Italian Lakes (2013)
The Italian Lakes are easy to reach from the rest of Europe, with several airports located nearby. While renting a car will give you flexibility to explore the smaller towns and villages away from the tourist centres, there is a very good network of public transport - trains, buses, boats - in the region, which will allow you to take a slower pace; the boats especially are a great way to get around. If you do drive, do so with extreme caution; Italians drive fast, and the roads are narrow, with many hairpin bends.
The lakes are well served with airports. Milan has three airports, with city-centre Linate (LIN ) ideal if you want to explore the city as well as the lakes. Further north, Milan’s Malpensa (MXP ) airport makes for a convenient gateway to the western lakes. Bergamo’s Orio al Serio (BGY ) can also be used for Milan as well as being ideal for Lake Iseo or Lake Como; Brescia or Verona airports are the best for Lake Garda, but even Venice is within easy access. Despite being in Switzerland, Lugano (LUG ) airport is another useful gateway to lakes Lugano, Como and Maggiore. Verona has two airports, the tiny Verona-Villafranca (VRN ) and Verona-Brescia (VBS ) which is 50km (31 miles) southwest of Verona but close to Brescia and Lake Garda.
Bergamo (Orio al Serio) Buses run from the airport to the centre of Bergamo from 5.17am-12.31am (tel: 035-236 026, www.atb.bergamo.it ) or to Milano Centrale train station roughly every half-hour from 4.25am-10.20pm (tel: 035-330 706, www.orioshuttle.com ). A shuttle service links the airport to Milano Centrale station every 20-30 minutes from 4.05am-1am (1 hour; www.terravision.eu ). Another service heads to Brescia every 1.5-3 hours from 5.10am-11pm (tel: 02-3008 9000, www.autostradale.com ) for €12. Taxis to Bergamo city centre, a 10-minute journey, cost approximately €25-30 (tel: 035-451 9090).
Brescia-Montichiari (G. D’Annunzio) The airport is mainly used for cargo traffic and seasonal charters serviced by Meridiana and Windrose Airlines. Transport for Mantova (APAM; www.apam.it ) operates a twice-weekly (Mon, Fri) shuttle bus service between the airport and Brescia’s Santa Eufemia metro station.
Delta Air Lines
Milan (Linate) A shuttle bus service (tel: 02-3008 9000, www.autostradale.com ) leaves for Milano Centrale train station roughly every half-hour from 7.45am-10.45pm (also stops at Milan Lambrate railway station) and from 5.30am-10pm from Milano Centrale to the airport (25 mins). City Buses Nos. 73 (ATM, tel: 02-4860 7607; www.atm.it ) leave Arrivals for Piazza San Babila underground station every 10 minutes from 5.35am-12.35am (25 minutes, €1.50 from newsstands). Linate and Malpensa airports run a shuttle service operated by Air Pullman (tel: 0331-258 411, www.malpensashuttle.it ). A taxi to the city centre will set you back around €40 (tel: 02-8585).
Milan (Malpensa) Two shuttle bus services to Milano Centrale station run every 20 minutes from 5.05am-12.10am, 7.10am-11.30pm from the airport to the station (50 minutes; www.terravision.eu ; tel: 0331-519 000; www.stie.it ). The Malpensa Express train connects Terminal 1 with Cadorna railway station and Milano Centrale in 29-43 minutes (tel: 800-500-005, www.malpensaexpress.it ) from 5.26am-1.30am. Taxis wait outside arrivals (tel: 02-8585). Alibus buses (tel: 0323-552 172, www.safduemila.com ) run to towns around Lake Maggiore from the airport.
Verona (Valerio Catullo) Trains run every 20 minutes to Verona train station (10-15 minutes) from Verona airport ( www.aeroportoverona.it ). The 15-minute journey by taxi will cost around €20 (tel: 045-532 666). The Aerobus (www.atv.verona.it ) runs to Verona’s Porta Nuova train station at 5.35 and 6.30am, then every 20 minutes until 8.30pm and every 40 minutes until 11.10pm, costing €6. In winter, special bus services from Verona and other airports take skiers directly to the slopes, but must be pre-booked ( www.flyskishuttle.com ).
Given the range of low-cost and scheduled flights to the lakes, flying is advisable. However, Milan and Como are well served by trains coming from Switzerland, Germany and France, including Eurostar connections to London via Paris. If arriving from elsewhere in Italy, there are good connections from Turin, Bologna, Florence and Rome, as well as from within the lakes. Routes and prices vary greatly, so it is wise to plan your route at major train stations or with specialist agents such as Voyages-sncf.com (for further information, tel: 08448-485 848, https://uk.voyages-sncf.com ).
