Sheltered by the Alps, most Italian Lakes benefit from a superb microclimate, allowing for that perfect combination – a Mediterranean lifestyle in a mountainous landscape.
Lake Como, known locally as Lario, is the most dramatic of the lakes. At many points the shore is a sheer cliff, and the Alps loom like a wall at the northern end of the lake. A boat tour round the lake is the ideal way to explore, not least because you escape the congested lakeside roads during high season and at weekends. From the water you get the sense that nothing much has changed since the Romans first succombed to the lake's charms. Como is the main departure point.
Bellagio's stunning location on Lake Como and scenic waterfront, with grand hotels and steep cobbled steps, bring out the poet in everyone who comes here – among others Shelley, Flaubert and Mark Twain have all sung its praises.
Now home to the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni and its Michelin-starred restaurant, Mistral, the jet set flock here – as do day-trippers. The tiny Borgo (the medieval part of town) and maze of stepped streets lined with delis, eateries and silk shops is a delight to explore. Peering down on the town is the Romanesque church of San Giacomo and its tower, survivors from Bellagio’s medieval fortifications. The tourist office is at the landing stage on Piazza Mazzini.
On the hilltop stands the Villa Serbelloni with splendid views of all three branches of the lake and the mountains from its park. It is run as a study centre and is not to be confused with its namesake, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni below.
The villa is now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation and closed to visitors, but there are guided tours of the garden leaving from the medieval tower in Piazza San Giacomo. If you cannot do the tour but want the view, take the road running alongside the park to Punta Spartivento and the small harbour at the very tip of the headland, which is a lovely spot for a dip. Heading south along the lakeside promenade and past the lido to Bellagio’s other magnificent residence, Villa Melzi and its neoclassical chapel, museum and outstanding Mediterranean gardens.
The largest and easternmost of the lakes, Garda is bordered by three different regions: Lombardy, Trentino and the Veneto. The scenery is enormously diverse, from the fjord-like north, where the Brenta Dolomites drop sheer into the water, to the gentle hills of vineyards and olive groves, and the sea-like southern basin, fringed by beaches. Sheltered by the mountains, it enjoys an equable climate and luxuriant vegetation along its shores. Garda is the cleanest lake and the most popular for swimming, windsurfing and sailing. The lake is a favourite playground of German and Austrian tourists and in season you can expect crowded campsites and coachloads of day-trippers, particularly in the south.
Sirmione, Lake Garda’s most famous resort, has an enticing setting on a narrow peninsula that juts 4km (2.5 miles) into the lake. The old town is heralded by the photogenic Rocca Scaligera (Scaligera Castle), accessed via a drawbridge over the fish-filled moat. The castle was built in 1259 by Mastino I della Scala, the fishtail battlements being the trademark of the della Scala family. The narrow alleys around the castle teem with tourists throughout the season – Sirmione is just minutes away from the Milan–Venice motorway and a mecca for day-trippers.
But beyond the castle you can escape the worst of the crowds and find pleasant lakeside terraces, beaches and a headland of olive trees and cypresses. At the tip of the peninsula lies the famous Grotte de Catullo, the ruins of a vast Roman villa. The site was named after the Roman poet Catullus, but although his poems make reference to a home in Sirmione there is no evidence this was his villa. The archaeological remains – some of the most important of their kind in Italy – cover over 2 hectares (5 acres) of the promontory, and are set high above the lake amid olive and cypress trees. Deciphering the various rooms on the various levels is not easy, but it is lovely just to wander around.
West of Sirmione, Desenzano del Garda is the largest town on the lake, and one of the most colourful and lively. An important Roman port, it retains a 3rd-century Villa Romana with remarkable floor mosaics depicting scenes of hunting and local life. The heart of the town is the picturesque Porto Vecchio (Old Port) flanked by cafés and the venue of a large and popular Tuesday market. Behind the port, narrow lanes lead up to the medieval castle, while along the front, the promenade is pleasant for strolling.
North of Desenzano the town of Salò has a long history dating back to Roman times. More recently it was the seat of Mussolini’s puppet republic in 1943 – his last desperate attempt to reorganise Fascism in Italy. The Art Nouveau-style Villa Simonini (now the Hotel Laurin) was the headquarters of the Italian Foreign Ministry, presided over by Il Duce.
