Linda Pietersen on her so­journ in North­ern Italy on the banks of Lake Mag­giore

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Linda Pietersen

Ev­ery time I walk out the front gate of our apart­ment and look across the still azure wa­ters to the snow­capped blue moun­tains and the im­pos­si­bly blue sky, I tear up. Breath­tak­ing is an un­der­state­ment. Lake Mag­giore, I hear you ask. Not many trav­ellers from our part of the world are fa­mil­iar with it, but it is one of a group of stun­ning Ital­ian lakes way up north, close to the Swiss bor­der. Most of us know Lake Como be­cause Ge­orge Clooney has a home there, and Lake Garda is also on the map. Trav­ellers also mostly pic­ture the south – Tus­cany, Venice and Rome – when they think of Italy.

We first went to the small town of Laveno-Mombello on Mag­giore 10 years ago, on a house swap. We be­came firm friends with our ex­change part­ners, which led to sev­eral visits to a lovely apart­ment on the banks of the lake.

There are many as­pects of the town and life in Laveno that I’ve come to love: the early morn­ing throb of the first ferry, the clang­ing of the church bells at 7am from the tall, an­cient stone church tower right above our bed­room dormer

win­dow, the grand promenade along the lake front (grace­ful swans glid­ing past), the bustling Tues­day mar­ket, the food – es­pe­cially the de­li­cious aroma drift­ing up from the nearby deli baking the morn­ing pas­tries.

Laveno is a typ­i­cal ‘vil­lagey’ lake town but not a tourist des­ti­na­tion, which is a large part of its charm. Only a hand­ful of lo­cals speak English, but it has ex­cel­lent rail and ferry links to the lake and re­gion.

The big­gest draw­card on Mag­giore, which sets it apart from the other lakes, are the three Bor­romeo is­lands of Isola Bella, Isola Su­pe­ri­ore and Isola Madre. The Bor­romeo fam­ily piled up a fab­u­lous bank­ing for­tune in the 14th and 15th cen­turies and vied with the more fa­mous Medi­cis for in­flu­ence in a then-frag­mented Italy. (Pierre Casir­aghi, the son of Princess Caro­line of Monaco, re­cently mar­ried Beatrice Bor­romeo on Isola Bella.)

Back in the 1600s, Bor­romeo fam­ily head Carlo III be­gan con­struc­tion on a palazzo and gar­den ded­i­cated to his wife, Is­abella. The fi­nal gar­den de­sign and the gra­cious villa were com­pleted only many years later, and to­day it is one of the most pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tions in the area: its lush, tiered gar­den takes up a good half of the is­land and is a pro­fu­sion of green­ery and colour – and wan­der­ing white pea­cocks. It’s a joy to am­ble around a very spe­cial place cre­ated in the spirit of love. We’ve been back many times and never seem to tire of its beauty.

Part of the ap­peal of the north­ern lakes is that they form a mi­cro­cli­mate be­neath the loom­ing Alps, a warm val­ley ef­fect where palms, cro­cuses and aza­leas pro­lif­er­ate. The com­bi­na­tion of splen­did old vil­las and rich gar­dens set on the blue lake is har­mo­nious and lush.

Each small is­land has its own charm, with a vil­lage and tiny shops that date from the Mid­dle Ages. There are also a won­der­ful ar­ray of restau­rants and mar­ket stalls, and the back­streets are a jumble of shops hid­den around cor­ners or down steep stair­ways.

Avoid high sea­son if you can – not only are the tiny is­lands over­run with tourists, but the fer­ries over­flow with peo­ple hop­ping from one is­land to the next; you can buy a ferry day-pass and hop on and off at your will.

Sev­eral at­trac­tive towns are scat­tered along the lake it­self. We have two favourites, Stresa and Can­no­bio. Stresa is a re­gal old re­sort town favoured by well-heeled Euro­pean hol­i­day­mak­ers at the turn of the 19th cen­tury. A lake­side walk takes you past glo­ri­ous man­sions and ho­tels rem­i­nis­cent of an op­u­lent era.

The back­streets have up­mar­ket bou­tiques and restau­rants, and the main pi­azza is the best place for peo­ple-watch­ing. The town also has the best delis; you can stock up on jars of truf­fle pastes and oils. Af­ter ev­ery trip we al­ways re­gret not hav­ing shoved a few more in our suit­cases.

Can­no­bio lies to­wards the north­ern end of the lake, close to Switzer­land. The an­cient, pros­per­ous town is fronted by a wide, loop­ing wa­ter­front walk­way lined with pas­tel-coloured houses and shops that make this shore­front one of Lake Mag­giore’s most pic­turesque. A tiny U-shaped har­bour com­pletes the pic­ture and an ar­ray of small, in­ter­est­ing bou­tiques line the cob­bled back­streets. Strolling them be­fore set­tling into one of the shore­front restau­rants is a won­der­ful way to spend the day.

The swanky Swiss towns of As­cona and Lo­carno in the north­ern cor­ner of Mag­giore are also ap­peal­ing, though much more ex­pen­sive than Italy.

Con­nect­ing the towns and is­lands on Mag­giore are grand old fer­ries that make trav­el­ling on the lake an ab­so­lute plea­sure. You can spend hours sight­see­ing from the ferry as you trun­dle from town to town along the shore­line. Fer­ries sail­ing to the north­ern towns and Switzer­land are few and far be­tween, but in the south they are fre­quent and reg­u­lar. They’re ex­pen­sive, how­ever, so we usu­ally use buses.

If you have time, pop across the moun­tains from Stresa to Lake Orta. Be­sides Lake Como, Orta is prob­a­bly the most pho­tographed of the Ital­ian lakes. A clas­sic Ital­ian vil­lage, Orta San Gi­ulio lies on the edge of a lovely stretch of wa­ter, where there is an eerie monastery of silent monks on an oth­er­wise idyl­lic is­land.

Mi­lan, with its mag­nif­i­cent shop­ping and fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory is just an hour and a half away by train – an easy day trip; Varese, 40 min­utes. Varese has a lovely old city cen­tre, and just out­side it you can walk the Sacro Monte di Varese, the Path of the Chapels. A World Her­itage Site, it is well known as a lo­ca­tion of the Mar­ian faith and wor­ship. At a height of over 800 me­tres, it com­prises the church ded­i­cated to the an­nun­ci­ata, an ac­tive nun­nery, two mu­se­ums and a sa­cred path with 14 chapels along a 2km cob­bled track. Each chapel de­picts a scene from Christ’s life. About 60 mil­lion pil­grims have taken this path over the course of 300 years.

Af­ter a cou­ple of botched bus trips over the years, we’ve found that it’s eas­i­est to hop into a taxi in Varese which will take you straight to Santa Maria del Monte to start the walk (lo­cal taxis are fairly in­ex­pen­sive).

There are also sev­eral lovely walks around the lake area. We fre­quently stroll be­tween the towns of In­tra and Palanza. It takes about an hour and me­an­ders along a path that takes you past gor­geous vil­las and lush gar­dens with views of boats and fer­ries chug­ging along the calm blue wa­ters. Palanza is a de­light­ful small town where you can stop for lunch, then take a ferry or bus home.

An­other, far more stren­u­ous walk – though well worth it – is the one from Stresa to Bel­gi­rate. But be warned: although the

A lake­side walk takes you past glo­ri­ous man­sions and ho­tels rem­i­nis­cent of a past era of splen­dour and opu­lence.

guide book says that the high­est point is 300m, which is more than man­age­able, what it doesn’t say is that you climb that height over and over as you hike up and down the slopes of the lake­side. But the views are breath­tak­ing and the si­lence as you walk through thick, cool for­est ar­eas makes this hike worth the grunt.

An­other de­light­ful way to spend the day is to visit the gar­dens of Villa Taranto. Filled with colour, wa­ter­falls and streams, they’re punc­tu­ated by glimpses of the placid lake. The best time to visit is May, when the gar­den is a pro­fu­sion of blooms.

The Cen­to­valli train ride be­tween Do­mo­d­os­sola in Italy and Lo­carno in Switzer­land tra­verses the lower Ital­ian Alps, and it is spec­tac­u­lar. It winds through deep gorges, gor­geous lit­tle vil­lages, wa­ter­falls and ch­est­nut woods. You can do the train trip then ferry back south from Lo­carno. While there’s much to do, one doesn’t re­ally need to bus­tle about. For us the real joy of Mag­giore is sit­ting lake­side at one of the two cafes di­rectly in front of the apart­ment and mar­vel­ling at the view. An Aperol Spritz tastes so much bet­ter in that set­ting! The lo­cal pizze­ria on our doorstep of­fers won­der­ful piz­zas for un­der R100, and a half-litre of good lo­cal wine for R75. It pays to be in a non-touristy town!

This pic: Laveno-Mombello, our home away from home.

Left: The Santa Ca­te­rina del Sasso monastery is perched on an iso­lated cliff and ex­udes peace and tran­quil­ity.

Be­low: The har­bour town of Can­no­bio with its pas­tel-coloured wa­ter­front is typ­i­cal of the lake­side vil­lages.

Left: The pil­grim’s walk, bet­ter known as the Sacro Monte di Varese, is a gen­tle wind­ing path that takes you past 14 chapels. Be­low: The beau­ti­ful lake­side gar­dens and vil­las on the walk be­tween In­tra and Palanza.

This pic: The view from the el­e­gant gar­dens on Isola Bella.

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