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Northern Italy May 2024 : Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria

Northern Italy May 2024 : Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria

Old Jun 6th, 2024, 03:47 AM
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Northern Italy May 2024 : Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria

It's no secret that Italy is one of our favourite holiday destinations in Europe. After travel resumed post-Covid, my wife and I returned to Italy twice, heading south - Sicily and Calabria (September 2022) and Puglia, Basilicata and Cilento (October 2023). This summer we shifted our attention northward.

Our itinerary over 3 weeks (evenly split, roughly a week in each segment) included:
Lakes: Lake Como (the only one we've visited before), Lake Maggiore (+Orta) with a city break in Bergamo, relying on trains and ferries.
Countryside: A roadtrip from Turin, into the heart of the Monferrato and Langhe areas of Piedmont. This was a completely new region for us, inspired by this forum, thank you to all the contributors incl maitaitom.
Coast : Filling a few gaps from prior travels in Liguria (we've been to Genoa and the Cinque Terre previously in 2017), relying on public transport.

Our itinerary and pacing reflects our "active" travel style, as many of you know. I will try and post this trip report in tranches over the next few weeks, and hope this will be helpful reference, especially for the less frequented locations in this mix.

Last edited by ANUJ; Jun 6th, 2024 at 03:54 AM.
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 04:46 AM
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Originally Posted by ANUJ
It's no secret that Italy is one of our favourite holiday destinations in Europe. After travel resumed post-Covid, my wife and I returned to Italy twice, heading south - Sicily and Calabria (September 2022) and Puglia, Basilicata and Cilento (October 2023). This summer we shifted our attention northward.

Our itinerary over 3 weeks (evenly split, roughly a week in each segment) included:
Lakes: Lake Como (the only one we've visited before), Lake Maggiore (+Orta) with a city break in Bergamo, relying on trains and ferries.
Countryside: A roadtrip from Turin, into the heart of the Monferrato and Langhe areas of Piedmont. This was a completely new region for us, inspired by this forum, thank you to all the contributors incl maitaitom.
Coast : Filling a few gaps from prior travels in Liguria (we've been to Genoa and the Cinque Terre previously in 2017), relying on public transport.

Our itinerary and pacing reflects our "active" travel style, as many of you know. I will try and post this trip report in tranches over the next few weeks, and hope this will be helpful reference, especially for the less frequented locations in this mix.
Looking forward to your report! How much time did you spend in Turin itself? We have a week there planned for the autumn (stopping overnight in Lugano on the way down and back).
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 04:49 AM
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Count me in for the ride ANUJ, thanks for taking the time to write a TR. Despite several trips to Italy I haven’t been tempted to visit the lakes, though my sister who’s my travel companion has been pushing for it. While I love nature and the wide open spaces I also want history and architecture. Hopefully you’re TR will persuade me otherwise…
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 05:39 AM
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Day 1 : Varenna

We landed at Milan Malpensa airport around 10am. A quick baggage retrieval and exit later, we were on board the 10.43am Malpensa Express to Milan Centrale. We bought physical tickets for the regional train to Varenna Esino at the Milan Centrale station. I had not bought my tickets online (like my intercity and high speed ones) only because
  • Trenord (which operates these routes in Lombardy) has a website that is impossible to use (from a foreign IP)
  • Buying the same regional tickets on Trenitalia's site now requires an onerous digital checkin before boarding (our mobile roaming access is both unreliable and terribly expensive)
Anyway, while we cut it close on both connections, it all worked out OK eventually.

We reached Varenna around noon and checked into our B&B, relaxing for a bit. We last visited Varenna in 2005, and it was a joy to relive some of our fondest memories.


Near the ferry terminal, beautiful view of snow clad mountains in the backdrop

We walked along the pedestrian pathway skirting the lake .....

.. sandwiched between narrow lanes

.. and the lake itself


We visited the beautiful Villa Monastero. Founded on the site of a former women’s monastery, the Villa includes a magnificent terraced garden, where many rare botanical species from across the world thrive owing to the mild climate.


Views from the Villa

Strolling through the gardens

Lakeside views

By the fountain

By the museum


We then climbed our way up (the rather steep path) to Castle Vezio, exercising our legs and lungs in equal measure. The panoramic terrace and watchtower offered sweeping views over Varenna and the lake.


Entering the castle


Aerial view of Varenna

Inside the watchtower, climbing the narrow staircase to the top

Outside the watchtower

Castle grounds

We descended back to Varenna by the (better, but stony) path leading to the port. After an early dinner, we slept well following a long day of travel (and hectic activity).

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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 07:26 PM
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WeisserTee, we had a week in Piedmont, and spent 1 night in Turin itself. The next morning, we picked up our car rental and moved base to Asti (2N), Alba (1N) and La Morra (4N). Our focus was the countryside, so we progressively moved closer to the "action".

geetika, I hope the first instalment has whet your appetite. Stay tuned, lots to come !

