A pilgrimage to the Italian Lakes

‘You may have the universe if I may have Italy’ – Giuseppe Verdi

Dating from the 16th century the building was once a monastery, echoing to the footsteps of Franciscan friars. Today, this beautifully restored place reveals ancient frescoes, vaulted ceilings, medieval stone columns and steps, all exquisitely decorated and furnished.

Lake Maggiore

Hotel Pironi

Welcome to the Hotel Pironi, a stone’s throw from the western shore of Lake Maggiore, in the quaint, quiet town of Cannobio. We had planned to stay here a few years ago with my Mum and Dad, to celebrate a special wedding anniversary. Sadly, health problems intervened and they never quite made it. So staying here now with my wife Gill feels like a private pilgrimage.

Cannobio is a charming community with restaurants, bars and a few small hotels, but which still feels local and authentic. The 16th century pilgrimage church of Santuario della Pieta hugs the quayside, just along from the 13th century Palazzo delle Ragione, the old town hall and now a small museum.

Maggiore was known as Lacus Verbanus by the Romans, and fragrant verbena still abounds. The lake is 66 km long and, on average, just 7 km wide, all shaped rather weirdly like the boot of Italy, but with the toe pointing awkwardly the other way. It lies mostly in Italy, with the most northerly part edging into Switzerland.

Cannobio is just a few kilometres from the border. One day we drove to charming Swiss Ascona, explored its hidden streets and lakeside promenade for a while before hopping on a ferry.

Ascona

Locarno

On a cloudy day it zig-zagged across the lake to sleepy San Nazzaro before approaching Locarno, near the northern tip. We chugged towards this famous old city in grey drizzle, our eyes fixed on what looked like a path of tombstones leading up a steep hillside to a church.

On dry land we found an intriguing, vertiginous path leading up through increasingly subtropical vegetation. It led us eventually to the hauntingly beautiful 15th century pilgrimage church of Madonna del Sasso, offering sanctuary and jaw-dropping views of city, lake and mountains. We found the broader, paved Way of the Cross on the route down, and the tombstones are actually shrines, thirteen of them and all revealing carved wooden religious images.

For less mobile Silver Travellers, a funicular railway is an easier route to this slice of heaven and runs every 30 minutes.

The Borromean Islands

No trip to Lake Maggiore would be complete without hopping between the Borromean Islands. Named after the noble Borromea family, Isola Bella is the best known of the four small islands, with visitors flocking to the majestic Palazzo and its formal subtropical gardens. But our focus was on tiny Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island), where we had a superb long birthday lunch for me at the Osteria Ara 36. A huge turbot, baked in a salt and herb crust, was served at the table by the chef and accompanied by a delicious orange sauce. A memorable day indeed for becoming an OAP.

The turbot, Isola dei Pescatori, Lake Maggiore

Lake Como

Onwards, to more glitzy Lake Como for a few days, via Lake Lugano.

The Lario, as locals call Lake Como, is about 50 km long and 4.5 km at its widest point. Its shape, including the adjoining Lake Lecco, is an upside-down Y, although to my eye it’s more like a delicate dancer with arms held high. 

Como city lies at the very toe of the left foot, with Bellagio between the legs. The jewel in the crotch, you might say.

We jumped on a ferry from Como to Bellagio one day, fortunately taking the slower option – a 2-hour zig-zagging meander across the lake’s left leg – rather than the faster hydrofoil.

Take time to explore the cultured ancient streets of Como, and especially the imposing Gothic-style Duomo, pieced together between the 14th and 18th centuries.

Duomo

Bellagio, a tiny medieval village, staggers up the hillside from the water’s edge, linking Lake Como with Lake Leccio. On first seeing this enchanting place Flaubert wrote: ‘on voudrait vivre ici et y mourir’ – one would like to live and die here! 

A confession: our time in bellissimo Bellagio was spent almost entirely lingering over lunch. Hunt out the Enoteca Cava Turacciolo, an 18th century wine cellar at the foot of narrow Salita Genazzini. Order a bottle – or two – of local Lombardy wine and graze from the imaginative menu. Lake trout on toast and chocolate salami were memorable dishes.

Enoteca Cava Turacciolo, Bellagio

On another day we took the ferry across from Menaggio to Varenna, both picture-perfect lakeside towns bursting with history and character, and to my mind preferable to the tourist honeypot of Bellagio.

The Italian Lakes

These are just a few highlights of the two lakes we visited. There are many more things to do and see on both Maggiore and Como, and other lakes to the east, particularly Lake Garda. But the Ligurian coast was calling us and we felt that we had paid our lakeland respects to Mum and Dad.

Silver Travellers – Next Steps

For Silver Travellers, the Italian Lakes are undoubtedly an enticing travel adventure. Getting there by train is an interesting option, either across the Alps or around the French Riviera and Genoa coastal route. Or fly to Milan Malpensa and hire a car for the easy drive to the Lakes.

But a word of caution. The area is likely to be teeming with tourists between May and September and, unsurprisingly, is challenging terrain as soon as you step away from the lakeside. 

Plan or book with Silver Travel Advisor by calling 0800 412 5678

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Andrew Morris

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