“One can’t describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could.” Henry James’s sentiment hasn’t stopped generations of writers producing reams of purple prose in the attempt. Yet, in truth, the Lakes just about deserve it: their beauty is extravagant, and it’s not surprising that the most romantic and melodramatic of Italy’s opera composers – Verdi, Rossini and Bellini – rented villas here in which to work. British and German Romantic poets also enthused about the Lakes, and in doing so planted them firmly in northern-European imaginations. The result is an influx every summer of tourists from cooler climes, come to savour the Italian dream and to take gulps at what Keats called “the beaker of the warm south”.
Garda is the largest lake, and one of the best centres in Europe for windsurfing and sailing. It is also visually stunning, especially in its mountainous northern stretches – yet Como matches (or, some say, betters) it, with forested slopes rising directly from the water’s edge. On both lakes, the luxuriance of the waterfront vegetation is equalled by the opulence of the local villas and palazzi; both also offer good hiking in the mountainous hinterland.
Further west, Maggiore is less popular yet just as beautiful, with several sedate fin-de-siècle resorts. There are, however, some good walks, and superb formal gardens adorning Isola Bella and other grand villas. Nearby, the picture-postcard charms of Orta San Giulio, the main village on Lake Orta – with its steepled offshore islet – ensure that it is a popular spot, yet this too can be a wonderfully romantic place to hole up.
The hilly terrain between the lakes is sliced up by mountain valleys – largely residential and industrial in their lower reaches though mostly untouched further up, hosting lots of modest ski resorts in winter (none worth making a special trip for). The nearby city of Brescia is a treat as a day-trip, while its neighbour Bergamo is a lovely place to stay, with an old walled hilltop quarter that ranks as one of the most alluring in Italy.Read More
For generations of overland travellers, weary of journeying over the Alps, LAKE MAGGIORE (Lago Maggiore) has been a first taste of Italy: the sight of limpid blue waters, green hills and exotic vegetation is evidence of arrival in the warm south. With palms and oleanders lining the lakeside promenades and a peaceful, serene air, Maggiore – at 66km, Italy’s longest lake – may not be somewhere for thrill-seekers, but it is seductively relaxing.
The majority of tourists head for the western shore, from where the sumptuous gardens and villas of the Borromean islands are within easy reach. The area retains much of its charm: the genteel old resort of Stresa is still a convenient base, linked by high-speed train to Milan (1hr) and by bus and boat to all points around the lake. Across the bay, pretty Verbania is also well connected by train, bus and ferry, while further north, enchanting Cannobio – the last stop before Switzerland – is popular with families and a good place from which to explore Maggiore’s hilly hinterland. Note that in winter (Nov–Easter) many hotels close down and attractions may be shut. For tourist information, check wdistrettolaghi.it.
The locals call LAKE ORTA (Lago d’Orta) “Cinderella”, capturing perfectly the reticent beauty of this small lake, with its deep blue waters and intriguing island. Lying west of Lake Maggiore, wholly within Piemonte, it is unmissable for Orta San Giulio, the most captivating medieval village on this – or, perhaps, any – Italian lake, with narrow, cobbled lanes snaking between the wrought-iron balconies of tall, pastel-washed palazzi. The village is unforgettably romantic, but consequently popular: on summer Sundays the approach roads are jammed with traffic (though the charm returns after dark). If you can, visit midweek or out of season.
Of all the Italian Lakes, it’s the forked LAKE COMO (Lago di Como) that comes most heavily praised: Wordsworth thought it “a treasure which the earth keeps to itself”. Today, despite huge visitor numbers, the lake is still surrounded by abundant vegetation: zigzagging slowly between shores by boat can seem impossibly romantic. As well as lakeside villas to visit, there is also some great walking to be done in the mountainous hinterland hereabouts. The principal towns – Como and Lecco – are at the southernmost tips of their own branches of the lake – Ramo di Como and Ramo di Lecco – while narrow winding roads follow the shoreline above and through erstwhile fishermen’s villages past belle époque houses and Neoclassical villas up to the Centro Lago or centre of the lake. Here three small towns stand out as the highlight of the lakes: Varenna and Bellagio for unrepentant romantics, and Menaggio if you want a pleasant, affordable base for walking, swimming or cycling. To the north, the Ramo di Colico is less spectacular and much of the shoreline is marshy or occupied by campsites.
Just 50km northeast of Milan, yet much closer to the mountains in look and feel, BERGAMO comprises two distinct parts – Bergamo Bassa, the city centre on the plain, and medieval Bergamo Alta, 100m above. Bergamo Bassa is a harmonious mixture of medieval cobbled quarters blending into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century town planning, while Bergamo Alta is one of northern Italy’s loveliest urban centres, with wanderable lanes and a lively, easygoing pace of life.
Bergamo owes much of its magic to the Venetians, who ruled the town for over 350 years, adorning facades and open spaces with the Venetian lion, symbol of the Republic, and leaving a ring of gated walls. Now worn, mellow and overgrown with creepers, these kept armies out until the French invaded in 1796.
Bergamo Alta: the upper town
With its steep, narrow streets, flanked by high facades and encircled by sixteenth-century walls, Bergamo Alta – the upper town – remains in appearance largely as it was in the Middle Ages. The main public spaces – Piazza Vecchia and adjacent Piazza del Duomo – combine medieval austerity with the grace of later, Renaissance design. The funicular railway from the lower town arrives at the tiny station on Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe from where the main street, beginning as Via Gombito and continuing as Via Colleoni after Piazza Vecchia, follows the line of the Roman decumanus maximus, topped and tailed by evidence of Bergamo’s military past – the Rocca to the east, the Cittadella to the west. Just beyond the Cittadella, through Porta Sant Alessandro, another funicular ride whisks you up to the highest point of town, San Vigilio.
