We met a man who lives by a simple travel rule: pick a destination and give yourself a 200 mile radius from which to explore. After our recent slow travel visit to the northern lakes of Italy, we couldn’t agree more.
With many a months on the road under our belt and my parents by my side, these two weary travelers were quite content slowing down the pace and handing over the travel torch. Basing ourselves in the village of Lesa, my dad became our dutiful guide. On an Italian lakeside odyssey, we discovered the alluvial charm of Italy’s best kept secret: the great northern lakes.
Maggiore’s Small Town Sophistication
With our home base, Casa Sue, resting along the forested shores of Lago Maggiore, we got to know this glorious lake rather well. An hour north of Milan and the Swiss border to the east, Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy. Sitting on the edge of the Alps, Maggiore boasts heavenly alpine scenery studded with enchanting lakeside villages.
It was sophisticated Stresa that caught our eye. Opting for opulence, we took an afternoon stroll along Stresa’s lakefront where we gawked at posh villas and poked into its gracefully decadent hotels. With cocktail in hand, we pretended to be part of the generations of exclusivity that surely graced these halls. Admiring marble steps, ornate chandeliers and gold-framed furniture, we discovered the kind of worldly wisdom and moneyed elegance of a bygone era. The history and natural grandeur of Stresa had arranged it to perfection.
It was the quaint villages of Maggiore, however, that captivated our hearts. On our daily rounds to bread and cheese shops in the villages of Lesa and Meina we grew to know and love small town Italy. Fumbling over words and signing food orders, there was hardly a word in common yet I could tell it was the kind of place I could put down my roots. We’d ventured into that place where strangers become friends, where “everybody knows your name” and where only that kind of down-to-earth , gentle spirit can survive. This was the Lago Maggiore for me.
Mist and Devotion on Lake Orta
The splendor of Lake Orta has an untouched innocence. Just a half hour away from our home on Maggiore, we arrived to a morning mist revealing the quiet beauty of the lake. On the water’s edge, we discovered the unspoiled hamlet of Orta with its cream-colored houses topped with thick slates. After stopping in a cozy wine cafe for lunch, we wound through the tight cobblestone alleyways to the magnetic central square. From here we caught our first view of the star of the show: San Giulio island.
We grabbed one of the water taxis docked on the piazza and took the boat over to the picturesque island. On our visit to the island of devotion, we visited a Benedictine monastery and passed the privileged villas that hug the shore. Wandering down the stone pathway known as “The Way of Silence” we wrapped our way around the island, enjoying these precious moments far away from the frenzied Italian tourist trail.
Swish, Swash: Lake Como
Lake Como probably rings a bell. A regular on the glossy pages of the tabloids, it’s home to the opulent villas of Italy’s elite and mega-superstars, including, of course, George Clooney. While our visit to Lake Como didn’t include a stopover at Mr. Clooney’s lavish abode, our time on Lake Como was nonetheless luxurious.
We began our visit on the southern edge of the lake in the town of Como. Over cappuccinos and espressos at a lakeside café, we immediately recognized why this area gets all the hype. Lake Como is breathtaking. The midnight blue water is enclosed by lush, precipitous mountains on all sides. Colorful villas cascade down the mountains while white Chris Craft boats cut through the water like glass.
Winding our way around the slender lake, we passed scenic villages built into the wooded lakeside slopes until reaching the village of Bellagio. Ringed by gardens and forests and overlooking azure-hued Lake Como, Bellagio sits pretty in a large inlet on the western shore of the lake. Waterfront promenades, upscale boutiques and swish hotels dripping in décor provide an appropriately extravagant setting for enjoying this jewel.
And to no surprise, the food fit the bill. In Bellagio we enjoyed a three course lunch consisting of smoked goose breast served over sliced apples and topped with aged balsamic followed by Sardinian dumplings in a sausage ragu. Simply decadent as Lake Como should be.