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.

News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Sport
footballLive: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee