Italy’s Lake Maggiore: Fanciful and Fantastic
By Catherine Richards Golini
Lake Maggiore is Italy’s second biggest lake. Acting as a watery boundary between two regions – Lombardy and Piedmont, Maggiore can also claim to be in two countries at once: its northern tip sits in Switzerland.
Because all of the Italian lakes have huge charm, and Maggiore – also called Verbano – is no exception. Milan’s Malpensa airport to Lake Maggiore is only 34 miles, and it’s less glitzy than Como, less crowded than Garda, and is, on the whole, a more natural experience. Until you reach Stresa however, where the fantastical and the grandiose rule.
On Maggiore you get to nod off on a ferry boat and wake up in another country, which is great fun if you’ve remembered your passport, and less amusing if you haven’t.
As with all the Italian lakes, the micro-climate means endless sunshine and palm trees, though it’s a good few degrees cooler here than on Garda and Como.
And the Alpine backdrop: from the eastern shore on a clear day you get to see Monte Rosa, (4633 metres – 15,200 feet), which is not a single mountain but a glacier-covered massif with ten summits no less. Four of these peaks are among the highest in the Alps.
WHEN TO GO
April to October is the best period if you plan on enjoying the botanical gardens or the sun. As with the other lakes, some of the hotels and restaurants are closed between November and March, though Maggiore has a number of working towns which continue to function long after the tourists have gone home.
Having said that, Locarno, Verbania, Stresa and Luino are all much more attractive
outside of the winter season. Temperatures can reach mid-30s Celsius in July and August (That’s around 95 degrees Fahrenheit), though snow is very common between January and February (even in March!). Expect some spectacular thunderstorms in August, and heavy rain in April and October.
HOW TO GET THERE
Milan’s Malpensa airport is closest airport to the Italian part of the lake – 34 miles away. Milan’s Linate is also relatively near, though you could consider flying to Zurich and training it to Locarno if you want to include Switzerland in your trip. At the time of writing, a direct flight from New York to Zurich is a good $300 cheaper than one to Milan.
For updated boat services on the lake check out navigazionelaghi.it or pick up a timetable at your hotel. The fastest service from Locarno in the north to Arona on the southern tip of the lake takes around 1 hour 45 minutes.
There is an hourly service from Milan’s central station to Stresa, the best known resort on the lake, and though you can book online, Trenitalia’s Swiss cousin, SBB CFF FFS is a lot easier to navigate if you want to book tickets to Locarno. These days Milan’s majestic Stazione Centrale boasts plenty of automatic ticket machines, so standing in the wrong line for 45 minutes is something you need do only if you’re killing time between trains.
(Borromeo Islands): Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori and Isola Madre.
Isola Bella is indeed beautiful – and very theatrical. A Italian baroque palace with terraced gardens, it seems at odds with its surroundings. It’s been described as an enormous tiered wedding cake, and French composer Gabriel Fauré wasn’t overly impressed: “on Isola Bella… nature has been tortured into artificiality’’ he wrote. Charles Dickens was a fan, though, and reasoned [that] ” …however fanciful and fantastic the Isola Bella may be, and is, it still is beautiful.’’ Love it or hate it, but see it you must.
Take a look at Isola Madre too, the largest of the islands and perhaps the most composed. The Borromeo family home comes complete with peacocks, parrots and pheasants, and a garden that is particularly beautiful in the spring.
And finally there’s Isola Pescatori, an island of working fishermen and their families. It’s almost ridiculously picturesque – and packed in high-season. Get up early and take the 9.15 am launch across (from Stresa) to avoid the crowds, or go outside peak season. Incidentally the Borromeo family still hold all fishing rights to the lake and apparently spend a couple of weeks in the summer here. Like Queen Elisabeth II, a flag will be hoisted when the family are in residence.
If you’re driving, approaching from Verbania is recommended – if only for the impact. Just as you’re reaching for the guidebook and wondering what all the fuss was about, Stresa appears. Enormous 19th century hotels that seem four floors too high, vivid planting, palm trees and those islands. If you’re feeling flush, stay at the ‘Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees’, the grandest of all the grand hotels here.
Ernest Hemingway was invalided here in 1918 when it served as a hospital in the First World War. He came back in 1948 and set some of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ here. If that doesn’t appeal, pick up a copy of ‘Good Blood’ (2004) by Aaron Elkins. A mystery, set in Stresa and on the fictitious ‘Isola de Grazia.’
Rocca di Angera
9 km (5.6mi) from Stresa at Angera. A superb castle, with 11th century origins. Originally owned by the Visconti family and purchased by the Borromeo family in the 15th century for the princely sum of 18,500 lire. The fantasy continues even here as the castle is often a venue for pseudo-medieval events – Gandolf get-togethers – and is also the location of Italy’s best known doll musuem with over 1000 exhibits.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
Santa Caterina del Sasso on the eastern shore of the lake (open 8.30-12 and 2-6). Unusual not only because of its location – clinging to the sheer cliffs of Sasso Ballaro- but because of its history. In the 12th century a wealthy merchant and money lender named Alberto Besozzi was sailing on the lake when, in a storm, his boat capsized. He prayed to Saint Catherine of Alessandria to save him which she seemingly did – a enormous wave swept Alberto up, depositing him on a rocky ledge.
By way of thanks he dedicated the next forty years of his life to Saint Catherine – spending every day of those 40 years in a cave as a hermit. Locals lowered food and water to him in a basket, while he developed quite a reputation for his piety. The convent – deserted since 1770 when the Austrians suppressed it – dates from the 13th century. An incredible feat of engineering and of religious devotion.
The hermitage is used as a venue for classical concerts during the ‘Settimane Musicali di Stresa e del Lago Maggiore’, ticket holders taking a special boat from Stresa.
