After four long years in Milan, if anyone asked me where to go in the city, I would probably have answered ‘the lakes’. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and that may well be the case. However, I would take a thousand days at the lakes over an hour in Milan.
Why? Picture narrow gorges with towering cliffs, islands rich in history and art, castles jutting out into blue waters and you are at the lakes (in your imagination, at the very least). Como, Maggiore and Garda have long attracted the wealthy jet set; the rich can pay for the best views. But what have they got to offer us common plebs?
At first glance, Como town may look quite ordinary. However, don’t let yourself be deceived. There is a reason why A-listers such as Clooney choose to have villas on Lake Como…
First of all, even the town has its charms if you are prepared to dig under the surface. Do as the Italians do and take a ‘passegiata’ beside the lake in the afternoon or early evening. Find a ‘gelateria’ and try some ice cream. Gelato is a taste of Italy at its most delectable.
After that, get a little off the beaten track by ascending the hill to Brunate. The ‘funicolare’ or funicular tram will whisk you up in no time. You will get views to die for from this tiny village…
I swear I once saw Bourdain get into a sports car up here, so there is surely an amazing restaurant hidden somewhere. If you have the misfortune to find it, you might consider walking the long way back to town. With eye-catching luxury villas and some great views, you probably won’t be disappointed.
Buses and ferry boats make the trip up the lake. Although the ferry service is reduced in winter, it is worth getting up early to catch a boat up to Bellagio. The lake really comes into its own the further you travel from the town. Seen from the ferry, Como is a narrow stretch of water surrounded by high mountains and towering cliff faces. In summer the waters of the lake shimmer in the sunlight. On the other hand, in winter those same mountains and cliffs are clothed in snow and ice. Pick your poison, as they say.
Bellagio, the tourist mecca of the lake, attracts throngs of day trippers in the high season and this can be uncomfortable at times. Old stone buildings, brightly coloured flowers and narrow streets hanging onto the edge of the hill combine to make this a vision of Italy at its postcard perfect best. Try to get here in the middle of the week or before the summer madness starts in June.
Furthest from Milan of all the lakes, Garda is many people’s favourite. Apart from its distance from Milan, its other advantages include the crystal clarity of its water and the almost impossible quaintness of Sirmione. The town is easily accessible from either Desenzano or Peschiera, where the main train stations lie. Sirmione, apart from its sense of history, is the perfect spot to go swimming when the weather is warm. Picture yourself lying in the clear waters of the lake looking at the nearby medieval castle. As good as it gets!
Away from the water, flowers burst forth from the stone walls as you stroll through the streets. Later, relax in the park in front of the house where Maria Callas lived for many years with her Italian husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, before running off with a Greek boatman named Aristotle Onassis.
Should you have the time to travel up lake, Riva del Garda is a tiny town in a jaw dropping mountain setting. Also, don’t forget that Verona of Romeo and Juliet fame is only a two hour bus ride from Riva. Alternatively, it is a 24-minute train journey from Desenzano (for those coming from Sirmione). Finally, travellers with children should consider visiting Gardaland, a theme park near Peschiera (ideal for those based in or around Sirmione).
Last but not least, Lake Maggiore is my personal favourite. As a Hemingway fan from my teenage years, I could never pass Grand Hotel des Iles Boromées without reliving a bit of ‘A Farewell to Arms’. But Stresa is again only a starting point.
The magic of the lake is best appreciated on its islands in the summer. Isola Bella is home to the most stunning Italian gardens in the world. Complete with albino peacocks and sculptures that seem to spring from pure fantasy, this is one place to visit in the spring or summer (note that the gardens are closed for maintenance in autumn and winter). Isola Madre is the largest of the three islands and it is where you will find the residence of the Borromeo family (well worth a visit when it is open to the public). Finally, little Isola dei Pescatori is, as its name suggests, a small fishing community. The little restaurants here are a welcome retreat before you take the boat back to Stresa, or worse still, the train to Milan.
Getting to the Italian Lakes
Coming from Malpensa, take the Centrale bound train and change to a Como Lago train at Saronno. You can reach also reach Como by train from Milan Stazione Cadorna. These trains depart every half hour until around 8:30pm.
Trains serving Maggiore leave from Milan Central Station (Stazione Centrale). Express trains to Switzerland usually stop in Stresa.
Coming through either of the Milanese airports (Malpensa or Linate), it is necessary to take a train from Centrale to Lake Garda. Any train for Verona or Venice should stop at either Desenzano or Peschiera del Garda. Lake Garda is halfway on the train line from Milan and Venice. Therefore, you can easily include it in an itinerary involving both cities and/or Verona.
Navigazione dei Laghi services all three lakes and its timetables are available on its website (see below). As noted above, the winter service is reduced, so it is important to double check the timetable should you decide to travel off season.
Both Lake Como and Lake Garda are particularly busy in summer. However, this is definitely the best time of year to visit Lake Maggiore. Travel midweek to some of the more popular summer destinations such as Bellagio. Be aware that this destination is crowded on weekends right up to the end of September.
There is a range of accommodation on all the lakes, including cheaper hostels for the budget traveller. However, if you intend to travel during the busy summer months, it would be advisable to book well in advance.
Boats: www.navigazionelaghi.it (in Italian and English)
Trains: www.trenitalia.com (in Italian, English, French, German and Chinese
Gardaland: www.gardaland.it (in Italian, English and German)