The Italian Lakes are more beautiful than they have any right to be. Glacial activities have carved out a stunning landscape, but unrivalled beauty is only one of the reasons for their continuing popularity.
The largest of the lakes and probably the busiest, you can spend many happy days crossing and recrossing the lake to explore the small towns around the shoreline. We spent two quite different holidays there, one based at Bardolino at the southern end of the lake, and one at Torbole in the north. Our small son delighted in the hydrofoils, constantly zipping across the water, and by the end of the holiday knew the names of every one.
He was also a huge fan of the green dragon, Prezzemolo (Parsley) at nearby Gardaland. A theme park for all ages, with pirates, performing sealions, parade and good humour, it was a definite favourite. Lake Garda is very family friendly, with plenty of campsites as well as hotels. A tabletop pinball game, available at many of the restaurants, provided lots of amusement.
Sirmione has distinctive castle walls and delicious icecream bars. It’s also the place to go to for thermal spas.
Garda town nestles in a large sheltered bay with extensive lake front and pebble beach. Tables are perfect for lakeside dining and sometimes there’s live music in the evenings.
Malcesine is a pretty medieval town with tiny harbour. Castello Scaligero has winding battlements and a tower with great lake views. For even better views take the cable car up Monte Baldo. You can walk back down again or even take advantage of the mountain bike trails.
Torbole is the windsurfing capital of the lakes, and a good base for walking trips inland to spectacular Arco.
Riva del Garda lies at the north west corner of Garda, and has a moated castle and lovely lakeside walk.
Limone is arguably the prettiest spot on the lake and is named for its lemons.
Gardone is home to the smart set, and the slightly bizarre house and gardens at Il Vittoriale.
The second largest and the mildest of the lakes, Maggiore is home to the famous Borromean Islands. It is the longest and deepest of the lakes and the northern tip, with its fine towns Locarno and Ascona, lies in Switzerland. Locarno has a large year round swimming Lido, or you can catch the funicular up to the pilgrimage church Madonna del Sasso.
Stresa is the gateway to the Borromean Islands and the Grand Hotel was the setting for part of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Farewell to Arms”. A 20 minute cable car ride climbs up Monte Mottarone for far-reaching views, stopping off at the Alpinia Botanic Gardens en route.
Isola Bella has one ot the most theatrical gardens you are ever likely to see. The palazzo was begun construction in 1632 by Carlo 111 of the House of Borromeo, dedicated to his wife Isabella. A major classical music festival takes place there each summer.
Isola Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island) is the only one of the islands to be inhabited year round. A narrow street runs through the centre, cobbled paths leading down to the promenade which surrounds the island. This is regularly flooded.
Isola Madre The largest of the islands, has a palazzo and 8 hectares of gardens in the “English style”.
Ferries run all around the lake at regular intervals. In the Swiss north of the lake there are also the Brissago Islands, Isole Grande and Piccola. Grande has a fine botanic garden and the author James Joyce once stayed there.
Bellagio has been celebrated as the most beautiful town in Italy, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s setting, on a west facing peninsula in the centre of Lake Como, could not be more perfect. Pastel colours decorate the buildings, which wind away from the lakeside, up narrow, stepped and cobbled streets. Mediterranean blooms cascade from balconies. Ferries dot the lake.
No surprise that celebrities like George Clooney own real estate nearby. There are many fine villas and gardens you can stroll around, imagining yourself hosting cocktail parties. In Bellagio itself, Villa Melzi is just a wander along the lake shore, fabulous in Spring with flower laden rhododendrons. At the other end of town, Villa Serbelloni has an elevated position, and prices to match.. If you really have expensive tastes, Villa d’Este, in Cernobbio, is the place to stay.
But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to enjoy the lake. A gentle ferry ride across to Caddenabia brings you to the famous gardens of Villa Carlotta, while the peaceful towns of Mennagio and Varenna are just a short ride away. The lake is well served with ferries so you have no excuse not to find a different view for every icecream. The urge to shop is easily met in the city of Como at the foot of the lake, or you can head for cosmopolitan Lugano in Switzerland. It’s just 40minutes from Mennagio, and has a wonderful waterside promenade with sculptures and a large park.
Transport links in this northern area of Italy make it very easy to get around and to have as busy or as laid back a holiday as you wish. Milan Malpensa is the local airport. There are many more beauty spots than I can include in this guide, so come along and find your own magic.
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