There’s something magical about Lake Maggiore
“It’s magical.” We repeated that often during our stay on Lake Maggiore, a sister to Lake Como, the more famous celebrity-studded of the northern Italian lakes.
There was definitely something special about Lake Maggiore from the moment we arrived at our villa rental in Lesa until we left four days later. Did it start with the warm welcome we received from our hosts? Was it the natural beauty of the water, islands, and gardens? Was it our special experiences that included a private world-class concert? I think it was a combination of all of those things wrapped up into one magical experience.
Lake Maggiore, with shoreline located partly in Italy’s Piedmont and Lombardy regions and also in Switzerland, is the second largest lake (after Lake Garda) in Italy.
Our stay on Lake Maggiore at Casa del Lago in Lesa
Lesa is located in Piedmont along the lake between the towns of Arona (at the southern tip of the lake) and Stresa (the most well-known town of the area for its famous music festival and access to attractions of the lake area).
Casa del Lago is a romantic lakeside cottage in Lesa that we called home for four nights. There is a separate wing of Casa del Lago where the villa’s owner lives part-time, but there is complete privacy for guests with private entrances and patio.
Soon after arriving, Mr. TWS declared that he wanted to “spend the rest of my life here”. The magic had already taken hold. Not wanting to miss an itinerary full of great activities while we were there, we didn’t spend as much time on the property as others might who come there to vacation, but we enjoyed every minute.
Casa del Lago is roomy, yet cozy — perfect for a small family or group of friends looking for a quiet place to enjoy their vacation and/or use as a base for the many nearby sites and activities. The decor includes comfortable furnishings and upgraded baths. The warm kitchen and dining area were my favorite parts of the house where we enjoyed views of the lake as we had breakfast or caught up on some work. On our first night, we debated whether or not to go out to dinner. We were eager to try recommended restaurants in nearby Lesa, but ultimately decided to pamper our jet-lag by a simple evening in the comfort of our own place with wine and snacks. And it was a wise choice. The picture above captures the experience.
In the mornings, we awakened to the sounds of chirping birds and spent a little time just listening, noting that otherwise there was silence. Mr. TWS walked out on the dock to enjoy every beautiful sunrise, each as peaceful and quiet as the picture above portrays. There are a few other residences along the private road leading to the villa, but we rarely heard or saw another car or person. We got a kick out of the Casa del Lago mascots, two ducks who greeted us at the cottage door first thing in the morning and whenever we returned to the villa after our day’s activities.
Lake Maggiore highlights:
Casa del Lago is perfect for either a relaxing vacation by the lakeshore or as a base for exploring the area and taking advantage of its many activities and sites. These are highlights of the lake that we enjoyed and some of them will be covered in more detail in future posts.
One of the most memorable parts of our stay was a visit to two of the Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore on a perfect weather day. A short boat ride from Stresa (about 9 km from Lesa) took us first to Isola Bella to tour the Borromeo family’s grand baroque palace and stunning terraced gardens where we were accompanied by our excellent guide Vittoria. You’ll see more photos of the palace and its fairytale-like gardens in an upcoming post.
The Borromeo family has owned the island (and neighboring Isola Madre) since the 1600s and still use two floors of the palace as a summer residence. The palace has 100 rooms, 25 of which are open to the public to see its extensive collections of important paintings and grand rooms. A large grotto for the residents of yore to keep cool in summer opens onto the gardens and a street outside the palace gates features several high-end Italian brands.
Another short boat ride took us to Isola Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) for lunch at Ristorante Verbano. The local seafood specialties were delicious and the setting was so lovely that we could have spent the rest of the afternoon there on this gorgeous day.
Just as I was surprised at the sheer beauty and architectural design of the gardens of Isola Bella, I was struck by the expanse of the Villa Taranto gardens and the thousands of varieties of flora on the property. A pathway winds up through the woods and gardens and offers panoramic view of the lake at the top. We have too many beautiful photos to choose from for this post, so stay tuned for future flora posts.
Let there be music
If you visit Lake Maggiore in summer you can enjoy the famous Stresa Festival (founded in 1961) that attracts renowned musicians, orchestras, conductors, and vocal artists from around the world to perform in a diversity of venues around and on the lake, such as Isola Bella. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Gianandrea Noseda, the 2016 55th annual festival series begins with the Midsummer Jazz Concerts (July 19th to 24th), continues with Musical Meditations (July 26th to 28th), and features its main series Building Bridges (August 23rd to September 6th).
