The Magic Of Lake Mag­giore

Solange Hando is charmed by the beauty of the stun­ning Ital­ian lakes.

The People's Friend Special - - TRAVEL -

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.

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