Bergamo Bassa: the lower town
Bergamo Bassa spreads north from the train station in a comfortable blend of Neoclassical ostentation, Fascist severity and tree-lined elegance. At the heart of the busy streets, midway along the main Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII, the mock-Doric temples of the Porta Nuova mark the Sentierone, a favourite spot for Bergamo’s citizens to meet and stroll. Frowning down on the square is the Palazzo di Giustizia, built in the bombastic rectangular style of the Mussolini era. Via XX Settembre to the west is the main focus for Bergamo’s shoppers, with a selection of quality mainstream stores.
From the Sentierone, Via Tasso leads east into the oldest part of the Città Bassa, formed in the Middle Ages as overspill from the upper town; shady Via Pignolo has a largely unchanged appearance, with many architectural features – balconies, mullioned windows – surviving. Follow it up to the attractive Piazzetta del Delfino, occupied by a dolphin fountain built here in 1526. From here, Via Pignolo continues to the Porta Sant’Agostino, at the bottom of Bergamo Alta, while Via San Tomaso, lined with galleries, antiques shops and cafés, heads right towards the Accademia Carrara – Bergamo’s finest art gallery, currently closed for renovation–and its neighbour, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM), with world-class temporary exhibitions and a small permanent collection including works by Kandinsky and a moody Still Life With Fruit by Giorgio de Chirico.
Surrounded by vine-covered hills, the ancient settlement of BRESCIA is a wealthy city, boasting Roman remains, Renaissance squares and a medieval city centre with the outstanding museum complex of Santa Guilia. Yet for all this, it lacks the elegance and charm of other northern-Italian cities and is best visited as a day-trip or to break a journey elsewhere – easy, as the town is well connected by road, rail and bus.
LAKE GARDA (Lago di Garda) is the largest lake in Italy (52km long by 17km wide): it’s so big that it alters the local climate, which is milder and – thanks to a complex pattern of lake breezes – sunnier than might be expected. It’s also the most popular of the lakes, attracting around seven percent of all tourists to Italy and acting as a bridge between the Alps and the rest of the country. The narrow north of the lake is tightly enclosed by mountains that drop sheer into the water with villages wedged into gaps in the cliffs. Further south, the lake spreads out comfortably, flanked by gentle hills and lined by placid holiday resorts.
In the south, Desenzano is a cheery spot with the advantage of good transport links, plus proximity to the very popular and scenically impressive Sirmione. On the western shore are the old Venetian town of Salò and Gargnano, the lake’s best destination, a small village that remains largely unspoilt. The mountainous scenery is spectacular on the approach to the genteel resort of Riva del Garda at the head of the lake. It’s a handsome town with a long history and is a focal point for sports and water activities.
Overlooked by the ridges of Monte Baldo, which tops 2100m, the main resorts of Lake Garda’s eastern shore struggle to match the charm of the villages opposite. Aim for Torbole if you’re an outdoors enthusiast. To the south, the very popular resort of Malcesine has direct access up to Monte Baldo, as does Brenzone, comprising a string of attractive little harbours and a good base for walks and mountain-bike rides into Monte Baldo behind. Torri del Benaco, a little to the south, is an attractive corner that has avoided the worst of the crowds.
Between Bergamo and Brescia is FRANCIACORTA, a hilly wine-producing district rising from the built-up plain. It got its name from the religious communities that lived here from the eleventh century onwards: they were exempt from tax and known as the Corti Franche, or free courts. This small area of Lombardy is best known for the Franciacorta DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), Italy’s most refined sparkling wine, produced according to Champagne methods. It was first produced in the 1960s and the secret lies in the second fermentation in the bottle which can last from eighteen to sixty months. Usually a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir or Blanc grapes, the sparkling wine comes in various types: Not Dosed/Pas Dosé (extremely dry), Extra Brut, Brut Satèn (a light silky-smooth mixture), Sec, Demisec and Rosé.
Some of the best known Franciacorta sparkling wine producers are Bellavista (wterramoretti.it), Belucchi (wberlucchi.it), Ca’del Bosco (wcadelbosco.com) and Majolini (wmajolini.it) but all of the vineyards – and there are over one hundred of them – have their own story and often lovely headquarters in ancient farmhouses or villas. Most guided tours end with a tasting and very competitive prices are offered in the cantina shops, where they can usually arrange shipping back home for you too.
The Consortium Franciacorta (Via G. Verdi 53, Erbusco t 030 776 0477, wfranciacorta.net) has a list and can give advice on vineyards to visit or be guided by local suggestions from B&B owners.
In mid-September on even years, the Festival Franciacorta sees wineries open for special tasting sessions and local restaurants offering themed seasonal menus.
The Strada del Vino Franciacorta
Tourist offices and hotels stock a map of the Strada del Vino Franciacorta (wstradadelfranciacorta.it), a route which winds for 80km through the area, passing visitable vineyards, hotels and restaurants. There are well-thought-out routes for cars, cyclists or walkers lasting for a couple of hours to a day or two. Contact details are given for wineries along the route, most of which offer tours and tastings; advance booking is preferred.