Last edited by ANUJ; Jun 6th, 2024 at 08:24 PM.
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 08:09 PM
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Day 2 : Varenna, Out on the Lake

After breakfast, we lined up at the Navigazione Laghi (the public ferry service provider) ticket counter in Varenna before 9am. A long queue was already ahead of us! I cannot imagine what this must be like in peak summer! We bought a €15 day pass allowing unlimited travel in the mid-lake.


Leaving Varenna on the ferry

Approaching Bellagio


Our first stop was Bellagio. Nestled at the tip of a promontory where Lake Como "splits" into 2 branches, Bellagio has an enviable location. With its boutique-lined cobblestone streets, narrow lanes, villas and gardens, it's easy to see why its a tourist magnet. It has certainly got a lot busier since our last visit.


Along the lungomare leading to Villa Melzi

Views of Bellagio from the lungomare

Exploring the narrow alleys : Salita Serbelloni

Exploring the narrow alleys : Salita Antonio Mella

Exploring the town

Parchetto della Punta - a park at the tip of Bellagio

Parchetto della Punta - a park at the tip of Bellagio


Bellagio is also home to the botanical gardens of Villa Melzi. We didn't go inside, but relished some views from the ferry.


Views from the water : Villa Melzi

Views from the water


Our next brief stop was Tremezzo/Villa Carlotta. We were told the flowers were not in bloom due to the weather, so we skipped going inside.


Arriving in Tremezzo

Outside Villa Carlotta


Our final stop was Menaggio. Menaggio sits in the heart of Lake Como, at the beginning of a wide valley that connects Lake Como to Lake Lugano. It has a beautiful promenade, and is nowhere as crowded as Bellagio and Varenna.


Arriving into Menaggio

The town square

Charming lanes

Strolling around the centre

Along the promenade


We got back to Varenna by evening, calling it an early night after another eventful day.


Last edited by ANUJ; Jun 6th, 2024 at 08:23 PM.
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 08:40 PM
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I am enjoying your report and photos. We are planning a trip to central and northern Italy for May 2025. We plan on spending 4 nights in Varenna, and also hope to visit Bergamo as a daytrip from Milan. How many nights did you stay in Varenna? What is the name of your B&B? Were you happy with your stay there? A lot of people like Hotel Du Lac (one of the places I am considering) but I did see a negative review. And what was the weather like?
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 09:01 PM
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Karen, we spent 3 nights in Varenna, our base for Lake Como, We stayed at the B&B Il Bolentino, in a supremely convenient location between the train station and the ferry terminal and run by a wonderful Italian couple (who speak very little English). We had good weather all 3 days, mostly bright and sunny.
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 09:35 PM
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ANUJ, we loved Lake Maggiore and Bergamo, and each time we do a north Italy trip, I find myself wishing I was also going here…or there… so much to see.
We have only stayed in the very north of Lake Como, and that was fabulous.
I’ll be following along.
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 09:50 PM
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Thank you Adelaidean, am enjoying your ongoing France & Switzerland TR as well !
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Old Jun 6th, 2024, 11:05 PM
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DAY 3 : Varenna, Visit to Lugano

After an early breakfast, we took the ferry from Varenna to Menaggio. The C12 public bus conveniently connects Menaggio (Italy) with Lugano (Switzerland). We had already bought (return) tickets the previous day, and boarded the 10.40am bus to Lugano.

Its a pleasant one-hour bus ride, initially through hillside eventually leading to the shores of Lake Lugano. Remember to carry your passports, which are checked at the border crossing. Lugano is the largest city in southern Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region. The Swiss-Mediterranean potpourri of cultures is very visible in its architecture and cuisine.

The bus dropped us near the train station, and we descended into the city by the stairs.


First glimpse, heading down the stairs

By the San Lorenzo cathedral


We strolled around the town centre, before hitting the promenade.


Market day in Lugano

A beautiful piazza

Along Via Nessa, the high street lined with luxury retail stores


We walked along the promenade enjoying the views, all the way till the Parco Ciani.


At the promenade

Views of Lake Lugano

Paddleboats in the lake

Near the casino

In the park (Ciani)


We returned by bus and were back in Varenna by evening. We enjoyed one last stroll on our final day in beautiful Varenna.


View of ferry terminal from the high road over Varenna

The town square

The charming little lanes

View of the own from the high road over Varenna

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Old Jun 7th, 2024, 06:46 AM
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Your photos are gorgeous! We also are planning a trip to Northern Italy for 2025 and your report is very helpful.

We typically rent an apartment for a month in a charming small town and “live like locals”. A couple people have suggested Bergamo so I am anxious to read about your experience!
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Old Jun 7th, 2024, 09:02 PM
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Day 4 : Bergamo

We left Varenna early, with a slightly convoluted connection to Bergamo (2 trains and a bus due to railway line work!). Upon arrival in Bergamo, we bought a few local transport tickets (usable on the buses and funiculars for 75 mins post validation) from the newsstand at the station.

We checked into our very comfortable (airbnb) apartment in Bergamo (about 400m away from station). Our friendly host checked us in and gave us useful advice. Bergamo is a two-tiered city : up on the hills is the Città Alta (Upper Town) with a medieval centre, while down below is the Città Bassa (Lower Town), which is the modern town.


View from our apartment in Citta Bassa, Alta visible in backdrop


Our first order of business was Citta Alta, the historic centre perched on a hill. We boarded the bus to Alta but were abruptly offloaded at the funicular base station, as roads to Alta were closed due to a cycling event. There were serpentine queues at the funicular, so we decided to climb by foot to save time. It wasn’t so strenuous after all. Citta Alta is surrounded by 17th century defensive walls, fortified by the Venetian Republic.


The walls

View of Bassa from Alta

Entering via the old town gate (Porta San Giacomo)


We felt transported back in time on entering the Citta Alta, with beautiful architecture and narrow lanes.


Near the Alta funicular station

Old market hall

Narrow lanes


We headed towards the Piazza Vecchia, the heart of Citta Alta. We enjoyed exploring every delightful nook and cranny.


At Pza Vecchia

At Pza Vecchia

Bascilica & Colleoni chapel

Inside

Cathedral

Inside


We then took the 2nd funicular further upto San Viglio to visit the castle and enjoy the iconic views.


The iconic birds eye view of Bergamo

The castle grounds

With lookout points/watctowers like this ...

..... offering views of the valley


We returned to Alta by the funicular for a much-needed refuelling break, after all the walking!


Back in Citta Alta

A harp plays

At La Marianna, the pioneer of stracciatella gelato

At the famous bakery Il Fornaio


We returned to the Citta Bassa by the funicular, and took bus back to our airbnb. The Citta Bassa is also very well planned with wide avenues and expansive piazzas.


Back in Citta Bassa, by Porta Nuova

Beautiful courtyard near the theatre

Piazza Pontida

The shopping street Via XX Septembre


We planned a city break in Bergamo as a "palate cleanser" as we transitioned between two lakes : from Como to Maggiore, However, it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip - and surprisingly still remains under the mainstream tourist radar.
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Old Jun 8th, 2024, 05:52 AM
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Irice, hope that Bergamo instalment was helpful. It's a fascinating city. As we only spent a night and relied on public transport getting to and from there, I can't really opine on its suitability as a base for a longer period (also depends on how it fits with your overall itinerary, it's certainly well positioned for the lakes).
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Old Jun 8th, 2024, 07:59 AM
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ANUJ, your photos are beautiful and your commentary about Bergamo is very helpful. We plan on visiting Bergamo for a day while staying in Milan. I am sure it is a wonderful place to spend a few nights but we can't add more nights to our itinerary. I already added an extra 4 nights! And I don't want to take away nights from anywhere else. So many places to see and never enough time.
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Old Jun 8th, 2024, 07:55 PM
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Karen, sad but true - too much to see, too little time !
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Old Jun 8th, 2024, 08:47 PM
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Da5 : Stresa, Out on Lake Maggiore

After breakfast, we headed off by train (with a change in Milan) to Stresa. Located on the shores of Lake Maggiore, this would be our home for the next 3 nights.

On arrival, our host told us the weather was expected to deteriorate over the next 2 days. So we dropped our bags and advanced our plans to cruise the lake immediately. We bought “Rover” tickets - allowing intermediate stops at each of the Borromean islands all the way to Verbania, and an uninterrupted return to Stresa.

The archipelago of Borromean islands, located in the mid-lake, primarily include :
  • Isola Bella, with its 17th century Palazzo Borromeo and over-the-top gardens
  • Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island)
  • Isola Madre with its botanical garden
  • and the little Island of San Giovanni
The Borromeos, a wealthy aristocratic family, became the islands’ owners in the 14th century and began to gradually build lavish residences with elaborate gardens. The Isola Bella and Isola Madre remain in the family’s ownership, as does Isola San Giovanni which is home to their private residence and is off-limits to visitors.

Our first stop was Isola Bella, inundated by tourists visiting the Palazzo Borromeo. With limited time, we decided to give it a miss (prioritizing Villa Taranto in Verbania instead) ​​​​​​ and explore the public areas (about a third) of the island itself.


Departing from Stresa on the ferry

Isola Bella in the distance

View of the gardens from the water

Docking at Isola Bella

Villa grounds

View of Isola Pescatori from the shores of Isola Bella

Little lanes

By the church


Our next stop was Isola dei Pescatori, the tiny fishing island. It is sometimes referred to as Isola Superiore – ironic because it's literally 300 metres long and 100 metres wide, with a population of 25 permanent residents!


Approaching Isola Pescatori

Docking at the Island

Narrow lanes

Strolling around the island

Restaurants and limited accommodation on the island

View of the Palazzo on Isola Bella from the shores of Pescatori


We made a (very) brief stop at Isola Madre.


Approaching Isola Madre

Docking at the island

The island is home to many birds

The villa and gardens entrance

Departing from Isola Madre


Our final stop was Villa Taranto, where we spent a few leisurely hours exploring the extensive gardens and soaking in the beauty around us. In the 1930s a Scotsman by the name Captain Neil Mc Eacharn transformed 16 hectares of land into one of the most beautiful gardens in the world today..


At the cafe

The Putti Fountain

The greenhouse with vertical gardens of exotic plants

A burst of color in swathes of green

The Mausoleum Chapel

Rhododendrons and Azaleas

Rhododendrons and Azaleas

The bridge

The villa

Statue of Captain Neil Boyd Mc Eacharn

View of terraced gardens from the Fisherman statue

We took the ferry back to Stresa. It had been a long and active day, so we called it an early night.


Island of San Giovanni

Views of Lake Maggiore from the ferry

Back in Stresa
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Old Jun 8th, 2024, 09:02 PM
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ANUJ, I'm glad that you got to cover so much ground, exactly as you'd planned. My fave foto is your 'colorful 'charming lanes' shot.
*For a few years, the International Pen Pal Club extracurricular that I ran at my school maintained an ongoing exchange of letters with the class of our Varenna landlord's daughter.
Looking forward to your Turin posts. Have never been.
I am done. the north
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Old Jun 9th, 2024, 12:31 AM
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Thank you zebec, for your comments and encouragement. Not everything went to plan - as you'll see later in this trip report - but overall I'd agree we accomplished quite a lot!
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Old Jun 9th, 2024, 01:10 AM
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Day 6 : Stresa, Visit to Lake Orta

The skies were overcast but we decided to bite the bullet on a daytrip to Lake Orta. Lake Orta is barely 25kms away, but public transport connections from Stresa were complicated in May (the direct public bus runs only between June and September). Due to this, we booked a tour with a local travel agency, Tomasucci.

We set off from Stresa in a coach to the town of Omegna, at the north end of the lake. Lake Orta has an interesting history : it was once considered one of the most polluted lakes in the world, due to effluent discharge from a steel plant in the north and a synthetic rayon textile mill in the south (both closed down). Due to the sustained efforts of local communities, the lake was cleaned up and is now a case study in rehabilitation.


Arriving Omegna, by the shore heading to our boat

Leaving Omegna

My wife secures the best seat in the house!


Our first stop was Isola di San Giulio, named after the patron saint Julius of Novara, from the 4th century. It houses a Roman Basilica and the Mater Ecclesiae abbey, a convent with a community of nuns dedicated to prayer, study and the restoration of ancient tapestries.


Approaching the island

Docking at the island

Exploring the island

Walking around the island

Walking around the island

Inside the basilica

.. with remarkable frescoes

.. very well preserved

,, and gorgeous ceilng

Views of the town of Orta San Giulio from the island


We boarded the ferry to Orta San Giulio, the main lakeside town. This little medieval town is a gem with its piazza overlooking the lake and island.


Docking at Orta San Giulio, first glimpse

Piazza Motta, the town square

The community hall in the town square


From Piazza Motta, we walked along the single street running across town. We enjoyed exploring the little squares and narrow cobbled lanes.


Around town

Around town

Around town


We climbed up the steps to the 5th century Church of Maria Assunta. You can climb further up to Sacro Monte of Orta, a complex of chapels in the woodland, but we didn’t have enough time.


Climbing up to the church

Passing the oldest traditonal house in the town

Views from church


We descended back into the town, enjoying last views from the dock, right beside the town square.


Views of the island from the town


We took the boat to a small town on the lakeshore, where our coach was waiting to drive us back. On the way, we made a short stop at the giant statue (over 30 metres tall) of San Carlo Borromeo (a decendant of the same aristocratic family) which stands near the town of Arona.






It had been a rewarding day, out on beautiful Lake Orta and the weather had been largely supportive. Back in Stresa, it had begun to rain heavily by late evening. We decided to abandon our next day's plans of the Lago Maggiore Express excursion (including the Centovalli train) to Locarno, due to the weather warnings and expected poor visibility on the route. This trip is only viable on weekends and Wednesdays (due to the ferry connections). The following day was a Wednesday but we had blown our chances.
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