Category Archives: Italian Lakes

Orta San Giulio, Italian Lake town

One of the prettiest towns on Lake Orta, it charms with its pebble-studded lanes and stepped alleys branching off from Piazza Motta, the long narrow street behind the lakeshore with its wonderful selection of traditional food shops.  Rising high above it is the Monte Sacro (Sacred Mountain), a destination for pilgrims who come to pray at the many chapels on the hill.

Sitting facing the waters of the lake, shaded by chestnut trees and serenaded by the birds, I drank in the panoramic view of the tiny, but beautiful, Island of San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake (which I had visited the previous day) and wondered if this perhaps, wasn’t the most beautiful spot along the lakes.

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Taken from top of Sacra Monte © Solange Hando

The town is a typical Italian town, narrow streets lined with ochre-coloured houses from which jutted wrought-iron balconies hung with geraniums and ferns.  The buildings date mainly from the 17th and 18th century but behind the main square, Piazza Motta, there are some dating back to medieval times.  These you will see if you make the climb up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and to the SacroMonte.

 

There are small baroque palaces here and there with open galleries, pergolas and flower-filled balconies as well as hidden courtyards behind wrought-iron gates through which can be glimpsed lush vegetation.   On the corner of the square stands the little Palazzo della Comunita which bears the coat of arms of the lake communities that took part in its construction in the 11th century.

I have to confess that I didn’t make the trip to the top of the hill to visit the Santa Maria Assunta church.  The pebble-stoned pavements were very difficult to walk on, but when I got halfway up and turned to look around, my old friend vertigo decided to pay me a visit and I was halted in my steps and had to be helped down again!  Luckily, my friend and fellow-traveller, Solange Hando, was able to continue to the top and she has kindly allowed me to use some of the photographs she took from the top.

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Very Steep pebbled stoned street from Sacro Monte

The Sacro Monte’s most important building is the Sanctuary which is made up of 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1757, differing in style but blending well into the natural surroundings.  Originally it was intended to erect 30 chapels which would narrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but in the end only 20 were built.   The interior of the chapels are decorated with frescoes and sculptures most of which are the work of the early 17th century Milanese painters, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni d’Enrico, and the sculptor Christoforo Prestinari.  In all, there are estimated to be 900 frescoes in the complex.

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Church of Santa Maria Assunta

I was sorry not to have seen these frescoes and to have missed walking in the tranquillity of this remarkable site, but perhaps another year I may have more luck.

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Under the Spreading Chestnut Trees Looking Across to Isla San Giulio © Solange Hando

Meantime, here are some photographs of this beautiful town, and the food shops piled high with mushrooms of every type, truffles, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (I saw one priced at over £100), and breads of every shape and taste.

 

Isla-San-Giulio-taken-from-the-top-of-Monte-Sacro-by-Solange-Hando.
© Solange Hando

LAKE COMO, ITALY

Lake Como has always been a fashionable resort but never so much as now when its permanent residents include George Clooney and his wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney.  Before this, the most famous residents were probably, Pliney the Elder and Pliney the Younger.  And the Italian Lakes, of which Como is but one, offers visitors some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy.

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Como by Night – ©IProvincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

I can see why the Clooneys chose to make Como their home.  Apart from the beauty of its setting – green hills running down to the blue waters of the villa-rimmed lake, just yards from the historic centre, it has the charm of a small town while actually being a large city, a city that has easy access to mountain walks, ski-slopes and plateau parks.   It has excellent transport connections (30 minutes to Milan by train), just a few miles from the Swiss border, and ferries and buses service the lake front.

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The City Walls of Como with Gateway

Because of its lake, it is often overlooked that Como is actually a walled city and around which can be found a huge daily market selling everything from leather bags to lentils.

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Market Beneath the City Walls

 

 

 

 

As in any large Italian town, the most important sight is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral built over a period of several centuries, from 1396 through to 1740,  Although the façade dates from the 15th century and the dome was designed in the 18th century, the main influences are chiefly Renaissance and Gothic.

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The Duomo, Como

Having seen the Duomo – and it is worth seeing – there are many more churches, museums and architectural gems to check out, too many to list all here, but I would especially recommend the Boletto, the unusual striped-marble building which stands next to the Duomo and which is Como’s 13th century town hall, the 10th century Basilica di San Fedele and the Porta Vittoria, the tall stone gateway defending the old town walls.

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Piazza san Fedele, Como.  © Provincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

Readers of Battery Connections (marketed by publisher Don Cleary) should head for The Tempio Voltiano where they can spend many happy hours browsing the exhibits.  This unusual Museum is dedicated to Alessandro Volta, after whom the volt was named, and contains much of his working equipment – a truly unique place.

Duomo, Como, Italy

Como is known for its grand buildings, like 18th-century Villa Olmo, Villa del Grumello, and

Como - Villa Olmo
Villa Olmo – © Provincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

 

Villa Sucota on the waterfront and, of course, the long-established, elegant resort of Bellagio, the small village between the two southern branches of Lake Como with a population of only 200.  It’s an excellent place to spend a relaxing day, with gardens, lovely views, upmarket boutiques, lots of restaurants and bars.  But be warned, it is probably the most expensive spot along the lakes!

Como

But sight-seeing can be hard on the feet and that’s where the boat trip comes in.  The regular service of Navigazione Lago di Como steamboat company will take you around the lake, with stop-offs at Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Torno and Blevio.  Cernobbio is a charming tourist resort on the shores of the lake and along its banks, there are some beautiful villas, including Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, Villa Bernasconi and Villa Pizzo.  The two to see are Villa Erba and Villa d’Este, the former an architectural gem built at the end of the nineteenth century and today important as an exhibition centre, the latter now the famous luxury hotel of world renown.

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But my favourite is always to head for the mountains where possible, and all along the lakes, this is very possible.  In Como, the funicular railway that opened in 1894, is in Piazza De Gasperi and you can’t miss it.  It is a red, half-timbered house with carved woodwork trimmings: once through the gate, you are faced with a platform with one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever seen.

Funicular
Entrance to Funiculare – ©  Provincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

Tourist by Funicular

The cable-car is listed as ‘unmanned’ but fear not, this just means that the operator doesn’t actually ride on the car but is still in control over the external engine that drives it.  The Funicular ascends through a tunnel that gives way to an open line above ground. Halfway up you meet an identical car coming down.

The Liberty-style houses on top of the hill, 750 metres above Como, are mainly summer homes for wealthy families fleeing from the heat of north Italian cities. During the winter months, when a thick carpet of snow covers the mountains, there are few permanent residents.  There is a restaurant, a café, and a souvenir shop but you won’t have come here to shop but to take in the views which are stunning.  On a clear day you can see the lake, the city of Como and the outline of its historic centre, the antique Roman castrum, neighbouring towns Tavernola and Cernobbio, the Alps and the Brianza plain.  In the mosaic of my photographs taken from 750 metres above the lake, (below) you can see the Duomo in the middle of the town, its copper copula now verdegrised, glinting in the sunlight.

Above mosaic of pictures taken from the viewpoint at Brunate.

Once you’ve admired the views and stocked up with water, there are quite a few hiking trails around Brunate.  A popular one is a 30-minute walk to the Volta Lighthouse, and the trails are well sigh-posted.

On the return journey, you will find most people crowding the front cabins to take selfies as they make the steep descent.  I think it’s better not to fight for space and just to enjoy the trip and the magnificent views.

And at the end of the day, I decided this was the most enjoyable thing I had done in Como – and that included the two ice-creams I’d had!

The Italian Lakes, Maggiore, Como & Orta

When Queen Victoria travelled to The Italian Lakes in 1879 it took four days to reach Lake Maggiore, where she stayed at the magnificent Villa Clara in Stresa.  I visited the Lakes a few weeks ago and it took me just three hours from London to my hotel in the same town on Lake Maggiore.

The Queen had to journey from London to Portsmouth, then cross to Cherbourg by boat where she boarded the waiting 9-carriage Royal train, on to Paris for an overnight stop at the British Embassy before travelling to Stresa by yet another train.  I flew from Heathrow, a two-hour trip over the Italian Alps, snow glinting in the early morning light, de-planed in Milan and then a quick one-hour run through to Stresa.

Once again, I think how lucky I am to live in this century.

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The Italian Lakes didn’t become part of the Grand Tour until the 19th century.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, this traditional trip to Europe was mainly a search for the roots of Western civilization through Greek and Roman remains, and the journey served as a rite of passage for the British nobility, landed gentry, and artists and literati who could find a sponsor.  A few women managed it – usually widows of sufficient means.

In 2008, the New York Times described the Grand Tour as something that could last from several months to several years.  The Queen couldn’t spare the time for such a long trip, and financially, I couldn’t afford it.

In my eight days, however, I did manage to cover a lot of ground.  I took in the area of Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, enjoyed meals along the lakefrontL I took the cable-car to the peak of nearby Monte Mottorone – a natural balcony offering magnificent views over the Alps and lakes – and walked the trails, delighting in the views from the 1,492 metres high plateau.

I took a boat to the stunning Isola Bella (I won’t translate as it is much too prosaic) and wandered through the gardens of the 17th century Borromeo Palace and I spent a day at Lake Como where I rode the Funicular to Brunate, enjoying stunning views and an incredible panorama over the larch covered hillsides that swept down to the lake which lay 500 metres below.  Another day was spent in Medieval San Giulio on Lake Orta where I visited the offshore island of the same name and walked around the perimeter of the island on a cobble-stoned path called The Silent Walk, a walk which encouraged an appreciation of the island’s beauty.

Locarno, a Swiss town on the Italian/Swiss border was another interesting day trip from Stresa by train and coach, and across the border and into Switzerland was Zermatt, a town which turned out to be completely different to what I’d thought it would be.  I had imagined sophistication and high rises but instead, I got a villagey atmosphere – rustic wooden houses and hotels but with high-end prices.  The highlight of my visit to Zermatt was the trip on the funicular to the top of the Rothorn from where I had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, sadly not covered in snow, but with plenty of snow-covered mountains around me over which hang-gliders hovered, and plenty of hiking and walking trails to keep me occupied.

 

If I add my Italian Lakes experiences to my travels around Italy I guess I can say I’ve completed my own Grand Tour which has included plenty of Roman and Greek remains from Rome to Ragusa.

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I’m still in that post-holiday mood that makes me just want to look at my photographs and read the many guidebooks I bought, but I’ll get around to posting about the individual lakes soon.   With any luck, I should manage to link to this post today.

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