On a beautiful deep bay, and backed by the Monte San Bartolomeo, Salò is an appealing combination of bustling local town and elegant resort – with no hint of its dubious history. The narrow streets and squares of the historic quarter lie behind a long lakeside promenade. The late-Gothic Duomo along the waterfront, spied from afar by its distinctive bell tower, has an unfinished brick facade, with a Renaissance portal. The piazza here is the setting for summer performances of the Gasparo da Salò Festival of Music, celebrating the inventor (or perfecter) of the violin, born here in 1540.
Off the headland south of Salò lies the little, cypress-studded island of Isola del Garda. In private hands for several centuries, the island was inherited by Camillo Cavazza and the current residents are his English wife and her seven children. From May to October boats leave from Salò once a week, from Gardone Riviera twice weekly; the island can also be visited from other resorts in the lower lakes. Two-hour guided tours (occasionally given by one of the family) include the neo-Gothic villa and fine gardens, with tastings of local products such as wine and olive oil.
Just along the coast, Gardone Riviera maintains much of the elegance that drew royalty and wealthy international visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Austrian Emperor and other European elite built palatial villas here and Gardone became the most fashionable resort on the lake. Among the eminent guests at the belle-époque Grand Hotel, which still stands on the waterfront, were Somerset Maugham, Nabokov and Churchill. Further along, at the Villa Fiordaliso, Mussolini stayed with his mistress Clara Petacci during the Salò Republic. This lovely Art Nouveau lakeside villa is now a hotel and restaurant where you can enjoy fine cuisine on the lake.
But the biggest draw of Gardone, particularly for Italian day-trippers, is Il Vittoriale. This eccentric residence, set in 9 hectares (22 acres) of gardens with lake views, was home to the flamboyant poet, dramatist, soldier and socialite, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938). The memorabilia from wartime, literary, artistic and womanising pursuits – not to mention the vast wedding cake mausoleum – are all a celebration of the man himself. Among the eccentricities are the coffin in the spare bedroom, the dark or painted windows (D’Annunzio hated daylight), an embalmed tortoise which died of overeating and the prow of the battleship, Puglia, wedged into the hillside.
In the early 20th century Arturo Hruska, a botanist and dentist to the last Tsar of Russia, transformed the sloping site above the town into an oasis of flora. The Heller Garden contains flourishing Alpine, subtropical and Mediterranean species. It’s a wonderfully peaceful spot where you can wander among pretty rockeries, lush lawns, Japanese-style gardens, streams and waterfalls.
Going north, Gargnano is one of the main sailing centres on the lake and it is hard to find a more pleasant lakeside place to stay. Remarkably unspoilt, it has a lively little port, a promenade of orange trees, a couple of very enticing hotels and a gourmet restaurant serving some of the best cuisine on the lake.
The picturesque little town of Limone Sul Garda is bypassed by the main coast road, but heaves with tourists all through the season. The rows of white stone pillars of the now-defunct lemon terraces or limonaie are testimony to the citrus-fruit industry which made Limone rich. The trade declined in the 20th century with competition from cheaper citrus fruits grown in the hotter climate of the south. Fruit trees still flourish and market stalls brim with bottles of lemon liqueur, lemon-shaped ceramics and the freshly picked fruits. You might assume the village is named after the citrus fruit but it is more likely that it derives from the Latin limen or border, referring to the former frontier here between Austria and Italy.
The northern tip of the lake lies in Trentino, which was under Austrian rule from 1815–1918. Set against the dramatic backdrop of Monte Brione, the main resort of Riva del Garda has been luring visitors from the north since the 19th century. Today it is a thriving holiday resort, attracting a large number of German and British tourists, but managing to retain much of its former character and elegance.
Strategically located between Verona and the Alps, the town was a major trading port, coveted by rival factions and variously acquired by the Veronese Scaligeri (1349), the Viscontis of Milan (1380) and the Venetian Republic (1440). The moated La Rocca, dominating the waterfront and accessed over a drawbridge, is testimony to the Scaligera era. Since it was built in 1124 the castle has been remodelled several times, and under the Austrians the tower was truncated and the castle became a garrison. Today it is home to the Museo Civico, with displays of art and archaeology and occasional temporary exhibitions. Overlooking the harbour, Piazza III Novembre is the appealing main square, flanked by medieval Renaissance palazzi and the lofty Torre Apponale. The tower has variously served as a prison, a store for salt and grain, and as a look-out point during World War I.
