Those canny Romans sure knew when they were on to a good thing. They were the first to see the potential of the Italian Lakes as a holiday playground, lustily constructing their palatial villas on the lake edge of Como, Garda and Maggiore. And they have never fallen out of fashion. The grand hotels, luxuriant gardens and sparkling waters became a staging post for 18th-century grand tourists, a favourite retreat for European nobility and a destination that still exudes serious cachet.
Nature has blessed these lakes, where the southern foothills of the Alps sweep down towards the Mediterranean and the fertile plains of northern Italy cluster around these watery jewels. With mild climates, superb food, elegant shopping photogenic towns and villages edging the shoreline, the Italian lakes have got it going on, year-round. (If you’re a floral fiend, head to the lakes in April and May, when the tulips, camellias and azaleas hit full bloom.
Star-powered Lake Como claims the top bragging rights for wooing the glittery celebrity set, from Richard Branson and Brangelina to George Clooney and James Bond. The iconic character is synonymous with Como, from a whole sweep of Bond movies, but particularly after Casino Royale was filmed in front of Villa La Gaeta, in San Siro, where the final scene shows James Bond shooting Mr. White. Another notable Bond landmark is Villa Balbianello, where 007 recuperates after being tortured by Le Chiffre.
But for all its big-screen fame, the place embodies low-key glamour. It’s not brash or squeamishly flashy. Situated on the lake’s southern shore, the stylish town of Como comprises a walled old quarter with intimate slender lanes lined with boutiques and swanky alfresco eateries. Jump on board a paddle steamer, the public ferry service, that laces the far flung lakeside villages together and passes by the Belle Epoque pleasure pads including the 18th-century Villa del Balbianello.
Further north, the pink and white Villa Carlotta is another stand-out, where the lavish 14-acre garden, ablaze with camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas tumble down to the lakefront. On the eastern shore is the chic hillside village of Bellagio, with its rainbow-hued villas and baroque gardens, as are the old stone fishing villages of Bellano and Varenna, where medieval castles mingle with elaborate Renaissance gardens. But for a distinctive accommodation experience, plump for Bellagio’s Hotel Belvedere, flanked by terraced gardens leading down to the lake.
The hotel first opened its doors in 1880 and has since been run by five generations of women of the Martinelli family. Room rates average around NZ$140 a night, so it’s not a budget-buster. If you’re up for the best panoramic view of Como, jump on board the venerable old Funicular Railway, which has been whisking travellers up to Brunate since 1894. From atop, glance over the epic azure lake, the colourful clusters of traditional Italian houses and sweeping mountainsides.
Lake Maggiore, Italy’s second-largest lake, which is also enshrouded by wooded slopes and backdropped by the snow-capped Alps, has an equally alluring natural grandeur. Peaks reflect in the lake with souvenir calendar clarity. Base yourself in the bustling village of Stresa, an easy 60 minute train ride from Milan, which is chock-full of artisanal shops.
This graceful little town was put on the map in 1906 with the heroic completion of the Simplon Pass rail tunnel, opening up train travel through the Alps. European nobility flocked to Stresa in their droves, to relax among the palms and oleanders that edge the lakeside. Lined with opulent wedding-cake hotels, Stresa comprises a compact centre with narrow cobbled lanes, while a short boat ride will zip you over to the little island in the lake, Isola Bella, with its Baroque palazzo and impeccably manicured terraced gardens.
Originally this rocky outcrop housed a small community of fishermen. But that all changed in 1630, when the uber-wealthy bankers, the Borromeo Family, ushered in their vision of splendour to Stresa. Carlo III Borromeo took the first steps to transform the island into a palatial retreat, which his sons completed. Their vision was to design the palace and gardens in such a way that it resembled a ship sailing across the lake. And it does. Visit the palace today and admire the sumptuous rooms brimming with paintings and ornate furniture. It’s easy to imagine the lavish parties and balls that were once held here, by northern Italy’s one-per-centers.
East of Maggiore and Como, mighty Lake Garda, Italy’s largest, is an easy jaunt from Verona. The lake has a unique microclimate, which gives it a sultry Mediterranean feel with olive and citrus groves and award-winning vineyards, like Valpolicella, Soave and Bardolino, gracing Garda’s shores. To ease any aches and pains, head to the pretty spa town of Sirmione, surrounded by ancient castle walls, renowned for its natural thermal spas.
Lurking in the lake is Isola San Giulio, a tiny car-free novelty of an island, with only one cobbled lane that runs the perimeter of the island. Home to 60 nuns, the Benedictine Basilica boasts frescoes dating back to the 14th century. Take the hill walk to Sacro Monte di San Francesco, a forested area sprinkled with 21 medieval chapels. Each chapel has painted terracotta statues that depict scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi, attracting perennial parade of pilgrims.
When in Como, I indecently binged on Miascia, a time-honoured local cake created by peasants. Pepared with stale bread, dried and fresh fruit is added to the cake, which was to compensate for the lack of sugar in the past. Rich in minerals and vitamins, it’s actually a very nutritious cake and remains a staple snack in Como.
At Lake Maggiore, the signature treat is Margheritine, a biscuit dedicated to the first Queen of Italy in 1868. Pietro Antonio Bolongaro, one of the first pastry chefs in Stresa, had been working for some time on a recipe to create delicate biscuits that were uniquely light and crumbly. He sent a test box of his biscuits to the royal court for a regal opinion. Margherita clearly approved because Bolongaro instantly became a permanent supplier to the court.
The biscuits are also designed to symbolise the Margherita daisy. Dusted with icing sugar and placed in rows on a tray, they’re meant to resemble a field of white flowers. They remain a source of pride in Stresa, available at all pastry shops in designer gift boxes. The biscuits are particularly light and crumbly, with a butter and egg yolk base and a vanilla fragrance. Seriously yummy!