The other Lake District

If Italy's cities are too bustling for you, it's time to take to the water, says Cathy Packe

In many Italian lakeside villages, the arrival of the steamer every couple of hours is the only thing that ruffles the unhurried rhythm of daily life. Locals sit outside waterfront bars, toothless old men chatting over a small cup of thick, black coffee or a glass of grappa. Women comb the local stores for fresh vegetables for supper, or call out to each other as they sweep the pavement outside their front doors. Tourists are forced to adapt to their new surroundings, slowing their own pace to match that of the local inhabitants.

In many Italian lakeside villages, the arrival of the steamer every couple of hours is the only thing that ruffles the unhurried rhythm of daily life. Locals sit outside waterfront bars, toothless old men chatting over a small cup of thick, black coffee or a glass of grappa. Women comb the local stores for fresh vegetables for supper, or call out to each other as they sweep the pavement outside their front doors. Tourists are forced to adapt to their new surroundings, slowing their own pace to match that of the local inhabitants.

This tranquillity draws visitors to the Italian Lake District, and makes this part of Italy different from any other. The 297 lakes - most very small, and many rarely visited - nestle in the foothills of the Alps, their waters created centuries ago from alpine glaciers. Part of Lake Maggiore disappears into Switzerland, and Lake Lugano is itself a Swiss lake seeping into Italian territory. Otherwise the region is pure Italian. But while those from outside may think of this part of northern Italy as a unified area, it contains parts of four very different regions: Lombardy (where the majority of the lakes are located), Piedmont, Trentino and Veneto. Each has its own distinctive culture and traditions. The nearest city is Milan, whose airport provides the gateway for most visitors, although Bergamo, Brescia and Verona are also good starting points, particularly for visits to Garda and the lesser-known Iseo.

The smaller lakes have yet to succumb to the demands of tourists, although most are pleasant enough places to stop for a lakeside lunch; but of these, only Lake Orta, with its main town of Orta San Giulio, is worth a visit in its own right. The most populated - and most visited - are Garda, Como and Maggiore. Each has its own character, and anyone who explores the region will quickly find their own favourite lakes and preferred destinations around each. Some visitors to Lake Garda prefer the tranquillity of Maderno, on the western shore, to the resort atmosphere of Riva at the northern end; while the bustle of Como, which gave its name to the deepest lake in the region, contrasts with the sleepy atmosphere of Varenna, some 20 miles away.

Garda is the largest of the lakes, and the most easterly, a strip of water not dissimilar in shape to Italy itself, but upside down. At the southern end, the peninsula of Sirmione juts out into the water, protected by the 12th-century fortress that is now the town's main attraction. But although historic buildings like these punctuate the shoreline, more appealing is the natural landscape - the tiny islands and rugged backdrops, and the lush vegetation flourishing in the mild climate.

There are many attractive gardens in the Lake District, the best-known of which belong to the Villa d'Este (00 39 031 3481; www.villadeste.it) at Cernobbio on Lake Como, built as the residence of the Cardinal of Como and now a luxury hotel. Other gardens on the lake include those of Villa Carlotta and Villa Melzi, not far from Bellaggio, and easily reachable by lake steamer. At least as striking are the gardens on the Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the lakes. Isola Madre is the largest of the islands, its exotic garden renowned for its azaleas and rhododendrons, and for its collection of white peacocks.

Travelling around the region, particularly in the height of the season, can be a stressful business unless you are prepared to trade the convenience of your own vehicle for the more relaxing experience of water-borne transport. A compromise might be to take one of the regular buses that serve the larger lakes, linking neighbouring villages with each other and with the nearest towns. Far more relaxing is a trip by lake steamer; these, and the faster hydrofoils, provide frequent links between one lakeside village and the next. Timetables are posted at each landing stage, but advance planning is not part of the local philosophy; most people wait until they see the boat approaching, and then stroll down to the water's edge to meet it.

Walking around the lakes at water level is a pastime to avoid: the roads that encircle the larger lakes are not designed for pedestrians, who take their life in their hands if they venture close to the carriageway. But with the possible exception of July and August, when it can become intolerably hot for walkers, the region offers excellent hiking territory. From early spring to late autumn, cable cars link Malcesine on the eastern shore of Lake Garda with Monte Baldo, and the village of Stresa on Lake Maggiore with the Mottarone peak, taking walkers to footpaths high above the water. Paths are clearly marked, with something to suit all levels of fitness and ability; from gentle walks through one of the region's national parks, to a seven-day hike through the more demanding terrain around Lake Como. Information about the trails in the region is available from the Alpine Club of Italy (00 39 02 205 7231, www.cai.it).

Holiday trends change but trips to the lakes never go out of fashion. The region has everything: quaint villages with attractive old squares and churches, beaches and seafront promenades, and varied countryside. And if the thought of so much activity is too daunting, there is always the option of joining the locals in the café for a coffee or grappa.

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.britishairways.com) flies from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester to Malpensa airport, 30 miles north-west of Milan. This is the best starting point for a trip to the western lakes if you are planning to pick up a hire car. The smaller Linate airport links up more quickly with transport from the city centre, some seven miles away. Linate is served by British Airways and Alitalia (0870 544 8259, www.alitalia.co.uk) flights from Heathrow. EasyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com) flies to Linate from Gatwick and Stansted. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to an airport which it calls Milan; this is really Bergamo, equidistant from Lakes Como and Iseo. Lake Garda is best reached from Verona; British Airways flies here from Gatwick. The airport that Ryanair describes as Verona is Brescia, 20 miles to the west of Lake Garda. Flights to Brescia depart from Stansted.

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