Northern Italy’s seductively beautiful lakes district — in the shadow of the Alps — seems heaven-sent for communing with nature. Though just an hour north of Milan, this area feels a world away from the business and bustle of Italy’s second city.
In this romantic region, wistful 19th-century villas are overgrown with old vines that seem to ache with stories to tell. Stunted palm trees appear to be held against their will in this northern location. And vistas are made-to-order for poets. In fact, it was early nature lovers who wrote and painted here and put this area on the tourist map in the 1800s.
Tourists have several lakes to choose from — Lake Garda, Lake Maggiore and others — and all have their charms. But my favorite is Lake Como, offering the best mix of accessibility, scenery, sightseeing and relaxation, with a heady whiff of aristocratic old days.
Lake Como is lined with luxurious villas, crowned by snowcapped mountains, and busy with fleets of little ferries darting from one cute town to another. The most famous town is Bellagio, the self-proclaimed “Pearl of the Lake” — a combination of old-world classiness and new-world luxury. Steep steps rise from the harborfront up to a smattering of sun-splashed squares. With spendy five-star hotels and high-end shopping, Bellagio pleases well-heeled travelers.
While a part of me enjoys the “tramp in a palace” feeling I get in Bellagio, my ideal Lake Como home is Varenna. Easily accessible by train from Milan, Varenna packs its 800 residents into a compact townscape on the less-developed side of the lake. Individual homes are defined only by their pastel colors, and the old town has no streets — just characteristic stepped lanes. The passerella — a lakeside promenade connecting the ferry dock with the old town center — is a fine place to stroll.
On Lake Como, villa front doors face the lake to welcome visitors arriving by boat (and ferries arriving from Bellagio and Varenna). Many villas are owned by the region’s “impoverished nobility.” Bred and raised not to work, they eventually were unable to pay for the upkeep of their sprawling houses. While some villas have been bought by the region’s nouveaux riches, others have been transformed into hotels or sightseeing attractions.
For garden lovers, Villa Carlotta is the best — especially in spring, when many of its flowers are in peak bloom. But the dreamiest estate is Villa del Balbianello, which perches on a promontory near the village of Lenno and was featured in the movies “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars: Episode II.” Built at the end of the 18th century on the remains of an old Franciscan church, the villa reflects the exotic vision of its last owner, explorer Guido Monzino. The real masterpiece here is the terraced garden and splendid loggia, where the land fits the architecture and landscaping in a particularly lovely way.
While you can visit Italy’s lakes as a day trip from Milan, I recommend spending the night. You’ll really feel the romance of Europe. Make it a point to stroll a waterfront promenade. As you pass under wisteria-drenched villas and caryatid lovers pressed silently against each other, you’ll understand the importance of packing the right travel partner.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.