We went with the consensus opinion that – if you only visit one villa – the Villa del Balbianello is the one to experience.
After dining in Lenno, we walked along the harbor till we came to its access point, which could not actually be called an entrance. One has the choice of two paths up a rather steep hill, both taking at least 20 minutes to reach the villa, and one taking at least twice that time. But, ah! There was a third option, available to those less vertically inclined. That was a small motorboat that went around the bay till it reached an actually boat launch at the villa. We opted for door number three, which took seven minutes.
Once there, we were lucky enough to be just in time for an English tour of the villa. While most of it dates back to the late 1700’s, there had been a Franciscan friary there several hundred years before, still evident in the façade of the church and the bell towers.
The cardinal who built the two connected parts of the villa and the elegant loggia that bridges the top level wanted a retreat where he could “indulge in literary pastimes.” But who could read while this view was available?
It looks so familiar, and that’s because movie folks have loved it too. Films like A Month by the Lake (1995), and Casino Royale (2006) were shot there and the villa was also used for the lake retreat scenes in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002), however CGI was used in place of the building’s true exterior. Nothing beats that view through the arches on the loggia, though.
The cardinal had what was probably a healthy fear of the newly incensed peasants, and had secret stairways and escape hatches built into every floor. The last owner, a wealthy and famous explorer named Guido Monzino, who died in 1988, left the villa and his amazing souvenirs of a life spent in places like the North Pole, Mount Everest, and with many so-called primitive cultures to the Italian National Trust.
Monzino had very nice taste, and overall the place just seems comfortable and livable – though his collections are the envy of many museums. Even the headboards in the room Mama used when she came to visit are solid silver.
He also had reasons to maintain the secret exits from the villa, as he lived there when the notorious Red Brigades were kidnapping people right and left. While the villa seems gorgeous on a sunny day, when harmless tourists stroll the grounds, it must be a very different story if one lived alone there, as he did, and when anyone with a boat or climbing boots could get to your little piece of heaven. No thanks.
We reversed our path, managing to just catch the ferry back to Varenna. What a lovely place this is.