Where? Lake Maggiore, Lake Como and Lake Garda, Italy.
When? October 2018
With whom? Martin
We decided to hire a car with only 6 days to explore northern Italy, and honestly you could spend so much longer here and still have more mountains to climb. We drove from the airport out of Milan to Lake Maggiore in the NW of the country. Most of the drive was on motorways with expensive tolls, but towards the end of the drive when the road hugged the lake, it gave us stunning views. Stresa was the town that we had read which had the most going on so we headed there.
As soon as we parked Franko (our hire car Fiat Panda), we were approached by a local in a naval hat. He offered us a boat ride to Isola Bella and the fisherman’s isle (two islands in the lake). We didn’t expect to have the entire vessel to ourselves especially not for the price we paid, but we weren’t complaining.
Adam, our captain, filled us in on the historical significance of the buildings on the way; one was Queen Victoria’s summer house, another was a hotel belonging to Churchill, and the mansion on Isola Bella was where Chamberlain and Mussolini went to discuss terms.
Adam dropped us off at the fisherman’s island and asked us the time we wanted picking up, giving us a recommendation of Caffè Lago for a snack.
We had an hour, which is more than enough time to complete a circuit of the island’s perimeter, and explore what’s in the middle. We got some pizza because Italy, and had a beer on a lakeside terrace.
Unfortunately, Isola Bella was closed, so while we didn’t get to explore it, we saw the famous tiered gardens and the big fat famous mansion from the lake. Our captain, we noticed, spent a remarkable amount of time not looking where he was going and not holding the wheel, or even being anywhere near the wheel. When he let me drive, he placed his hat on me and went out on deck because he liked the wind in his hair, occasionally shouting “go more left” at me from outside.
From Stresa, a series of cable cars takes you to the top of the mountain from where you get panoramic views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. The ride up doesn’t take too long but we were thankful for coats on the last leg, which is a chair lift and therefore exposed to the elements at altitude.
The top was beautiful; the lake spanned our vision from one horizon to another, giving us more of a comprehension of its sheer magnitude, with little islands dotting the blue glistening canvas. Turning 180 degrees and we saw row upon row of mountains comprising the Dolomites range in the Alps. We could vividly picture how the area transforms into a ski resort in winter.
At the very top of the mountain, beside the view points, is a luge track. We checked it out from above on our way up and we were definitely keen to hurl ourselves down a mountain at high speeds. At €5 a go, we told the operator that we wanted to go quickly, so using his cameras he told us to wait until he saw that the last person had finished the entire track, and off we went.
As a pair, we leaned into the corners to pick up speed and attempted to sit in the most aerodynamic position possible. The centrifugal force had us bracing our abs to get that extra lean into each bend to increase our speed. At the bottom, the luge hooks itself onto a chain to drag it back up to the top for round two. This time, we went in separate luges (same price) which had us each going a little slower than when we were a team.
We had a 2 hour drive ahead of us to take us to Lake Como, our next spot of beauty for our trip. Italians are quite aggressive drivers: if there is an opportunity to let another car in front, they won’t. If they don’t think you’re moving fast enough, they will sit within inches of your bumper until you move, often when it’s not safe to do so. They also tend to leave their left indicator on. Always the left.
We stayed at a hostel called Hostel La Primura in a lakeside town called Menaggio. It was the cheapest we could find but still cost us a whopping £17 pp and was a bit grotty. We didn’t mind its grottiness, it just meant we didn’t shower, and the friendliness of the staff more than made up for it.
They helped us decide which mountain to climb the following day, and recommended Mount Grono, claiming it gave the most beautiful views of Como because you can also see Lake Orta, which sits on the other side of the mountain.
The path was obvious, marked with a Peruvian flag (red, white, red) drawn onto rocks and trees to guide us to the top. The start of our hike led us through autumnal tress with leaves clothing the path, giving us that satisfying crunch with each step that we took. We lost cover as we gained height and we were doused with sunshine, finally getting to see that piercing peak against the perfect blue sky.
We stopped frequently to climb the mini peaks on the way up, daring each other to stand further out on the ledge or stand on a precarious-looking rock over a cliff edge.
The feeling of adrenaline pumping through our body was topped off by the strong winds, forcing us to be extra careful to keep our balance.
The path became noticeably steeper towards the summit, a section that would have been much easier if there had been chains or ropes to guide you.
There clearly had been at one point, as we could see where they had been drilled into the vertical rock face – we looked around for it until resting our eyes on its remains lying far below, having fallen off. We giggled about it, then used our hands to rock climb to the top.
The views were simply incredible. Lake Como had such depth to its blue and shone in the sunlight, splitting into two separate directions at the crux. Looking clockwise a little gave us the promised view of Lake Orta, a much smaller lake similar in beauty to the famous ones but untouched by tourists.
If we continued rotating clockwise we saw the colours of Autumn that had already struck this part of Italy, showing a colony of trees dusted in reds, oranges, yellows and greens, standing together and creating a brilliant picture with perfectly complimenting tones. And finally more mountains, purple in the sun’s haze, seemingly lasting forever and disappearing at the edge of our vision. Alas, we had no victory beer nor chocolate, so we spent time revelling in nature without reward, content with the views that befell us instead.
When other hikers caught up with us at the very top, we began our descent towards the car. Onwards. We made much better time on the way down, possibly because we had no stops. We were running low on water so wanted to get back to the town as quickly as possible.
I much prefer going uphill to downhill. The hurt of pushing yourself to go faster to the peak feels like the burn is doing your legs some good, whereas the hurt on the way down is a your-knees-won’t-work-in-5-years pain. Nonetheless, our water predicament kept us moving swiftly, completing the downhill trail in a little over an hour.
We hit the road again, stopping only when we found a supermarket to down a litre of water between us and for a snack that would suffice as lunch. It took us a little under three hours to get to our next lake: Lake Garda. We stayed in a hostel called Meet Garda Lake Hostel in Peschiera. This hostel was still pricey, but we felt like we got far more for our money. The rooms were clean with an equally clean en suite and power shower, there was a roof terrace for socialising, and a bar downstairs with a free drink for all guests. I would definitely recommend staying here.
We wondered into the main part of town to find some food, stumbling across performances in front of the cathedral. There are plenty of places to eat with varying budgets, so if you walk around and like the look of the prices, then stay to have a bite!
We hired bikes for 10 EUR each for the day using our hostel discount to reduce it from 15 EUR each, and got very lucky with the bike hire shop. It was definitely closed but as we were google mapping another place, the owner happened to walk past and got some bikes out for us. He told us to lock them up on the railings next to the store when we return and told us where to put the key so that he could find it!
We cycled North to explore the East side of the lake and did a gelato tour of every tourist town there is in the area. Flavours like Nutella, Kinder Bueno and Ferrero Rocher excited us very much and if a gelato store did any one of these, we would purchase to try. My favourite store of the entire day was La Crema di Lazise.
The lake is so large that it looks like the sea, with no sign of landmass as far as you can see, but eerily still. We took our time cycling, stopping at every broken jetty to dare each other to see how far he/she would get before falling in, or stopping to take in the view as various artificial or natural landmarks came into view.
The first noticeable town we reached was Lazise (where you should get that gelato I mentioned earlier), which has very quaint cobbled streets and tourists markets. You can buy anything from tourist tat to designer clothes, and even homemade clothes at Ricami Veronica!
We stopped for a charcuterie board and a spritz (a drink that originates from Venice that involves aperol and sparkling water or similar, as it varies depending on which town and region you are in) on the lake front, sitting in the sun and people spotting before hunting for some more gelato.
The next town along the lake front is Bardolino, which is there mainly for the tourists. Everything is written in English and gelato shops line the front of the lake, so you can walk around to find your favourite one.
A small detour will be well worth your time from Bardolino to the olive oil factory up the hill. Don’t be deterred by the hill, it is more of a soft incline, and once you taste the fresh olive oil made from this very region, you will be glad of it. Agricola Roccoli has the best olive oil in Italy if you ask the locals!
From Bardolino, ferries can take you to various other ports around the lake (and there are many). Every half hour, one departs to Sirmione, which was the biggest tourist destination of our day. Here, are more gelato shops (obviously), a castle with some well-placed plant growth, and Jamaica Beach.
The beach attracts many because rocks peep out of the water for some distance after the end of the sand, like stepping stones into the lake. To get there, we cycled through a lovely park, but left quickly as everywhere was rammed with bright red tourists who had neglected their sunscreen.
The cycle back to Peschiera was unpleasant. The cycle path kept switching from one side of the very busy road to the other, which meant that we decided to cycle on the pavement. Someone saw us coming and had erected concrete traffic bollards dotted haphazardly on the curb to prevent cyclists like us from doing exactly that, so we slalomed all the way back, gaining a few injuries as our bodies would slam into cement.
Info: If you love people watching with some Italian wine and some meats, then Lake Garda is the place for you. There are a number of resorts to choose between, all with a similar vein. We need to be more active than that (hence the bikes), which is a great way to get around. Ask your hostel/hotel/Airbnb host where you can hire a bike and they will probably give you some sort of code word or voucher that will get you a discounted price.
If you love hiking or rock climbing, then Lake Como is your place. The mountain on the opposite side of the lake (not a problem, we had a car!) was pegged as dangerous for anyone but professional climbers! Given that we had to do some rock climbing on the hiking route, I’d love to see these terrains!
Maggiore has more of a site seeing feel to it with boats willing to take you to and from the small islands near Stresa, and the cable car up to the top of the mountain for the view/luge.
The combination of the different activities in each lake worked really well for us, but you may decide to spend longer in each place or in one place!
Tip of the week: Ask your hostel/hotel staff or Airbnb host. We got some wonderful tips from our hostel staff in Lake Como, suggesting we hike up Mount Grono as opposed to the one that would have us falling to our deaths, and we managed to get a 5EUR discount each on our bike hire from our hostel staff in Lake Garda. Being friendly is also really important, as they are more likely to make your stay comfortable and be helpful. Martin helps here, as he is very good at charming people even in their first encounter, whereas I am a much more pragmatic human (not everyone likes logical).
Product of the week: Wherever you end up in Northern Italy, make sure you try a spritz. You will see red cocktail glasses everywhere, and as mentioned, each version of a spritz will depend on where you are. You could be paying up to 7EUR for them in the tourist regions, but if you follow the locals, you might get it much cheaper. See if you can beat 2.20 EUR!