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villa carlotta flowers

It’s easy to get envious around Lake Como, where tony tourists wander around buying diamonds, dining on $25 plates of pasta, and then retire to $900 hotel rooms. Many of these hotels are set in old villas built in the 1800s on the shores of the lake, most of which are still inhabited by the likes of Giorgio Armani and Giorgio Clooney, plus various obscure zillionaires. In an effort to get up close and personal with the enviable lifestyles of the rich and famous, yesterday we took the Midlake Boat Tour. For fifteen euros, we could hop on and hop off at six towns in the area.

First stop was one of the few grand villas where one can wander inside: the 300-year-old Villa Carlotta, set on seventeen acres of lush greenery, formal and symmetrical in the Italian style (A portion of the garden is pictured above). Inside are grand rooms with sculptures and paintings and highly decorated beamed ceilings, plus a bit of furniture in the bedrooms. The Villa Carlotta was named after Duchess Charlotte of Saxe-Meiningen, when her mother, Princess Marianna of Prussia, gave it to her as a wedding present.

Like many presents from mothers, it was largely ignored. Her new hubby Prince Georg of Saxe-Meiningen had constant business in Berlin, Potsdam, and Meiningen. This explains why, despite separate bedrooms at the Villa, Charlotte bore four children in the five years of her marriage, dying of complications from the last in 1855. She was only 23. It was easy to stop the envy right there.

We moved on to the adjacent town of Tremezzo, dominated by the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, and had lunch at a sidewalk bar. I watched the water while Tom envied the Maseratis, Ferraris, Ducatis, Moto Guzzis, and legions of Fiats.

Well-fed, Tom had a genius idea. We had time to kill as the ferry takes two hours off at lunchtime; we could see the boat anchored far out in the lake, where the crew was probably eating vitello tonnato out of Tupperware. Tom suggested we follow the local “Greenway,” which in the US is usually a flat trail, once a rail bed, and now a bike trail. This one offered a loop behind the village that would bring us back to the ferry.

We started on a lovely lakeside stroll, watching bathers with rubber shoes mince over the pebble beach to get into the very refreshing (code for very cold) water made of melted snow. The Greenway sign now directed us up a long set of steps. Panting and glowing, I got to the top and saw…another long stretch of steps up. We struggled on, cresting the top only to discover a steep hill path to climb. We made it, stopping often to “admire the view.” (Code for pausing, gasping, measuring heart rate, mopping brow.) At this point, the trail turned left and the backpacking German couple ahead of us quit, but we pushed on up one more hill until the path grew flat, and eventually, down.

We reboarded the boat and bypassed the charming village of Varenna. (More about that later, methinks. We were too tired to get off this time.) And finally to the busy town of Menaggio, where several grand hotels monopolized the waterfront with their fancy cafes and swimming pools. (Okay: moment of envy over the swimming pools. Still hot from the hike.)

As we disembarked at our “home” town of Bellagio, we agreed it was by far the best lakeside town of them all. We wearily slogged our way uphill to our little former-stable (code affordable) apartment, poured two cold vodka tonics, and drank them on our chaises in our garden while boiling up the penne. I had to think of the hot, tired, diamond-encrusted, rich folk milling in the streets below, competing for the last pairs of summer Ferragamos at $400 per pair, and believed at that moment that it is we who are to be envied. It is so simple and calming to be not-rich.

(Click images to enlarge)