by Kiki Deere, The Telegraph, May 23, 2018
The shorelines of the Italian Lakes are a joy to explore, sprinkled with charming sleepy villages, and dotted here and there with waterside villas and lush greenery. And from some of Italy’s most glorious botanical gardens and picnicking in pine forests, to hiking trails that lead to magnificent lake vistas, Telegraph Travel expert, Kiki Deere, shares her top things to do in the Italian Lakes.
Find magic on the Island of San Giulio
Just a short boat ride from Orta San Giulio lies the gorgeous island of San Giulio, dominated by a Benedictine monastery, home to a community of cloistered nuns. The island’s only cobbled street is a lovely place for a tranquil stroll, taking you past a small shop, a restaurant and some panoramic viewpoints.
Insider’s Tip: Keep an eye out for the 17th-century magician’s house – recognisable by a statue of the magician pointing to his grimoire outside. It’s now the seat of 'Poetry on the Lake' which organises magical poetry events throughout the year.
Contact: 00 39 345 5170005; navigazionelagodorta.it
Opening times: n/a
Soak in some sumptuous lake views
Perched 640m high on a steep wall of white granite rock, the 18th-century Santuario della Madonna del Sasso houses a wonderful pictorial cycle by Lorenzo Peracino, along with wooden furnishings and a panel dating back to the 16th-century. From the square below the church there is an impressive panorama of the lake that takes in the Alpine valleys of Ossola, Mottarone Mountain and the area around Novara.
Insider’s Tip:Behind the church, a path leads up to a wooded area with picnic tables. It’s a pleasant spot to enjoy a bite and soak in the lake views.
Opening times: n/a
Enjoy a picnic among the pines
Set high above the town of Orta San Giulio on a wooden hillside are 20 frescoed chapels housing 375 life-sized terracotta statues that depict the life of San Francis of Assisi. The devotional complex of Sacro Monte di Orta attracts pilgrims from far and wide alongside tourists who come to enjoy the fresh air and wonderful lake views.
Insider’s Tip: The shaded hillside makes for the ideal place for a picnic, with designated tables and benches for eating. The area is great for children too, with plenty of place to run around and enjoy the open air.
Contact: 00 39 0322 911 960; sacromonte-orta.com
Opening times: 9.30am-6.30pm
Photo by eurotravel/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Stroll along paths blooming with azaleas
Dating back to 1690, beautiful Villa Carlotta was named after a Prussian Princess who received the house as a wedding present by her mother. Best viewed from the water, it houses masterpieces of the 19th-century and yet it’s the spectacular landscaped gardens that are the villa’s real draw. Age-old cedars, sequoias, bamboo woods and camellias are spread out over 20 acres, sprinkled with terraces, statues and fountains.
Insider’s Tip:Visit in April and May, when 150 different types of rhododendrons and azaleas are flushed with blossoms, tumbling down along the garden paths towards the romantic gazebo.
Contact: 00 39 0344 40405; villacarlotta.it
Opening times: 9am-7.30pm
Zip along the lake in a taxi boat
Reached by boat, Lake Como’s iconic Villa del Balbianello is all manicured grounds, tree-lined avenues, geometrical hedges and panoramic terraces offering unparalleled views of the lake's centre. The villa itself displays a collection of objects by entrepreneur and inveterate traveller Guido Monzino, who lived here until 1988.
Insider’s Tip: On your way to the villa, make sure you catch the taxi boat service from the Lido of Lenno, but instead of taking the boat for the return journey, enjoy a leisurely 25-minute stroll along a shaded path that leads to the lakefront village.
Contact: 00 39 034456110; fondoambiente.it
Opening times: 10am-6pm
Explore the fairytale town of Nesso
Zip across the lake in a handcrafted mahogany Riva boat and admire remote villages and gorgeous lakefront villas that are often not visible from the road (to this day a number of private villas are only accessible from the water). Your captain doubles as a guide, pointing out sights of interest along the way, including the many summer homes of the rich and famous that pepper the shore.
Insider’s Tip:Ask your captain to stop off at Nesso, a fairytale town on the eastern side of the lake where a steep waterfall rushes through a gorge before tumbling into the lake.
