By Enza Ferreri
The three best known, largest Italian lakes are Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, Lake Garda.
Lake Maggiore (“Lago Maggiore”), located at an altitude of about 193 meters above sea level, lies north of Milan, the capital of the Italian region of Lombardy, between Milan and Switzerland, and its northernmost bit stretches across the border, into Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Canton Ticino, one of the Cantons forming the Helvetic Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica, Switzerland’s official Latin name).
Lake Maggiore’s length is 66 km and area is 212,5 km², which makes it the second largest of all the lakes in Italy, the largest being Lake Garda. So “Maggiore” (which means “bigger”) is not totally accurate, although being the second-largest of Italian lakes is close to it. In fact, Lake Maggiore’s name originates from the fact that it is the largest of the lakes in its area.
Lake Maggiore is also called “Verbano”, from its ancient Roman name “Lacus Verbanus”. Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore, and Stresa is another main town on its shores. Both resorts are on the western shore, where the lake’s greatest attractions are located.
Among them is the Borromean Gulf, stretching between Stresa and Baveno on one shore and Verbania on the opposite shore, the lake’s three main resorts. In the Gulf is the Borromean archipelago with the splendid Borromean Islands: Isola Madre (Lake Maggiore’s largest island), Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori.
The last, also known as Isola Superiore, is the smallest and has kept its medieval appearance, with its narrow streets and small alleys.
Isola Bella (“Beautiful Island” in Italian) when seen from the opposite shore is dominated by the Borromeo Palace, Lake Maggiore’s main tourist attraction, and is largely occupied by the vast terraced Italian gardens (no less than 10 terraces) that belong to the Palace and surround it.
Isola Bella is the closest island to Stresa, the most famous Lake Maggiore’s resort, popular with tourists in every season. Isola Bella was already famous in the 1600s, when its Italian garden was opened. You can’t go to Lake Maggiore and not visit Isola Bella.
In Isola Bella’s botanical gardens grows an enormous variety of subtropical, exotic plants. In the gardens, the upper part is called “amphitheater”, since this is where the theater representations that fascinated the Borromeos were held.
From the terraced gardens, rich in obelisks and statues, you can enjoy an unmissable view of the Borromeo Gulf and the town of Stresa.
But the view from the other side of the lake, from Stresa, looking towards the Borromean Islands which lie in the middle, is also magnificent….
The lush terraces of the Borromean Islands, particularly of Isola Bella, reflect the wealth and taste of the Milanese Borromeo family.
The three islands (plus two smaller islands, one of which is called a “rock”, Scoglio della Malghera, the other being Isolino di San Giovanni) bear the historic, powerful name of Borromeo, the family who still own them.
A family with a great history indeed: among them have been two cardinals, cousins, both archbishops of Milan, one of whom a saint: Cardinal Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) and Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631).
During the terrible plague of 1576, which probably came to central Europe from the Turks living in Hungary and then spread across the Alps and reached Italy and Milan, Dom Prosper Guéranger summarizes Saint Charles Borromeo’s inexhaustible charity thus: “He, in the absence of local authorities, organized the health service, founded or renovated hospitals, sought money and provisions, and decreed preventive measures. Above all, he ensured spiritual aid, assistance to the sick, the burial of the dead, and the administration of the sacraments to the inhabitants confined to their homes, for prudential measures. Without fearing contagion, he paid in person, visiting hospitals, leading processions of penance, making himself all things to all people as a father and as a true pastor.”
Isola Madre is the largest island of Lake Maggiore. Isola Madre, like Isola Bella, is also home to a Borromeo Palace, an ancient house of the the feudal lords of Lake Maggiore, the Borromeo family.
Exotic plants flourish in the gardens of the grand villas and hotels of Stresa and Pallanza, and the Parco Pallavicino in Stresa is particularly worth a visit.
The lake is divided between the two Italian regions of Piedmont, on its left, and Lombardy, on its right. The border between the regions runs across the lake itself.
The Ticino river, the main tributary of Italy’s longest river – the Po – that flows across all of northern Italy, has its source in Swiss territory and flows into Lake Maggiore for the length of 47 km until it flows out of it at the lake’s southern end, continuing on its path that marks the border between Piedmont and Lombardy.
Lake Como is the third lake by size in the whole of Italy, with an area of 146 km².
Also called “Lario”, as ancient Romans named it Larius, it is generally considered the most beautiful of the Alpine lakes, and has even been described as the most beautiful lake in the world.
Since Roman times it’s been a retreat for the wealthy and aristocrats, who built around its shores numerous palaces and villas. Now something similar is happening with Hollywood stars and other celebrities, like George Clooney.
Placed between the Po Valley and the Alps, the lake is located at an altitude of 197.39 m above sea level.
Lake Como is relatively close to Milan (about 50 km north of the city) and with easy transport connections.
Bellagio and Varenna are two delightful towns on the shores of Lake Como, facing each other and connected by ferry. The train goes to Varenna from Milan.
Lake Como’s towns are adorned by ancient villas, in particular Bellagio, located right on the point where the three arms of the lake meet.
Art-filled villas and splendid gardens are all around Lake Como’s shores. Among the most famous are Villa Carlotta, Villa Melzi and Villa Balbianello.
Villa d’Este, originally Villa del Garovo, is a patrician Renaissance residence surrounded by a 25-acre park, built in 1568 by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio as a summer residence and located on the shores of Lake Como in the town of Cernobbio. Since 1873, the complex has been used as a luxury hotel.
Lake Como is entirely in the Italian region of Lombardy, falling in the territories belonging to the provinces of Como and Lecco, whose capital towns rise in the two southern extremities of the respective branches.
The lake is divided into three parts: to the southwest the Como branch, to the southeast the Lecco branch, almost symmetrical, and to the north the Colico or Alto Lago branch, the most open and wide. In the south-west branch, narrow and tortuous, with steep and wooded slopes, there is the Comacina Island, the only one of the lake. These branches give Lake Como the shape of a letter “y” upside down.
The three branches converge at the center of the lake in front of the promontory of Bellagio, one of the most celebrated locations for the beauty of the landscape, with ancient tourist traditions.
Dotted with lovely little towns and villages and enchanting hamlets, Lake Como shines with the brilliant colors of its waters and landscape, surrounded by high mountains and luxuriant vegetation. Mediterranean flora like olive, laurel and cypress trees abound on the slopes flanking the lake, while in the parks and gardens of the villas are also bright-toned tropical and subtropical plants that have adapted well.
Como, on the southern shore of the western arm of the lake, a cathedral town with a very long history whose origins go back to the 7th century BC, is well worth a visit.
Como is the place of birth (in 1745) and death (1827) of Alessandro Volta, the physicist who invented the electric battery, thus providing the first source of continuous current.
Lake Como is Italy’s deepest lake and Europe’s 5th-deepest, after 4 Norwegian lakes. Strange as it may seem, it has something else in common with Norway: its fjord-like nature.
Lake Como is a natural fjord carved into the slopes of the pre-Alps of Como and Bergamo, with a varied coastline which alternates gentle rounded and grassy slopes with dolomite rocks and cliffs overlooking the lake.
The southern fjords enclose the mountainous Larian Triangle.
Lake Garda is a sun-kissed, serene, beautiful lake with colorful landscape, whose southern fringe, close to Verona, is particularly glorious, flanked by beaches and surrounded by hills.
Verona’s ancient Roman citizens loved it as a resort, including the great Latin poet Catullus, who was born in Verona in 84 BC and died in Rome in 54 BC. Catullus had a villa on Lake Garda and in his poems immortalized the lake and the long, narrow Sirmione Peninsula, which juts out into the lake from its southern shore.
At the extreme end of the Sirmione Peninsula are the “Grotte di Catullo” which, despite the name that means “Catullo’s Caves”, are not caves but the extensive remains of a Roman Villa, no less than the most impressive example of a Roman villa in the whole of northern Italy.
Although in the past the villa was attributed to Catullus, today it is believed that it was built after the Veronese poet’s death.
Sirmione has other great historic and artistic treasures. Notable is the Castello Scaligero (“Scaliger Castle”), a fortress guarding the only southern access point to the historical center.
It was built during the 13th and 14th centuries and in two phases by the Scaligeri (or Della Scala), the dynasty who ruled the city of Verona from 1262 to 1387 and after whom the castle was named.
Surrounded by the waters of Lake Garda, the Castello Scaligero is defended by three towers and the keep, forty-seven meters high. To the east of the castle is the fortified dock for the refuge of the fleet. The battlements of the fortress are dovetail, while those of the dock are spearhead.
Lake Garda is the largest of all lakes in Italy, covering an area of 370 km², extending from the Alps to the Po Valley (“Pianura Padana” in Italian).
Lake Garda is very good for Italian getaways, water sports, activities and children. Amusements are plentiful, including a series of parks known as Parchi del Garda. The most important of these are Gardaland, a theme park with many tourist attractions; Canevaworld, which includes two different parks, one themed on the world of cinema and a water park; Parco Natura Viva, a wildlife park where you can see endangered species that the park takes care of and then reintroduces to freedom; and Parco Giardino Sigurtà, a green oasis 60 hectares wide along the river Mincio.
Each side of the Lake Garda shore is different. The western shoreline has citrus and olive groves, the northern shore is dominated by mountains, the eastern one is reminiscent of a fjord.
Spectacular classical gardens are around Lake Garda and Isola del Garda (aka Isola Borghese), the largest island on Lake Garda.
A tour around Lake Garda by boat or coach will display great scenery and explore lovely lake resorts.
Garda is a resort on the lake, Bardolino is a wine-growing town.
Lake Garda is not far from Bassano del Grappa, where the delicious drink grappa is produced in some of the most renowned grappa distilleries.
A curiosity: on Lake Garda, beautiful dogs, in particular Labrador, Newfoundland and Golden Retriever, have been especially trained as rescue dogs. An interesting aspect is that trained dogs teach how to do the job to other dogs, who learn just by observing and imitating them.