Summer in Italy is synonymous with the sea. Romans head to Sperlonga, la Costiera Amalfitana, or hop on a plane to Puglia or Sicily. Florentines stay true to form and remain on the radius with which they feel safe and familiar, thereby ending up at Tuscan coastal towns such as Forte dei Marmi, Pietrasanta, or perhaps Punta Ala and Castiglione della Pescaia. The Milanese shoot off to their houses in Liguria or the Lakes. Criss-crossing is a rarity; for example, there is no such Florentine exodus to Sicily, and if you come across a Roman in Forte dei Marmi they were positively dragged there against their will.
As an American in Italy, I have no such pre-determined bias, but I have grown a fondness for the lakes. Recently, I spent a humidity-free day on Maggiore, where we fetched a boat for Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori. There is but one thing to see on Isola Bella. A small island, yes, but a small villa? I declare not. Villa Borromeo, created by Vitaliano Borromeo, is one of the grandest most magnificent properties in the (dare I say) world. Vitaliano was given citizenship in Milan in 1416 and began a successful career in banking. Years later he was awarded the city of Arona on Lake Maggiore, enabling the Borromeo family to become, and to remain, the biggest land owners on Maggiore. The palazzo is a self proclaimed ‘baroque chest of wonders floating on water’ lined with neoclassical stuccoes, silk and gold tapestries, a precious art collection, an incredible full-floor grotto, and ceilings that make your head spin. After touring Isola Bella’s magnificent palazzo, I didn’t think my jaw could drop any closer to the bottom of the lake. And then…
Imagine arriving here for a dinner party and pulling up to the tiered garden in a boat. What would you possibly bring for the host? ‘Here’s a bouquet of ranunculus I bought at the flower stand in Stresa.’ Hmm, not sure that is going to cut it.
“For however fanciful and fantastic the Isola Bella may be, and is, it still is beautiful.” Dickens, 1844. Bit of an understatement, no?
After docking at miniature Isola Pescatori, we stumbled upon elegant Ristorante Verbano with its wrap-around veranda overlooking the lake. We dined on the fresh catch of the day (orata) under the shade of umbrellas. Pescatori is the only Borromean island where people actually live, and who can blame all 50 of the inhabitants, with these spectacular, tranquil views. After lunch, we strolled along the atmospheric shore and counted the fish drying on the long balconies.
For an entirely different flavor, head to the casually chic Franciacorta zone in Brescia, a ten minute drive to Lake Iseo. Here you will find vineyards upon vineyards growing Italy’s ‘champagne’ against a mountainous background. L’Albereta is the most charming and luxurious hotel in the area, with a definitive focus on wellness. A large spa, expertly trained estheticians, and an indoor pool are a few reasons why the Milanese choose this Relais & Chateaux property for a getaway relaxation weekend. The property boasts layers upon layers of green and exquisite landscaping, and it is perfectly situated for pleasant morning walks along the vineyards. If the hotel’s Michelin restaurant is booked, you’ll have more than ample options in the area. Due Colombe is a subdued gem; the Michelin chef spends as much time with his patrons in the dining room as he does in the kitchen, offering a truly humble and intimate dining experience. We ended a perfectly restful weekend with a leisurely lunch at the rustic Il Priore, where we savored a delicious hilltop breeze along with our fresh fish, and finished the meal in my preferred fashion: local fruit and chunks of dark chocolate.
If you’re off to Maggiore for a day trip, as we were, there are countless hotel options in Milano from which to base yourself. If convenience to the train station is of undeniable importance, look no farther than the Excelsior Hotel Gallia, recently renovated and sporting more than 50 comfortable, sleek, high-tech suites in addition to its standard rooms. If you appreciate Milan’s extraordinary architecture, you will enjoy the Centrale views from your window, and with the soundproof windows, you won’t hear a thing.
Milano is known for its impossible-to-discern technology; light switches that are more complicated than your Apple password, doors that open only when you stand in just the right spot, and dimly lit hallways that require your iPhone flashlight. Rest assured that you will be able to safely find the bathroom in the middle of the night at the Gallia; upon rising from bed, a nightlight in the room as well as the bathroom turns on automatically. Don’t forget to uncover the Domori chocolate in each room; only the best from Torino. If you intend to spend time in the center in addition to the lakes, do not fret. The Gallia might be conveniently situated next to Milano Centrale, but perhaps more enticing is its convenient fleet of Maseratis for transporting guests to morning meetings at Marchesi.
If you find yourself in the North this summer or next, there are endless opportunities to surround yourself with water, whether it be that of the sea or that of the lakes. I leave it to you to determine your own ‘summer biases.’
More about the lakes: