A sweet start to our year off adventure. The plan is November 17 to November 18.
Having had a great couple of days by Lake Geneva, it was time to move on and head back into France. We took a road that followed the south shoreline for quite some time and passed through some cute little towns, including Evian Les Bains. Famous for its spring and bottled water, Evian seemed like a lovely town with a gorgeous promenade and lots of pretty shops. Unfortunately we couldn’t find motorhome parking so had to push through and promise ourselves it would be a place we return to if possible.
Taking time to stock up on supplies at a supermarket, we passed through the border without even noticing and arrived at our next campsite in Annecy in the afternoon. Annecy is a gorgeous, alpine town sat on a stunning lake renowned for its clear and pure water. It has a beautiful medieval old centre with cobbled lanes, canals and pastel houses.
We woke up the next morning with a whole day to explore the area. It was really chilly and grey looking and for the first time on our European trip, we had to get the jumpers out. We hopped on our bikes and took the insanely steep lanes down to the town center. It was a real hive of activity with an arts and crafts market on one side of town and an antiques market on the other. I loved browsing the stalls that were selling all sorts of random curiosities but much to Gary’s relief we couldn’t fit any new items in the van.
The town has a wonderful old charm with period properties and traditional buildings but has embraced modern art, with installations dotted all around. We spotted at least five on the trail including a great metal cut out of the lake and all its tributaries. The town is clearly well looked after, with gorgeous flowers everywhere and pretty green spaces.
Despite being in France, Annecy has a real Swiss vibe to it which is reflected in the menus of many of the restaurants. We found a great alpine style restaurant and orders tartiflette which is a potato dish covered in onions, lardons and local cheese and a slow cooked pork casserole served with creamy polenta. These dishes were a huge leap away from the Mediterranean food and salads we’ve been eating in Italy but with the cold weather it felt comforting to have something a bit more hearty.
After lunch we hopped back on the bikes and took the shoreline cycle lane out of town. The lake is 42km in its circumference and can be tackled in a day by bike but we weren’t quite up for that. We planned to cycle 5km to the next town, but once we got there we continued on, incentivised by the stunning scenery. We ended up doing about 28km in total and loved it. The cycle lane was flat and wide and delivered gorgeous views of the stunning mountain ranges and glassy lake. We passed families out for walks, rock climbers, farmers harvesting and little fishing boats bobbing on the water. We found a huge field of cows, all of whom were sporting the classic Swiss cowbells which created a racket. I also dared Gary to see if the fence was electric….it was.
Once we returned to town with cold hands and windswept hair we decided that we had earned a cup of tea and fancy cake. I had my eye on a particularly fancy patisserie and we stocked up and took our goodies to the park to enjoy. Gary had a ‘Mont Blanc’ which consisted of layered meringue and raspberry coulis and mousse. I plumped for a mocha torte with hazelnut edging. Both were delicious and devoured in minutes. The sun finally decided to make an appearance just as we cycled back up to the campsite. We had a warm shower and made the most of the short-lived signal that we were receiving on the satellite and watched some good old British TV before bed. Another great day exploring.
We woke up feeling pretty chilly in the van. It was misty outside and there was a definite bite in the air which made the early morning walk to the shower cubicles rather unpleasant. The campsite here was perfectly suitable but the owner was as frosty as the weather so we didn’t want to prolong our stay. Despite best efforts at being overly friendly we couldn’t tease a smile from her, even when we paid up.
We packed up and got back on the road, headed due west towards Lake Geneva. The lake is shared between France and Switzerland and overlooked by the alps. The scenery on the 75 mile drive was amazing with epic mountains and bright blue sky all the way.
We arrived at a campsite at a tiny town called Bouveret on the tip of the east coast of the lake. It had plenty of open space and a super friendly owner so we plumped for a couple of nights.
Once we had decamped and had lunch we went for a wander and had a very lazy afternoon by the lake shore.
The weather wasn’t as hot and beautiful as the Italian lakes, probably because of the higher altitude and huge mountains casting shadows but it was a great way to destress.
We found a swimming pool and beach area and lay and ate ice creams and listened to our podcasts. I’m afraid to say that I was so lazy that I didn’t even brave the water for a quick dip but Gary did and reported it to be ‘refreshing’, which I interpreted as cold.
We had a BBQ back at the campsite and watched a film. We’ve been making the most of WiFi when we find it and we stockpile downloads of films to watch when in more remote areas. We are at the mercy of what Netflix has to offer but we’ve had some good viewing recently and it’s prompted me to sit down to a few classics that I’ve been meaning to watch or rewatch, including Scarface, Kramer vs Kramer and American Psycho… a jolly collection!
The next day we went for a bike ride in search of Montreux, a town on the north eastern shore of the lake. There was a bike lane that took us along the eight mile route.
Firstly we crossed the Rhône and then cycled through beautiful fields of maize on our left and vineyards on our right. Occasionally the path would open out to give us glimpses of the lake and small harbours before we were back in shaded woodland or farmer’s fields. Once we reached the midway town of Villeneuve we hit the lake proper and followed it all the way round.
The lake side cycle was absolutely beautiful.
As we cycled on the silhouette of lakeside Chillon Château came into focus. Dating back to at least 1005, the Chateau was built to control the road from Burgundy to the Great Saint Bernard Pass. From the mid 12th century, the castle was summer home to the Counts of Savoy, who kept a fleet of ships on Lake Geneva.
With the backdrop of the lake and the mountains it made a picture perfect location for such a grand castle.
As we approached Montreux, the cycle lane was flanked by incredible displays of flowers.
They went on for a couple of miles and were absolutely stunning. We were so pleasantly surprised by the area as a whole.
So many people were out and about enjoying the weather and the lake. There were sculptures and modern artwork dotted around and nice places to sit and picnic which contributed to a really serene atmosphere.
The town of Montreux was very pretty with a harbour, huge marketplace and plenty of waterside cafes and restaurants.
We had some lunch overlooking the lake and watch the grand tourist boats dock and unload. Later we had a mooch around the shops. There was time for yet one more gelato before we headed back on the cycle lane to the camp site.
From first impressions Switzerland seems incredibly clean and efficient and beautiful but is expensive. We are talking six euros for a water in a restaurant and seven euros for an ice cream. It’s a good job the views are free! We have loved Switzerland so far but it was always going to be a brief visit and we are pleased we’ve dipped our toes in on this side of the alps. We think we’ve got another couple of days here before we edge back into France and leisurely make our way down to Ginestas for my brother’s wedding in a couple of weeks.
There were two options to traverse the Alps from Lake Maggiore. Over or under. Under would have taken us through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Courmayeur in the Aosta valley, Italy to Chamonix, France. Over would take us over the Simplon pass to Brig in Switzerland. We opted for over to take in the breathtaking views.
There has been a locally used passage through here for centuries but more famously, Napoleon ordered the construction of a road way back in 1801. Thanks buddie ya really helped us out there.
At 2000m altitude it was pretty chilly at the top but the scenery was stunning. This is Emilys wtf face…
We drove along incredibly steep roads but they were super safe and well maintained. Ah, we said to ourselves. Swiss not Italian roads. Thank heavens. At the bottom of the pass about 1206m lay Brig and its beautiful castle.
As we neared the castle we could hear amazing operatic voices practicing for their performance. The accoustics and the back drop made for a pretty heady enchanting mix. We saw seats laid out and presumed the performance was tonight so we went to enquire what was on. We were disappointed to find out the performance was in 2 weeks but ecstatic to find there was an open air cinema tonight. Could it be they were showing something we wanted to watch and in english. Could we be that lucky. Well what do you know…
Emily had been raving about “Three billboards” for quite some time now after listening to the review on her podcast. It was on at 9pm and in English with German subtitles.
We wandered through the town in search of the tourist information office to purchase a couple of tickets. We then had a few hours to kill. I found a coffee shop, Emily found a flamingo top.
We then decided as it was still a bit chilly that we needed warming up with some hearty local Swiss dishes. I had a rosti with lots of melted cheese (food of the gods) and bacon. Emily had something called Cholera, which didnt sound so appealing but tasted amazing. It was basically a local pie containing potato, leek, apple and local cheese.
Suitably fed and watered we arrived early to the open air cinema to get good seats.
The backdrop of the mountains we had just driven over and the castle courtyard was too much. We couldn’t believe our luck.
As darkness decended the soft lit alcoves looked cool. They dimmed to darkness and the film began. What a cracker of a film too. Lucky us.
We left the campsite in Baveno nice and early for a day trip to Verbania which is on the opposite side of Lake Maggiore. We caught the first ferry of the day across the lake and we had the boat to ourselves.
The ferry cut through the water seamlessly and we glided across the lake with nothing but the mountains and colourful town in front of us.
We found a cute little cafe to have some brekkie and sat outside as the morning sun started to warm our skin. The croissants came straight from a patisserie up the road and were delicious and flakey.
It was a lovely little neighbourhood place and the owner was a sweet old gentleman who stopped to chat with the locals and play with the kids. He was so friendly and made us yummy breakfast sandwiches to go with our second round of tea and coffee.
Verbania is the largest town in the region and home to Villa Taranto, a spectacular botanical garden that covers 16 hectares and has 20,000 species of plants from around the world. We walked the two mile path to the Villa which hugged the shoreline all the way.
We passed beautiful houses that had incredible outside terraces and gardens and picked which ones we’d live in if we won the lottery.
Villa Taranto is set amongst rolling hillsides of purple rhododendrons and camellias and is considered one of Europe’s finest botanical gardens.
We walked through a set of grand wrought iron gates and set along the white gravel driveway. We purchased our tickets and started following the self guided tour route which took us past wonderful fountains and immaculately trimmed gardens.
My favourite part of the gardens was the Dahlia walk which zigzagged back and forth taking on hundreds of blooms.
I’ve never seen so many different varieties of dahlias in such an array of colours and it was absolutely stunning.
Some blooms were perfectly formed with geometric precision and others were blousy with crinkled petals. We spent half an hour just in this area admiring the colours.
Next on the route was a brief look at the Villa with a sea of red flowers in front. We couldn’t get over how attractive everything looked. No dead flower heads or yellowed grass. Everything looked lush and tended to.
The formal gardens at the end were breathtaking. A carpet of green grass with tens of different cut outs of gorgeous, colourful flowers. Everything looked all the better for being bathed in wonderful sunshine.
We meandered back to the ferry after a quick stop for a cold drink (and another thrashing of uno). We made it back to the campsite in time for our daily dip in the lake. As we reach the end of our time in the Italian lakes we are beginning to realise just how much we’ll miss the scenery and weather. We are so fortunate to have this adventure.
It was gutting to leave the beauty of Como without having bumped into George Clooney at his villa, but we did so with our sights set on Lake Maggiore. This would complete our trio of Italian lakes.
Even though we gave ourselves five days in each location we only scratched the surface in terms of exploration. You could spend weeks just touring and enjoying the lakes and still not see everything, but this trip has definitely whet our appetites for a return holiday. It’s been great to limit our driving by slowing down and relaxing in each place.
It took about two hours to drive west along some more shockingly bad roads to our new campsite in Baveno which is situated in the west shore of the lake. Thankfully we pre-booked and took one of the last pitches available. We set up and then went for a wander into town.
Baveno is a pretty little town framed by a long promenade with gorgeous flower beds.
With just a few restaurants, a classic piazza and church and a little dock for tourist boat trips, it’s a perfect base for exploring. We found a cute street side cafe for a drink whilst we watched local kids running and jumping off the harbour walls. They were having an absolute ball and were so carefree. We both remarked on what a great childhood you’d have living here with amazing scenery, awesome weather and the tastiest food. We made a quick pitstop on the way home for yet another gelato.
We’ve had to start rationing ourselves because the ice cream here is so damn tasty with out of this world flavours.
The next day we packed a picnic for our day trip to the Borromean Islands located just a couple of km from Baveno. We caught the ferry to Isola Bella and it’s star attraction palace was our first stop. Palazzo Borromeo was built in the 17th century and occupies 75% of the island. Napoleon famously stayed at the villa with his wife in 1797 and the music room was host to diplomatic meetings with the prime ministers of France, England and Italy in 1935.
Neither of us had particularly high expectations of the Villa interior, suspecting it would resemble a stuffy and staid stately Home but we loved it. It was light and airy and sumptuously decorated.
Most rooms had full length windows offering incredible views across the lake. The graceful ballroom was a particular fave of mine with powder blue and gold accents.
On our way out to the gardens we were led through the ‘summer grottoes’ which were stunning. They are effectively underground basements adorned with shells, pebbles and statues in the most gorgeous of patterns.
The gardens absolutely blew us away. Perfectly preened flower beds bursting with vibrant colours and white peacocks roaming around the immaculate grounds.
The grass was the greenest we’ve seen and had the texture of a plush carpet and the box hedges were trimmed to perfection.
The focal point of the gardens was a ten tiered terrace at the back of the property with roses and climbers dripping down each level.
Statues adorned each level with an epic unicorn at the top….how did they know?! With the sun beating down and illuminating the grounds in amazing colour it felt perfect.
We left Isola Bella and hopped on a ferry to nearby Stresa. A larger town than Baveno, Stresa boasts stunning lakeside villas and grand Belle Epoque hotels. It has a prevailing air of elegance and bygone decadence that we found charming. We found a great spot to eat our lunch and then strolled along the shore line, gawping at the luxury hotels that got more elaborate and lavish as we went along. Some of them had exclusive swimming pools and bars and we saw a wedding party complete with personal security and butlers.
We had a quick pit stop to load up on cake and coffee (well we needed to keep our strength up), before our final stop at Isola dei Pescatori. With a permanent population of just 50, the ‘fisherman’s island’ is tiny but beautiful. We walked around it in about 10 minutes and loved it’s pretty, colourful houses and charming restaurants.
There were fishing nets put out to dry and Shabby little boats bobbing on the front. We stopped for a cold drink and a few games of uno at a little bar with amazing views across the lake. As if that weren’t perfect enough we found a gorgeous sleepy cat to fawn over.
We wearily returned to Baveno in the late afternoon on the ferry in wonderful golden light having had an incredible day.
Any James Bond fans reading this? Remember the scene in Casino Royale where Bond is recuperating in the garden of a hospital? Vesper is there and the swiss banker arrives by boat to get the code.
That “hospital” is Villa Balbianello, overlooking lake Como and it’s an absolute stunner.
We bussed it the 15 minutes from our campsite, La Fornace to Bellagio and spent another 15 minutes deciphering the overly complicated ferry timetable. Both Garda and Como ferry services have been poorly designed and chaotic to say the least. Eventually we found the right pier and piled on a ferry to Lenno.
As luck would have it, it was market day in Lenno. I needed some new sports socks. 6 for €4, bagged. That’s how I roll.
The entrance to the Villa was all the way around the pretty harbour which was lined with small speed boats and the occasional sail boat.
If we lived somewhere like this we would defo have a little boat to pootle around the lake. Maybe go say hi to George and Amal.
Villa Balbianello stands on a steep promontory jutting out into the west side of lake Como. The villa was left by the Italian exporer, Guido Monzino, to the Italian National Trust when he died in 1988. We watched a 30 minute video about his life and exploration accomplishments that culminated in saying Balbianello was his ultimate legacy. Some legacy.
It was a 20 minute woodland walk to get up and over the hill from the ferry terminal at Lenno to the villa entrance. It had a totally private and secluded location that gave it a sense of exclusivity. We were grateful of the shade as once again the lakes had delivered a scorcher.
Entrance was €10 each for the garden or €20 for garden and guided tour of the villa. We opted to make the most of the sunshine and nail the gardens.
From the moment we entered we were blown away by the immaculate gardens and the stunning views across the lake.
The gardens are landscaped over multiple levels which added to the drama. We could see why this was used as a location for Casino Royal and Star War II: Attack of the Clones.
Exposed on three sides, the villa had beautiful terraces with sweeping views of the water. It even had its own private jetty for boat access.
There was a separate outhouse which formed a private study and library and had an incredible double balcony with ivy trained up the walls and pillars.
Everything about the property and gardens was ornately designed and immaculately presented with wonderful bursts of colour.
Being a tourist was thirsty work. We grabbed a quick drink and ice cream whilst waiting for the ferry in Lenno.
Once back in Bellagio we found a lovely little trattoria with a cool table right outside in the cobble stone street.
We finished off the day with tasty pasta dish and a few games of Uno. Emily is on a winning streak. Time to think of some different strategies me thinks 🤔.
we arrived back to the campsite to catch a pretty cool sunset sky.
We left the sosta in Bergamo and headed north to lake Como which took a couple of hours. We had our sights set on a particular campsite and we were just setting off for it when I received an email telling me that they had no availability. We had been warned multiple times that August was super busy and we’d be mad to attempt to tour the lakes during this time but this was our first hiccup. Back to plan B and after a couple of phone calls to a new campsite in a different location we changed our route and got going.
Having missed our turn off (thanks satnav), we ended up driving up and over a mountain range that led down onto the lake side of Como which was a dramatic entrance. The road down was very steep with hairpin bends all the way. We stopped for a photo.
As the road opened up onto the lake we were stunned by its beauty. Huge mountains all around reflected in the water of the still, glassy lake. Lake Como is in the shape of an upside down Y, with three relatively thin bodies of water. This meant that unlike Garda, we could see the banks and towns on the other side.
We couldn’t believe our luck as we were directed to our pitch at La Fornace campsite which was directly in front of the lake, offering awesome views all around. Our nearest town Oliveto Lario was a ten minute walk and had nothing more than a post office and bakery. We were blissfully isolated with nothing but nature around us. We spent the rest of that afternoon chilling out and going for dips in the lake. The campsite had a lovely, laidback vibe and a great little bar and pizzeria with a nice outdoor area. We ended up eating here a couple of times and it was delicious. We had to keep pinching ourselves that we were lucky enough to find a campsite with space and have lakeside views.
The next day we got the bus into the nearby town of Bellagio. It was a Sunday and there were only 4 scheduled for the whole day but it turned up bang on time. Situated just a few miles north the bus only took 20 minutes which I was thankful for because the journey was pretty stressful. The road was insanely narrow, squeezing down to one track at times and the bus careered around sharp bends like it was on rails. Occasionally the driver would sound his horn as a warning to drivers coming in the opposite direction but this did very little to slow them down and just on this one journey we had about three near misses where all the passengers made concerned “ooh” and “eeek” noises.
Bellagio is absolutely stunning. With cobbled lanes that rise up the steep town hills and then tumble back to the lake front, it makes for a great place to wander. We explored all the shops and walked to the small harbour which marks the middle of the lake where the three fingers of water meet.
Bellagio has amazing flower beds all over town and the buildings are meticulously tended to. It was impossible to not be charmed by its gorgeous lanes and grand hotels.
We found a gorgeous little restaurant for lunch which was filled with locals (always a good sign). It was a traditional trattoria with a beautiful terrace overlooking the warren of lanes below us. We shared a tasty ravioli with porcini mushroom sauce to start. So simple but so delicious and absolutely caked in butter I’m sure.
I had a slow cooked pork belly for lunch and Gary plumped for saltimbocca which is pan fried veal wrapped in Parma ham and sage. Being in the van we are restricted to stove top dinners or BBQs, and whilst I think I’m relatively creative with dinners, it was great to have something roasted and oven cooked for the first time in months!
We walked off our tasty lunch with a stroll around the grounds of the neoclassical Villa Melzi which had a prime lake front location. The grass was a wonderfully lush bright green colour and cut and edged with precision. There was a small Japanese water garden with acers and coi carp.
The summer house doorways framed the lake wonderfully and we had a great time taking in the sights.
We got the last bus back to the campsite and sat outside watching the sun go down.
The next day dawned very gloomy but we’d already decided to have a quiet one based at the campsite so it didn’t particularly matter. It proceeded to bucket down all day which wasn’t ideal (I had to put my cross-lake swim off), but did enforce complete relaxation. It actually turned quite cold with a chilly wind so we hunkered down in the van, watching films and drinking hot chocolate. As Gary keeps insisting, it’s really important to have total shut off days and we certainly recharged our batteries ahead of another day exploring the lake.
We didn’t fancy the three plus hour drive to Lake Como so we broke the journey up with an overnight stop in Bergamo.
It’s a good job we broke the journey up because it took us two hours just to get out off the Garda lake road. There was heavy traffic heading in both directions and the roads were really tight. Combine this with the unreal driving of Italians and the numerous potholes you’ve got an intensely stressful drive. As compensation, the road was incredibly scenic, hugging the lake all the way and going through epic tunnels that cut through the mountains. This road actually featured in the opening car chase scene in the James Bond film, The Quantum of Solace.
We eventually made it onto the main roads and into Bergamo, an eastern Lombard city. Our sosta was located about 3 miles from the city. We parked up, had some lunch and then got the bus into the new town. From here we needed to switch buses to reach the ancient hilltop city perched high above. The city has over 5km of Venetian walls and the views were stunning.
For a small city, Bergamo is a heavyweight when it comes to medieval Renaissance and baroque architecture and charm. We wandered through the tiny alleys and window shopped.
They really love their food here and every other shop was a patisserie or panificio. We snacked on an arancini and coffee granita. Polenta is a really big deal here and the locals enjoy it in every form including savoury with a rich wild boar stew and sweet as a set cake.
Bergamo’s mast famous landmark is the elegant Piazza Vecchio. It’s lined with lovely cafes and is home to the awesome Cathedral. With a striking black and white tiled floor and stunning frescoes, it was one of the more beautiful ones we’ve seen on our travels.
We loved our little wander around the old city which was small but perfect. Rather than take the bus, we walked back down to the new town along cobbled streets which was gorgeous.
We managed to make sense of the buses back to the sosta from there and cooked at the van, dodging some killer mosquitos. We got an early night in preparation for our trip to Como the next day.
We had some house keeping to take care of when we left Lazise, including getting a food shop and petrol and navigating our way out of the very busy weekly market that sprawled out onto the street in every direction. We opted for the lake road for a scenic 33 mile drive north to Riva Del Garda. It was wonderfully sunny and the blue sky was punctuated by fluffy white clouds and we had the music on. There was a lot of traffic on the roads which slowed us down considerably but no matter, Lake Garda is just stunning and we were rewarded with incredible views for the whole drive north.
We arrived at a pre-selected sosta just after lunch time and were relieved to find plenty of space. It was no more than a glorified car park but at €12 a night it was a bargain in comparison to the €60 a night campsites nearby. We were only staying for two nights so it would be perfect.
After lunch we walked into town along the main road which took about 30mins. We passed a couple of campsites and stuck our noses in and they were absolutely rammed. No space between pitches and on top of one another with kids everywhere. We gave each other a slightly smug look that we’d made the right choice and continued in to town.
Riva Del Garda is graced with an incredibly dramatic backdrop of mountains and in particular Monte Rocchetta which looms 1575 meters above. We wandered through the pretty streets lined with colourful buildings and boutique shops that opened out into a gorgeous piazza.
We stopped at a lakeside cafe for a an elaborate and delicious iced coffee that I suspect was 80% cream and whiled away a good hour people watching. We made our way back to Harvey along the lake footpath which took in beautifully landscaped gardens and a shingle beach full of people enjoying themselves. In stark contrast to the south of the lake, it’s incredibly windy here and the lake is a hive of sailing and windsurfing activity. Pros were absolutely hooning it along and the 2018 European melges race event was on.
The next day we cycled a couple of miles south to the neighbouring town or Torbole. The bikes have been a great investment and offered us plenty of freedom and independence. The cycle lane was flat and wide and had amazing views of the lake. We passed numerous sailing clubs and windsurfing schools and igethwr with all the mountain bike and hiking trails around, we got a very outdoorsy vibe. We passed some kids jumping off rocks into the lake. I think Gary was tempted to join them.
We had a quick look around the pretty town of Torbole before settling on the beach for the day. We’ve both been enjoying our kindles and audio books and podcasts and it was great to have a laidback afternoon.
That evening the wind got up and was rattling around the van. The sky had turned an ominous grey and we could hear thunder rumbling not too far away. Within 30 seconds the wind was going mad and we had to scrabble around to shut the windows before they got pulled off their hinges. The wind swept a load of dust and crap into the van and our eyes. We were just recovering when the torrential rain began and we were treated to the most outrageous storm I’ve ever seen. The wind was rocking the van quite violently and lightning struck all around. We thought we were nice and safe inside until Gary noticed a leak on the seal of our window letting in loads of water. We desperately tried to soak it up with towels but it was no good, gary needed to go outside to tape over the seal. Within seconds he was drenched through to his pants and he came back in like a wet dog. Thank goodness for Christie man skills. If I was on my own I’d have probably drowned! It was a very abrupt end to a wonderful couple of days in Riva Del Garda.