Cafés and pizzerias along the waterfront make the most of the views, and there are parks, gardens and pebbly beaches. The waters are dotted with windsurfers and dinghies all year round – you can rent equipment and have lessons, or just take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront to admire the views. You can walk all the way to Torbole (4km/2.5 miles), described by Goethe as ‘a wonder of nature, an enchanting sight’. Its setting below sheer rocks and beside the River Sarca is as alluring as ever, but the village is spoilt by the main road cutting off the centre from the lake, and unless you’re into rock climbing, windsurfing or sailing there is little to detain you.
The largest of the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore, Isola Bella is a popular boat trip from Stresa. Sculpted to look like a ship, named after a countess and planted with towering terraces, the island was transformed in the 17th century into a monumental Baroque palace and gardens. The house is full of treasures but it's the gardens which are the main appeal – a towering pyramid of fountains and walkways, topiary and colour that constantly delight.
Between lakes Maggiore and Orta, the Mottarone peak is a natural balcony commanding a wonderful panorama of the lakes and the Alps; on one of those rare clear days you are said to be able to see seven lakes. Access is either by car (the last section is a toll road owned by the Borromeo family), foot (four hours along marked trails) or via the Mottarone cable car on the north side of Stresa.
Half way up, the cable car stops at the Giardino Botanico Alpinia, an Alpine garden with over 1,000 species and fine lake views. The Mottarone is also popular with hang gliders and mountain bikers (bikes and helmets can be rented). The latest attraction is the Alpyland Coaster which enables you to bobsleigh down the mountain at speeds of up to 40kph (25 mph) come snow or sunshine.
The island of Orta San Giulio in Lake Orta is delightfully romantic. Frescoed peach and cappuccino-coloured houses with galleries, wrought-iron balconies and gates cluster along the cobbled alleyways of this gorgeous little medieval town. Romantic, peaceful and car-free, it oozes charm and, everywhere you go, you will hear the sound of lapping water.
The main lakeside square is the Piazza Motta – also known as Il Salotto (the drawing room), enclosed by arcades on three sides and lined with terrace cafés, restaurants, shops and traditional hotels. A market has been held here since 1228; according to city charters, Wednesday was the day that judgements were carried out and that remains market day. This is where you can catch the trenino up to the Sacro Monte.
The Salità della Motta, a stepped lane, leads from the piazza past elegant palazzi including the late Renaissance Palazzo Gemelli and the Casa dei Nanni (House of Dwarfs). This is Orta’s oldest house, dating from the 14th century, and takes its name from the four dwarf-sized windows. You pass other houses in a variety of architectural styles leading up to the 15th-century Baroque church of Santa Maria Asunta.
Above the town, along the Via Panoramica (also known as the Strada Nuova), is the Moorish fantasy Villa Crespi, a luxurious hotel with a two Michelin-starred restaurant.
On the eastern shore of Lake Orta is the Sacro Monte di San Francesco. Spectacularly set on wooded hillside above the lake, with views across to the Isola di San Giulio, this Unesco World Heritage site is a devotional path comprising a series of frescoed chapels illustrating the life of St Francis of Assisi. Twenty-one chapels built between 1591 and 1750 alternate Baroque and Renaissance styles with 376 terracotta sculptures and 900 frescoes depicting his life and times. Of all the Sacri Monti, this is the only one dedicated to St Francis – all the others are devoted to Christ.
The church of SS Francis and Nicholas is similar to the lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, built between 1602 and 1607. The original church of St Nicholas was built in the 10th century, and the wooden Pietà on the major altar dates from this time. There is a good restaurant here with an ivy-clad terrace – ideal for drinking in the views.
Villa Carlotta is an exceptionally photogenic majestic villa with glorious gardens. It was built in the late 17th century from the profits of the silk trade and filled with precious works of art, including sculptures by Canova and Thorwaldsen, in the 19th century. Its 6-hectare (14-acre) formal terraced gardens are as big a draw as the startlingly white house and its art, with fountains and statues carefully arranged among 150 types of rhododendron, camellia and azalea.
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