The spirit of the Italian Lakes
On the shores of Lake Como, the Villa del Balbianello served as a film backdrop in Casino Royale and Star Wars. (Andrew Montgomery)
The scene resembles an illumination from a medieval book of hours. Smooth, clear waters glitter in the Italian sun. Elegant villas are hidden among cypress trees and wisteria. Above groves blossoming with camellia, the peaks of the Alps sweep up, piercing through the occasional fluffy cloud into a rich blue sky. A little boat sails across to a fabulous palace, built on its own island in the middle of a lake. All that’s missing are the peasants toiling in the fields. These days, on the shores of the Italian lakes, you’re more likely to see a Ferrari than a farmhand.
The lakes region has been a holiday destination for the rich and famous for centuries, but in the past few years it has been inundated like never before. The leader of the celebrity pack is American actor George Clooney. So often is his name dropped in his adopted hometown of Laglio, on the shores of Lake Como, it’s a wonder that they haven’t renamed it Clooneyville. He filmed part of Ocean’s Twelve here, and the lakes have also served as spectacular film locations for the James Bond movie Casino Royale and the three Star Wars prequels. For those families who have worked here for generations, the blessings are mixed. On one hand, money coming from outside helps to sustain local jobs. On the other, the cost of living has risen alarmingly. Across the lake region, which ranges along the Italian-Swiss border, traditional ways of life are under threat. Even so, alongside the sports-car traffic and designer boutiques, there are still plenty of people making a living from old-fashioned arts and crafts.
The boat builder
George Clooney is a great advertisement for the region,’ says Daniele Riva, whose Laglio-based family has been building boats on Lake Como since 1771. ‘But it’s difficult for people who have been living in Laglio for generations if their families have always rented their homes. Now rents are high, and nobody can afford to buy.’ In 1951, Daniele’s family created a unique design – the Riva, an elegant motorboat cruiser made of polished cedarwood that went on to become a Lake Como icon. His workshop is full of Riva boats at different stages of construction or restoration. Rough hulls of young wood suffuse the workshop with a rich and resinous fragrance. Further along the line is the finished product. The separate elements are so perfectly joined together that the Riva looks as if it might have been carved out of a single tree, the grain of the cedar lustrous under gleaming varnish.
‘Boat building is a small industry, but it’s a good one,’ Daniele says, sanding the side of an old Riva he has taken in for repair. ‘My kids are aged nine and four. They already love boats, and if they decide to carry the business on I’m sure there will be Rivas built here for generations to come.’ As for his famous neighbour, Daniele is sympathetic. ‘Signor Clooney had three boats, but he asked me to sell them,’ he says. ‘If he’s on the lake, everybody gawps at him.’