Somewhere around 10pm our EasyJet flight landed at Milan Malpensa and we hopped onto the hotel shuttle taking us to our overnight home, the Crowne Plaza. The single receptionist did a very good job of ushering our bus full of arrivals to their rooms in record time. Ours was actually quite a nice room, but having been up and about most of the day we headed straight for our ‘land of nod’.
An Italian buffet breakfast later we’d picked up our InterRent hire car and were heading east towards our first port of call on our Italian Lakes adventure, Riva del Garda. It takes nearly two hours to transit the ‘North Italy Industrial Estate’ on the Genoa to Trieste autostrada, but then you find the banks of Lake Garda. More of an inland sea really, but nevertheless an obvious contrast to the industrialised megalopolis that seems to stretch across the whole of northern Italy.
We had a quick lunch break in the Ristorante Al Piccolo Muretto on the lakeside in Gardone, where we both breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t all going to be factories and industrial units after all. It was a charming little place where you could stroll beside the orange trees on the promenade and look out over the huge expanse that is southern Lake Garda.
Onwards and upwards though. We continued northwards along the banks of the lake, which slowly gave way to a very impressive series of spectacular tunnels cut into the ever growing mountain sides. By the time we reached Riva we were surrounded by precipitous alpine scenery on all sides.
We stayed at the Hotel Antico Borgo, a lovely hotel nestled in the tiny winding cobbled streets of Riva, yet only a 2 minute walk to the lakeside. When we first arrived we had visions of having to drag our suitcases all the way through the old town, but reception kindly organised allocated space in one of the nearby underground car parks and a permit to bring the car through the pedestrianised streets to right outside the hotel door to unload. Thank goodness for that!
Riva del Garda is such a nice place. It oozes character, has a pavement culture second-to-none and is blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery you could hope for. There’s an enormous choice of restaurants and bars scattered around, the little cobbled streets are littered with little boutiques and shops, there’s invariably someone playing live music in the square ….and those ice creams and gelati…
There are frequent boat trips from the main pier and we took a trip over to Malcesine, with its castles and churches and steep stepped streets. On the way back we stopped at Limone (named after its terraced lemon plantations) and Torbole. It’s a really good way to see some of the surrounding area from the lake. Many of the surrounding roads are cut into the mountains, so the views from them are limited.
It’s a great place to spend some time and if we’d known then what we know now we’d have spent more time there and perhaps less at the other lakes.
Our next stop was at Lecco, on Lake Como, but to get there we had to drive through a real deluge. That waterfall-type rain that would soak you in under 5 seconds. Once we had checked-in to the NH hotel on the riverbank at Ponte Vecchio we just sat on our balcony watching the layers of rain passing over and listening to the continual cracks of thunder and dazzling lightning flashes.
The following day proved to be a much nicer day, with a bit of warm sunshine to raise the spirits a little. A lunchtime trip over to Bellagio was nice, but on the way we took a wrong turn – and what a wrong turn it was. We ended up in amongst some truly spectacular houses (with their associated helipads) and truly stunning views.
Bellagio is a pretty and scenic place, but we did get the impression it wasn’t as authentic as the places we went to on our aforementioned visit to Garda. It’s hard to put your finger on it but it just didn’t have the same ‘buzz’ to it. There are lots of obviously loaded people strutting their stuff and ruffing their feathers in Bellagio, whereas the locals and visitors seem to be just out to have a nice time and enjoy themselves in Riva.
Two days later it was time to move on again, this time to the third lake on our itinerary – Maggiore. We drove through a very busy Como and along a stretch of the autostrada to get to the western shore of Lake Maggiore. Again, a very pretty lake, where we stopped at the seaside town of Arona for a morning coffee before continuing to Belgirate, where our hotel, Villa Carlotta sat overlooking the lake.
I’m sure in its day this was a fabulous hotel. Set back a little from the lake by the main road, it nevertheless looks out over some very pretty scenery. But the hotel itself has definitely seen better days. It was a scruffy, neglected, downtrodden place; poorly maintained and definitely the worse for wear. In our room there were ripped curtains, whole lengths of skirting board missing, old shower fittings hanging out of the bathroom walls. It really was in a sorry state. Such a shame, as it’s a beautiful old building set in a lovely position on the banks of the lake.
If you’re looking for charm, history, spectacular scenery, pavement culture, variety and a real Italian atmosphere, the Italian lakes have loads to offer. Having a car is pretty much an essential though, as the lakes themselves are huge and you’d miss so much if you were to base yourself in just one place. We had a thoroughly enjoyable time and would definitely consider a return visit – probably to Lake Garda. It’s quick and easy to get there with frequent low-cost flights to Milan Malpensa and Verona from various UK airports.