Experiencing the magic of Northern Italy’s lakes

The lakes of Northern Italy, nestled near the foothills of the Alps, are magical, especially, I think, on one’s first visit. It was mine — a birthday celebration that I chose to spend with a dozen strangers from the United States, Canada and Brazil.

What brought us together was the promise of a walking tour filled with adventure, surrounded by beauty, steeped in history, coddled by grand hotels and seduced by local cuisine and wines. We were at the marvelous mercy of two expert guides, Daniela Andrews and Luca Innocenti, whose personalities, intelligence and exhaustive attention to detail created a seamless five-day experience. What else would one expect from Butterfield & Robinson, the more than 50-year-old Canadian company with its international embrace of some of the best walking and biking tours on the planet. Oh yes, specific elements of surprise were not listed on the agenda, but they provided that too.

It all began on a Sunday morning at 9 a.m., in the lobby of charmingly whimsical Hotel Chateau Monfort, an Art Nouveau Relais Chateau in central Milan, whose themed rooms and public spaces are inspired by literature and music. Alice in Wonderland would feel quite at home here, as did I in my Madama Butterfly room with its massive silk kimono at the head of my bed, a tribute to the grand opera house, La Scala, which I had visited the night before.

With innumerable pieces of luggage gathered in the back of a van, we drove off to our starting point, Colonno, a hamlet on the western shores of the Y-shaped Lake Como, the third largest lake in Italy and one of the deepest in Europe. Along the way, we did pass by George and Amal Clooney’s villa, if anyone is asking. However, there were so many stunning villas that one could only marvel at their collective age and grandness.

The weather was hot and the lake shone as we walked along cobblestone streets dotted with vendors selling their wares. We lunched at Albergo Ristorante Plinio in Lenno, a lakeside trattoria: baskets of just baked bread, local olive oils, mounds of homemade pastas, paper-thin prosciutto blanketing sweet melon, and grilled whole fish. All were being passed around our chatting, laughing group, and of course the obligatory regional wines were imbibed which, by the way, over the five-day period, were quaffed, qualified and compared with vigor. As I am an unashamed teetotaler, I was submitted to a barrage of humorous ribbing from my newfound friends. Notwithstanding, the importance of wine in the various regions cannot be overstressed and friendly competition among the wine aficionados is a daily sport. Ditto for their cheese!

In lieu of dessert, the promise of a gelato at the nearby gelatoria was custom fit for me. Gelato tasting became as sacred for me as the wine tasting for others. The multicolored vats were like pools. One wanted to dive in recklessly and I did — transported by noisette and pistachio on first encounter.

Post lunch, our little band muscled up a steep meandering path, called the Greenway, past villages with huddled sheep, ancient stone fences and earthy coloured farmhouses. The view of Lake Como far below was staggeringly beautiful while the stereophonic sound of church bells enhanced our delight, despite our sweat. The guides, Daniela and Luca, provided us with such detailed instructions of how to get from A to B, that the laggards, like me, didn’t slow down the fittest of the group. In fact, there was always one guide to ease our way, while the other would drive the van to a designated spot where we could refresh ourselves with drinks, snacks, sunscreen, you name it, it was there. At the end of our six-mile scenic excursion, we were treated to a leisurely stroll through the vast botanical gardens and art collection of Villa Carlotta by the shore of Lake Como.

After a short boat ride across it, we arrived at our home for two nights, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, formerly a private villa built by a Milanese for his wife in the 1800s. Seated like an empress on the shores of Bellagio, her confidence derived from a history of beauty, wealth and celebrated visitors, including the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, the Rothschilds, President John F. Kennedy and Clark Gable. Our little band of mortal souls luxuriated in her “Grotesque” architectural style of the time, with its vaulted ceilings and walls decorated with frescoes and paintings depicting mythological scenes of animals and angels. We dined al fresco near the massive pool, were massaged in the spa and relaxed in our individual suites. The atmosphere and decor of mine was soothing and elegant. I especially welcomed the small balcony overlooking the meticulously manicured gardens and Lake Como. Voile curtains billowed in the soft breeze, rowers gliding soundlessly against the glorious backdrop of a fading sun whose waning rays cast a glow over the antique furniture and pristine Italian linens of my room.

