Lake Como is situated in the far northwestern corner of Italy, close to the Alps and the border with Switzerland. Formed by glacial activity, and it has an area of 146 km², making it the third largest lake in Italy, after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. At over 400 m (1320 ft) deep it is one of the deepest lakes in Europe and the bottom of the lake is more than 200 metres (656 ft) below sea-level. Its upside-down Y-shape resembles a striding man, and each ‘leg’ or branch of the lake has its own character.
The Como leg to the southwest is the most developed for tourism, and is where most of the villas and palazzos built by wealthy aristocrats and tycoons of the 19th century are situated. This may have something to do with the position of the lake, which means that the western shore gets slightly more sunshine than other parts. The south-eastern ‘leg’, the Lecco lake, has more of the atmosphere of a Norwegian fjord about it, with great walls of rock looming above the water, and the craggy peaks of the Grigne towering on the skyline. The triangle of mountainous land between the two ‘legs’ is called the triangolo lariano, after the old name of the lake, the Lario. This area remains largely unspoilt, dominated by the massive bulk of Monte San Primo.
In the more northern reaches, the lake opens out, being wider here, with slightly less vertiginous mountains flanking it. This end of the lake is less intensively developed and inhabited, and there are still traces of the ancient rural way of life. Here are the centres for sailing and windsurfing, and posh hotels give way to campsites, much frequented by German and Dutch tourists. The northernmost end of the lake is a glacial morain which is fed by the waters of the River Adda, and which today is a nature reserve harbouring birdlife.
Where these three branches join is the golden triangle of Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna, three delightful resorts served by car ferries, providing access to and from Switzerland and the roads east and south towards the rest of the region of Lombardy.
Lake Como seems to have its own micro-climate. It is almost always relatively mild; not too cold in winter, and not too hot in summer. Considering how far north it is, it has a surprisingly mediterranean, almost sub-tropical vegetation, and the air is fairly humid. In the summer, rainfall is often at night, in the form of dramatic thunderstorms with spectacular lightning displays. Next morning the air is fresh and clear, and everything seems to sparkle. Winds are generally light, and are so predictable on the lake one can almost set one’s watch by them – that is, if you need a watch. Because of the intensive economic activity that has been part of the local culture for centuries, you are never far from a village and the sound of the churchbells ringing out the hour.