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Garden exploring along Italy's Lake Como.

Westerners will feel right at home in Bellagio, on Italy's Lake Como just over an hour's drive from Milan. Como's lakefront gardens reveal a surprising number of" plants that are typical of coastal California and the Pacific Northwest.

Here, in view of the Alps, you'll encounter familiar temperate-climate plants such as azaleas, Mediterranean fan palms, oleanders, rhododendrons, star jasmine, and windmill palms. Why'? The mountains shelter the lake from cold winter storms.

Because Bellagio is on a promontory partially surrounded by water, it's warmer than other Lake Como towns. Lakeside temperatures rarely fall below freezing, though on the hills they're similar to those in Seattle.

To enjoy the beautiful vegetation of the area, be sure to visit two of Lake Como's outstanding gardens: Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni. This month, the azaleas and rhododendrons are at peak bloom (but May weather is unpredictable, so be prepared for rain or shine).

This and that at Villa Melzi

A short walk southwest of Bellagio along the shores of the lake is Melzi, a neoclassical villa designed by architect Giocondo Albertolli and built in the early 1800s.

In contrast with other gardens around the lake, which in the main are formal and highly manicured, Villa Melzi's grounds reflect a range of styles from informal hillside plantings reminiscent of an English country garden to a Chinese-inspired water garden to a neoclassical avenue of pollarded sycamores.

Melzi is well-known for dramatic displays of azaleas and rhododendrons, Japanese maples, huge bald cypresses, Montezuma cypresses, golden English oaks (Quercus robur 'Concordia'), and redwoods.

It also has a fascinating array of sculpture including a third-century B.C. urn depicting Medusa's head, two Roman busts, and ancient Egyptian statues from the time of Ramses II, acquired in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. All sit against backdrops of greenery and lake.

The villa is closed to visitors, but you can visit the chapel, which contains the tomb of original owner Francesco Melzi d'Eril, first vice-president of the Italian Republic, along with statuary by 19th-century Italian artists.

Visit the gardens (about $2.20, paid at the villa's entrance) from 9 to 4:30 daily from March through October.

Format gardens at Villa Serbelloni

Perched above Bellagio and commanding one of the area's best views of the lake is Villa Serbelloni (not to be confused with the 130-year-old lakeside hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, which has its own beautiful gardens of exotic plants such as bougainvillea, palms, and yuccas).

The property's history dates back to the 5th century,but the present villa was built in the 16th. In the late 1700s, Count Alessandro Serbelloni spent lavish sums developing the gardens you see today. The villa experienced a short stint as a luxury hotel, but American citizen (and Italian princess) Ella Walker reconverted it into a private residence and restored the grounds. In 1959, it was turned overto the Rockefeller Foundation; it's now an international research and study center.

In front of the villa are terraces of formal Italian gardens with many fine examples of native and exotic plants, including azaleas, camellias, cedars, firs, hydrangeas, oaks, and pines. Beyond it are groves of olive trees and grapes. A climb to the summit unfolds spectacular views of the Como and Lecco arms of the lake, plus remains of an 11th- or 12th-century fort.

At 11 and 4 daily (except Mondays and rainy days) from April to October, you can join a 1 1/2-hour guided tour of the gardens (the villa is closed to the public). Buy tickets (about $2.20) behind the church at Church Square, where the tour begins; if you need more information, inquire at the nearby tourist office in St. James Tower.
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Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1989
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