The Magic Of Lake Maggiore
Solange Hando is charmed by the beauty of the stunning Italian lakes.
WITH scenic mountains, glistening water, palaces and gardens, all the Italian lakes look so wonderful, so how could we choose?
Checking out the map, we decided on Lake Maggiore, the longest of them all, with Como on one side and the barely discovered Orta and tiny Mergozzo on the other. We like to explore and this would give us plenty to do.
Our resort was Stresa, sheltering about halfway down the Italian stretch in the pretty Gulf of Borromeo. Once the favourite haunt of aristocrats and the likes of Hemingway and Churchill, it is a lovely place where palms and oleander line the quiet promenade on the waterfront.
Green hills rose all around, though we could see craggy peaks in the distance and the odd sprinkling of snow.
The old town held us spellbound, with small shaded squares, alleyways and myriad stalls selling silk scarves, ceramics, Italian ice-cream and pasta in all colours and shapes.
We explored most of the lake, which is 40 miles long, cruising, driving and, on one superb outing travelling on the “Hundred Valleys” train all the way to Locarno, the northernmost resort across the Swiss border.
We also loved our nearest islands, the noble Isola Bella with its sumptuous baroque palace and terraced gardens, and the traditional Fishermen’s Island (Isola dei Pescatori), a bustling but pleasant place for lunch with a view.
But what was this, we wondered, when we landed back on the shore. A cable car – how could we resist?
If you enjoy swimming, you will find plenty of small beaches, like Feriolo on Maggiore, with pleasant water temperature in summer
So up we went to Mottarone, a wild granite peak rising above Stresa to nearly 5,000 feet. The panorama was breathtaking, with hills and mountains stretching as far as we could see and lakes sprinkled like jewels in the greenery.
We were not alone up there, but it was amazingly peaceful and inspiring. On the way down we stopped in the Alpine Botanical Garden to gaze at just a few of 1,000 plant species and take in more fabulous views of Maggiore and the Borromean islands.
The next day led us into the hills near Verbania, a short train ride from our resort.
Up there above the quarries once exploited by the Romans, we discovered the sleepy village of Montorfano, laced in cobbles and grass, stone houses with brown shutters and red roofs, and a Romanesque church rising all alone in a flower meadow.
A breezy belvedere looked down on the gulf, farmland and hills, while little Mergozzo hid just around the corner.
Lizards and butterflies flitted all around as we headed down to the lake on the steep path, winding through heather, bamboo, trees and fern.
Framed by the wooded slopes of the Val Grande National Park and linked to Maggiore by a small channel, Mergozzo was delightful, unpolluted because motor boats have long been banned.
The village by the same name tumbled down to the shore, houses huddled together in colourful lanes, washing drying on the balconies, church bells chiming in the clear air and an elm tree, 400 years old, taking its ease on the waterfront piazza.
For those in the know, it’s a bucolic retreat, quiet and unspoiled.
South of Mergozzo, Lake Orta was another gem, just eight miles long, separated from Maggiore by Mottarone.
This is the “Cinderella” of the lakes; a hide-away enclosed by green woods and mostly gentle slopes where water shimmers in shades of emerald and blue, and humble houses still bear witness to the old pastoral way of life.
We sailed from Pella to Orta San Giulio, home to just over 1,000 people, but the lake’s focal point.
There we wandered through the lanes garlanded in colourful façades and archways, past the mediaeval palazzo where the local republic used to rule.
We went up to the church, painted yellow and white like a wedding cake, and beyond, right up the hill to the World Heritage Site of Sacro Monte, with its many chapels and idyllic views over San Giulio island.
It takes only five minutes to walk around the island, but beyond the convent and church, the “path of silence” pleases the eyes and the soul.
Como was different, the third-largest lake in Italy and one of the deepest in Europe, shaped with three legs, rather like the emblem of the Isle of Man. A noble retreat since Roman times, it’s a glamorous area rich in neo-classical villas and gardens, hemmed in by the mountains. Some call it the Queen Of Lakes, praising the ever-changing scenery, unique towns and stunning culture.
You would need at least a week to do it justice, but with just a day ahead of us, we settled for Como town nestling in the southern tip of the branch by
The Gornergrat rail ticket allows you to get on and off at any station on the way up or down
the same name. We enjoyed the stylish pedestrian street, the cathedral, the market selling kitchen utensils, shoes and bags along the city walls, then we relaxed by the lake, lunching on melon and Parma ham before boarding the funicular, in operation since 1894, to climb up Brunate Hill.
It was an exciting ride to the viewpoint looking across to our corner of the lake, the town and hills and the ferry sailing to Bellagio, the most enchanting place which sits at the meeting point of the three branches. Not for us that day, but we promised to return.
One of the week’s highlights was still to come: an iconic drive over the Simplon Pass to Zermatt in Switzerland and, weather permitting, unforgettable views of the Matterhorn.
With glaciers, waterfalls, gorges, fir trees and pastures, it was a long scenic drive to Täsch, where everyone must transfer into a shuttle train for the short ride to Zermatt, thus keeping the resort pollution free.
Elegant horse-drawn carriages added a touch of nostalgia as we strolled past wooden chalets festooned in red geraniums, a gurgling stream, a bridge and the great silhouette of the Matterhorn teasing us through shifting clouds. But when we hopped on the Gornergrat cog railway, there it was in all its glory on a 30-minute ride that took our breath away.
When we reached the final stop at over 10,000 feet, we marvelled at the second largest glacier in the Alps and 29 peaks over 13,000 feet, including the dramatic Matterhorn.
It felt like the roof of the world, but hours later, Maggiore greeted us back with calm waters and fairy lights.
The stunning Lake Como from Brunate Hill.
A colourful horse-drawn carriage at Zermatt.
The delightful village of Feriolo on Lake Maggiore.
Mergozzo is a tiny but beautiful village.
The Isola Bella terraced garden is a sight for sore eyes.
The Romanesque Montorfano Church.
The dramatic Matterhorn from the cog railway.