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