With its natural beauty, elegant architecture, fine dining and high-octane watersports, Italy’s Lake District has it all, says Ben Lerwill
Few parts of the world combine style, culture and extravagant natural scenery to quite such swoon-inducing effect as the lakes of northern Italy. They’ve drawn travelers, artists and romantics since the Roman era and remain a genuinely magnificent attraction, flanked by bold mountains, scattered with lakeside villages and primed with world-class hotels and restaurants.
It was Henry James who said that “one can’t describe the beauty of the Italian Lakes, nor would one try if one could”, and in doing so he joined a long list of poets, composers and writers to fall for the region’s heady charms. A trip here follows in the traveling footsteps of luminaries such as Verdi, Goethe, Lord Byron and Hemingway.
The aesthetically blessed region of Lombardy that’s often described as Italy’s Lake District is home to sub-alpine lakes of myriad shapes and sizes, but its four largest stand out: Como, Maggiore, Lugano and Garda. Between them they serve up abundant natural drama and a wide range of activities and attractions, from old-world palazzos and gourmet restaurants to watersports and pleasure cruises. The fact they’re easily reached from Milan and Bergamo adds to the overall appeal — easterly Lake Garda can even be combined with a trip to Venice.
Lombardy itself attracts some seven million international visitors each year, which represents around 15% of total visitors to Italy as a whole. While the presence of Milan accounts for some of this number, much of the region’s popularity can be attributed to the enduring pull of the lakes.
US operators that feature the region offer everything from dedicated multi-lake coach tours and luxury lake trips by Ferrari to best-of-Italy-type packages incorporating the Lake District as part of a wider itinerary — Lakes Como and Garda are the most commonly visited.
When romantic poet William Wordsworth traveled to Lake Como in 1790, he was moved to describe it as “a treasure which the world keeps to itself”. These days the secret’s well and truly out, but the lake’s fairytale setting — ringed by the snow-covered Alps and dotted with picturesque waterside villages — means it remains one of Italy’s greatest scenic treats.
There’s beauty not just in the fact it offers so many photogenic viewpoints (its long upside-down ‘Y’ shape stretches 30 miles from end to end), but in there being so much to see and do along its shores. Como and Lecco are the principal towns, both with centuries-old buildings, but for most the real charms are sourced in attractive villages such as Varenna, Menaggio and Bellagio.
Bellagio, from which the Vegas resort takes its name, is often called La Perla del Lago, ‘the Pearl of the Lake’. Its cobbled streets, peaches-and-cream buildings and exquisite green surroundings make it a hugely romantic spot, while hotels such as the deluxe Villa Serbelloni, which has welcomed everyone from JFK to Clark Gable, still draw a discerning crowd.
From Bellagio, it’s possible to take a steamer across the water to the similarly fabled Varenna, where booking a terrace table at the Albergo Milano hotel’s Ristorante La Vista comes highly recommended. If walking or cycling is your thing, nearby Menaggio provides a near-perfect base.
Italy’s largest lake is also the country’s most visited, and when you see its intense blue waters and medieval buildings first-hand, you won’t find this surprising. It sits in the very east of Lombardy, set well apart from the other main lakes, and it’s perhaps this that gives it such a singularly languid character. The lake attracts plenty of active family groups and watersports enthusiasts, but its size and variety make it a great place for indulging in gentler pleasures.
The two opposite ends of the lake are different in character. In the north, steep mountains angle into the water and villages perch on cliff sides, while in the wider south the lake is surrounded by mellow hills and peaceful holiday resorts. You’ll generally find plenty of reward wherever you go, and with ferries making regular sailings between the main tourist spots, it’s easy to sample a few different stop-offs.
The most notable towns and villages along the lakeside include the perennially popular Riva del Garda, a historical town on the northwest shore. Call in for a meal at Restel de Fer, run by the same family for centuries with excellent traditional dishes, or take a room at the superb Lido Palace Hotel, welcoming visitors since 1899.
Along the west shore, meanwhile, the pretty village of Gargnano is still a wonderful place to spend time. It’s closely associated with the writer D. H. Lawrence, who lived here for a time after succumbing to the lake’s placid beauty.
Other Italian Lakes
Lake Iseo: A largely little-visited gem of a lake, with the inhabited island of Monte Isola at its center.
Lake Idro: Great for swimming and windsurfing, this small wooded lake also plays home to various campsites.
Lake Orta: One of the least known of the lakes, Orta is popular with the Milanese locals.
Lake Verese: This tranquil glacial lake is a favored option among cyclists, thanks to the 17-mile bike trail around it.
Lake Endine: Making up in calm beauty what it lacks in size, this is a well-frequented weekend spot over the summer.
Long and ravishing, Lake Maggiore reaches so far north that part of it sits within Switzerland, a fact which saw it feature in Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms as the scene of a cross-border escape. Modern-day visitors, however, won’t be overly inclined to flee — particularly when faced with the palm trees and hills of the lakeside or the flowers and villas of the Borromean Islands.
The main resort is Stresa, which sits on the lake’s western shore and was one of the main calling points of the Orient Express train during its heyday. There’s a fittingly refined atmosphere at the town’s distinguished Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, while golfers have the prospect of a memorable round at one of the numerous championship courses in the vicinity.
From Stresa, it’s possible to catch ferries out to what many consider the highlights of Lake Maggiore: three small picture-perfect islands collectively referred to as the Borromean Islands. Of the three, the appropriately named Isola Bella is the most natural option for first-timers; it’s home to an opulent 17th-century palazzo, complete with baroque gardens and fountains.
Opposite Stresa and the islands, the town of Verbania has plenty going for it, not least the Michelin-recommended Dei Cigni restaurant, where you can dine on fish fresh from the lake.
Most of Lake Lugano is located within Ticino, an Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, making a trip here an attractive option for those keen to experience lakeside life in two countries. It takes its name from the wealthy Swiss city of Lugano, sitting on a bend along its northern shore, although on the Italian side it’s the town of Porlezza that provides a natural focal point.
Porlezza, which also sits less than 10 miles from Lake Como, has some fine places to stay, including the modern Parco San Marco Lifestyle Beach Resort, home to a large private beach and wellness center. It was named Europe’s Best Luxury Hideaway Resort at the 2013 World Luxury Hotel Awards.
Sailing, watersports and fishing are all big draws to the lake, while the hefty peaks that ring it are ideal for hiking and climbing. One of the region’s best views comes from the 5,580ft summit of Monte Generoso, a mountain straddling the border, while on the southern shore the pyramid-shaped Monte San Giorgio is now inscribed by UNESCO thanks to its extraordinary fossil records of prehistoric marine life.
If spending time exploring the villages along the Swiss sections of the lakeside, take time to wander the car-free lanes of Gandria and see the architectural styles on show in Morcote.
PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork