oppOSITE: THE ALPS FRAME THE SPECTACULAR SCENERY AT LAKE COMO; LEFT: A PEACEFUL SCENE AT LAKE COMO; BELOW LEFT: A GRAND VILLA WITH COIFFURED TREES on THE EDGE OF LAKE MAGGIORE; BELOW: LAKE GARDA reveals the charms that captivated dh lawrence
ith their breathtaking beauty, the Italian Lakes have dazzled discerning travellers for centuries, and they still make jaws drop today. The lakes were a popular stop on the Grand Tour, and the likes of Dickens, Shelley and Keats came to be wowed by the spectacular combination of clear, blue waters sparkling below wooded hillsides, and tall cypress trees in the manicured gardens of baroque villas – all set against the stunning backdrop of the snowcapped Alps. Shelley said of Lake Como, “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty.” DH Lawrence was similarly impressed by Lake Garda, “I sat and looked at the lake. It was as beautiful as Paradise, as the first creation.” The French writer Stendhal was more practical, “Anyone with a heart must visit Lake Maggiore and its surrounding areas, even if he has to sell his shirt to get there.” Winston Churchill came to the lakes to paint and, more recently, George Clooney bought two villas beside Lake Como. With such a high calibre of admirers, the lakes come well recommended. Covering around 200 kilometres west to east, from just over the Swiss border, they form a belt across northern Italy, where the lush plains of Lombardy make way for the chilly
Soak up the magnificent scenery, sample café culture or get active in the beautiful Italian Lakes
Words CHRISTOPHER NYE pictures Christopher nye, Getty, morguefile, SXC
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grandeur of the Alps. Lake Maggiore, Lake Garda and Lake Como are the best known and largest of the lakes, but there are other smaller lakes, such as Lake Iseo, scattered around the region. Fed by the melting alpine snows, they are deep, narrow and cool – Lake Como has a depth of more than 400 metres. They are easily accessible, with Milan’s Malpensa airport just 20 minutes’ drive from Lake Maggiore and 30 minutes from Lake Como.
Below: The Church of Santa Maria at Tremezzo, on the western shore of lake como
Untouched by time
For tourists used to the over-development of the Mediterranean, the most striking feature of the lakes is how unspoilt they are. Each one is hundreds of kilometres in circumference, and most of that is undeveloped, except for some villages, grand houses and hotels dotted about. There is none of the high-rise development that has blighted the Spanish costas. In its place are sumptuously-decorated 17th- and 18th-century palaces – all subtle pastels, frescoes, swirling carvings and ornate gardens with lawns and water features. Many of these grand buildings have been converted into hotels and spas. Although well served by roads, the lakes are easy to get around without a car as they are > criss-crossed with ferries, hydrofoils and 49
lowdown on the lakes
Lake Maggiore surrounded by hills, the lakes are a hiker’s paradise
pleasure boats, and most hotels and tourist attractions have their own jetties. Many people come to the lakes simply to relax, gaze, eat and be pampered. But there is plenty on offer for the more energetic, too. Each summer, swimmers, windsurfers and yacht owners flock to the lakes. Indeed, when the temperature starts to soar, you’ll struggle to keep out of the water. The lakes are also popular with cyclists, despite the sweltering heat. The surrounding hills are perfect for walking and hiking, with clearly-marked trails through the forests and meadows. In many of the tourist offices English-speaking staff are happy to advise on routes to suit all fitness levels, from serious hikers to those looking for a gentle stroll around a garden, followed by afternoon tea. Although summer is the most popular time to visit, it can get very crowded, with tour buses jostling with cyclists for space on the narrow streets, and rich kids cruising in sports cars and shades. But this all gives the place such a great buzz – with all the cafés, shops and bars open, and generations of Italian families enjoying an evening stroll and an ice cream together – that a summer visit may be irresistible.
Escape the throng
For those who don’t like crowds, however, spring is a lovely time to visit, when bougainvillea is dripping from every balcony and the lakes are looking their best. And autumn has its fans, too, with the days still balmy and the water warm enough for
swimming until early October. In winter the weather gets decidedly chilly, and ferry services are severely restricted. However, the roads are empty, the mountains look stunning, and for the local Italian community, life goes on. Although most of the restaurants and tourist attractions close down, there are still plenty of apartments to rent and there are many ski centres a short drive away, including St Moritz, just 50 kilometres north of Lake Como. One activity that can be done in any season is shopping in Milan, the region’s largest city. The beautiful arcades in this fashion mecca are the places to browse for designer threads, whether for this year’s styles in the posh boutiques of the Quadrilatero d’Oro, or last season’s looks in the factory outlets. When the shops shut from around one until four in the afternoon, take a ride on the characterful old trams that have been rattling around these streets since the 1920s. Between enjoying the haute couture and café culture, you can see Leonardo’s famous painting, The Last Supper (the painting in The Da Vinci Code where St John is claimed to be Jesus’ wife), and the magnificent Renaissanceera Duomo in white marble. Further east, in ‘fair Verona’, you can see the very balcony where Romeo is said to have wooed Juliet. After the excitement and bustle of such cities, a return to the dreamy lakes is a welcome tonic.
FLY Flybe has regular flights to Milan Malpensa from Birmingham and Manchester
fact file Italian Tourist Board: www.italiantouristboard.co.uk; 020 7408 1254 www.italianlakes.com • www.myswitzerland.com • Swiss National Tourist Office: 0800 100 200 30
Lake Maggiore’s greatest appeal is around the central lake, in the main town of Verbania and the beautiful villages of Stresa and Pallanza, with their cobbled alleys swathed in geraniums and bougainvillea. Don’t miss: Palazzo Borromeo, which was begun in 1632 in honour of Isabella, the local nobleman’s wife. The palace and gardens fill the whole of Isola Bella, the island named after her.
Lake Como Shaped like an upside-down Y, Lake Como is perhaps the most beautiful of the Italian Lakes. Gorgeous villas adorn the lakeside, including two that belong to George Clooney. Don’t miss: Bellagio – Pliny the Younger once fished for carp from the window of his house in this village, which sits where the lake splits into two.
Lake Garda The largest and cleanest of the lakes, the top end of Lake Garda is narrow and fjord-like, with villages clinging to steep, craggy mountainsides that dive straight down to the water’s edge. At the southern end, the lake opens out into northern Italy’s holiday playground. Don’t miss: The fun! Take to the water, either by yacht, windsurf board or pedalo, and visit Gardaland, an excellent theme park.
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