Lake Maggiore – Borromean Islands and Stresa

18-08-18

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.

The names Balbianello, Villa Balbianello.

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.

Lake Garda – Lazise

8-08-18

Having had a great few days in Venice we headed back west towards the Italian lakes. We were really looking forward to slowing down our pace and relaxing a bit. With temperatures hitting 40 degrees over the last week, we were particularly keen to get to some water to cool down. Venice was incredible but heavy going and the lakes seemed to offer the ultimate rest bite for our weary feet. We managed to pick up an electric fan en route which proved to be the purchase of the trip.

It only took an hour and a half to reach the east side of lake Garda. We plumped for a town called Lazise and found a nice campsite straight away. Our pitch is probably one of the best we’ve had with loads of space and privacy and a nice vibe to the campsite. It’s pretty basic in comparison to the other mega campsites along the lake that have huge swimming pools, scheduled entertainment and endless facilities but it suits us well. The lakes get super busy during August because of the school holidays and we prefer being in a quiet site with slightly older clientele than the expensive, sprawling resorts with families and rowdy kids everywhere.

It’s become increasingly clear as we travel northern Italy that this is the domain of the Germans and Dutch. We’ve not heard many English accents and the campsite is completely full of German tourists who seemingly return to their spot every year. We got back to Harvey the other night to find that the Germans had joined forces and created a street party along the campsite access road and were getting stuck into a BBQ and plenty of Barvarian beer. Next someone got the guitar out and they were crooning into the small hours. Gary quite often gets mistaken for being German but our invitation to the soirée must have been lost in the post.

We decided to stay for 6 nights, using Lazise as a base for daily adventures. It’s a charming little town with a small harbour and lovely waterfront restaurants.

It also has an awesome fish and chip shop that we just had to try – they served Norwegian stockfish which seemed a bit random but it was delicious.

We really love the vibe here. It’s lively and has a buzz with weekly markets and live music but is not oppressively busy or frenetic. The water is the focus of everyone’s stay and everything is geared towards embracing the beauty of the natural surroundings.

There is a great cycle lane that follows the waterline, passing other beautiful towns to the North. We spent a few days exploring this, stopping for regular ice cream and refreshment breaks in the stifling heat. Occasionally we’d off-road and find ourselves completely alone, racing through picturesque olive groves.

As we cycled the 5 miles to Garda we saw families and locals at every point along the water. Kids were jumping off the jetties, sun worshippers sprawled out on grassy patches and plenty of cyclists getting their daily exercise.

People holiday at Garda for the summer, not just for a week or two and we can totally understand why. The weather is incredible, the scenery is stunning and the towns are preened to perfection. The displays of colourful flowers along the promenades are beautiful and the pastel houses and pint-sized harbours in every town ooze with character.

Its great to see so many people enjoying the great outdoors and making wonderful memories. Despite the beauty and elegance of the surroundings, there is nothing pretentious or twee about the place, just people having a genuinely good time.

Garda and Bardolino were two of our favourite little towns that we visited by bike. They both have gorgeous alleyways and narrow cobbled streets filled with cutesy shops and cafes. We liked to stop at the waterfront bars for an aperol spritz (which incidentally is always served with a few nibbles) and a game of uno.

On our way back we would pick a spot to stop for a dip, the water being the perfect refreshment after a sweaty cycle.

On one of the days we got the ferry South to Sirmione.

It’s a beautiful (but packed) town set on an impossibly thin peninsula with an impressive castle and moat.

We wandered through the gorgeous little lanes, marvelling at the incredible bougainvillea adorning the colourful houses and we had a picnic overlooking the lake.

We found Jamaica beach which was teeming with locals and tourists who were wading out in the shallow water to cool down. The water was a gorgeous colour and the pier made for the perfect place to sunbathe and people watch.

We opted for the last ferry back which delivered wonderful views in the late afternoon sun that bathed everything in golden hues.

We don’t think that this area of Lake Garda can be beaten but it’s time to find out. Today we head 40 miles north to Riva Del Garda for a different perspective of this beaut. Watch this space…