The lakes suggest shimmering moods rather than classic sights. The loveliest spots mirror your moods so beware of setting out after a bitter break up. But a tip for the furious - Lake Garda’s northern shore can be sexily stormy.
Lake Maggiore - the Borromean Islands
Lake Maggiore is one of the more domesticated lakes and can feel very primped and proper, even Swiss - which is hardly surprising as Switzerland is just north. This is a punctilious lake, a place where Victorian-style promenading is still in vogue. The lake can still enchant you, especially on the Borromean islands or in Santa Caterina del Sasso sanctuary across the water. The best way of visiting the lake is chugging around on steamers, calling in at scenic castles, gracious villas and waterside gastro-inns.
Stresa is the grande dame of lakeside resorts. Now a touch faded, Stresa is still dotted with belle époque villas and is the resort closest to the glorious Borromean Islands. Isola Madre’s floating botanical garden feels romantic, a riot of haphazard planting. Isola Bella, just across the water, revels in baroque theatricality, with dramatic architectural perspectives accentuated by grandiose urns, obelisks, fountains and statues. “One can't describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could”, wrote Henry James of Lake Maggiore. Such outpourings of purple prose - particularly from writers fleeing northern climes – are part of the lakes’ legacy, but look elsewhere for great literature.
Lake Orta - Orta San Giulio
The peak of Monte Mottarone separates Lake Maggiore from Lago d’Orta to the west. For all its popularity, Lake Orta has retained its mystique. Orta San Giulio, in particular, is a mystical spot which evokes the timelessness of the lakes. As a discreet medieval village set snugly on a peninsula, Orta is distinguished by its chic hotels, soft light and air of spirituality. This seemingly enchanted isle was supposedly overrun by serpents and dragons until AD 390 when Giulio, a Christian preacher, banished them and built the basilica in celebration. Friendly boatmen ply the waters to the island of San Giulio, which is built around a Benedictine retreat. A lakeside path winds round the sanctuary, with Buddhist-like signs directing visitors to “the path within”. Go alone or with someone you love.
Lake Iseo –Monte Isola and Franciacorta
Just east of Bergamo, Lake Iseo is the least self-consciously quaint of the great northern lakes. Its authenticity is the antithesis of the celebrity lifestyle. Lake Iseo’s soft, smoky, vine-clad landscapes even find their way into the backdrops of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. The lake may lack breathtaking villas but the dramatic vistas, gentle pace of life and fine food and wine are temptation enough.