Panier Escadrille Paris


A few words are all it takes: Como, Riva di Garda, Villa d’Este, Isola Bella… for the imagination to run wild and the heart to beat faster. In northern Italy, the lakes have that extra something: undeniable glamour, an ultra-desirable lifestyle and stunning beauty. Each in their own way has forged the idea that even before the seaside, this was the place to be, in this slightly blasé nonchalance, holidaying in villas with extravagant gardens dripping with flowers, bathed in an exceptional microclimate. Times have changed, and the beautiful villas have become spectacular hotels, but what remains is a gentle way of life and a fascination for these mountain landscapes that tumble into pure water, and these picture-postcard villages. We take a trip to 4 mythical lakes in northern Italy, each of which we love for different reasons: Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta and Lake Garda.


At the root of it all is nature, the mid-range mountains that plunge into the magnificent waters of the lake, steep landscapes, and a luxuriant flora that is even more beautiful in spring when the orange, pear and peach trees are flowering and the rhododendrons and magnolias are in full bloom. This is true of all the lakes in northern Italy, where the mild climate despite the proximity of the Alps (whose snow-capped peaks can be seen) has encouraged this exuberance of greens, pinks and reds.

In this sumptuous natural setting, the ultimate touch of Italian glamour has been added: villas built by the Milanese aristocracy, grandiose splendours whose owners you can’t help but wonder about (and as you come into sight of Villa Oleandra, you secretly hope to see George Clooney taking a dip), their flower-filled gardens covered with sculptures, and their stone terraces adorned with iron gates that creak as they soar above the waters.

Small villages, around thirty in all, dot the coastline, retaining an old-fashioned charm despite the tourism invasion. Leading the way is Bellagio, enthroned on its strategic position, with its steep streets and colourful houses; Varenna and its 14th-century church; San Giorgio and its Villa Monastero, with its feet in the water and lavish gardens filled with exotic plants; Tremezzo and its sumptuous Villa Carlotta. Escape to the peace and quiet of Lenno, Azzano and Menaggio, and enjoy the sumptuous views from Villa del Balbianello or Villa Mylius Vigoni.

You’ll dream of the hotels that stretch along the coast, some of the finest in the world: Villa d’Este, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, all reminders of a time when the wealthy of Italy, and of Europe with the opening of tunnels to cross the Alps, were dazzled to discover this lake and those around it, and invented the concept of the lakeside holiday.

But there’s nothing to stop you reliving a little of that splendour, by hiring a mythical Riva for a few hours to see the beautiful villas from the water, or, more accessible and just as bewitching, by boarding the river shuttle that leaves from the village of Como and goes all the way to Bellagio. The journey takes around 3 hours, and is like a daydream on Italy’s most famous lake.


Lake Maggiore, which seems to concentrate all the musicality of the Italian language in a single name, became a tourism go-to when the Simplon tunnel was completed in 1906 (the longest tunnel in the world for 76 years!), making it easy to reach Stresa, the village on the west coast of the lake, from France.

What fascinates us here (more than the lake itself and its coastline, which is very beautiful but less spectacular than that of Lake Como) is the history of the Borromeo family, a powerful Lombard aristocratic and political family whose lineage dates back to the 15th century, and the archipelago of 5 islands on which the family had marvels built, set like sparkling pearls on Lake Maggiore (the family does not own all the islands in the archipelago). 3 of them can be visited and are well worth the trip to lake Maggiore.

Isola Bella, with its extravagant 15th-century Baroque palace, mosaic-covered grottoes, the unicorn emblem of the Borromeo family and, above all, its incredibly exuberant terraced gardens, is the one that enchanted us most. Its unique charm has also won over a famous luxury brand (Louis Vuitton), which has just held a fashion show there, the first time the island has been privatised that way.

Isola Madre is covered by a Renaissance palace and one of Italy’s most marvellous gardens, with an exceptional wealth of plants, including some sub-tropical ones that have flourished in this rich soil and mild climate. Stroll among the free-roaming peacocks surrounded by parrots.

The 3rd, Isola dei Pescatori, is very different, a small, authentic fishing village of red-roofed houses and moored boats. You can eat and sleep here (unlike the other 2), particularly in the Villa Toscanini, and being able to enjoy the island once the tourists have gone is just magical!


This is perhaps the most charming of all, the most romantic, the most peaceful too, with its Alpine panorama, its cultural sites, its gardens and its walks. An almost well-kept secret, as its western neighbours (Lake Maggiore and above all Lake Como) capture all the attention. Small in size, everything is accessible, within easy reach by boat or on foot, a certain slowness in discovery.

It’s no coincidence that the prettiest of the walks is called “the path of silence”, like a meditation in the open air, absorbing the beauty of nature and the remarkable work of humans when they are in osmosis with it. This walk takes you around the tiny island of San Giulio, in the middle of the lake, where there is a monastery, still in use, and a 10th-century basilica. It’s breathtaking in its harmony and tranquillity. The island can be reached in 10 minutes by one of the boats waiting in the charming village of Orta San Giulio, considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, where you should spend some time wandering through the narrow pedestrian streets and admiring the decorated facades, particularly in the marvellous Piazza Motta.

From the village of Orta, set off on another meditative walk, in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi, climbing (easily) to the Sacro Monte di Orta, discovering on the way around twenty chapels dedicated to him, and at the top a spectacular view over the lake. For hikers, there’s another walk from the beautiful village of Omegna: “l’anello de Quarna”, 10km between forests, small churches and magnificent views over the lake. Lake Orta, a real favourite!


With its views of the snow-capped mountains, the jagged panorama of the Italian Alps, Lake Garda (Italy’s largest lake) is a sports fans’ delight, especially for those looking for strong winds, because here the Ora (from the south) and the Pelèr (from the north) are king, and it’s particularly at Torbole, at the very end of the lake on its northern tip, that you should go, where the winds make the sails of boats and surfboards swell. On holiday on this lake, you can climb, climb, pass torrents and canyoneer down gorges, especially at Torrente di San Michele.

This lake is like the Mediterranean of the north, a blue gold with an astonishing microclimate that encourages the growth of olive, pine, cypress, lemon and oleander trees, in villages that have retained all their charm, such as Sirmione on its peninsula, Riva di Garda with its colourful houses and the mountains that stand out against the background, and Malcesine from which you can take the cable car to Monte Baldo for a 180° view. Villages where you can feast on fish caught in the lake and apple strudel, a reminder that in this part of Italy, Switzerland and Austria are close by.

From Lake Garda, there are no fewer than 300 smaller lakes, many of them set in the mountains, to discover in Trentino-Alto Adige, in the heart of the sumptuous Dolomites.