Travel Italy: It's a shore thing

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Summer or winter, life is always divine on the edge of Lake Trasimeno, writes Kate Mikhail

It was as if Michelangelo's God from the Sistine Chapel had deserted the heavens for a day to join us mortals in a spot of sunbathing as an impressive, hirsute figure of a man strode purposefully across the beach in a fetching pair of skimpy, navy-blue swimming trunks. I sat mesmerised as this bearded apparition marched towards me - and then around me and off in the direction of the Sualzo Beach Funky Bar. Very appropriate, I thought.

I was at a tiny Umbrian beach on the northern edge of lake Trasimeno, in Passignano, a vast expanse of water with three large islands and surrounded by low, rolling hills covered with olive groves and vineyards. Everyone and their mother, it seems, has their own olive and grape crop, down to one elderly couple I saw with just a handful of trees and vines in their front garden.

For those with lots of energy to burn, there are surfboards, pedal boats and sailing boats for hire - or you can throw yourself around playing volleyball or basketball. Personally, I opted for lolling around under a weeping willow, with gentle strolls in search of the local sights. But this is not one of those beach resorts that is just worth visiting in the summer. In the winter, the air is clear and crisp, the sun warm and the views and walks as scenic as ever, with the added plus of being virtually tourist free.

If you arrive by train, a pounds 1.40 ride from nearby Perugia, don't be put off by the deserted ghost town of a station. Just a short walk from here you'll find yourself in the centre of Passignano, home to a tiny ferry port that runs a regular service to Trasimeno's islands.

Here, you can sit outdoors, on the lake's edge, and pose with the best of them. There are a number of colourful bar-style kiosks where the food is fresh and cheap, and chrome jukeboxes dotted around in their own made- to-measure, weather-proof shelters act as magnets to the local designer- clad youths. This is clearly the place where everyone comes to pass the time of day, and, to mingle effectively with the Italians, it soon became obvious that dark shades are a must, all year round.

The old centre of Passignano is on a small hill directly above the ferry port and is filled with picturesque dolls' houses and impossibly narrow streets. The view from the top is spectacular and well worth the uphill climb, although a strange collection of somewhat ropy artworks in the hilltop ruins were a surreal and confusing distraction.

If you spend any length of time in Italy, the chances are that you will start putting on the pounds, as life here is so food-oriented and the food so good. Sooner or later, exercise becomes the only option, which is why Passignano is perfect. There are several walks suggested by the local tourist board that show off the high number of churches and castles around the perimeter of the lake, the most impressive castle being the Castiglione del Lago on the west side of lake Trasimeno; but head off in almost any direction and you will not be disappointed.

I had been tucking into the local chocolate delicacy, Baci, which can be bought individually from just about anywhere, and felt that a healthy walk was long overdue. Apart from being dangerously moreish, Baci carry folded up "messages of love" which have the same gimmicky attraction as the bad jokes you get in Christmas crackers. "When I saw you I fell in love and you smiled because you knew," read one, and another: "Where the eyes willingly fall so does the heart and eventually the feet." I was beginning to see why Italian men have a reputation for being such romantics.

On the other hand, who could fail to be poetically inclined in such surroundings? Whatever you do, when you visit Trasimeno, make sure you take the ferry to Isola Maggiore, said to have been visited by St Francis of Assisi in 1211. The trip takes about 30 minutes, costs 8,000 lire (pounds 3) return, and is beautifully relaxing. And it is only once you are afloat that you will really appreciate the sheer size of this lake.

The island itself is magical. It is a car-free zone, a great luxury, and has a great walk around its shore path and up to the top to the church of San Archangelo with its 14th-15th century frescos.

Isola Maggiore is quite a tourist attraction in the summer but in the winter and spring it is fairly deserted, and walking into the local bar felt like barging into someone's private living room. A group of friends were sprawled around, nattering and watching TV, although they did eventually clear a space. Food was not on offer, so if you're going to make a day of it out of season, it may be an idea to pack a picnic.

Later, dining al fresco, high in the hills above the lake in the forecourt of an Italian villa with the dark, gnarly silhouettes of an olive grove just below and the endless stretch of the lake below that, I could understand the pride of the locals and why my host rather harshly rubbished any other nearby town mentioned as "just a dump". Passignano certainly felt out of this world - a resort fit for gods.

avanti, avanti

Getting there

New, low-cost flights to Italy on no-frills airlines make the country much easier and cheaper to reach this summer than before. Go (0845 60 54321) is launching to Rome and Milan on 22 and 23 May respectively, and promises to sell all seats at pounds 100 all summer.

Getting information

Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171- 408 1254; brochure request line 0891 600280).

Getting wet

"Days of heavy rain have resulted in serious flooding and landslides in the southern part of the region of Campania. A state of emergency has been declared. The mountainous area on the borders between the provinces of Salerno and Avellino, where several towns have been hit by mudslides, is worst affected. Other towns which have been badly affected are Siano, Bracigliano, Sarno and Quindici (the latter having been completely engulfed by mud). Visitors are strongly advised against travel to these areas. There have also been minor landslides in other areas, such as the holiday resort of Amalfi, where damage has been assessed as minimal" - Foreign Office advice, issued on 6 May.