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Italy trip report: The Lakes District

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This is part two of a trip report that was started at http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34821411

This section reports on our visit to the Lakes District.

Lake Maggiore (In Italian, Lago Maggiore)

Arrival, Friday, May 19. Milan’s Malpensa airport is almost halfway between Milan and Lake Maggiore, so we drove straight from the airport to the lake, without going into Milan at all. We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Milano in Belgirate, where Margie had a fish with a fabulous red peppercorn sauce, a good start to our meals in Italy.

Arriving at the town of Stresa, we hit that quintessential Italian event: une sciopero (a strike). Italy has these curious short strikes, often lasting only a day, or sometimes even only a few hours. What the point of them is, I don’t know. In the US, the purpose of a strike is to cause enough pain to the management that they will give in to the union’s demands. I can’t imagine a four-hour strike doing a union the slightest bit of good. Maybe some day, someone can explain it to me, but in Italy, these things happen all the time. Frankly, it’s the main reason I never fly Alitalia: you never know when your flight will be canceled by a surprise one-day strike.

Anyway, our hotel was on an island, and the shuttle boat service was on strike when we arrived. This didn’t cause us any great inconvenience. It just cost us money, since we then had to take a private water taxi to the island (not enormously expensive, since it’s a short trip). The taxi driver also advised me as to where to find a free parking space on the road where I could leave the car, which I didn’t touch for the next three days.

On the island, the Isola dei Pescatori, we checked in to the Hotel Verbano (http://www.hotelverbano.it/index_in.html), and then walked around a bit. That didn’t take long, since the island is not very big (although on that first tour around the periphery, we didn’t discover the narrow central street that has all the shops). We then had a nice dinner at the hotel, a charming, quiet hotel on one end of the small island.

When we booked the hotel, we were a bit nervous about being on an island. We figured we’d have to take a boat to Stresa before we could go anywhere. This proved to be nonsense. The activities on Lago Maggiore are mostly around the lake, either on other islands, or along the shore. You’ll take a boat anyway. Even if we had stayed in Stresa, on the mainland, we would have still been jumping onto the very same boat. In fact, Isola dei Pescatori is its second stop, so from the island, we were even closer to our destinations. In addition, the staff at the Hotel Verbano was very helpful, and the room was lovely. We recommend it.

So Saturday, May 20, was a day on the lake. It opened with a big breakfast at the hotel, which provided quite a spread, with ham, cheese, and fruit, in addition to the usual croissants and breads of the classic “continental breakfast”. We then bought a day pass for the boats, and took one to the large open-air market in Verbania (actually, the “Intra” boat stop), where, after a morning of shopping, we had lunch. The market was a decent one, and we bought a few gift items at good prices. However, it was not nearly as large or as varied as the big markets we like in France, in Ile-sûr-la Sorgue, or Carpentras.

I ate well on the lakes, because in addition to the local fish, I ate a lot of good, fresh shellfish, often as a mixed seafood antipasto. But Margie, who is allergic to shellfish and crustaceans, had a harder time finding food that was not too heavy on fatty meats, cheese, and pasta. There was a tendency to bathe everything in large quantities of olive oil. Good olive oil, but it still sometimes got excessive. Although in general we ate well on this trip, there were few meals that I would describe as outstanding. I had expected northern Italian food to be similar to French cuisine, but I don’t think the French have anything to fear.

My lunch in Intra, at the “Pontile 2” (“Jetty 2”), was pretty good, starting with a mixed seafood antipasto (mostly shellfish), and going on to Bronzino, a local fish that we ate often in the lakes.

We then hopped a boat back to the Isola Madre, and toured the gardens and the villa that fill that small island (just a short distance from our hotel’s island, and easily visible from the hotel). In addition to interesting trees and plantings, a number of birds wandered the grounds, including some large white peacocks. At the end of the day, a bit nervous about where we had parked the car, we took the boat back to Stresa to see if it was still there (it was). Then back to the hotel, still by boat, on the same day pass.

Sunday, May 21: Isola dei Pescatori changed completely, with the arrival of absolute mobs of tour groups out for the day, mostly Italian, but some German (but not very many Americans). We did some shopping along with them. There are several shops that specialize in personalizing items while you wait, and we also bought some hand-painted dishes.

We then bought another day pass for the boats, and left, first visiting Isola Bella (more gardens and white peacocks) and then the Villa Taranto, a botanical garden (OK, we like gardens). We ended the day with a dinner at the only other hotel on the Isola dei Pescatori, the Hotel Belvedere, a very good dinner (although, I noted in my log, VERY caloric).

Monday, May 22: Time to move to the next lake. We took a water taxi back to Stresa, in order to deal more easily with our luggage than had we taken the regular boats. As we left Stresa, we noted members of the “Protezzione Civile” lined up along the S33 roadway. We stopped and asked one of them what was going on. It turned out that the bicycle race “Il Giro d’Italia”, the Italian equivalent of Le Tour de France, was about to pass by. We beat it out before the road was closed, which could have stranded us for quite some time.

Lake Como (Lago di Como)

Lake Como is shaped somewhat like an upside-down Y. The Italian word for “branch” is “ramo”, and the two branches at the southern end are called the “ramo di Como” on the west side, and the “ramo di Lecco” on the east (Como and Lecco are the towns at the southern ends of these branches). Where these two branches come together and join the northern part of the lake, there are three towns: Menaggio on the west side, Varenna on the east side, and Bellagio on the point between the two branches. This is called the “center lake” (“centro lago”), and car carrying ferries run in a triangle between these towns. These are called “autotraghetti” (singular: “autotraghetto”). “Autotraghetto” is often shortened to just “traghetto”.

Don’t ask me why “Menaggio” has one n and two g’s, while Bellagio has two l’s and one g. Following the standard Italian pronunciation rules, the i is silent, so it’s men-AH-joe and bell-AH-joe. The rule is that an unstressed “i” after a “c” or a “g” and in front of another vowel is not pronounced. That’s why the wine “pinot grigio” is pronounced “PEE-no GREE-joe”, despite all the Americans who mispronounce it “Pee-no GREE-gee-oh”.

We were to stay in Varenna, on the EAST side of the lake. However, following the route that was recommended to us, we drove north along the WEST side of the lake to Menaggio, and took our car onto the autotraghetto to Varenna, our first experience with an Italian car ferry. When I left my car in the queue for the ferry, and went up to the ticket office (il biglietteria) to buy a ticket (in a big rush, since the ferry was about to leave), I discovered the hard way that I needed to know the make and model of my car. Duh, what did I know about that – it was RENTED, for Pete’s sake. Fortunately, I had the key in my hand, and it had a tag on it with the required information. The ticket seller enters the information about the car into the computer, which looks up the car’s length. That’s how they know that the cars they sell tickets to will actually all fit together on the ferry.

We enjoyed our stay in Varenna, staying half a mile out of town at the Eremo Gaudio (http://www.eremogaudio.it/inglese.htm), an old monastery which has been entirely modernized inside, and turned into a first-class hotel. There’s very little parking in Varenna, so we generally walked into town, which only took about 10 minutes, but the walk back was uphill. On the other hand, once we walked up the hill and then took the two cable lifts up to the hotel, we had a commanding view of the center lake, with the traghetti plying the Varenna – Bellagio – Menaggio triangle looking like little toy boats.

Varenna is not very big, and it’s not jammed with tourists and shoppers like Bellagio. When you arrive, the hotel gives you a small booklet called “Varenna Tourist Info”, which lists all the local hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, services, and places to visit. You should also always carry a Lago di Como boat schedule, which the hotel can probably also provide (but if not, you can get one at the Ferry dock). There are a few different boat services, as follows:

The “traghetto” is a ferry that carries automobiles (except in Venice, where the word refers to a large gondola that makes trips back and forth across the Grand Canal).

A boat that carries only people is called a “batello” (plural “batelli”). There are several types of those. The main line runs from Como in the south-west to Colico in the north, and back, but we were interested mostly in the stretch in the middle between Villa Carlotta and Bellano (the “Center Lake”, or “Centro Lago”). There’s a “Fast Service”, using hydrofoils, that does the same thing (with fewer stops), but we never used it. There’s yet another service that covers only the Centro Lago. Finally, there’s a service between Bellagio and Lecco, at the bottom of the eastern leg of the lake. You can ignore that, as Lecco is basically an industrial city, and that branch of the lake isn’t very interesting.

The “Varenna Tourist Info” booklet lists 13 restaurants in Varenna. Everyone recommends Il Cavatappi (the name means “the corkscrew”). It is very small, and a reservation is required. We were unable to just walk in on the Monday we arrived in Varenna, but we were able to make a reservation for the following evening, Tuesday. However, we got back to Varenna on Tuesday quite tired, and didn’t relish walking back up to the Eremo Gaudio in the dark, so we canceled the reservation. And it is closed Wednesdays, so that was our last chance. Thus we can’t report on it, alas.

Restaurants in Italy seem to have a rather casual attitude about answering their telephones. When they are done cleaning up after lunch, they take a break, and possibly a nap, before dinner. During that period, they seem to see nothing wrong with simply not answering their telephone. Thus, just when people want to call to make a reservation for dinner, they are unreachable. We encountered this attitude several times during the trip, and one of those times was when we tried to phone Il Cavatappi. But if you do want to try to reach them, their number is 0341 815349.

Anyway, where DID we eat? On our first night, we ate dinner at “La Contrada”, in the Hotel Villa Cipressi. We just walked in (fairly early), and that meal was quite good (I had baby lamb chops). On Tuesday, we took the traghetto to Bellagio, without the car (there’s no parking in Bellagio, and no need for a car). We intended to start the day in Bellagio, and then go on to the Villa Balbianello, but for various reasons, we ended up staying in Bellagio the entire day. For lunch, we walked way out to La Punta, which others had reported as having a great view of the lake. But we didn’t find the menu particularly appealing, and the view paled in comparison with the view from our hotel room at the Eremo Gaudio. So we walked way back into town, and tried the Trattoria San Giacomo, which proved to be closed. Right across from it was Bilacus, and we ate there, in their garden. That was a very good meal, one of our best, and I recommend it. This was the day when for dinner, we were too tired to use our reservation at Cavatappi, and we ended up eating dinner in the Eremo Gaudio. It was good, but I think it’s primarily for hotel guests. I’m glad we weren’t walking back from town that night, since it poured (briefly).

On our last day in Varenna, Wednesday, we visited the Villa Carlotta, which you can easily get to by boat (it’s one of the stops on the schedule). But because the day looked rainy, we took the car across to Menaggio on the autotraghetto, and drove down to the villa, figuring the car would give us more flexibility in case of bad weather. Villa Carlotta is an interesting villa with lots of art, and pretty extensive gardens. We ended up eating lunch there, at their cafeteria, in the outdoor garden (OK, but nothing special), surround by a group of noisy 12-year olds on a class trip. Some of the students did come over and talk to us, though. They seemed eager to try out a few well-practiced English sentences.

We then drove back to Menaggio, and took a ferry back to Varenna. Now on the east side of the lake, we drove north to Bellano, and (with some difficulty), located a gorge called the “orrido”, which we walked through. It’s interesting, but not very large. We then drove back to the hotel, and left the car. We had dinner that night at the “Vecchia Varenna”, which I’d recommend (Tel. 0341 830793). I had an Antipasto di Mare Misto, and a grilled trout with an excellent sauce.

Having never gotten to the Villa Balbianello on Tuesday, we had missed our last chance, since it is closed on Mondays and Wednesdays, and Wednesday was our last day on Lake Como.

Lake Garda (Lago di Garda)

On Thursday morning (May 25), we drove to Lake Garda. We went through some nasty traffic around Bergamo, and stopped for a quick lunch at a roadside cafeteria called “Da Nano”, in Pontida. I had a grilled trout, and Margie had a chopped beefsteak that was sort of like a bunless hamburger. But what startled us was when, without asking, the server, before handing us the plates, grabbed a bottle behind the counter, and poured olive oil liberally over both dishes.

Once we broke free of the gridlock around Bergamo, we finally got to the A4 highway, on which the traffic was heavy, but moving well. Exiting the A4, we turned north along the eastern shore of Lake Garda, passing the amusement park “Gardaland”, and a number of other rather honkey-tonk tourist attractions. We arrived at the Hotel Gardesana, right on the marina in Torri del Benaco, a charming location (http://www.hotel-gardesana.com/index.cfm?ent=main&lang=en). We walked around the town a bit, and then came back and had dinner at the hotel, which has one of the best restaurants in town. The service was very good, but slow-paced, and the dinner took more than two hours. The food was excellent.

The Hotel Ristorante Gardesana is a member of the Unione Ristoranti del Buon Ricordo (http://www.buonricordo.com/). Each member restaurant has a signature dish, and if you order that dish, you receive a commemorative plate with the name of the restaurant, the town it’s in, and the name of the dish emblazoned on it. While this is no doubt something of a marketing gimmick, I happened to find the Buon Ricordo dish the most appealing one on the menu, and so I ordered it: “Filetto di lavarello in agrodolce”. Lavarello is a type of whitefish from the lakes,. Agrodolce is a sweet and sour sauce, or to put it in the Italian order, “sour/sweet”, since agro=sour and dolce=sweet (and “vinegar” in Italian is vinagro, meaning “vino agro”, or “sour wine”). And thus, one of our souvenirs from the trip is a hand painted souvenir Buon Ricordo plate from the Hotel Ristorante Gardesana (buon ricordo means “good memory”).

