An enchanting landscape of deep, lake-filled valleys was carved across northern Italy by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age. Unique micro-climates provide this area with Mediterranean weather that is mild in both the summer and winter, fostering the lush hillside gardens that have attracted the vacationing elite since the days of the Roman Empire.
About an hour north of Milan, Italy's capital of fashion & design, a trio of stunning fresh-water lakes are located within just a few hours of each other. They're surrounded by jaw-dropping mountains that feature nearly every shade of green, and perched along their shorelines are a continuous series of picturesque lakeside villages, villas and palaces. Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta each offer visitors a chance to experience the fusion of culture that exists between the Alps and the rest of Italy; an opportunity to experience the rich Italian culture in a new way. And the hiking here is spectacular!
Having grown up in eastern Washington State, near the lakes and mountains of Northern Idaho, this part of Italy feels like home to me. These three lakes are spread across two of Italy's most prosperous provinces--Lombardy and Piedmont. It's a landscape dotted by elegant villas filled with magnificent art and furniture collections as well as gardens growing rare and exotic plants. Life here moves at a slow pace (or as the Italians would say, 'piano-piano'). You inevitably fall in love with the area as you make your way up the mountain roads that circle these gorgeous lakes, as you watch ferries and sleek private boats glide across the water, as you share a friendly "buona sera!" with locals as they take an evening stroll, or as you escape into the seemingly limitless hiking trails accessible from your door.
As a whole, the Italian Lakes region exudes the unparalleled romance of Europe, yet each lake has its own distinct charms and its own enthusiasts. Lake Como (known locally as Lario) is one of the deepest and can easily be identified on a map because it looks like an upside-down letter Y. Once known for its silk production, Como attracts a sophisticated crowd. Chic, colorful hillside villages like Bellagio and Varenna and lavish lakefront villas (including one famously owned by George Clooney) ooze a certain kind of low-key glamour found nowhere else. Lake Maggiore is the longest of the lakes, with wild woodlands on its eastern shores while the village of Stresa on its western side shows off ancient Italian architecture and views of the three lush and opulent Borromean Islands. The smallest and westernmost of the lakes is Orta, whose tranquil atmosphere is often overlooked. With forest that extends right down to the waterline and nearly-deserted beaches, it's truly a hidden gem. On the lake's eastern side, you'll find the elegant Moorish-inspired Villa Crespi, a one-of-a-kind palace that is a featured hotel on the Backroads Lake Como & Bellagio Walking & Hiking Tour.
Beyond the beauty of the landscape and architecture of Italy's Lakes region, it's the slower lifestyle embraced by the locals that allows the time to engage with visitors and share their love of the area and history their family has passed down. What could be better than having access to the unparalleled beauty of experiencing the mountain landscape by foot and boat? Or taking in different vantage points from above on every hike? If you are lucky, on a clear day from Trattoria Belvedere on Lake Como you can see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. At Church Carmine Superior on Lake Maggiore you can see the Val Grande, the largest wilderness reserve in Italy. An area between Lakes Maggiore and Orta gives you the chance to ride a cable car up to the summit of Mottarone to see a vast range of mountains all around you. Then, opt for a breathtaking descent aboard an extraordinary bobsled rollercoaster. It's a spectacular experience!
Spending a day out on the trails followed by an afternoon of learning about the culture through different destinations on the lakes, then capping it off with an escape into a beautiful hotel provides you with a classic charm that simply cannot be found at home. It also helps you to understand why so many of the European and American elite chose to own villas here! Whether visiting Borromeo Palace on Lake Maggiore to get lost in the extensiveness of the palace and gardens, taking an excursion across the lake to Santa Caterina or arranging to visit some of Italy's most renowned botanical gardens, my own free time in the region has been fulfilling beyond my wildest dreams. And the list of possibilities to connect with history keeps growing!
On the Backroads Lake Como & Bellagio Walking & Hiking Tour our guests get the chance to visit Villa del Balbianello, an experience that is not well known or easily accessible. This private villa located on the tip of a small wooded peninsula on the western shore of Lake Como is an architectural marvel with intricate balconies and rooms filled with stunning art. It's been featured in a number of films, most notably Casino Royale and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Talk to any Backroads Leader and they'll tell you that this is their favorite part of the trip.
The Italian lakes ceaselessly reveal hidden gems that make me fall more in love with the region every time I visit. The landscape, the Italian people, the superb cuisine and the captivating history all blend into one fabulously enriching experience that enables me to stay active while on a getaway from everyday worries. In my retirement you may find me hiking the Fiume di Latte on Lake Como, sipping a spritz at the lakeside city of Varenna and residing in my future home just around the corner from Bellagio's Villa Serbelloni. But first, I just need to find the perfect Italian man 🙂