If you want to do it in real style, try the Venice-Simplon Orient Express ( www.belmond.com/venice-simplon-orient-express ) from London or Paris to Venice.
Travelling to Italy by coach is a tough option, with Eurolines (tel: 08717-818 177, www.eurolines.co.uk ) offering a 22-23-hour Milan service daily from London Victoria for no less than a budget air fare. However, bargain fares can often be found if booked in advance.
Driving yourself is another option, if you are prepared for the hazards of driving along narrow winding mountain roads, although it is probably cheaper to rent a car on arrival. Once across the Channel, the fastest route from France is to follow the Alpine route through Germany and Switzerland and arrive at Lake Lugano. Note that motorways en route as well as in Italy are toll roads; ensure you choose the correct lane to pay in cash, with credit card, or the frequent-user Telepass card.
You will need 5-star insurance and international markers if driving your own vehicle.
This is popular cycling territory in spite of the steep gradients and hairpin bends. Bikes can be rented quite cheaply in most cities and resorts, and tourist offices carry maps of recommended cycling routes. Many serious cyclists make a pilgrimage to Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling, in Lake Como.
The Lakes region has three “bike hotels”, which cater for the keen cyclist, offering secure rooms for your bike, repair shops and professional guides. See www.italybikehotels.it for a full list.
The best way of all to see the lakes is by boat, allowing you to enjoy the scenery without the hazard of navigating the roads, and at significantly lower cost. All main towns have passenger ferry connections, and many are also linked by car ferry: Lake Como (Cadenabbia-Bellaggio-Menaggio-Varenna), Lake Maggiore (Intra-Laveno) and Lake Garda (Maderno-Torri del Benaco and Limone-Malcesine). Cruises, some in paddle steamers, can take up a full day and are a wonderful way of seeing the whole lake. Bear in mind boat services are greatly reduced in winter.
For information on lakes Como, Maggiore and Garda, visit www.navigazionelaghi.it ; for Lake Iseo, see www.navigazionelagoiseo.it ; for Lugano, see www.lakelugano.ch , and for Lake Orta, see www.navigazionelagodorta.it .
The bus network around the lakes is very cheap and efficient, although in less touristy villages services can be infrequent at weekends. Local tourist offices provide timetables and information; tickets usually need to be purchased before boarding at newsagents and any shop displaying a biglietti sign.
There is an excellent network of motorways (toll roads) and main roads linking the lakes and the major cities surrounding them. However, sheer volume of traffic, the terrifying speed of Italian drivers and the tunnels and hairpin bends mean that you cannot relax for a second. The Italian websites www.autostrade.it and www.quattroruote.it contain useful traffic information.
Car hire is expensive, but if arranged in advance a little cheaper. Major chains such as Avis, Budget and Hertz can be found in the airports and main towns. You must be over 21 and have a credit card for the deposit. Insurance4carhire.com (tel: 0844-892 1770) is a cheap annual scheme which will save hundreds of pounds in comparison to the daily insurance offered by the car-hire companies.
To drive in Italy, you must carry a valid passport, full photocard driving licence (and international driving licence if a non-EU licence-holder), registration documents and insurance. It is compulsory to carry all your vehicle documents when driving, as well as emergency equipment such as spare bulbs, a fluorescent jacket and a warning triangle in case of breakdown.
A breakdown service (tel: 116) is available from the Automobile Club d’Italia (ACI).
Rules of the road
Drive on the right, overtake on the left and observe the speed limits: in built-up areas 50kmh (31mph), outside built-up areas 90kmh (55mph), on dual carriageways 110kmh (68mph) and on motorways 130kmh (80mph).
On-the-spot fines for speeding offences are particularly heavy. The police can impose the fine and collect one-quarter of the maximum fine, and must give a receipt for the amount paid.
Dipped headlights during the day are compulsory outside built-up areas and when there is snow or rain and generally poor visibility. Rear fog lights may only be used when visibility is less than 50 metres (164ft) or in case of strong rain or heavy snow.
As always, do not drink and drive; the penalties are severe.
Service stations are open from 6.30/7am to 12.30/1pm and from 3pm to 7.30pm, but outside these times many have automatic pumps. Service is available 24-hours a day on motorways.
Contact: UK: www.theaa.co.uk ; Republic of Ireland: www.aaireland.ie ; Italy: www.aci.it .
Parking is a nightmare almost everywhere during the summer, with the lake shores cramped by the mountainous terrain and the city centres overcrowded. Locals park on every patch of spare land along the lake roads; drive a small car and be prepared to do the same. Unless you are planning to do a lot of touring, consider using public transport, which is excellent.
