COMO, Italy - It wasn't as if nobody ever came here before George Clooney bought a couple of lakeside villas for eight figures. Julius Caesar founded the city of Como (as Novum Comum) in 59 B.C., and in the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder had a spread in Bellagio, on what the locals call Lago di Como.

Virgil called this "the greatest lake," and Franz Liszt honeymooned here. Benito Mussolini, fleeing to Switzerland, was caught and shot here. Henry James marveled at "the swarming shimmering prodigality of the landscape."

Still, Lake Como and its hilly shoreside towns and villages don't usually make the list of Italy's top half-dozen tourist destinations. There is Rome, eternally, and Venice. There is Florence and the rest of Tuscany, plus the Pisa-Lucca duet. There is the Amalfi coast, where Positano perches precariously. And, more recently, there is Cinque Terre on the Ligurian Sea, with its blistered battalions of hikers.

The Lakes District of Lombardy, though, is becoming more of a must-see, thanks in part to Clooney and his Hollywood pals. Yet Como today is remarkably much as James found it in 1872, when it was "the spot to which inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion."

While the euro has made all of Italy decidedly more pricey over the last few years, it's still possible to tour the Como environs on a reasonable budget, if only on a day trip from Milan, just 30 miles south. There are plenty of hideaways tucked around and above the lake, most notably Varenna. And now that the shuttered season is over, the area is coming out of its winter snooze, with the high season running from May through October.

While Como isn't quite the size of Lake Maggiore, where it took Hemingway's deserting lieutenant eight hours to row from Stresa to the Swiss border town of Brissago with his pregnant girlfriend in

A Farewell to Arms

, it's 30 miles long and Europe's deepest lake - more than one-third of a mile.

Como has the most unusual shape of all the Italian lakes. With the peninsula jutting upward to Bellagio, it looks like cartoonist Jules Feiffer's modern dancer, right leg lifted, spine arched, head tossed back. Driving around the lake, along its tight and twisting roads lined with walls and fences, can be maddening, so the best way to see things is the same as in Venice - by boat and on foot.

The easiest jumping-off place is Como, a 40-minute train ride from Milan's central station. From there, you can catch another train to the lake's eastern shore and Varenna, hop in a cab (if you're staying in nearby Cernobbio or Moltrasio on the western shore), or take a ferry.

The boats that crisscross the lake, particularly around the Menaggio-Bellagio-Varenna triangle at the middle, are the best way to catch a panoramic glimpse of the villa-lined shore.

On a sunny spring day, the view from the water is breathtaking. On a foggy, drizzly one, it's spookily splendid. "It's all so unreal, so fictitious," wrote James, "so elegant and idle."

The boat is also the best way to bounce from village to village, and you can traipse through several in a day. Most of them are smallish, with a few thousand residents, a villa or two, a waterside walkway, sometimes a tiny beach, and a climb through winding streets to a piazza, a huffing-puffing stroll that leaves calf and quadriceps muscles screaming, but also provokes a ferocious appetite.

Cernobbio, which is three miles north of Como on the west side of the lake, is home to the magnificent 17th-century Villa d'Este, which took 45 years to build and has been a hotel for the last 135. (If you're splurging, a double room is just under $1,000 a night.)

About 20 miles north, Tremezzo features the 18th-century Villa Carlotta with its acres of lavish gardens, azaleas and rhododendrons, and a Noah's Ark collection of exotic plantables ranging from sequoias to cacti - all open to the public.

We stayed in Moltrasio, just up the road from Cernobbio, where Madonna has been known to bunk at a villa owned by the Versace family. It's small and quiet, and it was a quick walk from our hotel to the pier, where boats leave as frequently as every 15 minutes during peak hours. From there, it's roughly 11/2 hours up and over to Bellagio, which has been the place to be for more than 2,000 years.

"The pearl of the lake," as the town calls itself, is Como's geographic and stylistic centerpiece, with the most magnificent views. The best vantage point, looking out on all three branches of the lake, is from the Punta Spartivento (the point that "divides the wind"), a park with linden trees at Bellagio's northern tip. Bring a picnic lunch, walk 10 minutes from the ferry slip, and you can see the Swiss Alps.

After a stroll through the nearby Villa Serbelloni Park, you can walk up the stone steps of the Salita Serbelloni, check out the silk and blown-glass shops, then go over to the other side of town to La Pergola for a fine fish lunch while gazing at the water.

Because it's in the middle of everything, Bellagio is the nexus of Lake Como, for better and worse. It's stylish, expensive and crowded. And since everyone who comes to the lake turns up at Bellagio, the place can get overrun, particularly on a summer weekend. If the bustle and bump grow tiresome, a quieter alternative is Varenna, a few miles up the eatern shore.

Varenna is compact enough to digest in an hour, yet it has one of everything that draws visitors to the area: an HO-scale harbor, a beach wide enough for two boats and three tanning towels, a crumbling medieval castle (Castello di Vezio), a church square, a 19th-century inn, a lakeside walkway, and a trattoria serving risotto-stuffed trout. If you're up from Milan only for an afternoon, Varenna may be the best place to check out, since the trains come through on the way to Sondrio and Tirano.

Back in James' day (and even in Pliny's), Lake Como was a place for spring and summer sojourns that lasted for months. But you can extract its essence in a week, or even a few days, if you juggle the boat schedules and bring your walking shoes. Then, you can take the train from Milan to Venice in 21/2 hours.

If you see Clooney, give him a cheery

buon giorno!

Since he has made a point of trying to be a good neighbor, Signor Giorgio just might invite you over for dinner and break open a couple of bottles of Barolo.