When I worked in Milan in the Eighties, I often spent weekends at a friend's house in a very simple village high in the mountains, some kilometres up a narrow road from the town of Como itself. Up there life was very simple, with a laundry built over the icy waters of a stream, where the village women could be seen pounding their linen and talking loudly over the sound of the cataract. To this day Como is a two-tier place, with extraordinary and opulent villas on the lakeshore and quiet, relatively untouched villages behind. In these villages you can still see the locals cutting and stacking hay for winter fodder, and you can find small farms making cheeses and cured meats; many of the villages have weekly markets of local produce.
When I returned to Como in late May this year, there was still snow on the mountains while the lake sparkled in the warm sunshine below, and the olive trees and vineyards were flourishing. Later, the peaks caught the warm, strawberry light of the setting sun and the town of Bellagio assumed a terracotta-and-pastel Mediterranean mood. Lake Como has been known since antiquity as one of the most beautiful places in Europe; when the wealthy of nearby Milan and the rich from Europe and America started building holiday villas here in the 19th century, they were following in a tradition dating back to Pliny the Younger. George Clooney is one of the more recent of many celebrities to discover Lake Como. He owns a villa in Laglio though he is said to be tired of being harassed by paparazzi and is considering a move.
About 46 kilometres long and very, very deep, Lake Como has three arms: one runs from Como itself, another from Lecco, meeting at a lovely headland where Bellagio is sited, to join the third arm which extends north. The western side of the lake is more densely populated and has most of the great villas, but the eastern side, between Lecco in the south and Colico in the north, has many wonderful old churches and villages, all well worth a visit.
The most picturesque town of all, Bellagio is a very expensive, very elegant place, with one of the grandest grand hotels in Italy, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, in a lovely position on the lake, right at the edge of the town, and well worth the price of a hideously expensive drink to gain entrance. Back in the Eighties Bellagio was already Como's most exclusive town, a favourite with fashionable Milanese; there was always a sense, as we nursed our drinks, that we were not privy to the mysterious and fashionable world of these people who designed clothes, owned advertising agencies and wore only expensive labels.
It was a time when the male handbag was popular, and in the evenings there was usually a passeggiata, as the men with their shoulder bags and women in designer clothes paraded along the front beneath the heavily pollarded plane trees. To cross the lake on the ferry was to arrive in a very Italian, moving pageant, something like a Fellini film. Now, I'm told, Bellagio is favoured by discerning Americans: certainly George Clooney has been seen taking his motorbike across on the ferry.
Among the other must-see sights on Lake Como is the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. Built in 1690, it has 17 acres of gardens featuring azaleas and rhododendrons and important sculptures, including figures by Canova. Stendhal stayed here, and the protagonist of his book The Charterhouse of Parma is called Fabrice del Dongo after the town of Dongo further up the lake. The villa faces Bellagio across the water, and the town of Tremezzo, on a lovely bay below, has a lively market on Saturdays. A little south of Tremezzo, at Lenno, walk along the promontory to see Villa Balbianella, built in 1787 on the site of a monastery, and its famous terraced gardens. Villa d'Este in Cernobbio, near the town of Como, is the home of a long established luxury hotel where Madonna and Woody Allen have been spotted. It, too, is a wonderful place for a visit, even if your budget isn't actually up to staying there.
There is another side to Como, and well worth exploring too, of small, stone villages up country roads, many with unheralded churches, such as St Maria del Rigio in Gravedona, which has a fifth-century Roman mosaic floor, and peaceful monasteries such as the Abbey of Piona on a rocky peninsula on a bay near Colico. Although Como has a very settled, almost staid, appearance, there are plenty of holiday activities on offer: windsurfing is famous in the north of the lake, where the afternoon wind - the Breva - can be strong, and boards and dinghies can be rented at Domaso (courses in windsurfing and catamaran sailing are taught at Windsurfcenter Domaso; www.windsurfcenter-domaso.com). Kitesurfing, jet-skiing, waterskiing, rock-climbing, mountain-biking and kayaking are all readily available. There are swimming lidos along all the lake, which - Italian style - offer loungers, snacks, drinks and ice cream. The walks in the mountains are absolutely beautiful, and the local tourist offices provide comprehensive details. Menaggio is a good starting point and has a particularly helpful office (00 39 034 4329249; open 9am-12pm and 3-6pm). One trail above Cadenabbia takes you along a vertiginous 40-minute cobbled path to a small chapel, with some of the finest views you could imagine of the lake below and Bellagio across the water.
Frequent ferries link the town of Como to all the main villages to the north. There are three services: what the Italians call the "motorship" service, which operates up and down the length of the lake; the "fast service", which uses express hydrofoils for the same routes; and the ferries that criss-cross the lake, running frequently between the popular villages of Menaggio, Varenna, Cadenabbia and Bellagio. Most of the ferries carry cars as well as passengers, though it is worth buying a weekly ticket, as prices for single journeys are high (schedules and fares can be found at www.navigazionelaghi.it). There is a kitsch but handy Disney-like tractor-train that runs up and down the west coast between Lenno and Menaggio in the summer. Take a child as an excuse. There are also regular buses up both sides of the lake, which make frequent stops.
My favourite way of passing the time though is to take a restful boat ride to lunch or dinner in one of nearby villages. The boat journey gives you the sense that all that elegance and calm floating by is being moved expressly for your benefit. No wonder Bellini, Rossini and Verdi loved Como: it has the atmosphere of a grand and romantic opera unfolding in front of a huge set. Wordsworth, the romantic's romantic, described it "a treasure which the earth keeps to itself".