Friday, May 26: We found we had arrived in Torri del Benaco on what in Germany was a long holiday weekend. The holiday was the Ascension, or “Maria Himmelfahrt”, as it’s known in German (isn’t German a poetic language?). Lake Garda is always popular with German tourists, but this weekend it was particularly mobbed. It was common for me to walk in to a store or restaurant, and be addressed by the staff in German (my “buon giorno” evidently carries an accent, but it’s apparently not quite clear exactly where I’m from). Meanwhile, the German tourists tended to speak to me in Italian. There was very little English around, and not too many Americans.

We took our car out of the gated hotel parking lot, and drove a few towns north to Malcesine, a much larger town than Torri, and quite commercial. We went through its nice castle and castle museum, and ate lunch there at the Osteria alla Rosa (I had a good seafood ravioli). “Malcesine” is stressed on the second syllable, so it’s mal-CHAY-zee-nay.

We then drove back to Torri del Benaco, and attended the San Filipo Festival. San Filipo is the patron saint of Torri, and a festival is held in his honor every year. The town was filled with booths displaying local artisans, many demonstrating old skills such as dying silk, ironworking, and so on. Some booths sold the products of local craftsmen. There were games for children, and a clown, a unicyclist, and a stilt walker. This event brought out actual residents of the town, who mixed with the tourists. As the festival went on around us, we ate dinner at the Pizzeria da Carlo, facing the sun setting over Lake Garda.

After dinner, the festival culminated in the burning of a small boat out on the lake. We never clearly understood why a boat was set afire. It seemed to be to commemorate sailors who had been lost on the lake, but why you’d want to do that by burning a boat was not particularly obvious. Also: “lost on the lake”? Lake Garda is not an ocean. It’s not even Lake Michigan. It’s not even lake Erie. While I wouldn’t want to try to swim across it, it is, in fact, pretty small, and I don’t imagine that navigating it is very dangerous. I kept thinking about the joke song about the Erie Canal, where “the fog it got so gosh-darn thick, you could not see the land” (hint: on the Erie Canal, the boats were pulled by mules, and the land was only a few feet away).

We sat down on a bench to watch the traditional burning of the boat (and a long string of floating lanterns being towed across the water). We sat down next to an elderly Italian woman, and I struck up a conversation with her. She had lived all her life in Torri del Benaco, and she told me all about various members of her family. And, as I translated for Margie, she told me about being in Torri for the liberation, as the first allied troops arrived towards the end of World War II.

The different lakes have somewhat different personalities. Margie felt that Lake Maggiore and Lake Como gave the impression of not having real lives of their own – they seemed to exist for the tourists. Imagine going to The Hamptons for a look at American life. But Lake Garda appeared to have real people carrying out real activities – swimming, fishing, sailing, and in general, living their lives around the lake. Clearly, there must have been locals around the other lakes, but they did not seem very much in evidence.

Saturday, May 27: our last day on Lake Garda. We took the car across to Maderno, on the traghetto. We drove down to the Vittoriale in Gardone Riviera, which, oddly, was unexpectedly closed due to a swarm of bees in the house, and buzzing around the grounds. We drove off instead to the “Giardino Botanico Fondazione Andrè Heller” botanical gardens in the same town, which we enjoyed quite a bit. Although not really all that large, these remarkable gardens display the plants of many different ecological zones – African savannahs, dolomitic mountains, central American plains, an Indo-Chinese landscape, and so on.

On to lunch at the Hotel Riviera Gardone, outside on the lakefront. After lunch, we phoned the Vittoriale, and found they had resolved the bee problem. When we arrived back there, I asked how they had solved the problem, and was told they had brought in an “apicoltore” (a beekeeper), who, using smoke, had pacified the swarm, and gotten it to move elsewhere (I assume by removing the queen). In any event, we were then able to tour the Vittoriale, both the Villa (a guided tour) and the grounds. It was just as described by PalQ on an earlier Fodor’s thread: “The Vittoriale estate, once the home of Gabriele D'Annunzio, is in my top ten list of weird European places”. Worth seeing. The tour in English was done in a curious way. The guide carried a tape player around her neck, and started and stopped it as we went into the various rooms. This allowed the playing of clear descriptions spoken by a native English speaker, which was no doubt superior to the guide’s accented English (the guide still spoke enough English to answer any questions). Finally, we returned to Torri by ferry, catching one with minutes to spare.

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