Italian Lakes (2013)

LAKE MAGGIORE

“When a man has a heart and a shirt, he should sell the shirt in order to visit Lake Maggiore,” said Stendhal. The luxurious lakeside villas, verdant gardens and jewel-like islands have been attracting visitors for centuries.

Main Attractions

Statue of San Carlo Borromeo

Monte Mottarone

Isola Bella

Isola Madre

Villa Taranto

Ferrovia di Centovalli

Santa Caterina del Sasso

It may be called Maggiore (Major or “the greatest”), but Lake Maggiore isn’t the biggest of the Italian Lakes. That honour goes to Garda. In fact, to most of the locals, the lake is known as Verbano, a throwback to its Roman name that has never quite been shaken off. Nevertheless, it is still a very large lake, up to 65km (40 miles) long by 12km (7.5 miles) wide, with a total area of 212 sq km (82 sq miles). At its deepest, near Ghiffa, it is 372 metres (1,221ft). Like the other great lakes, it was created by glaciers, leaving a long narrow footprint through steep-sided mountains. The northern fifth of the lake is in Switzerland, the western shore is in Piedmont and the eastern shore in Lombardy.

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Santa Caterina del Sasso.

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The western shore

Arona 1 [map] is a giant bronze and copper statue by Giovanni Battista Crespi of San Carlo Borromeo (Apr–Sept daily 9am–12.20pm, 2–6.15pm, Oct Sat–Sun 9am–12.30pm, 2–6.15pm, Mar, Nov Sat–Sun 9am–12.30pm, 2–4.30pm, Dec Sun 9am–12.30pm, 2–4.30pm; www.statuasancarlo.it ), the éminence grise of the Counter-Reformation. You can climb up through San Carlone (Big St Charlie), as he is cheerfully known, and peer out across the lake through his eyes – or indeed his nose. Flaubert was far from entranced: “Big, nasty, easily painted, big ears sticking out from the head,” he noted in his diary.

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Statue of San Carlo Borromeo, Arona.

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Arona is a busy, rather industrial town, but it has a pretty lakeside promenade on the main square with a fine view across to the Rocca Borreomeo. Napoleon once stayed in the elegant 18th-century Villa Ponti , built into the battlements of the Rocca and now used for art exhibitions and concerts.

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Stresa

From here, the road winds north, hugging the lake shore through the little resort towns of Meina, Lesa and Belgirate to Stresa 2 [map] , the largest resort on the lake, its shore lined for kilometres by hotels from the ultra-grand to the decidedly prosaic. Known for centuries as “the pearl of Verbano” in brochure-speak, it has immense charm but surprisingly little else in the way of sights – one of those places that was taken up by early travel writers and became trendy with travellers on the Grand Tour and has managed to trade on reputation ever since. Only a few fragments of the castle walls remain, in the grounds of Villa Pallavicino (tel: 0323-31533; www.parcozoopallavicino.it ; daily mid-Mar–Oct 9am–7pm, last entry 5pm), just south of town, a wonderful combination of botanical garden and zoo, with children’s playground, restaurant and picnic areas. A little road train connects the park with the Piazzale Imbarcadero (by the ferry).

North of the town centre is the cable car (closed at the time of writing, check reopening times at the tourist office) up Monte Mottarone 3 [map] (1,491 metres/4,892ft), a real outdoor playground, with mountain biking and rock-climbing in summer, and skiing in winter – and fabulous views across to the Alps, although there is no viewing platform at the top station.

Halfway up Monte Mottarone, is the Giardino Botanico Alpinia 4 [map] (Piazzale Lido 8; tel: 0323-927173; www.giardinobotanicoalpinia.altervista.org ; Apr 9–Oct 9 daily 9.30am–1pm) which, as well as lake views, has a superb collection of tiny plants and flowers which flourish at high altitude across the world. The garden can be reached on foot or by minibus from Stresa. If driving to Lake Orta, a bizarre extra stop might be at the Museo dell’Ombrello e del Parasole (Via Golf Panorama 2, Gignese; tel: 0323-89622; www.gignese.it/museo ; Tue–Sun 10am–noon, 3–6pm), home to over 1,000 umbrellas and parasols.