Although we wouldn’t be at Lake Maggiore for the Stresa Festival, we were lucky to attend a private performance of Roberto Prosseda, an internationally acclaimed pianist, at Villa Sandra. An intimate affair, we were entertained with Prosseda’s masterful renditions of pieces by Chopin and Mendelssohn. The next morning, we enjoyed tea with Villa Sandra’s founder and president Massimo Marenzi (shown above) whose passion for music inspired him to create the Piano Academy, an intensive two weeks of music lessons and immersion taught by master musicians. The Piano Academy offers concerts by its students and teachers to the public during the summer session (July 2016). We were enthralled by Massimo’s enthusiasm for music, the initiatives of Villa Sandra, and the Stresa Festival.
The charming towns
On our drives between Lesa and other points on the Piedmont side of Lake Maggiore, we were constantly pointing out beautiful lake views and admiring the towns and villages through which we passed. On the weekend, we shared the road with bicyclists enjoying their exercise in this beautiful setting, too.
Stresa is a main tourist area of the lake and there is much to do — shop, dine, and catch the ferries to the islands and other Lake Maggiore destinations. Stresa has a literary connection, too. Of note, Ernest Hemingway spent time in Stresa at the elegant Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées (pictured below) on the shore of the lake. Lake Maggiore is a setting in his novel, A Farewell to Arms.
Lesa, the small waterfront town near Casa del Lago, has restaurants, shops, and a lovely promenade to stroll. There is also a market convenient to the villa to stock up on supplies for your stay.
For a small town (population just over 2,000 people), I was surprised that Lesa was such a cultural and business center. Italian fashion brand, Herno, has its headquarters and concept store here. We visited the store and my only regret is that I didn’t choose among the wide selection of its colorful and lightweight signature rain jackets and make a purchase.
Arona, at the southern end of Lake Maggiore, is the largest town on the west side of the lake and is considered the liveliest with many restaurants, shops and a waterfront promenade with a view of Rocca Borromeo di Angera. On a hilltop nearby, a large bronze and copper statue of San Carlo Borromeo stands 35 meters high. We didn’t take time to climb the stairs of the hollow interior, but we’re told that from the top you can look out the statue’s eyes and ears for beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and the lake.
Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta
It was a fun drive inland to Lake Orta staying off the main highways through the wooded hills and small villages of the Vergante area. We had the pleasure of sitting back and enjoying this scenic route since our host and driver Luisa knows these narrow and curvy roads so well. A spot to which I must return someday is the Umbrella Museum that we passed along the way in Pettenasco. I love finding intriguing museums like that when I travel.
The overcast day struck me as adding a bit more romantic ambiance as we walked around the car-free town of Orta San Giulio admiring its colorful buildings and beautiful Piazza Motta.
At Pan e Vino, a restaurant on the piazza, we were served regional Piedmont meats, cheeses, and wines. The fantastic platter shown on the right below includes a selection of cow, sheep, and goat cheeses, served with fruit jams. Another platter had a variety of delectable salami and ham options. It was truly a feast paired with Piedmont wines, Gattinara (a red wine) and Arneis (a white wine). The fireplace in the comfortable dining room and the warm and friendly service made us feel like we were guests in a home.
More to do during a stay at Lake Maggiore
There are many more sports and outdoor activities available nearby Casa del Lago such as sailing, water skiing, canoeing, golfing, hiking, horse riding, swimming, and tennis. Lake Maggiore also has the largest wilderness area in Italy, Parco Nazionale della Val Grande, and in winter, there are the ski resorts of Mount Rosa which are only 65 km from Lesa. So there are plenty of activities year-round. Or you could just relax at the villa soaking up the Italian lake ambiance and letting the magic happen.
Eva is an engaging woman and we were fortunate to have an opportunity to join her for an al fresco meal one evening along with her daughter, son-in-law, and Luisa. We felt a special, fun companionship with these lovely people, an immediate connection, that is something I’ve found more in Italy than anywhere else. Then it was time to go back to our villa — once again to “our place” feeling like locals who had just left our neighbors after a friendly get-together.
On our last night, Mr. TWS and I stood on the edge of our private dock looking at the lights in the hills across the lake and listening to the gentle lapping of the water. I thought about the great experiences we’d had and the nice people we’d met. And one last time while at Lake Maggiore, I said to Mr. TWS, “It’s magical.”
How to get to Lake Maggiore:
The lake is easily accessible from many points by car, boat, and train. The nearest international airport is Milan Malpensa (MXP) from where we drove about 45 minutes to reach Casa del Lago. Railway stations are located in Arona and Stresa. Boats and ferries traverse the lake in all directions. The main ferry ports are Arona and Stresa, but there are also docks in many of the towns where boats can be hired.
For more villa information, photos, and booking information: EsteVillas – Casa del Lago
Disclosure: Our stay and activities at Lake Maggiore were hosted by Casa del Lago, EsteVillas, and local sponsors
Map of main places we visited: