Italian Lakes District



Italian Lakes District

The Italian Lakes District is a magical area where deep lakes were carved by glaciers at the foot of the Alps.  In the 18th century the area was included in the 'Grand Tour,' a series of sites and cities to see in Europe for young people of wealth to complete their proper education.  The major lakes are Como, Garda and Maggiore with Lake Como being our favorite.  The smaller lakes are Idro, Iseo, Orta and Varese with Orta being our favorite.  Your time in this area is spent enjoying nature's beauty, cruising the lakes as you visit charming towns, and touring grand villas, castles and gardens.


Varenna - Lake Como

Spending a few days (or a week) on Lake Como provides a wonderful sample of the region.  Como, shaped like an upside down 'Y,' is 28 miles long, as wide as 2.5 miles and up to 1350 feet deep.  At the tip of the western stem is the town of Como and at the tip of the eastern stem is Lecco.  At the cross point of the two stems are Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna.  Bellagio is full of expensive hotels, cafes and beautiful shops.  We prefer to stay in the quieter village of Varenna on the eastern shore.  


Varenna stands on a rock out crop with a steep mountain pushing it toward the shore.  The old town square is surrounded with hotels and cafes.  The tiny alley like streets are little more than steps leading from the shore up to the main square.  A foot path skirts along the water front, (even suspended over the water at some spots) to the beach front and ferries.  This is a major ferry crossing spot so there are lots of ferries that allow you to visit other towns on the Lake.  There are churches in town dating to the 10th Century and the two churches on the town square are from the 12th and 17th Centuries.  


While you are here you can climb the 400 foot mountain looming over the town to see the ruins of the Vezio Castle and have a bird's eye view over the lake.  If you are here in the first half of the year, you'll get a chance to see the Fiumelatte (Milk River), the shortest river in Italy at only 750 feet long.  The river springs from the mountain side and roars to the lake with water so cold and fast that it is a foamy white.  The beautiful Villas Monastero and Cipressi are also worth your time. The first was once a convent and the second a 16th Century property with lovely gardens over looking the lake.  


Orta San Giulio - Lake Orta

Lake Orta is not mentioned in many American published guide books.  This alone makes it a wonderful 'off the beaten path' stop.  Italians, however, know of its charm so you certainly will not be alone.  The lake is said to have a mind of its own since all the surrounding lakes flow south to the Adriatic, while Lake Orta flows north into the Alps.  Most river names in Italian are masculine, Lake Orta's river, Nogoglia, is feminine; probably a result of this contrary nature.


Our favorite town on the lake is the small Orta San Giulio.  This pedestrian friendly town has small alleyways winding around and leading to the central Piazza Motto.  The piazza is lined with cafes and shops all facing the lake and the close by island of San Giulio.  While you are here take a boat out to the island which was converted to Christianity by the Greek deacon Julius, who built a 4th century basilica there.  The church was restored to Romanesque style in the 12th century and contains 15th century frescoes.  On the hill above Orta is the Sacro Monte, a sanctuary built in 1591 with 20 small chapels dedicated to St. Francis.  Many of the chapels contain 17th century terracotta statues telling the story of the saints life.  



The Italian Lakes District is easily accessible from either of Milan's airports.  Varenna is a 1.5 hour drive from Milan Malpensa International Airport, and Orta is a 1 hour drive.


Train- There is a train station in Varenna on Lake Como which is accessible from downtown Milan.  Orta San Giulio is not accessible by train.


Walking-  The best way to tour either of these towns is on foot.   


Cars- There is no need for a car once you arrive in Varenna or Orta, unless you want to drive to neighboring villages instead of taking the ferry.


Ferries- Both villages have passenger ferries to access other towns.  Varenna also has car ferries available for crossing the lake to Menaggio.


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