BEST ACTIVITY OR TOUR
Lago Maggiore Express – Take a round trip, between Stresa and Locarno via Domodossola. You take the tiny ‘Centovalli’ –railway, which twists, climbs and creaks its way between Switzerland and Italy through the Centovalli (One Hundred Valleys) and the Valle Vergozza. From Domodossola to Stresa on a regular Trenitalia train. Lake travel by boat. Craggy rocks with the bluest of lakes way below you, (gulp); waterfalls, chestnut woods, tiny rustici (stone built houses) just metres away from the train window.
As with all good things, getting the train early in the morning is recommended. Get the first train from Locarno and you might have it all to yourself. Using the train late afternoon in the summer guarantees a less tranquil experience. www.centovalli.ch
To visit nearby Lago d’Orta, take the bus to Omegna and then hop onto a boat to Orta San Giulo. For an online regional bus route and timetable check out vcoinbus.it.
San Giulio d’Orta is an exquisite lakeside town with a view of the most beautiful lake island in northern Italy: Isola San Guilio. After the excesses of tour parties, backpackers, pullmans and traffic on every other lake in northern Italy, the tranquility of San Giulio d’Orta will leave you wishing you’d booked a week here instead. Well, there’s always next year.
Above Locarno in Switzerland take the stunning cable car to Cardada-Cimetta and enjoy the view. The cable car was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. It deposits you at Cardada (1400 metres – 4,593 feet) and you then have the option of walking or taking the ski lift a further 300 metres to Cimetta. A 360° panoramic view, and the peaks of Monte Rosa are your prize.
For another great view, try Monte Mottarone, between Lakes Maggiore and Orta. A cable car swings you up to the peak in 20 minutes, and at nearly 1500 metres (4,921 feet) the views are stunning – all seven lakes in Lombardy and Piemonte, weather permitting. Apparently Milan’s duomo can even be seen – if you know where to look of course. As at Cimetta (see above), locals ski here in the winter.
Maggiore is a lake of festivals – music and film particularly.
The Locarno Film Festival, fourth most important in Europe, kicks off the first week of August and runs for nearly two weeks. Spend the night here and watch a movie in Piazza Grande – on the biggest outdoor screen in Europe. Check out a report on this year’s festival at kamera.co.uk The official site is at www.pardo.ch
The Ascona Jazz Festival celebrates the jazz of New Orleans, the best of its kind outside of the US. End of June/ beginning of July. Tickets are very reasonable, the vibe is great and the location stunning.
For classical fans, the lake hosts The Settimane Musicali. The festival, with concerts by some of Europe’s best performers, is shared by both the Italians and the Swiss and runs from July right through to October.
If budget is not a concern, there are no end of comfortable hotels in and around Stresa, the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees being the best. And for a unique experience try the Hotel Verbano on the Isola dei Pescatori.
In Baveno, a quieter resort than Stresa, try the historic Lido Palace Hotel. Winston Churchill passed through on honeymoon in 1908, though the grandest visitor must surely be Queen Victoria, who was here in 1879.
If you’re looking for something a little less popular (read ‘busy’) you may wish to consider staying further up the lake towards Switzerland. Try the Grand Hotel Majestic at Pallanza or stay further up at Cannobio at the affordable Hotel Pironi, or in neighbouring Cannero (Hotel Cannero).
Both Cannobio and Cannero are attractive, and small enough to be relaxing (except on a Sunday in Cannobio – market day and very busy!).
A tip: the road that runs down from Locarno to the south of the Lake is beautiful but tough to drive (you compete with lines of slow-moving caravans and buses) and hellish to cross.
In Switzerland, head to Ascona. Unlike many other towns on Maggiore there’s no traffic between you and the lake. The Hotel Piazza au Lac offers clean, well-priced rooms, all with a view. Book early enough and ask for a room on the third floor.
There are plenty of campsites for those on a budget – Camping Riviera in Cannobio has direct access to the lake. Locarno has a couple of luxury campsites (5 stars, no less) with caravans to rent, Camping Tamaro and Camping Delta at the end of the lake and a youth hostel in the town (Via Verenna 18; Email). Verbania also has a youth hostel (Via alle Rose 7; Email).
If you’re looking to rent an apartment, a local company, Lago-Holiday has a good selection and a website in English and in Baveno, near Stresa, there’s the Residenza Ortensia which offers small appartments (open all year).
Above Verbania, head to a tiny village called Bee (10 minutes in a taxi) for a sublime view of the lake and excellent food at Chi Ginn (Via Maggiore 21, Bee; Tel. 0323/56326 )
Try also Il Boccon di Vino, Via Troubetzkoy, 86; Tel:0323/504039 – a simple osteria with great food.
Piemontese (Via Mazzini, 25 tel 0323-30235) serves, as you might expect, regional cuisine. A great place in the centre of town.
Lo Scalo (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 32; Tel. 032371480). Elegant and discrete, in Cannobio’s main square on the lake.
Try the Chinese on the lakefront – great menu and with a lovely terrace overlooking the lake. Watch the moon rise as you enjoy the thrill that come of eating affordably in Switzerland. Also try Nostrana on the lakefront for pizza and pasta.
Avoid the restaurants and cafes along the lake and in Piazza Grande – head into the ‘citta vecchia’ (the old town) and try Cittadella, Via Cittadella 18 (091/751 58 85) for pizza downstairs and pricier but good fish upstairs.
At the end of Piazza Grande, one place worth checking out is Cantina Canetti – a noisy traditional bar which serves very simple local dishes. Great for atmosphere.
Further along the lake (walk it, 15 minutes; Via alla Riva 2, Minusio) is Navegna. In the summer, eat outside here or stop for an apertivo. The food is good, the view lovely.
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