It is no wonder Italy is called il bel paese—the beautiful country! From the northern snow-capped peaks of the Alps and the idyllic hilltop villages of the renowned central Tuscany and Umbria areas, to the rugged southern shores of Sicily, lies a plethora of distinctive regions and people.
To my mind the northern Italian lakes offer some of the most spectacular scenery in Italy—placid waters, centuries-old villas draped with bougainvillea, charming villages, wonderful restaurants and the snow-capped Alps in the distance.
Just north of the fashion capital of Milan are Lakes Maggiore and Como—my absolute favourites. Shorelines dotted with picturesque villages, and a very peaceful, laid back atmosphere make this a very relaxed Italian experience.
On Lake Maggiore (pictured above) is Pescatori Island, named after the fishermen who made the area their home. With simple houses, narrow lanes and stone portals, you can be sure to find a local café with the freshest of fish on the menu. For a grander experience, stop in at Isola Bella to visit the Borromeo Palace with its magnificent gardens.
Lake Como has been a popular hang-out for the rich and famous for centuries, and some of the most beautiful villas are (or have been) home to the likes of George Clooney, Gianni Versace, Richard Branson and Ronaldinho. Some built in Roman times, the gardens are always spectacular, as the Mediterranean-like climate allows tropical and sub-tropical plants to grow year-round.
Some of the villas are now museums and galleries, allowing visitors a glimpse of an elegant and opulent era. A favourite is the 17th-century Villa Carlotta in the village of Tremezzo. The gardens here are best in spring when the colours of age-old orange trees, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias are at their peak. The waterfront villa itself is richly adorned with paintings, sculptures, tapestries and period furniture.
I have fond memories of my last visit to Lake Como (pictured above), staying in the gorgeous little village of Bellagio in the Central Lake area. After a leisurely breakfast on the hotel terrace we strolled to the ferry pier and bought a ferry pass for the day. That day we decided we would have a progressive lunch – one course at each of four villages on the lake. We enjoyed antipasti at Varenna Mon Amour in Varenna, homemade pasta at Il Ristorante di Paolo in Menaggio, freshly caught fish at Ristorante Belle Isole in Cadennabia and finally a fabulous gelato at Gelateria Helvetica in Tremezzo. We caught our final ferry back to Bellagio happily sated and convinced Italian cuisine is among the best in the world!
From Menaggio you can even take a day’s excursion to Switzerland, driving to Tirano then taking the spectacular Bernina Express train to St Moritz. And of course when in Switzerland, lunch at a chalet is a must!
Delightful boutique hotels, charming villages, delicious Italian cuisine, and absolutely stunning scenery make the Northern Lakes my idea of il bel paese.