Contact: 00 39 031 914 456
Marvel at panoramic lake views
A short walk south from Bellagio, Villa Melzi is a 19th-century neo-classical villa closed to the public but its pretty gardens, home to azaleas, rhododendrons, maple and cedar trees, as well as a soothing Japanese pond with water lilies, are a popular draw. Dotted here and there are statues by Antonio Canova and Andrea Appiani, among others.
Insider’s Tip: About half-way down the garden is a gazebo area that looks out to the western shore where you can rest and soak in the lake panorama. There are unobstructed views across the water to the neo-classical Villa Carlotta and its lush gardens.
Contact: 00 39 339 457 3838; giardinidivillamelzi.it
Opening times: 9.30am-6.30pm
Photo by egadolfo/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
While away time in horticulture heaven
Dominating the Golfo Borromeo is Isola Bella, housing a Baroque palazzo and magnificent gardens where white peacocks roam among sumptuous fountains, statues, and impressive terraces of magnolias, cypresses and lemon trees. The English landscaped park of Isola Madre is no less beautiful, housing rare botanical species and a colony of parrots. In the villa, don’t miss the 18th- and 19th-century collection of puppet theatres featuring representations of family members, friends and servants.
Insider’s Tip:To descend to the lakefront on Isola Madre, take the Wisteria Staircase interspersed with arches bursting with scented wisteria, in bloom in April and May.
Contact: 00 39 0323 30556; isoleborromee.it
Opening times: 9am-5.30pm
Smell the dahlias at a sumptuous botanical garden
The magnificent gardens at Villa Taranto are the work of Scottish Captain Neil McEacharn, who created a 40-acre botanical garden to remind himself of his native Scotland. Avenues of tumbling azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias lead to perfectly groomed parterres embellished with statues, ponds and fountains. Carpets of dahlias, heathers and rare lilies burst with colour, all beautifully laid out in geometric shapes and symmetrical patterns.
Insider’s Tip: Walk up to the Winter Garden, the highest part of the gardens, a peaceful spot that visitors often miss; it’s home to a large lily pond and a greenhouse supporting equatorial plants.
Contact: 00 39 0323 556 667; villataranto.it
Opening times: 8:30am-6:30pm
Watch sunset at a Bendictine monastery
Hewn into the rock on the eastern shore, this pretty monastery is only visible from the water. It was founded in the 12th-century by a wealthy merchant who decided to conduct the life of a hermit. Comprising three buildings dating back to the late 13th to early 14th-century, it’s particularly evocative at sunset, when a gentle light bathes the rock face in rosy hues.
Insider’s Tip:From the car park walk down towards the monastery but turn left towards Parco della Villa to join the path that leads to the Belvedere, a lookout point offering spectacular views of the lake.
Contact: 00 39 0332 647172; eremodisantacaterina.it
Opening times: 9am-12PM; 2-6pm
Photo by Andrew_Mayovskyy/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Discover Europe's largest lake island
Europe’s largest lake island, Monte Isola, is a peaceful car-free spot sprinkled with fishing villages. Boats bob along the shore, while narrow streets climb up the mountainside in the pretty village of Peschiera Maraglio, where craftsmen and fishermen produce fishing and hunting nets. The island is best explored on two wheels, tracing the perimeter promenade that is home to a handful of lakefront eateries.
Insider’s Tip: Head to the Madonna della Ceriola Sanctuary for panoramic lake views. If you have time to spare, pop into the Museo della Rete, which provides an insight into the island’s fishing history.
Contact: 00 39 030 982 5088; visitlakeiseo.info
Opening times: n/a
Drink in wine country vistas
This hilly region between Lake Iseo and Brescia produces some of Italy’s finest sparkling wine. Gentle rolling hills are carpeted with vineyards and olive groves, while punctuated here and there amid celebrated wineries are fortified farmhouses and medieval castles. The Strada del Franciacorta passes through vineyard landscapes and strings of pretty villages with Michelin-starred restaurants and traditional trattorie aplenty. For a treat, head to Due Colombe, an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant located in a restored medieval building.
Insider’s Tip: Cycle routes crisscross stone-terraced vineyards passing along scenic backcountry roads, offering plenty of adventure for oenophiles and keen bikers.
