“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.