Taxis are expensive, and supplements apply between 10am and 6am, Sundays, holidays, and per item of luggage. Fares are based on distance once outside city boundaries. As in any city, use only official metered taxis.
Travel by train is cheap, efficient, and between major cities, fast. The main types operating between major cities are Eurostar, Intercity and Interregionale, while the local Regionale trains stop at every city in the region and are very slow. The Europe-wide InterRail pass ( www.interrail.net ) can be good value if you’re planning to travel extensively by train over several weeks. Note that all tickets must be stamped at the yellow machines before boarding, or you will be fined.
For more information, see www.trenitalia.com .
Getting Around the Lakes
Trains run from Milan to Como and Lecco, as well as the length of the eastern shore. Como has three stations, with trains on the FS line ( www.fsitaliane.it ) from Milan arriving in Como San Giovanni, a short walk or bus ride from the city centre. Regional trains on the FNME line ( www.ferrovienord.it ) pass through Como Borghi station and terminate at Como Lago Nord station on the lakefront, across from the bus station at Piazza Matteotti.
On the lakefront in front of the Piazza Cavour is the landing stage for boats offering trips on hydrofoils, car ferries, ships, and full day or evening cruises, with food, live music and drinks ( www.navigazionelaghi.it ).
Lake Iseo (including Franciacorta and Val Camonica)
Lake Iseo is easily accessible from Como, Bergamo and Brescia, with onward rail connections to Lake Garda. A delightful train route runs from Iseo to Brescia (through Franciacorta wine country) and takes 30 minutes.
However, a car is advisable if you want to explore the surrounding hills, the wine country and the prehistoric art in Val Camonica.
Navigating Lake Iseo is more straightforward than navigating Lake Garda (tel: 035-971 483, www.navigazionelagoiseo.it ). As well as “three island” cruises, there are themed cruises, as well as an evening option with dinner.
Prices on Lake Garda tend to be more competitive than elsewhere, apart from the high cost of ferries and hydrofoils. On the other hand, compared with the quiet refinement of Lake Como, for instance, Lake Garda offers more family holidays and sports facilities.
Desenzano is the main rail link on the lake, with frequent connections to Brescia, Verona, Milan and beyond. Lake Garda is the one lake where a car is optional, with a week’s holiday happily spent on day trips pottering around on the water, or visiting resorts, villas and gardens.
Car rental is advisable to appreciate the rugged drives round Western Lake Garda (especially from Salò to Riva), as well as exploring the wine-growing hinterland of Valtenesi.
Navigating the lake: due to its size, when travelling longer distances it makes sense to catch the ferry on the outward voyage, stopping at various ports en route and visiting those, and to catch the faster hydrofoil back, which is less romantic but twice as fast.
For the purpose of fares and routes, the lake is divided into “Upper Lake” (including Riva and Malcesine) and “Lower Lake” (from Desenzano south). Work out the scope of a day trip carefully, as the cost of the “full” lakes pass is almost twice the cost of a “half” lakes pass, and you may only need the latter. For routes, timetables and fares, tel: 030-914 9511 (outside Italy), free-phone 800-551 801 (inside Italy), www.navigazionelaghi.it .
A car is crucial here to explore beyond Lugano city. There are ferries along the lake, but they are not as frequent as in some of the other lakes. For details on the ferries, click here . The train runs into Lugano along the northwest arm of the lake, leaving to the south over the Bissone causeway and down the southeast shore.
Lake Maggiore has a complex network of local and long-distance ferries covering the full length of the lake that take people to villages and towns along both shores as well as to the island gardens that adorn the centre of the lake. The main line from Milan follows the western shore north, heading off into Northern Europe through the renowned Simplon Tunnel at Domodossola, from where the scenic Centovalli Railway twists its way back down to the lake.
Lake Orta’s main town, Orta San Giulio, is closed to traffic. Car parks are located along the Via Panoramica above the town. It is possible to drop off luggage at hotels by car, but only very small cars will be able to make their way through the narrow streets. Alternatively, the trenino is a convenient tourist train that goes from the Via Panoramica and car parks to Piazza Motta in the heart of town.
The journey by boat from Orta San Giulio to the Isola San Giulio takes five minutes (boats depart from 9.55am, Oct-Mar reduced hours; tel: 0345-517 0005, www.navigazionelagodorta.it ). There are also less frequent boat services to other towns on the lake. If travelling by car, the best option is to park in Pella on the west bank of the lake, opposite Orta San Giulio, where you can park close to the boat landing-stage.