Contact: 00 39 0307760870; franciacorta.net/en
Opening times: n/a
Photo by dav76/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Uncover a house full of bizarre bibelots
The former home of Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio is jam-packed with bizarre objects, from toy animals to an oversized edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Heavy drapes, stained glass windows and soft lighting – the result of d’Annunzio’s photophobia – add to the mysterious atmosphere. The extensive gardens are beautiful, with lakes, waterfalls, ponds and ravines, which also features a dog cemetery and a warship.
Insider’s Tip: Hop aboard the full-sized military vessel, The Puglia. It was donated to d’Annunzio in 1923, and today houses a museum displaying models of warships that once belonged to the Duke of Aosta.
Contact: 00 39 0365 296 511; vittoriale.it
Opening times: Grounds 9am-9pm; House-museum (tours every 7-15min 9.30am-7pm)
Explore a magnificent aristocratic home
Majestically located on the lake’s largest island, and visitable only by guided tour, is the home of the Cavazza family. The imposing 20th-century villa was built in Venetian Neo-Gothic style, with arched windows and stone crenellations embellished with floral motifs. Terraced Italian and English gardens slope down to the lake, rich in exotic plants, rare flowers and fruit trees.
Insider’s Tip: Hidden here and there among aquatic plants and secular trees are wooden sculptures representing mythological creatures, including fawns, nymphs, and satyrs that blend in with the natural environment, adding a touch of fairy magic to the gardens.
Contact: 00 39 328 612 6943; isoladelgarda.com
Opening times: March-October (see website for latest tour schedules)
Trace an artist's footsteps
Struck by the beauty of Malcesine’s Castello Scaligero, writer Wolfgang Goethe retreated to a quiet corner to sketch and draw the castle where locals famously mistook him for an Austrian spy. A section of the castle is dedicated to the German writer, and part to the Natural History Museum. Protruding at a height of 24m above the water, the castle’s balcony offers panoramic vistas of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
Insider’s Tip: Look out for the hole in the ground by the entrance to the tower: it was once an escape route that connected the castle to the lake.
Contact: 00 39 045 657 0333; visitmalcesine.com
Opening times: March-November 9.30am-7pm; end February-mid March, Saturday and Sunday, 11am-6pm
Go hiking in the mountains
Revolving cabins swoosh passengers up Monte Baldo by cable car, travelling to an impressive height above sea level in 15 minutes. At the summit, a 360 panorama opens up: to the west the deep blue lakes, hemmed in by the pre-Alpine foothills, while to the east are rolling hills planted with lemon trees and olive groves. Footpaths trace the mountain crest, with a number of hiking and cycling trails descending to the shore.
Insider’s Tip: Expert hikers shouldn’t miss the Ventrar Trekking Route (2hrs), which abounds with rare Alpine species of flora and offering spectacular lake views.
Contact: 00 39 045 740 0206; funiviedelbaldo.it
Opening times: 8am-5pm
Visit a town forgotten by tourists
Stylish yachts gently dance in the marina, while pastel-coloured houses stretch along the lakefront promenade of Salò, a charming town tucked away in a natural inlet. The surrounding mountains form a scenic backdrop, framing the town’s buildings and lending it a decidedly Mediterranean feel. Despite its beauty, it largely remains off the tourist radar, although it attracts its share of yachties, who visit for the elegant boutiques, smart restaurants and attractive open-air cafés.
Insider’s Tip: Head up to Monte San Bartolomeo for a romantic one-hour walk, and retire to a waterfront bench to soak in the panoramic views of the Gulf of Salò.
Trek through caves to a cascading waterfall
Make your way along a series of walkways, bridges and up winding flights of steps with the sound of the pounding water and a fine spray of water enveloping the air. This narrow gorge has been carved 180ft deep through the limestone rock by the gushing water. Walk the fifteen metre-long tunnel into the mountain and watch this unique natural phenomenon from the park’s Upper Cave.
Insider’s Tip: Don’t miss the botanical park where alpine plants grow alongside Mediterranean species. You’ll find palm trees, olive trees, oleanders and cypresses as well as black pines, larches, and wild laurels.
Contact: 00 39 0464 521 421; cascata-varone.com
Opening times: 9am-7pm