able to get this show on the road this past May.
I love arranging tours for garden clubs. The unique camaraderie among ladies involved in their local community makes for a very special bond indeed – the vibe is one of power combined with kindness, benevolence, and a good sense of fun. That doesn´t mean all the ladies want to do is have fun – no, they travel with their garden club not only because of their shared interest in gardening, but also to gain knowledge about garden design and horticulture and to gather ideas and inspiration for their own gardens. Their goal is also to learn more about the local culture and to build and create memories.
So the itinerary for our weeklong tour aimed to satisfy all these objectives, while at the same time leaving enough time to enjoy the dolce vita. A comfortable base from which to explore, is key, I think. Having your creature comforts taken care of ensures a better mood and higher levels of energy to take in all the the new you see every day. On Lake Como, I like to stay at Hotel Belvedere. Not only does it tick all the boxes but it is family run by women in the fourth generation – a good fit for our groups of ladies. On lake Maggiore we stayed at the Grand Hotel Majetic, in Pallanza, away from the rumble of Stresa and with its own beach and pier. What a treat to be taken back by boat straight to the hotel´s dock!
For horticultural inspiration, we of course visited the great classics that is the must sees, on Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. We took a stroll through the beautiful gardens of Villa Melzi d´Eril in Bellagio, conceived by Napoleon`s Vice President of Italy, beautifully kept and showcasing exceptional exotic trees. We visited Villa Carlotta, in Tremezzo, right across the water and learned about the tragic fate of its name giver Carlotta who died in childbirth at and whose husband consoled himself by collecting exotic plants and developing the extensive gardens. We spent an afternoon at Villa Balbianello, in Lenno, a monastery turned into a luxury retreat by the scion of an important industrialist devoted to mountain expeditions. And last but not least we explored the islands of the Borromeo on Lake Maggiore, both inside and out.
Prancing for the ladies, Isola Madre Isola Bella With our guide Rita, Varenna
Having to share these public gardens with many other tourists felt a bit overwhelming. But our private guides were skilled at avoiding bottlenecks and explaining the fascinating story of these unique sites. Their insights and the beautifully kept gardens made up for having to share it with others (yes I know, not very friendly, but I do like the peace and quiet of not too many people around me!).
Of course we visited private gardens too. For instance, on the way to Lake Maggiore we stopped at Villa Cicogna, where owner Jacopo Cicogna welcomed us personally. Not only did Jacopo take us on a tour of the garden and the interior of the villa, explaining how the two are inextricably connected, he also hosted us to a delicious lunch of Italian specialties. His stories of growing up in the villa and the many anecdotes he shared made for a very personal visit. For that reason, when asked to say what they had liked most on the trip, many mentioned the visit to Bisuschio.
Villa Cicogna, an introduction with Jacopo Villa Cicogna, at the foot of the unique water staircase Villa Cicogna, Lunch with the owner
Part of visiting Italy is of course the gastronomic experience. As a rule, I consider lunch stops on our garden tours as refueling stops. We need to take a break from the walking and sit and regroup, restore ourselves in the purest sense of the word. It is usually not about the food and much less about the wine. Well, this rule is hard to keep in Italy where lunch is a sit down affair – after all most shops close for lunch – that says something about the importance of lunch in Italyl!
So as much as I tried to keep our lunches simple, sometimes that was just not possible. For instance on the first day, on the terrace of the hotel overlooking the lake. But the best, most agree, was our lunch the next day, at a restaurant in a cove on Lake Como. Our boat pulled up right to the dock. And we could see our table, elegantly laid, especially for us. We sat with our feet (figuratively) in the water. The lemon ravioli, fresh fish fillet and sampling of desserts, and not least the wine flowing freely, made for more than a refueling stop!
Beyond the horticultural and the gastronomic, we had time to enjoy local color too. In Bellagio, at the end of each day on the lake, there was time to dive into the town´s many shops. Or simply to sit at a café for a gelato or an aperol and people watch. On Lake Maggiore too shoppers had time to wander in Stresa, filling up on souvenirs. There was also time to relax at the hotel, swim in the lake and enjoy the beach.
A successful trip is one where the elements of learning, enjoying and experiencing local culture are well balanced – the traveler is challenged but not overwhelmed. It is, in the words of some travellers “The trip of a lifetime”.
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