and a cheese plate in Bergamo
In a search of weeklong, sunny, relaxed and picturesque vacation in Europe the destination was decided to be Northern Italy. Easy to reach, plenty to see, superb climate and great food, what else to wish for? I personally have been exploring Italy for the last fifteen years since the time I’ve lived in Milan, but it never gets old. This time I chose to concentrate on three major lakes that are in the close proximity to Milan, with brief visits to Verona and Venice for the full experience package. Each of those towns deserves a post on its own, but this time we are going to concentrate on the great lakes of Northern Italy.
Lake Como is of course the most famous one, with celebrities’ jet setting and spending summers in their villas. It is posh and elegant, busy with ferries and private motor boats rushing through its waters.
Como town itself is a small quiet village, so head to somewhere more picturesque, like well-known and quaint Bellagio or neighboring Varenna. Both of these two little towns offer labyrinths of narrow, cobbled stone streets filled with cafes over magnificent lake views. None of these towns will get you lost, but will guarantee you a daily count of steps achieved with no effort, sun kissed shoulders and a playful mood from a glass of bubbly at the pit stops here and there.
If you are fond of visiting stunning villas, there are plenty you can find around, like villa Carlotta with botanical garden in Tremezzo town, stunning Villa Pliniana next to Torno village, or probably the most famous - Villa del Balbianello, which is located in the middle of the lake overlooking the entire Lake Como. Balbianello is a movie star on its own, where scenes for James Bond Casino Royale were filmed, along with A Month by the Lake, Star Wars and His Demise all have been shot here. Nowadays it is used as a tourist attraction and a venue for private events. Last year we have been lucky to be guests at the wedding of our dear friend that took place here and we can assure you, that apart from having the personal attachment to this stunning property, the views of and from the villa have left us completely breathless.
Lake Maggiore is my favorite and the second biggest lake in Italy. Not having much patience, every time when I am in Northern Italy, I head straight to Stresa or the “Queen of the Lake”, the town of baroque hotels, long promenade and an easy access to Borromean Islands (which is a group of three small islands and two islets in the part of Lago Maggiore, where Stresa lays at the south).
My personal preference of the Borromean Islands is Isola Bella, which is truly a gem of this region. Isola Island was built in the shape of a ship and is mostly occupied by the Isola Bella palace and its surrounding gardens, leaving a tiny space for few narrow streets with shops and restaurants. The Isola Bella Palace is certainly a must visit. Behind its walls you will discover very differently and lavishly decorated rooms and breathtaking multi-leveled garden with grand white peacocks, sculptures and ponds, all drowning in the sweet fragrance of flowers;, in addition, the magnificent lake views will comfort your eyes.
It is recommended to go in the morning to beat the crowd and complete all sightseeing by noon, in time for restaurants to open for lunch (keep in mind that in Italy lunch is served between 12 and 2 p.m. with no decent food until dinner time at 7 p.m).
I have been to Isola Bella many times, always visiting the palace and the same restaurant - Elvezia restaurant, and still not able to decide which one I am returning for, so I would call it the perfect combination at its best.
So, once the clock strikes noon, head to Elvezia restaurant , get a table on the second floor terrace overlooking the lake and Stresa town facing. Indulge yourself in the delicious lunch, which you must end with a cup of Italian espresso and the best homemade limoncello. The Limoncello at this place is like no other you have ever tasted before - sweet and creamy, thick in texture (similar to condensed milk) with intoxicating aroma of lemon zest.
Lake Garda is more of a peaceful place with flatter meadows in this northern part of Italy. Sibling of the other two lakes, Garda is the largest and cleanest one. Famous for its natural thermal baths, the lake attracted those who favor sulfur hot water treatments going back to Roman times.
Desenzano del Garda is the biggest town on the coast of Garda, stretching along with extensive promenades and small benches, which make for a beautiful stroll along the water.
Sirmione, is a comune in Lombardy which neighbors Desenzano del garda in the province of Verona. The charming old town is well known for its thermal springs and related treatments. Located on the edge of peninsula, the old town of Sirmione is probably the coziest place you can find here, with its medieval castle, tiny yet proudly stylish curved streets, restaurants with water views, amazing food, hundreds of flavors of Italian ice cream - gelato, and local wines to choose from.
While travelling around these lakes, which are about one hour drive apart from each other, you will be passing the town of Bergamo, which I believe everyone has to visit. Though many think it is simply an airport of the low-cost airlines for a budget trip to Milan, Bergamooffers stunning views that are already seen from a road as you approach it. The Upper town is located on the top of the hill and headed by the castle. Take the funicular to go up and prepare to give in into an evening inside medieval walls and fine dining. I have to admit, I keep on coming back here for food. Not a single place has disappointed me here throughout the years. Bergamo is all about gourmet tourism.
Go to Ristorante Lalimentari and try the best burrata with fresh bread (Italian cheese made from buffalo milk, similar in shape to mozzarella, but more of a whipped cream in texture), melting in your mouth. Lalimentari has, probably, the best selection of wines in town as well. Head to Al Donizetti for the most through and through cheese plate, with cheeses arranged in the order from youngest to most mature ones. Trust me, you will be surprised to learn something new about your cheese preferences. Or simply walk from place to place trying superb dishes or having a piece of pastry with a cup of espresso.
As mentioned at the beginning, all of these places are easily covered within a week, leaving you with endless memories, a full camera roll and clear understanding where you want to return and spend more time. Don’t plan much, just grab a car and drive around, explore and take in the moments, because Northern Italy has so much to offer and can please any taste.