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Hills and thrills in the Italian Lakes

Mountains, lakes, grand buildings, great food and wine – and an adrenalin-pumping alpine ‘roller coaster’ – make Clive Nicholls’ trip to the Italian Lakes doubly memorable

Now here's question. If you inherited a vast fortune, would you (a) organise an expedition and climb Mount Everest, (b) buy one of the world’s most beautiful houses in a dream location on Lake Como or (c) trek to the North Pole?

For me, Everest and the North Pole sound a bit cold, not to mention a touch dangerous, but the house on Como – now you’re talking.

Count Guido Monzino was made of sterner stuff, he went for (a), (b) and (c) and then some… He was an explorer at heart and running the family’s supermarket empire held less appeal than climbing the world’s highest peaks. But it’s his house, the Villa del Balbianello, that I’m interested in.

I’ve just arrived in Lake Como, in the north of Italy, and after a glass of wine on the terrace of my hotel, overlooking the lake, it will be my first stop this afternoon.

As I enjoy my glass of Italian red I watch the ferries pass back and forth across the lake and on my shoreline the speedboats-cum-water taxis ply for trade. Some of the boats are driven with more panache than strictly necessary but, then, we are in Italy. My driver is perfect; he docks outside my hotel without the slightest bump and delivers me to the Villa del Balbianello a couple of miles down the lake.

The count certainly lived life to the full but died in 1988, aged 60, from lung cancer, leaving his home and contents to the Italian version of the National Trust.

It is crammed with treasures (some priceless) and artifacts from his expeditions around the world. The gardens are spectacular and you will probably have seen them in big movies like James Bond’s Quantum of Solaceand Casino Royale together with Star Wars, Attack of the Clones. It’s a great visit and should be top of your list. Just a couple of minutes walk from my hotel (Grand Hotel Cadenabbia) is the Villa Carlotta, with fabulous gardens, artworks and great views over Lake Como.

Now when it comes to art, I’m a bit old-fashioned and I have to say that a sculpture of Cupid and Psyche is my sort of thing. Created in the early 1820s by Adamo Tadolini, it is truly a thing of beauty; the scale, the curves – it’s a stunner and my favourite at Carlotta.

In the morning I catch an early ferry across Como to the town of Bellagio. Take your camera: the ferry trip is brilliant and as soon as you arrive in Bellagio you’ll see pictures round every corner. It’s a smashing little town; narrow streets, cute shops and if you turn left a short walk will take you to the prettiest harbour you’ll ever see.

Take lunch early so you can get the best seats. I manage to get a table on the waterfront at the Hotel Splendide, chomping on my fresh prawns; I enjoy a glass or two of Italian white wine and watch the boats come and go. This is the stuff that memories are made of – I don’t want lunch to end.

In the afternoon, the gardens of the Villa Melzi give me a bit of exercise and a lot of inspiration. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a bit of thought, time, planning – and, of course, a large team of gardeners! Tomorrow I’m moving on. A transfer by road to Lake Maggiore, just south of the Alps and partly in Switzerland. It’s different from Como, but equally dramatic and beautiful.

I’m staying in Stresa on the shoreline of Maggiore. What can be better than to have a pre-dinner stroll along the waterfront? I can see the three Borromean Islands just across the water. The ferries are still plying their trade as the sun settles down for the night.

I’m up early – last night I saw the islands, today I’m visiting them. The Hotel Della Torre puts on a great breakfast. I’m weak-willed when there’s food in front of me; I eat too much. Fresh crusty rolls stacked high with ham, cheese and cucumber, a touch of pepper and lashings of coffee – just about perfect.

I take the water taxi to Isola Madre, home to the fabulous botanical gardens, not to mention some exotic wildlife. Gianfranco Giustina leads the gardening team. His passion is amazing. He’s worked for decades to get exotic plants to flower and nurtured trees through the worst of storms. If you love gardening, you’ll love Isola Madre; don’t miss it. As gardens go, this is right up there with the very best.

I’m captivated by the gardens but the villa is definitely worth a look, too. It has a full-size puppet theatre – how bizarre is that?

Island-hopping for lunch to Isola Pescatori – this is really cool. Restaurant Belvedere on the waterfront, serving up seafood to knock your socks off – divine.

The island has a charm of its own. The main street, just four feet wide in places, winds its way down the length of the island; there’s a tiny church, a tiny fishing museum – everything is small here but it is very special.

The third of the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore is Isola Bella with its magnificent palace. This is very grand in every sense, even underground; six pebbled grottos are slightly unsettling, definitely odd, but strangely fascinating at the same time. But where else would you find cellars stashed with artworks – it’s an amazing place.

The gardens are equally over the top and, although fantastically ornate, I have to say I prefer the more natural setting of the gardens on Isola Madre.

The islands are wonderful, the setting on Maggiore is just perfect but my visit isn’t over yet. We are in the shadow of the 5000ft Mount Mottarone, and I take the easy way up – by cable car. Apparently on a clear day you can see seven lakes from the summit. I’m unlucky, it’s hazy with restricted visibility but still a good place to be. Starting from the top is Alpyland, an alpine coaster. It’s a like a sled on tracks that swoops downhill, a cross between a roller coaster and a bobsleigh. Nothing to be worried about, you’ve got brakes and kids seemed to be loving it – so why not? I hit the brakes for the first bend but that seems to spoil it. So I leave the brakes alone and let gravity take its course… 1300 yards swooshing downhill, adrenalinpumping, teeth-gritting excitement. Really good fun. We’re all kids at heart.

I have a soft spot for the Italian Lakes. You know you’re on holiday as soon as you arrive. Mountains, lakes, grand buildings and sun. Relax, see the sights, enjoy the food, and Italian wine isn’t too bad either…

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