The lure of the lakes
Date Posted: 23/08/2010
Jeannine Williamson discovers the lakes of Italy.
The most famous lakes in Italy - the magnificent trio of Garda, Como and Maggiore - can be found in the north of the country, near to the Alps. Mirroring the mountains and landscapes that surround them in the crystal clear waters, the lakes combine wonderful scenery, pretty lakeside resorts and a mild climate resulting in gardens growing rare and exotic plants - it’s no wonder the lakes are a perennially popular group destination.
The largest and most eastern of the Italian lakes has charmed visitors for centuries, including the ancient Romans whose legacy can be seen in mosaics and ruins of a grand villa in Sirmione and also in Desenzano. Bordered by the three regions Trentino, Veneto and Lombardy, Lake Garda features fjord-like cliffs in the north and gentle hills covered with vineyards, olive groves and lemon orchards in the south. It has a Mediterranean-style climate and active groups can go swimming, windsurfing and sailing.
Covering 143 square miles, the lake is ringed by a host of colourful resort towns. Sirmione, on the southern shore is also noted for its moated castle and from Desenzano it is easy to take your group on a day trip to Verona, the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Riva, at the northern end of the lake, has pretty gardens by the waterfront and is lined with tempting ice-cream shops and restaurants. On the western shore, Gardone Riviera is a pretty resort with a promenade.
A newly updated online tourist guide, at www.gardatrentino.it, provides GTOs with the latest information, including advice on attractions, culture trails, shopping, dining and entertainment.
Glacial Lake Como, the deepest lake in Europe and set in the foothills of the Alps, is within easy reach of Italy’s style capital, Milan. With the longest shoreline of any of the Italian lakes, and surrounded by soaring mountain peaks, its beauty has attracted scores of composers, artists and poets, including Verdi, Liszt, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron; and in recent times has become a place for celebrity spotting, with visitors including Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, David and Victoria Beckham, and George Clooney, who bought a lakeside holiday home.
The lively town of Como has an impressive cathedral where your group can admire Gothic and Renaissance features along with fine tapestries and paintings. Menaggio, on the western shore, has small stretches of shingle beach and is well placed for mountain hikes or a visit to Lake Lugano in neighbouring Switzerland.
Recent tourism developments include the reopening of the group-friendly three-star Britannia Excelsior Hotel in Griante, which has undergone a complete refurbishment. A new online guide to the gardens of Lake Como includes villas normally closed to the public that can be visited by pre-booked groups. Find out more at www.grandigiardini.it.
Italy’s second largest lake borders the Lombardy and Piedmont regions, and the northern part extends into Switzerland. The most popular resorts are on the western shores, many boasting ornate villas, and it is easy to travel between the lakeside towns on boats and hydrofoils. A regular bus service also connects Lake Maggiore with nearby Lake Orta.
The Borromean islands, reached by boat, are unmissable attractions. Three are open to the public, and after strolling through the beautiful gardens that can be found on all the islands, there are plenty of restaurants for a lunch break. Back on dry land, the town of Arona was the home of Saint Charles Borromeo. A 76 foot brass and bronze statue commemorates the saint, and your group members can climb up inside the hollow structure and look out through various viewpoints.
Thrill-seeking groups can be among the first to try out the year-round alpine rollercoaster opening this summer on Monte Mottarone, Stresa, on the western shore of the lake. The mountain is a 20-minute cable car ride from Stresa and the new attraction features a sledge that runs down an 800 foot track.
Orto: Lying to the west of Lake Maggiore, it may be one of Italy’s smallest lakes but its beauty has inspired writers including Victorian poet Robert Browning.
Iseo: Little-known outside Italy, this Lombardy lake surrounded by wooded mountains is home to Monte Isola, Europe’s largest inland lake island.
Bolensa: Italy’s largest lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano can be found in the heart of the country, on the borders of Tuscany and Lazio.
Trasimeno: In green Umbria, Trasimeno is the largest lake on the Italian peninsula, south of the river Po.
Bracciano: This large lake north of Rome, in the Lazio region, is overlooked by a pretty town of the same name topped by an imposing castle.
Top three sights
1 Isola Madre:
The largest of Lake Maggiore’s Borromean islands is famous for its baroque palace and ornate gardens, which feature exotic plants, a parrot colony and Europe’s largest Kashmir cypress tree.
Nestled on the banks of Lake Como, with narrow cobbled streets, fragrant gardens and stunning views across the lake, Bellagio is often described as Italy’s most beautiful town.
This picturesque Lake Garda resort has a small harbour, historic old town and medieval castle. A cable car runs to Monte Baldo, the mountain known as the Garden of Europe due to its lush and diverse flowers and vegetation.
Eat: Pasta, in all shapes and sizes and served with a huge variety of sauces, is the nation’s staple and needs little introduction. Regional cuisine in the lake area also features polenta, rice and gnocchi as an alternative. Trattoria, often family-run, are a cheaper and less formal alternative to restaurants. Meals will often begin with antipasto, a starter featuring a selection of cured meats, olives and cheese, followed by a primo piatto of soup, a rice dish or pasta. Unlike the UK, pasta is not traditionally served as a main course, so make sure you leave room for the secondo piatto, which is the largest course and usually features meat or fish. Northern specialities include veal cutlets in breadcrumbs, saffron risotto and freshwater fish from the rivers and lakes.
Drink: Italy, which vies with France as the world’s largest wine producer, has a winemaking tradition going back thousands of years. A third of the country’s wine is produced in the regions in and around the northern lakes, including Barola and Valpolicella reds, white Soave and sparkling Asti. The fiery spirit grappa, also made from grapes, is a popular after-dinner drink. The boom in UK coffee shops has helped caffeine lovers get a taste for Italian coffees such as espresso, latte, mocha, frappuccino and macchiato and your group will enjoy sampling these, and many others, in their birthplace. Incidentally, Italians only ever drink cappuccino in the morning, but they turn a friendly blind eye to visitors who order it after lunch and dinner!
Try: One of the best ways to enjoy the lakes is on the water, and you can opt for anything from a slow boat or a faster ferry service linking towns around the lakesides. For a really atmospheric journey, a small paddle steamer fleet operates on Lake Como and Lake Garda. The Lago Maggiore Express offers a memorable trip by train, narrow-gauge railway and boat around Lake Maggiore and into Switzerland. Group benefits include a free round-trip ticket for every 20 purchased and prices start at £21. For more information visit www.lagomaggioreexpress.com.
Buy: Colourful ceramics, leather goods and delicious edible souvenirs such as olive oil, dried pasta, almond biscuits and Perugina Baci, chocolate ‘kisses’ filled with hazelnut. Italian style is renowned the world over and McArthurGlen, the company that runs designer outlet malls in the UK, also has villages near Milan and Venice. Information and fact sheets are available online at www.mcarthurglengroup.com.
Go: March to November is a good time to visit the Italian lakes. Whilst temperatures are cooler than the south of the country, it’s best to avoid the hottest months of July and August if you are planning to combine your trip with a visit to nearby cities.
Flight Time: 2hrs.
Time Difference: GMT + 1hr.
Language: Italian, with English widely spoken in main tourist areas.
Red Tape: No visa or vaccinations required.
Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254
Image credit - Distretto Turistico dei Laghi-Stresa (VB)