Fact

San Carlo Borromeo (1538–84) was the son of Count Giulio and Margherita de’Medici, the Archbishop of Milan, and one of the presiding influences over the Council of Trent, but he also devoted himself genuinely to serving the poor throughout his life, particularly during the plague epidemic of 1576. He would probably have hated the statue and the glass coffin in which he lies in Milan Duomo.

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Isola Bella.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

A trio of islands

Just offshore, in a ribbon heading north from Stresa, are three islands, two of them home to some of the finest palaces and gardens in the lakes region. Ferries run to all three from Stresa and Pallanza (buy a joint ticket to save queuing time).

The largest and closest island to Stresa is Isola Bella 5 [map] www.borromeo­turismo.it ; mid-Mar–late Oct daily 9am–5.30pm), named after Isabella D’Adda, wife of Carlo III (1586–1652). The count decided to transform the rocky islet into a monumental Baroque palace with gardens. Its 10 formal tiers of planting, that involved rebuilding the entire island, are meant to mimic the decks of a ship. Work began in 1632 but the final touches were only added to the palace itself in 1959.The house is still full of treasures, gilt and stuccowork but is rather lifeless. However, the garden is a towering pyramid of fountains and walkways, topiary and colour that constantly delight – a perfectly preserved 17th-century Baroque Italian garden.

Where

Tourist offices 
Stresa: Piazza Marconi 16; tel: 0323-31308.
Locarno: Piazza Stazione, SBB Railway Station; tel: +41 848-091 091.
Angera: Via Marconi 2; tel: 0331-931 915.
Luino: Via Piero Chiara 1; tel: 0332-530 019.

Nearby, the Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) 6 [map] is a much humbler affair, simply an island inhabited to this day by a fishing community, although there is a strong sideline in tourism and restaurants. It is a charming place to wander, with fine views, excellent fish restaurants and a couple of small swimming beaches.

A little to the north, near Pallanza, work on Isola Madre 7 [map] (tel: 0323-932 483; www.borromeo­turismo.it ; mid-Mar–late Oct daily 9am–5.30pm) began in 1501 with Count Lancellotto Borromeo. This is a much less formal garden, more English in style, with white peacocks roaming the lawns and spectacular displays of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas in season.

Next to the great house, Europe’s largest Kashmir cypress, a victim of storms, is clinging perilously to life and is spending years in traction, in an attempt to weld it back to strength. Within the palazzo itself are rooms filled with puppet theatres and marionettes, part of the family’s obsession with dolls.

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View of Lake Maggiore over the rooftops of Stresa.

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Back on the shore

Just north of Stresa is Baveno 8 [map] , a quietly elegant resort town, renowned for its pink granite, which has been quarried for export around the world to adorn buildings from Bangkok to New York. It is also known for its string of elegant waterfront villas, most of which are still in private hands, and best admired from the water. Just north of here, the coast road swings across to join the motorway at Gravellona Toce , a rather grim area that is very useful for everyday shopping, ringed with supermarkets and shopping malls.

Lake Mergozzo

A side road leads off to little Lago Mergozzo 9 [map] , once a gulf of Maggiore that got cut off and now reputed to have some of Italy’s cleanest water (motor boats are forbidden). Mergozzo village is an enchanting place filled with ancient stone houses. It is near here that the pinky-grey Candoglio marble used to build Milan Duomo was quarried. About an hour’s walk from the village, along a mule track, in the tiny hamlet of Montorfano , the 12th-century church of San Giovanni is a Romanesque jewel, untouched by time, with fine panoramic views.

The sedimentary reed-beds which cut off Lake Mergozzo from the main lake and still filter the water are now protected by the 360-hectare (890-acre) Riserva Naturale di Fondotoce (open access), which nurtures a rich variety of bird life, native and migratory, and flora, including water chestnuts. It is best explored on foot or bicycle. The nearest place to hire a bike would be in one of the coastal towns such as Stresa; many hotels offer bikes to their guests and there are plenty of agencies to choose from.

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Ancient stone houses in Mergozzo Village.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Verbania

Verbania was rechristened by Mussolini as part of his linguistic campaign to revive the glories of ancient Rome; it comprises several resorts bunched around Pallanza . It is a pretty place for a walk with a good Friday market, but the main reason for visiting are the glorious gardens of Villa Taranto ) [map] (tel: 0323-404 555; www.villataranto.it ; gardens: mid-Mar–Sept daily 8.30am–6.30pm, Oct–Nov 9am–4pm; villa closed to public). The gardens were the brainchild of a Scot, Captain McEachern, who bought the villa, in the centre of Pallanza, in 1931, and began importing plants from across the globe, including nearly 1,000 which had never before been cultivated in Italy.

Altogether, there are nearly 20,000 varieties here, making it a garden of botanical importance as well as great beauty. During the annual Tulip Week (late April), every fifth adult ticket has a stamp offering them a free plant.

National parks

From Intra, just up the road, one of the few access roads leads deep into the heart of the 117 sq km (45 sq mile) Parco Nazionale della Val Grande ! [map] . This is one of the last truly wild areas in Italy, its racing waters and plunging falls, oak, beech and alder woodlands protected by high mountains that provide a safe haven for animal life, from chamois and roe deer to the humble hedgehog.

Those who don’t want to go quite so far could content themselves with a walk in the Riserva Naturale Speciale del Sacro Monte della SS Trinità di Ghiffa @ [map] (Via SS Trinità 48, Ghiffa; tel: 0323-59870). One of the many Unesco-listed sacred mountains in the region, this one, started by San Carlo Borromeo was never finished, with only three chapels in the woods offering a vision of what might have been. Nevertheless, the setting is wonderful and the 200-hectare (490-acre) reserve offers several excellent trails.

The road now heads north along the so-called Cannero Riviera , towards the Swiss border (don’t forget your passport), passing two small ruined castles that stand on islets near Cannobio £ [map] . Originally fortified in the Middle Ages to control trade with Switzerland, they became the base of the piratical Mazzarditi brothers, before the Visconti removed the troublemakers and destroyed their lairs in the early 15th century.

Fact

Ernest Hemingway’s World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), tells the story of an American soldier wounded while fighting for the Italian army. After convalescing in Milan, he inadvertently deserts while escaping the Germans, but is reunited with his love in Stresa, where they stay at Des Iles Borromées Hotel (where Hemingway himself often stayed) before fleeing by boat across to Swiss Locarno.

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Church of SS Pietro e Paolo, Ascona.

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Ascona

If you are heading for the northern end of the lake, take your passport as here you cross into Switzerland.

Ascona $ [map] , perfectly set at the junction of the Alps and the lakes, grew rapidly from a small fishing village into a popular resort during the Belle Epoque. It was a paradise not only for seekers after sun but also for seekers after truth. This was the home of Rudolf von Laban’s nudist School of Natural and Expressive Dance, which became the focus of a cultural movement that brought artists, philosophers and pacifists from C.G. Jung to Isadora Duncan flocking to the area to share ideas and beds. Their ideas are celebrated in the Museo Monte Verità (Casa Anatta; tel: 091-785 4040; www.monteverita.org ; closed for restoration but the park is open to the public).

In town, all life centres on the lakefront Piazza Motta and network of cobbled alleys just behind it. Churches worth a visit include the church of SS Pietro e Paolo (1530–4), with three magnificent altar paintings by local boy Giovanni Serodine (1594–1630), who also decorated the town’s most famous house, the Casa Serodine next door (not open to the public), built in 1620; the high medieval Oratorio SS Fabiano e Sebastiano hosts the Museo di San Sebastiano (Museum of St Sebastian; Via delle Cappelle; tel: 091-791 3521; Apr–Oct Wed–Sat 10am–noon, 8–10pm), which now houses a museum of religious art; the Collegio Papio (just off Viale B. Papio; Mon–Fri 7.30am–12.30pm, 1.30–6pm), with a 14th–15th-century biblical fresco cycle; and the richly frescoed Santuario della Madonna della Fontana (on the northern slope of Monte Verità; daily 10am–noon, 3–5.30pm and for regular concerts).

The Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna (Via Borgo 34; tel: 091-759 8140; www.museoascona.ch ; Tue–Sat Mar–June, Sept–Dec 10am–noon, 2–5pm, July–Aug 10am–noon, 4–7pm, Sun 10.30am–12.30pm) mixes a fine permanent collection including works by Marianne von Werefkin, Paul Klee, Ben Nicholson, Richard Seewald and others, with temporary exhibits.

Locarno

Just around the bay, Locarno % [map] is the grander of the two Swiss resorts, the regional capital since the Middle Ages, with life revolving around the splendidly arcaded Piazza Grande , home to open-air concerts in the summer, and to the International Film Festival. The city is a shopper’s heaven, with a Thursday market in the Piazza Grande, a splendid Christmas market and many specialist and designer shops for browsing.

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Thursday market in the Piazza Grande, Locarno.

Robert Harding

The 13th-century Castello Visconteo (Via B. Rusca 5; tel: 091-756 3170/80; Apr–Oct Tue–Sun 10am–noon, 2–5pm) stands in the heart of the Old Town, built on the remains of an even older fortress. Although much of it was destroyed by the Confederation in 1532, enough of it remains to house the Museo Civico ; this archaeological collection includes some lovely Roman glass and pottery, an exhibit on the 1925 Treaty of Locarno, part of the ongoing efforts to secure a lasting peace in Europe after World War I, and some fine 15th-century frescoes. The city art gallery, containing works by 19th- and 20th-century artists, is housed in the late 18th-century Casa Rusca (Piazza Sant’Antonio; tel: 091-756 3185; Apr–mid-Dec Tue–Sun 10am–noon, 2–5pm). Those lucky enough to be there in spring should also stop at the Parco delle Camelie (Via Respini; tel: 091-791 0091; daily Mar–Sept 9am–6pm, Oct–Feb 9am–4.45pm; free except during Locarno Camellia exhibition), when the camellias are in full bloom.

The undoubted star, however, is the Santuario of the Madonna del Sasso (daily 7am–6pm), reached by cable car (Viale Balli 2; tel: 091-751 1123; daily 8am–7.30pm) from the town centre, or you can take the hard pilgrim walk up. In 1480, a vision of the Virgin appeared on the spot to a Franciscan monk. Seven years later, the first pilgrimage church was built, although this palatial affair is a Baroque incarnation. Inside, look for Bramantino’s Flight from Egypt (1520). From here, a cable car swoops higher still to the Cardada plateau (1,350 metres/4,430ft; www.cardada.ch ), where a stroll through the woods leads to a chairlift up to Cimetta (1,672 metres/5,486ft). The views from here are fabulous.

Back down at the lake, L’Astrovia (Planets Way) is a walking and cycling track that wanders along the Maggia and Melezza rivers for 6km (4 miles), with the solar system laid out at a scale of 1:1 billion, offering a novel way to study the stars and get some exercise.

Island gardens

Off to the west snakes the line of the Ferrovia di Centovalli (Centovalli Railway; for more information, click here ). Take a boat across to the Isole di Brissago ^ [map] (Parco Botanico del Cantone Ticino, Brissago; tel: 091-791 4361; www.isolebrissago.ch ; mid-Mar–Oct 9am–6pm), two islands which together make up one of the great gardens in the lakes region. The smaller of the two islands, Isola Piccola, has remained in its natural state while the larger, Isola Grande, has been planted with an exotic mix of flowers from across the world, from edelweiss to the agave, which flowers every 10 years and then dies.

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The two garden-islands of Isole di Brissago.

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The eastern shore

Crossing back into Italy at Zenna, the quiet resort of Maccagno & [map] stands at the mouth of the Giona River, popular with tourists for its sandy beaches. It is split into distinctive upper and lower towns, the lower section a higgledy-piggledy heap of fishing cottages, while above, with the views, stand the grander palazzi and porticoes and the little sanctuary of the Madonnina della Punta. The Museo Parisi-Valle (Via Leopoldo Giampaolo 1; tel: 0332-561 202; www.museoparisivalle.it ; June–Sept Thu–Sun 10am–noon, 3–7pm, Oct–May Fri–Sun 10am–noon, 3–6pm; free) is a fascinating modern art collection with over 2,000 works from the 1930s to 1990s by over 70 artists. Behind the town, the beautiful, forgotten Val Veddasca winds up to the village of Indemini, back across the border in Switzerland.

Luino

South, through the quiet resort of Colmegna, Luino * [map] is the most important town along this stretch of the lake, with a gracious waterfront, several fine churches and palazzi lining the little Napoleonic harbour. Luino was a Roman garrison town and the birthplace of Bernardino Luini (c.1480–1532), who became one of the region’s pre-eminent artists. The town has had a major market every Wednesday for the last 500 years. Behind the town, Monte Lema (1,620 metres/5,310ft) has fabulous views across both Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano and hiking trails. There is a cable car up the mountain from the Swiss side.

