My Favorite Destinations: Two Italian Lakes
by Diana Hechler
(May 13, 2004) Looking for a little magic in your life? Fly to Milan and drive north. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore are ready to seduce you. This is the landscape the great English romantic poets fell in love with; it’s easy to see why.
Lake Maggiore, part Swiss and part Italian, offers a gentle vista to the traveler. The foothills recede in the distance while the resort towns of the shore offer simple pleasures, always enhanced by the beauty and peace of the lake.
Stresa, the principal town, is eminently walkable. The big hotels front onto the beautiful lakeside park, while the town offers more modest lodgings. Elegant shops and good restaurants abound, all set against the glorious mountain lake backdrop. At dusk, the lakefront park is alive with strolling couples, lovers, and families. Of course, there’s a small merry-go-round for the little ones. Local transportation is by water.
Directly offshore from Stresa lie 3 special islands, of which Isola Bella is the most captivating. In the 16th century, a wealthy Milanese family transformed a barren rock into a fairyland of manicured lawns (replete with white peacocks), elegant plantings, a small palace, and a baroque structure featuring a summer house, 11 terraces, hanging gardens, more Roman and Greek statuary than you can name, and a view from the top to die for. Isola Bella immediately became a mandatory stop on the Grand Tour of Europe for the sons and daughters of the wealthy. The Borromeo family still owns the island and hosted a major international conference there in 1936 in a last attempt to stave off World War II.
Nearby are Isola Pescatore (Island of the Fisherman, a.k.a. Island of the Tourist Trap) and Isola Madre. Not as glamorous as its sister, Isola Madre has its own charms as a botanist’s paradise. Rare and exotic plantings from all over the world have thrived in the balmy climate and a small villa exhibits a puppet collection, including many backdrops designed by one of the original set designers for La Scala.
Now, for something more dramatic, you could venture next door to Lake Como, where the mountains plunge right down into the crystalline lake. Like its neighbor, Lake Como has always attracted the wealthy Milanese, who built beautiful villas on its shores. The best-known is Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, distinguished by its signature exterior staircase. Punctuated by glorious geraniums, the white marble staircase has 8 different branches, all perfectly symmetrical. A small formal garden graces the front of the villa, while azaleas and rhododendrons highlight more than 80 acres of an “English-style” park and untrammeled woodland.
Directly across the lake in Bellagio (and not by accident) is the Villa Melzi, built by a rival to the owner of the Villa Carlotta. The competition between the two owners has a long and interesting history, but too long to reproduce here. The lovely Villa Melzi garden features grassy knolls with well-designed plantings, a Japanese bridge, a Moroccan coffeehouse, and a small shrine thought to have inspired Franz Liszt (a frequent guest) to compose his sonata, “To Dante”.
Perhaps you’re wondering whether Star Wars has any connection to Lake Como? It absolutely does, and anyone who has seen the most recent installment in the series might recognize the enchanting Villa Balbianello. Small and perfect, Balbianello must be reached by boat, an ideal spot to represent a galaxy far, far away….
I haven’t even mentioned the quaint fishing villages, the silk factories of Como, the old Borromeo fortress at Angera, or the outstanding luxury of the lakeside hotels. This is truly an enticing region of a beautiful country.