When people refer to the Italian Lakes they generally mean the three largest ones: Garda to the east, Maggiore to the west and Lake Como in between. The lakes are situated in Lombardy, the large Italian province bordering Switzerland. Once the Simplon tunnel linking Switzerland and Italy was opened in 1906, this area, with its majestic lakes, mountains and mediaeval villages, became a favourite destination of the rich and famous as well as attracting the European nobility to its spas and lakeside retreats.
With its balmy climate, the area now attracts tourists all year round. There is something for everyone, from the large and busy Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, an ideal location for quiet Italy summer holidays, to the peaceful streets of the quiet medieval towns and hamlets dotted along the shoreline, many only accessible by boat. Here you will find grand hotels and palazzos from the early 1900s alongside tall pastel-painted houses crowded together on the winding cobbled streets. There are also wide, tree-lined promenades where people stroll before their evening meal.
Lake Maggiore’s islands of Isola Bella and Isola Madre are well worth a visit. The former has an ornate 17th-century baroque palazzo with formal gardens dotted with fountains, statues and orange trees. The Isola Madre is famed for its more exotic offerings, including carob trees, a parrot colony and a 200-year-old Kashmir cypress. The Mediterranean climate allows many tropical and subtropical species to flourish and the area is famed for its lavish gardens.
As with all the lakes, most of the action takes place on the water and it is well worth boarding the Lago Maggiore Express, for a combined train and boat journey around the lake and along the mountains. The trip includes a ride on the Centovalli line from Locarno to Domodossola.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the lakes inspired many writers and poets. Lake Maggiore features in Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, in which the lovers, Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, flee across the water in a rowing boat to escape the Italian Carabinieri.
Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, is lined with pretty towns and villages. On the eastern shore Malcesine, Bardolino and Brenzone form part of the Riviera degli Oilvi, which can get very busy in the summer. On the western shore, the Riviera dei Limoni has some quieter spots, including Gargnano where D H Lawrence wrote his book of essays, Twilight in Italy among the olive groves. The cable car from Malcesine on the eastern shore takes you to the top of Monte Baldo, where you can walk along the paths and admire a panoramic view of the lakes and mountains.
Another attraction of Lake Garda is the Vittoriale, the former home of Mussolini’s favourite poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, which has a famous garden that is laid out terrace-style above the lake.
Lake Como’s main town is the beautiful Bellagio, with its tree-lined streets, cobbled alleys and colourfully painted architecture. Varenna, nestling between steep cliffs on the eastern shore, is famed for its ‘Lovers’ Walkway’ which winds along the shoreline.
Sacro Monte of Ossuccio above the western shore of Como and facing the island of Comacina is one of nine Sacri Monti (sacred mountains) which became UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2003.
There are many smaller lakes which offer a more peaceful holiday off the beaten track. From Catagnola on Lake Lugano (partly in Switzerland) you can take a boat trip to Gandria, an unspoiled, picturesque hamlet at the foot of Monte Brè and enjoy the walk back along the shore. And don’t miss the convent and church of the Isola San Giulio on the lake.
Or try Lake Orta, whose medieval village, Orta San Giulio, offers cobbled lanes winding among the pastel-washed houses and palaces. A good place to eat is on the waterfront with its colourful display of fishing boats.
All the lakes offer a variety of water sports, including windsurfing and jet skiing or simply take a trip on one of the many motor and sail boats that visit the hamlets hidden among the many inlets of the shoreline.
And then there is always shopping for Italy’s famed clothes and leather goods. Bellagio at the junction of Como’s two ‘arms’ is famous for its silk, with local artisans offering a dazzling range of goods off the peg or custom made. Or if you are interested in Italian designers, pay a visit to Lugano, just north of Como, where the Via Nassa arcade in the old city is packed with high-end fashion.
When it comes to food, the speciality is fish fresh from the lakes. Perch, carp, shad, small whitefish and trout are usually grilled and make a welcome contrast to some of the heavier Lombardian cuisine. Other signature dishes include roast lamb, saffron risotto with hazelnuts and cotoletta Milanes, a bread-crumbed veal escalope. Risotto and polenta are more common than pasta, though ravioli with fish is very popular on the eastern and southern shores of Lake Como.
Among the many well-known local cheeses are Gorgonzola, from the town of the same name, the hard Parmesan-style Gran Padano and the popular soft cheese, Bel Paese. The region is known for its sparkling wines and also reds from the Nebbiolo grape and Trebbiano di lugana whites. Top your meal off with the wonderful almond-flavoured Amaretto liqueur from Saronno.
The best way to get about is by boat. The water offers a respite from the lakeside road jammed with holiday traffic, access to places unreachable by car and is by far the most engaging mode of travel. If you fancy adding another country to your list then Ticino, the Italian speaking region of Switzerland, is easily reached from the lakes.