The Italian Lakes lie at the heart of one of the loveliest regions on earth. The calm indigo water, vertiginous mountainsides and terraced villages form a landscape of unique and ethereal beauty.
The three principal Italian lakes, from west to east, are Maggiore, Como and Garda. In addition, there is Lake Iseo, situated 54 miles to the east of Milan, and Lake Orta, which is 54 miles to the west.
I have visited this region many times, yet always depart wanting more. Following are highlights from my visits, favorite memories and ways in which to soak up the limitless beauty of the area.
On my first visit to the Italian Lakes, nearly 40 years ago, I stood high on a hillside above Bellagio, gazing in wonder at the view below. The glassy surface of Lake Como had a mysterious opalescent quality, and the late afternoon sun had tinted the entire scene with a delicate wash of pink. It was like gazing at a vast three-dimensional watercolor by Turner. Como is in the shape of an upside-down Y, and Bellagio is situated on the promontory where the lake divides. It is often cited as the most beautiful of the lake towns and, in consequence, during high season it can be overrun with visitors. But somehow it remains undiminished by tourism. In truth, however, the lakes have so many stunning vantage points it is invidious to pick just one of them.
Perhaps the most famous panorama of the entire region is from the 5,581-foot summit of Monte Generoso, which lies 15 miles northwest of the town of Como on the Swiss border. (The mountain railway to the summit actually departs from Capolago on Lake Lugano in the Swiss canton of Ticino.) Ever since Roman times the Italian lakes have attracted the wealthy and famous. As a result, their shores are studded with magnificent villas and palaces. (For instance, George Clooney spends much of his time in an opulent villa at Laglio on Lake Como.) Perhaps my favorite is Villa del Balbianello, near Lenno on Lake Como, which was built for the Milanese Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini in 1787. It is enveloped by gardens lush with wisteria, laurel and rhododendrons.
My favorite garden of all is that which surrounds the Villa Carlotta. Built in the 18th century, the villa was later acquired by Princess Marianne of the Netherlands, who gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding present. The 20 acres of gardens are notable for their spring camellias and azaleas.
As you might expect, the Italian Lakes boast innumerable fine restaurants and charming trattorias. However, I continue to have a soft spot for Terrazza Barchetta, located on a side street leading up from the port in Bellagio. Owner Armando Valli is a charming and hospitable host. The menu changes often, but a variety of lake fish is on offer. Alternatively, try the delicious risotto with sausage, red wine, sage and Parmesan shavings.
One of the most romantic places to dine is Casabella, located on the Isola dei Pescatori on Lake Maggiore, and easily accessible by complimentary boat service from the town of Stresa. Standout dishes include prosciutto with candied porcini mushrooms, grilled octopus with burrata cream and ravioli stuffed with rabbit and black olives.
Tucked away in a 12th-century monastery on the northeast shore of Lake Como, the charming shop at the Abbazia di Piona sells goods made by the monks, including excellent limoncello and mandarin orange liqueur, perfume and toiletries such as skin creams and beeswax soap.
The easiest and most delightful way to get around the lakes is by boat. A complex network of ferries will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. Or you can just cruise, admiring the landscape, with little thought of a precise destination. For example, from Stresa, hop on and off the boats that connect the Borromean Islands: Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Madre. Another favorite trip crosses Lake Como from Varenna to Menaggio, by way of Bellagio; on this voyage it is possible to see all three arms of the Y-shaped lake.
The shores of the lakes offer a multitude of scenic footpaths. However, keen and reasonably fit hikers may wish to walk the stunning six miles from Colonno to Cadenabbia along the so-called Greenway del Lago di Como. Much of the path is on flat ground, though some stretches are a little steep.
The western shore of Lake Garda is comparatively little known, but even if you are not staying at my recommended Villa Feltrinelli, you should make time for a trip to the lovely and unspoiled lakeside town of Gargnano. In my view, there are few more satisfactory places in which to sit with a glass of Prosecco and to do absolutely nothing. The English novelist D. H. Lawrence was more industrious, however. From September 1912 to March 1913, he lived in Gargnano in order to write his celebrated travel book, Twilight in Italy. Also while in Gargnano, stop at the Michelin one-star restaurant La Tortuga, which offers delicious lake fish and a particularly interesting wine list.
No trip should omit visits to lakes Iseo and Orta. The former offers magnificent scenery and elegant medieval towns, including Iseo and Sarnico. The Franciacorta wine region, just minutes away from the lake, produces exceptional sparkling wines. From Sulzano and Sale Marasino on Iseo’s eastern shore, ferries ply back and forth to the large island of Monte Isola, with its famous 13th-century hilltop church of Madonna della Ceriola. On Lake Orta, the ravishing town of Orta San Giulio has a picturesque lakeside piazza and unforgettable views of the Isola San Giulio. The Enoteca Re di Coppa, a wine bar on Piazza Motta, is a favorite place for a glass (or two) of local wine, a light lunch and peerless people watching.