A little further south and a great deal higher up the mountain in Brezzo di Bedero ( [map] , the Collegiata di San Vittore is a church with a long and motley history and sections from the 5th to 19th centuries on show, although most of it belongs to the 12th. It has magnificent views, fine frescoes and several treasures, including four rare 12th–14th-century Antiphonaries (musical manuscripts), and hosts a major music festival every summer (Stagione Musicale della Canonica; tel: 0332-511 707; July and Aug).

I Am Not a Moderate

Nobel Prize-winning satirist Dario Fo (born 1926) grew up in Leggiuno-Sangiano near Lake Maggiore. The story of his failed bid to become mayor of Milan is told in a documentary, I Am Not a Moderate (Fo’s campaign slogan). A self-confessed anarcho-Marxist, Fo is most famous for his sharply farcical plays Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! He credits the old folk in his home town with teaching him the “art of spinning fantastic yarns”. Fo delights in provoking the authorities. In 2004, Forza Italia sued Fo for defamation after his satirical play, The Two-Headed Anomaly , used the premise that part of Vladimir Putin’s brain was transplanted into Berlusconi’s head. Dario Fo is also a director, a stage and costume designer, as well as a composer.

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Dario Fo.

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Laveno Mombello

One of the largest towns and main ferry ports on the eastern shore, marked by having a railway station and a car ferry across to Intra, Laveno Mombello , [map] is made up of several villages which joined together in 1927. Today, in addition to tourism and the weekly market (Tuesdays), which brings people from all the surrounding villages, it lives on ceramics and fishing. The Museo Internazionale Design Ceramico (Via Lungolago Perabò 5, Cerro; tel: 0332-666 530; www.midec.org ; Tue 10am–12.30pm, Wed–Fri 10am–12.30pm, 2.30–5.30pm, Sat–Sun 10am–12.30pm, 2.30–5.30pm, June–Sept 3–6pm) celebrates the still thriving local ceramics industry, which was founded in 1856.

Fact

On 15 August 1848, Garibaldi’s troops won a famous victory in Luino against the Austrians. His small troop of 1,500 men was taken by surprise and Garibaldi himself was in bed with malaria. He didn’t even have time to dress, and rising from his sickbed, he directed the battle in his underpants. A fully dressed memorial marks the occasion.

A thrilling, but perfectly safe bucket-style cable car (tel: 0332-668 012; www.funiviedellagomaggiore.it ; Mon–Sat 11am–5pm, Sun 10am–5pm) swings up Monte Sasso del Ferro (1,062 metres/3,484ft), from where there are superb views across the whole lake – it’s a fifteen-minute ride. At weekends, hang-gliders and parachutists swoop like butterflies from the heights.

The southern shore

About 10km (6 miles) south of town, near Leggiuno, the Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso ⁄ [map] (Via S. Caterina 5, Leggiuno; tel: 0332-647 172; Mar, mid-Sept–Oct daily 9am–noon, 2–5pm, Apr–mid-June daily 9am–noon, 2–6pm, mid-June–mid-Sept daily 9am–6pm, Nov–Feb Sat–Sun 9am–noon, 2–5pm, 23 Dec–6 Jan daily 9am–noon, 2–5pm) has become one of Maggiore’s most famous landmarks. Under the cliff and only visible from the water, it can either be reached by a long flight of steps or by means of an elevator dug into the rock.

In 1170, Alberto Besozzi was shipwrecked during a storm but was so grateful to St Catherine of Alexandria for saving his life that he came to live in this remote cave. It grew into a monastery in three parts – the South Convent with its Gothic frescoes (1439) in the chapterhouse and a Danse Macabre in the loggia; the Small Convent (1315), home to the main church; and the Chapel of the Rocks, named after five huge boulders that crashed through the rafters around 1700 and remained suspended in the roof timbers for the next 200 years. The hermitage is still a working monastery.

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Rocca Borromeo.

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Viewing platform at Cardada.

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Finally, virtually opposite Arona, looking across the water at “Big St Charlie” (for more information, click here ), you come to the Rocca Borromeo ¤ [map] (tel: 0331-931 300; www.borromeo­turismo.it ; mid-Mar–mid-Oct daily 9am–5.30pm; charge), the formidable fortress built by the Borromeos to guard the southern approaches to the lake. The castle dates mainly from the 14th-century era of the Torriani and Visconti, and there are fine frescoes (1314) in the Sala della Giustizia. The Borromeos refurbished it in the 17th century.