The Italian lakes are famous for their villas and probably none is more recognised than Lake Como’s Villa del Balbianello. The villa has held its own in scenes from the Bond movie Casino Royale as well as in Star Wars, where a young Anakin Skywalker romanced Padme. I was even more impressed on my visit here because the story behind the house and its rooms are in themselves remarkable.
Built in 1787 on what used to be a monastery by the Cardinal Durini, the villa had passed from the cardinal’s nephew to a few families and was subsequently neglected in the early 1900s until it was acquired by American industrialist Butler Ames. According to the villa’s history, Ames was enchanted when he first visited Como and saw the villa and vowed to buy it, which he did a few years later in 1919. Ames restored the villa and in 1974, 20 years after he had passed on, his family sold it to Guido Monzino, the son of the founder of Italian supermarket chain, Standa. It was Monzino who had lived here and is in fact interred here and the rooms of the house very much reflect his interests (he was a keen explorer and mountain climber and led the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest) and his spirit. He died in 1988 and left the villa to the national trust of Italy.
We visited Villa del Balbianello as part of a three hour tour of the lake by Bellagio Water Taxis. This was a great way to see the lake as well as a nice way to enter the villa via its “main entrance” which is a boat landing. While the grounds are beautiful, marked by the huge umbrella pines, I would definitely make the effort to visit the rooms. Unlike many other historical villas in which much of the furnishings have been removed, this villa retains the rooms the way Monzino wanted to preserve them. There’s an amazing hand crafted wooden staircase that leads up to his “expedition” room along with the various invaluable artefacts he collected from his 21 expeditions. Incidentally, the trust charges an additional EUR3.00 if you take photos inside the villa. More info on Villa del Balbianello including visit times and fees are at the trust’s website.