Affluent and attractive, the lakes of Italy are among the crème de la crème of European destinations. With a stunning stretch of dramatic mountains, clear waters and floral villages, they make up some of the country’s most treasured sights. There are five major lakes in the Italian lake district – Maggiore, Lugano, Iseo, Como and Garda – the latter two which I was recently able to tick off the bucket list.
Recently made famous as the location of George Clooney’s holiday home – and it’s not hard to see why – Como offers some of the most ruggedly charming scenery of the Lombardy region. Shaped like an upside-down Y, it’s nestled between lust forests and the snow-topped Rhaetian Alps – such that, despite its lavish array of restaurants, boutiques and hotels, it retains a sense of rustic magic. Whether you’re looking out from Como’s promenade or down from the scenic funicular railway, the view never ceases to delight.
The lake is bordered by several picturesque and easily-accessible villages, particularly the trio in the middle (the mid-point of the Y shape): Varenna, Menaggio, and the town of Bellagio. There’s also Villa Carlotta based near Tremezzo, a 17th-century mansion boasting a botanic garden, art masterpieces and 70,000 square metres of formal terraced gardens. All alike in beauty, it becomes fairly difficult to tell them apart.
Putting Como’s aesthetic appeal aside, however, it’s also very upmarket. With boats, villas and luxury resorts, it’s no surprise that Como attracts the likes of Hollywood A-listers and retired rich folk; it’s a holiday of comfort, and this comes at a price. But there are still plenty of affordable things to do and see: the Museo Didattico della Seta traces the history of Como’s silk industry, the Duomo is the last Gothic cathedral built in Lombardy, and for panoramic views of the region, Faro Voltiano is an ideal spot to watch the sun rise or set.
By welcome contrast, Garda has a less exclusive feel, another notch on its belt of assets. Perhaps that’s owing to its greater cultural and geographical diversity: as the largest of all the lakes, it straddles three regions – the verdant plains of Lombardy to the west, the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige to the north, and rolling vineyards of Veneto to the east. It’s surrounded by a Mediterranean landscape of olive groves and citrus orchards, some of the greatest scenery in all of Italy.
Garda’s most popular destination is Sirmione, famous since antiquity for its ancient port and thermal waters. It stretches along a thin peninsula about 4km into the Lake, offering expansive views onto its blue horizons. Testament to its appeal, the town has stimulated the sensibilities of various artists, notably James Joyce and Ezra Pound who met here in 1920, Tennyson who described his impressions of it in a poem, and Maria Callas who bought a villa there.
One of the highlights of Garda is how easy it is to get off the beaten track and discover other exquisite spots. Within easy cycling distance of Sirmione is the medieval fishing village of Peschiera del Garda: its fortress, initially built in the 10th century, was once the headquarters of the Republic of Venice. The more you continue around the lake, the more areas of interest you won’t want to miss – and you should allow plenty of time to savour them.
D. H. Lawrence described Garda as ‘a lake as beautiful as the beginning of creation.’ His description may as well reference the entire region: rich in allure and sparklingly fresh, the lakes possess a natural beauty and purity which you don’t normally expect from such a tourist hotspot. They’ll make the perfect detour between Italian cities, to the extent that you’ll regret not making them the central point of the vacation.