Bright and early the next morning we climbed the steep cobblestone streets of the ancient center or “Borgo” of Bellagio, lead by a local guide whose knowledge, humor and commanding voice alerted us to the rich history of the town of 600 people (3,700 live in the surrounding area). It was a medieval village a thousand years ago with feudal lords protecting their fiefdoms behind massive stone walls. Apparently, Julius Caesar on his way to cross the Alps, forged a more civilized way of life among the feuding populace. Napoleon destroyed the site of Capuchin monastery there and the largesse of the Rockefeller Foundation has created a haven for scientific research on that same site.

Still in Bellagio but down by Lake Como sits the neoclassical perfection that is Villa Melzi. We strolled through stands of indigenous and exotic trees, ogled the works of art in the Orangerie and marveled at sculptures mounted on the velvet lawns. (The pianist and composer Franz Liszt was often a guest there where he composed, surrounded by quiet and beauty.)

The following night we gathered at a 250-year-old stone home transformed into the Bellagio restaurant Enoteca Cava Turacciollo. With each course of various charcuterie, cheese and pasta, the engagingly knowledgeable owner, Noberto, presented us with paired wines, which he described in detail, and as well fed us with insights into the nature of Italians. “We love confusion … ofuscatori,” he said, and then laughed and poured some more wine. There was no confusion at our table, everyone was in agreement about the evening. Magnifico!

On day three, a speedboat whisked us from Bellagio to Menaggio for an 8-mile hike along a steep wooded trail linking Lake Como to Lake Lugano. I must admit that, for part of the trek, I gratefully used the walking sticks that B&R provided. Donkeys, sheep, horses and dogs surveyed our troupe as we passed by. One donkey in fact had a wee conversation with me, at least in his language. We were rewarded at the end with one of the most memorable meals, not only of this trip, but perhaps ever. High on this pre-Alp mountain, the family-run Pizzeria La Rotondo was ready for us. We 12 hungry pilgrims devoured a blizzard of pizzas and pastas, the likes of which I have never tasted outside of Naples: Spaghetti Bolognese, fusilli pesto, pizza pomodoro, pizza with tuna and onion, pizza with gorgonzola and pear, tomato and arugula, mounds of parmesan cheese all washed down with local beers and yes, vino.

Sated and happy, we carried on for several more miles of varied terrain until we reached Lake Lugano, at which point, two of us, including yours truly, took off our hiking boots and literally jumped into it, with our all our clothes on. Heaven. The weather was so hot that our clothes dried in the sun as we continued our walk to yet another gelatoria. Then onto a launch from which our private boat ferried us for a scenic hour across the lake to spend the next two nights in Lugano, Switzerland, at Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola, one of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

A highlight of the B&R trip began across the street from the Villa. A mountainside cable railroad — funicular — built in 1912 and automatic since 1983, carried us on a vertiginous, seemingly endless ride up to a village that had been completely isolated for years. Monte Bre, 2,500 feet up, is considered one of the sunniest spots in all of Switzerland and it shone the day we visited. Three hundred forty people live there and one of its citizens was our guide. Up until 150 years ago chestnut trees referred to as “bread trees” sustained the poverty stricken village. Today it’s a living museum of art. The old stone homes have maintained their ancient patina while renovations on the inside speak to the wealth of the town with strategically placed art installations throughout. Each turn along a cobblestone path surprises and delights. The last house we visited was our guide’s and, lucky her, its view of the lake and surrounding pre-Alps was nothing short of spectacular!

Our last day brought us to Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy, after Lake Garda. Part of the trip included a four-mile saunter through forests, meadows and villages A boat was waiting for us in the town of Maccagno to take us on a private cruise following Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” route in reverse. Before we arrived in the town of Stresa, we visited the 17th century palace on the private island Isola Bella. In a word — otherworldly, harking back to a time where even current wealth pales by comparison. Nine members of the Borromeo family keep their apartments there and their presence is signaled by raising their ancestral blue and red flag. Just a peek: Peacocks parade among the topiary; 16th century Flemish tapestries decorate the walls; Murano glass chandeliers hang from 246-foot ceilings. Must be seen to be believed.

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