If it’s good enough for George Clooney, then it’s definitely good enough for us. Known as a playground for the rich and famous, Lake Como has its fair share of inviting courses, and for Peter Ellegard it was love at first sight…
Thunder echoed off the mountains as black clouds swirled overhead and rain began falling steadily. Stupidly, I was caught without protection at the farthest corner of the Villa d’Este golf course, high in the hills near Lake Como in Italy’s Lombardy region.
It had been sunny when I began my early-morning round but the storms that had unleashed torrents and vivid lightning displays the previous evening, forcing me to abandon a planned al fresco dinner at my hotel in lakeside town Cernobbio, were still lurking now.
The wet grass meant that the hilly fairways were treacherous. Walking carefully, I took in the beautiful alpine setting, all the while listening to calling cuckoos and catching occasional glimpses of Lake Montorfano far below through gaps between some of the 30,000 pines trees that surround the course.
SEVEN CLUBS. Thankfully, the storm only made a brief flirtation before melting away and as I walked up to the elevated 18th green and the stately clubhouse perched above it, the sun reappeared to light up the verdant course.
Close to the historic provincial capital city of Como, Villa d’Este Golf Club is one of seven clubs around Lake Como. The area’s reputation as Italy’s favoured spot for the well heeled and celebrities is exemplified here. Since opening in 1926, the club has welcomed Europe’s kings and silver screen idols, including Clark Gable and Bing Crosby, star of High Society and many other movies. Their signatures are proudly displayed in the club’s Golden Book.
The par-69 course is short at just over 6,000 yards, but the trees and steep slopes that guarantee few flat lies ensure it is no pushover. From your drive on the sweeping downhill opening hole, a 590-yard par 5, you embark on a delightful rollercoaster ride up hill and down dale as fairways thread between the thick pine stands.
ENGLISH FEEL. Villa d’Este’s elegant clubhouse oozes history and tradition. It is not Lake Como’s oldest golf club, however. That distinction goes to the Menaggio & Cadenabbia Golf Club, an hour’s drive north along the snaking road that hugs the Lake Como coastline and another that zigzags up above the charming cobbled town of Menaggio.
Italy’s second-oldest golf club has a peculiarly English feel. In the late 19th century, this central area of Lake Como was a magnet for Britain’s upper classes. Grand hotels and villas sprang up to accommodate them. In 1907, four English gentlemen met in Menaggio’s Victoria Hotel and founded the Menaggio & Cadenabbia Golf Club, the resulting nine-hole course recreating a little piece of England amidst Italy’s lakes and mountains.
Extended to 18 holes in 1919, the course was subsequently lengthened and redesigned, although it, too, is short by modern standards, measuring just shy of 6,000 yards. It remained under British ownership until the Roncoroni family bought it in 1961, with Italian PGA founder Antonio Roncoroni becoming its president.
HISTORIC PUBLICATIONS. Step into the clubhouse and you could be in a Home Counties country club. Old prints, including one of four-time Open Championship winner Old Tom Morris, adorn the walls, and racks display clubs from bygone times. In a corner of the lounge is the library, containing one of the greatest collections of historic golf publications in the world, with more than 1,200 volumes, some dating back to 1682.
The high society theme continues at Menaggio. Hollywood star George Clooney is a member and plays there every summer when he visits his multi-million pound holiday home – Villa Oleandra – in Laglio.
As I gaze out over the lake in the clubhouse restaurant, eating a bowl of freshly-made pasta and clams washed down by a pleasant local Lombardy rose wine, the club’s sport secretary Doris Sivalli tells me how Clooney, a friend of club president Dr Vittorio Roncoroni, usually arrives on his Harley Davidson motorbike, followed by a posse of paparazzi who are kept at bay outside the gates. Apparently, Clooney is congenial but keeps himself to himself.
SPLENDIDA VISTA. The picturesque course is a challenging mix of tight holes and open fairways that clamber up and plummet back down slopes. Tiny villages and sharp peaks – some in Switzerland – formed the backdrop to several holes. The border is so close that an alternative route from Milan goes via Swiss city Lugano and its namesake lake, crossing the mountains to reach Menaggio.
After an opening downhill par-4 from a lofty tee box, the course serves up two back-to-back par 3s – there are five in all – and several holes with spectacular vistas. Particularly memorable are the view back down the par-5 6th to Lake Como and distant crags, the downhill approach to the green on the par-5 13th with a pretty village behind, and the lake view from the 18th green by the clubhouse.
Both the 17th and 18th holes are short but enjoyable par 4s: the 17th features a blind tee shot followed by a wedge into a green guarded by ponds, while your drive on 18 goes perilously close to the 17th green.
FIVE-STAR HOTEL. Golf finished, I headed for the glorious, five-star Grand Hotel Tremezzo. This palatial family-owned edifice is set right on the coast road and has graced the Azaleas Riviera, as this area in the heart of Lake Como is known, for over a century.
My little rental Fiat 500 was perfect for zooming around the narrow, twisting roads, but it felt somewhat out of place as I parked alongside a sleek Ferrari and handed the keys to the doorman. Yet both have style, as only Italians can do.
My hotel room had a sensational outlook. Sitting on the balcony, I was transfixed by the view across the lake to Bellagio – the pretty town known as the ‘Pearl of Lake Como’, situated on the promontory where the lake’s east and west arms meet. Ferries and hydrofoils shuttled backwards and forwards, with the mountains of Lecco province beyond and the hotel’s floating pool and deck directly below.
That evening I enjoyed the twinkling lights of Bellagio, framed by the columns of the hotel’s open-air fine dining restaurant, La Terrazza, while sampling exquisite food and wine.
TOO LITTLE TIME. Before leaving, I strolled through the lush park behind the hotel, wishing I could extend my stay. Sadly, there was no time to stop off and visit the nearby Villa Carlotta, built in 1690 for a Milanese marquis and now a museum with extensive botanic gardens.
I also had to forego numerous Kodak moments as the coast road wound southwards through charming little communities hugging the shore, the sun glinting off red-tiled rooftops and ancient bell towers standing tall.
Along the way I passed Mezzegra (where wartime dictator Benito Mussolini was shot); Lenno, where Lake Como’s last working oil mill produces high-quality olive oil; the labyrinthine streets of Colonno; the Roman bridge in Argegno; the alleyways and stone stairs of picturesque Brienno, Moltrasio’s grand villas and 11th century bell tower; and scenic Cernobbio, a popular tourist town with a lovely piazza a 10-minute boat ride from Como.
Allow plenty of time for driving, not just for the many photographic opportunities but also because the road is so narrow that traffic lights alternate one-way flows in several towns.
I stayed in Cernobbio that night at the modern, four-star Grand Hotel di Como, sister hotel to the Grand Tremezzo – as comfortable and welcoming as its sibling, if not as venerable. The storms might have scuppered my plan to enjoy a Brazilian-style barbecue under a marquee in the Kincho Restaurant, but the feast served up in the hotel’s indoor Kitchen Restaurant more than compensated for that.
MONTICELLO. Earlier that day I had played at Monticello Golf Club, southwest of Como city, where attractions include its Romanesque cathedral, neoclassical Villa Olmo and medieval town hall. Monticello has two 18-hole courses, both flat parkland designs that form part of an American-style resort with a circular clubhouse.
The Red Course is the longer of the two, at 7,010 yards, and has hosted the Italian Open seven times since opening in 1974, the original Jim Fazio layout having been revamped by Graham Cooke. That was busy with a competition so I took on the Blue Course, another Cooke reworking.
The courses are interwoven and share the same trait of fairly generous fairways – particularly on Blue – lined by mature trees, many of them giant conical fir trees. Greens are smaller on Blue but water only comes into play on two holes, the par-4 13th and par-3 15th, which are bisected by a lake with fountains.
The Red Course has lakes to avoid on six holes, among them the par-3 7th with a semi-island green and the par-5 9th and par-4 18th holes, which share a double green fronted by a lake. Although close to urban civilisation, Monticello’s two courses give a feeling of space, with mountains in view on several holes.
PROTECTED PARK. Nature really comes to the fore at La Pinetina Golf Club, which spans 180 acres within the protected Park Pinetina, a forest of pine, birch, oak and chestnut trees in Appiano Gentile, south of Como. It was the first golf club in Italy to be recognised with European eco-compatible certification by the Golf Environment Organization, which promotes sustainability in golf.
Originally a nine-hole course built by English architect John Harris Dering in the early 1970s, it was extended to 18 holes in 1976. The undulating fairways wind between the trees, many of which turn spectacular shades in autumn.
La Pinetina has a hotel on site offering 11 rooms, all with views out onto the course. Stay-and-play packages, including half-board accommodation and green fee, cost from 140 euros per person per night.
An early example of a golf course residential community is set in foothills halfway between Milan and Como – Golf Club Carimate, built in 1961 by a baroness. The 18-hole parkland golf course covers 150 acres of an estate where the ancient castle forms the centrepiece, the mature trees bordering the fairways shielding the 400 villas from view.
A TRIP TO REMEMBER. Next I visit Golf Club Lecco’s thickly-wooded 18-hole course. It is situated between Pusiano and Annone lakes, close to the eastern arm of Lake Como at the foot of the Lombardy Alps. Founded in 1996, its clubhouse and restaurant are set in 15th century buildings.
Although only nine holes, Lanzo Golf Club shouldn’t be dismissed. An enchanting Donald Harradine design, built in 1962, it lies 3,000 feet up in the Como mountains, right by the Swiss border. There are two sets of tees on each hole, giving an 18-hole length of 5,571 yards and a par of 68.
My first visit to Lake Como was just three days but I am already smitten by it and will be returning soon. I feel this is the start of an Italian love affair…
Good to know
Milan’s Malpensa Airport is the closest gateway to Como and the region’s golf courses. 55km away, the drive from the airport to Como takes about 45 minutes. Airlines flying direct from UK airports: easyJet (www.easyjet.com), BA (www.britishairways.com), Flybe (www.flybe.com) and bmi regional (www.bmiregional.com). Milan’s Linate Airport is 67km from Como, a 50-minute drive. Fly there with easyJet, BA and Alitalia (www.alitalia.com).
All the major car rental companies have locations at Milan’s airports. Driving is easy and all courses rent clubs, so the ubiquitous Fiat 500 is ideal to negotiate the narrow lakeside and mountain roads. If you take your clubs you will need a bigger car. Book directly with easyJet for a discount with Europcar.
Villa d’Este Golf Club
18 holes, 10 minutes/7km from Como
Green fees: 100-120 euros
Monticello Golf Club
Two 18-hole courses, 12 minutes/12km from Como
Green fees: 79-109 euros
Golf Club Carimate
18 holes, 15 minutes/15km from Como
Green fees: 55-75 euros
La Pinetina Golf Club
18 holes, 20 minutes/15km from Como
Green fees: 70-90 euros
Golf Club Lecco
18 holes, 35 minutes/25km from Como
Green fees: 50-65 euros
Lanzo Golf Club
9 holes, 40 minutes/35km from Como
Green fees: 40-50 euros
Menaggio & Cadenabibia Golf Club
18 holes, 50 minutes/40km from Como
Green fees: 65 euros (open March to December)
Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Tremezzo
Grand Hotel di Como, Cernobbio
GOLF & TOURIST INFORMATION
Lake Como Golf: www.comogolflake.com
All tourist information is available at: www.lakecomo.it