The majesty of Italy’s lakes is nowhere more apparent than in Stresa, a gorgeous town of narrow winding streets overlooking Lake Maggiore and the three Borromean Islands.
A long weekend may not seem enough time to luxuriate in the splendour of those gentle mountains cascading into the bright blue water, but it is amazing how much you can see in just a couple of days.
Arona is a lakeside town about 20km south of Stresa, and so was perfect for a lunch break on our drive up from the airport. Our drive there had been worryingly uninspiring, but when we pulled in to Arona itself, our fears of disappointment were quickly dispersed, as we parked by the tree-lined lakeshore and walked along the water.
We headed for the Piazza del Popolo, once the bustling site of a market and a commercial port, but on the day we visited a sleepy, sun filled square with stunning views over Maggiore to the Rocca de Angera. We ate lunch at La Piazzetta (http://www.lapiazzettadiarona.com ), with a fabulous seasonal wild mushroom tagliatelle and potato gnocchi in a rich tomato and mozzarella sauce (€35 for two). As the afternoon shadows crept towards us, we wandered off for a brief look at the town, exploring some of its narrow laneways, and stopping for a rich dark Italian hot chocolate to give us the strength for the remainder of our drive.
The drive improved out of Arona and we had no problem finding our hotel, the Milan Sperenza au Lac (with Rooms from £123 - see 'My Recommendations' below), on the waterfront and were delighted that our room with balcony and lake view were as good as we had hoped. The hotel is actually two hotels run together and we were in the Milan, which has a reputation for being the better of the two with slightly bigger rooms, so ask to stay there.
We didn’t linger though, and dashed off for a walk along the water’s edge and our first excited glimpse of Isola Bella, the jewel of lake Maggiore. The effect of the evening sun on the water with the pretty islands rising out of the water and mountains all around was everything we’d hoped for and more.
That evening, after wandering around more gorgeous narrow laneways, looking in shop windows, we stopped into Al Buscion at 18 Via Principessa Margharita for a couple of glasses of wine. This is the perfect spot for a pre-dinner drink with its warm atmosphere, friendly staff and the wine came with a couple of bowls of nuts and crisps, always a favourite!
We had earlier booked a table at La Botte, 6/8 Via Mazzini, a popular spot, so booking is advised. Warmed from our glasses of wine we ate more delicious seasonal food of herby polenta cakes with garlicky roast vegetables, and more wild mushrooms in a rich risotto (€40 for two).
Our first full day was dedicated to island hopping. All three Borromean islands are spectacular, yet each has its own character and charm. The first two on our trip, Isola Bella and Isola Superiore (aka Isola dei Pescatori ), were originally both home to tiny fishing villages, squeezed onto the rocky outcrops, with small houses framing narrow laneways, which tumble down to the sea on all sides. Superiore has remained a small village, now with restaurants and shops, but Bella was transformed in 1632 by Count Vitaliano Borromeo, who built a palace and ornamental gardens, which today make this the most famous of the islands. Isola Madre was less developed before the Palace was built there in the 16th century, and the later construction of the botanical gardens in the 18th. Madre is a peaceful oasis, and the palazzo intriguing.
Our hotel was right by the ferry port at Piazza Marconi, where we bought a rover ticket for the ferry (€9.80 ea) and discounted entrance tickets for Isola Bella and Isola Madre (€17.50 ea). After the beauty of Isola Bella, we moved on to Superiore for lunch and for the second day running ate well in a stunning location, this time looking over the lake towards Verbania. The restaurant was the New Bar, which sits on the shore on the opposite side of the island to the ferry port. Our simple pasta, salad and bread was perfect for the occasion (€20 for two).
That evening we decided to spoil ourselves by taking cocktails before dinner in the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromee (rooms from £151 - see 'My Recommendations' below), a magnificent art nouveau extravaganza of a hotel overlooking the Borromean islands. Served among the extraordinary chandeliers and plaster porticos of the piano bar, the shimmering aqua of the Hemingway Special (Ernest Hemingway stayed here and set part of ‘Farewell to Arms’ in the hotel) was also gorgeous (€13 ea). More tempting nibbles accompanied our drinks, almost rendering dinner superfluous, but we did eventually decide to move on.
We hadn’t made plans for dinner, so we wandered the streets and piazzas until we found somewhere lively, and happened upon Café Torino (23 Piazza Cadorna), where we took the last table and enjoyed the lively atmosphere, chatty staff and excellent, great value pizzas and salad (€25 for two).
Mount Mottarone sits between Lakes Maggiore and Orta and promises are made that you can see seven lakes from the top. Unfortunately it was a rather misty day when we made our way down the lakeside path to the Lido, where we caught the cable car, so I can’t confirm the rumours! (€17.50 ea return). After an extra chair lift to the very top, we took one of the signposted walks around the mountain. The mist did slowly clear and we found ourselves spotting dark shapes forming in the distance which we identified as Lake Orta and the island in the lake, San Giulio.
On our return we got off the cable car at the half way stop to visit the Alpinia Botanic Garden. This is a community initiative founded in 1934 and specialises in alpine and subalpine flowers. It is a lovely peaceful spot, notable for the magnificent viewpoint back over Lake Maggiore, now emerging from the mist on our trip. Entry is only €3 each and supports efforts to keep a small piece of the mountain in community hands.
That evening we ate in the wonderful Trattoria Due Piccioni (61/63 Via Principe Tomaso), where more seasonal dishes were on offer, including Tortino Rustico with courgettes and Gnocchi with pureed pumpkin. Desserts were also fabulous and the whole was amazingly good value (€44 for two).
On our final day we got in the car and drove around to Orta San Giulio, a mediaeval town built on a peninsula projecting into the eastern shores of Lake Orta. We first wandered around the Sacro Monte di Orta, a devotional complex which must be one of the world’s most under hyped tourist attractions. The 21 chapels each contain tableau with a total of 376 terracotta statues depicting various incidents in the life of St Francis of Assissi. It was blissfully peaceful here and there is the most glorious view over Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio that makes you want to dash down the hill to see it all close up.
Orta San Giulio itself is a small town with the most beautiful lakeside piazza overlooking Isola San Giulio. The whole town focuses on the lake, with all the narrow laneways and all eyes in the square facing only one way. But then it really is one of the most beautiful views in the world.
The island of San Giulio is mostly taken up by an enclosed Benedictine Monastery, so a visit to the island is restricted to a walk around the circular ‘Street of Silence’, reflecting the life of the silent order of nuns inside the monastery, and a visit to the ancient Basilica. There is also a gift shop run by a wonderful old lady with the voice of a thousand cigarettes.
A lingering lunch in the piazza completed our weekend, and yes, it was as sublime as ever. (Ristorante Ai Due Santi, 18 Piazza Motta. €30 for two).