A drop of heaven in the Italian lakes

It was the third straight day of rain. The cobblestone streets of Orta San Giulio, in Italy’s Lake District, were slick, slowing our walking pace as we ensured our feet were connected to the ground with every step. The hood of my rain jacket impeded my vision as I looked to my right and left, taking in every church, gelateria, and pizzeria. It was a downpour and there was no end to it in sight; but it was raining in Italy, which makes all the difference in the world.

The plan from the start was this: explore three of Italy’s five great lakes – Orta, Maggiore and Como – by foot, connecting local hikes and walks (with a few car and boat rides here and there).

To do so, I joined Vermont, USA-based Country Walkers for a guided walking and hiking tour of the region: eight days, three lakes and several routes in between that would wind us through forests, small villages and along the historic paths that wind their way along the border of Switzerland.


The Lake of Artists

Our first stop was two hours north of Milan and the wisteria-lined shores of Lake Orta. If you haven’t heard of Lake Orta, don’t despair, neither had I. It is one of the smallest of the Italian Lakes, but it may very well be the most ethereal and charming.

Lake Orta is where artists once, and still, go to get away and ‘into their heads’. Writers like Byron, Nietzsche, de Balzac and Browning, among others, have come here to escape the hordes of people and the societal jockeying of other European resorts.

We stayed on the eastern shore of Orta San Giulio at the island’s four-star, lakeside Hotel San Rocco, once a 17th-century convent. From here it is easy to access the small alleyways, Nonna-run pizzerias and the baroque church of St. Chiesa dell Assunta.

On our first day in Orta San Giulio, we were led by our guides past this church to a mountain-top shrine called Sacred Mount, home to 20 chapels dedicated to the life of St Francis of Assisi and built between 1591 and 1700. There are dozens of similar shrines around Italy, visited by pilgrims for centuries; but this is the only one dedicated to someone other than Jesus himself. The construction of these chapels was an amazing act of religious devotion, and one could spend the day admiring the architecture, the sculptures inside and the stories that unfold at each stop, but Sacred Mount is just a fraction of this special town.

Orta San Giulio is filled with small shops and restaurants that, not surprisingly, specialise in seafood plucked from the waters on which it rests. Boats and water taxis criss-cross the water, taking locals and visitors to locations nearby, including the Isola San Giulio, which is a small island dominated by basilica and an abbey of cloistered nuns, giving the island its nickname, the “Island of Silence.”

It is also a popular summer destination for a small number of Italian families. A highlight was a walk around the island following “The Way of Silence,” which, when followed in the other direction, becomes “The Way of Meditation.”


Where Hemingway was inspired

It is no secret Ernest Hemingway was connected to Italy and A Farewell to Arms was written in part while convalescing on the shores of Lake Maggiore, his “home away from home.”

This is one of the more developed lake regions, with grand old hotels in Stresa like the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees where Hemingway himself slept. Like Hemingway, we made our way to the island of Pescatori, and the green-shuttered, 12-room Hotel Verbano.

The rain did not let up, so our guides made the call not to hike. Instead we were given the chance to explore Isola Bella, which is entirely occupied by the Palazzo Borromeo and its spectacular Italian gardens. Built in the 17th century for the Borromeo family (which still owns the property, opening only selected state rooms to the public), this splendid summer palace features a wealth of paintings by Lombard artists, sculptures by Canova and Flemish tapestries. This is the same palace where Mussolini tried to stop World War II before it began at the Conference of Stresa in April 1935 and the where Napoleon famously made himself at home with his entire entourage for several nights in 1797.

After inspecting every allowable nook and cranny of this jaw-dropping home and garden – the latter is structured as a secession of 10 terraces filled with 17th-century sculptures, magnolias, oleander, cedars, laurel trees and white peacocks – the skies cleared just long enough for us to gather in the garden for a glass of prosecco from the Piedmont region and boat back to Isola Pescatori without a duck and cover.

We were greeted by Hotel Verbena staff with an afternoon apertivo, another glass of fantastic prosecco, and bites of small Italian cookies. Before dinner, we lingered in our rooms with the French doors thrown open to the terrace, allowing the breeze from the lake to enter and providing views of nearby Isola Madre, plus the sound of boats passing and birds swooping in on the catches local fisherman. Dinner at Hotel Verbano was one of the best of the entire trip. I chose a thoughtfully crafted entrée of risotto with fillets of perch fresh from the lake.


Where reputation doesn’t do justice

Of course, the best known of the three – and perhaps all of the Italian lakes – is Lake Como. It was here we travelled to the small but internationally renowned “pearl of Lake Como”, Bellagio.

There we stayed at the incomparable Hotel Belvedere, just a short walk away from town. Hotel Belvedere has a storied history with international travellers and while there we were privy to the hospitality shaped by the five generations of women in the same family, who have owned and operated Hotel Belvedere since 1880.

The mountains around Lake Como rise strikingly from the shore, which makes for excellent hiking, mountaineering and cycling. Our time in Bellagio was highlighted by a rainy hike from the village of Tremezzo to Lenno along a trail used by generations of Italians. It wove us through small towns, gardens and farms until the end at which we had the meal of the trip at Restaurante Plino. After five hours on the trail, the awaiting carafes of house wine and house-made pappardelle were only outdone by the hands-down, best tiramisu of my life. If not for our local guides, who were with us every step of the way, small gems like this would have been overlooked – and Restaurante Plino is most definitely an osteria (and hotel) worth seeking out.

Bellagio and Lake Como have been so built up by their reputation for attracting celebrities and other glitterati, I almost had prepared myself to be let down. Perhaps it would be too crowded? Too touristy? Too perfect? On the contrary, I found a community of real people in a very real place with history and culture layers deep.

Because of the weather, we did fewer hikes than planned throughout our tour of the Italian lakes region. But when that door closed, another door opened – like the one to Villa Carlotta, once a stop for wealthy English on the Grand Tour, and to Villa del Balbianello, Villa Melzi, to Hotel Belvedere’s spa and my favorite Bellagio enoteca for a glass of nebbiolo, Cava Turracciolo.

And when we did hike, amid the sound of bells hanging from the neck of cattle and the curious call of cuckoos in the trees, we retraced the steps of generations of men and women who have worked the hills, fields and mountains of this spectacular region. With every step you create an intimate appreciation for the life of these people, their culture and the stunning landscape they call home – in any kind of weather.

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