Italy's Lake District provides peaceful getaway

The third largest lake in Italy, Lake Como draws many people with serene outdoor activities: boating, hiking, sailing, fishing, windsurfing, and strolling along the elegant water-side promenades.

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Elizabeth Crosby

Every year, millions of tourists visit the bustling streets of Florence, the crowded canals of Venice and the teeming markets of Rome to sample a taste of the Italian life.

But what if you prefer a quieter getaway, a place where you can feel the sweet lake breeze gust playfully through your hair while you relax peacefully with a view that stretches from the Alps to the richly blue water?

Ah. This is the million-lire question.

My suggestion is Lake Como and its city, located in the northwestern portion of Italy a short train ride from the city of Milan, the centerpiece of what is known as Italy’s Lake District. The third largest lake in Italy and situated in the region of Lombardy, Lake Como – it's also known as Lago di Como or Lario – draws many people with serene outdoor activities: boating, hiking, sailing, fishing, windsurfing, and strolling along the elegant water-side promenades.

Nearby is Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy, and on its western coast is the town of Stresa. There you can take a cable car ride up to Monte Mottarone, where a breathtaking panoramic view of Monte Rosa and the surrounding mountains awaits you.

Between Lake Maggiore and Milan lies the 8.5-kilometer-long Lake Varese, which is fed by underground springs, surrounded by rolling hills. Like the other lakes, it offers a spectacular view of the snow-capped Alps.

Near Lake Varese’s western shore is Isolino Virginia, a small island with woods for a quiet escape, as well as the Prehistory Museum of Villa Ponti. Here, visitors can view various artifacts from the area that date from 3,000 B.C. to the time of the Romans.

Step into the main part of the city of Varese, and you¹ll find a war memorial arcade, a baptistery and a church square. Situated north of the main part of Varese, Sacro Monte, a 17th-century shrine dedicated to the Madonna, has fourteen chapels that illustrate the mysteries of the rosary with exquisiteness that can be treasured by religious and nonreligious alike.

The perfect launching pad for exploring the lakes is the market town of Viggiú, where AAA Signatours "Premier Collection" offers a villa that can sleep two to six guests for seven nights for $3,020.

Set in its own private park, complete with delightful woodland pathways, the elegant country villa is enhanced by a large furnished terrace, illuminated at night, which looks out admiringly over the fairytale woodland that is the park. Inside, classically furnished airy rooms are spacious and grandiose, and in winter become cozy and inviting thanks to the preponderance of carpets, rugs and the sitting room's open fireplace.

Viggiú is near Lake Lugano, whose waters empty into Lake Maggiore.

The biggest tourist lure remains Lake Como, with numerous ferries and boats to help ease the mind of those unsure how to tour, with the laid-back and the adventurous able to find enough to please each.

Giving the lake its name, the town of Como is a convenient and charming place to begin. Within its high walls are narrow streets, courtyards and quaint houses, while a lakeside path winds lazily around privately owned boathouses and gazebos.

Como boasts several highlights, which include the beautiful 14th- to 15th-century Duomo, a paradigm of transitional architecture whose Gothic façade adds a mysterious character. Inside you’ll find reliefs, sculptures, paintings, and even tombs that date back to the 15th century.

The city of Como is also renowned for producing silk, and local shops offer a variety of silk products from handsome ties to delicate scarves.

A husband can opt to fish while the wife may choose to peruse the pinacoteca (art gallery) and giardino (garden), or perhaps the couple will try windsurfing together along the lake¹s shores, stopping for a quiet and romantic lunch at one of many ristorantes with lake views.

A huge advantage of Lake Como is the mobility from city to city via the water. Driving around the lake is possible, although not recommended if you¹re seeking a stress-free environment, especially since parking can be a hassle and ferrying your car across the lake may cost you your first born.

You can cruise the lake and take photos of castles, villas, harbors and lush scenery that line the shore while simultaneously drinking Italian wine, waving to the locals and allowing the balmy breeze to gently ruffle your sunhat. Many people choose to disembark at different cities along the lake for a day to get a taste of each town¹s unique puzzle piece to Italy.

If you feel inclined to take two or three separate day-trips to neighboring municipalities, Varenna would be a good place to visit.

Founded upon a rock at the base of a mountain, Varenna is overlooked by the 11th-century Vezio Castle, a large medieval fortress. Its romantic promenade offers a perfect spot to enjoy a cappuccino or gelato, and the omnipresent picturesque view never ceases to draw wonder from admirers. It too has a lakeside walkway that entwines above the cliffs just above the water and provides a perfect spot for fishing.

Travel just 1 kilometer south of Varenna, and you’ll see the short Fiumelatte River, named as such because its waters have a milky-white color. Also south of Varenna from the Villa Monastero, an old monastery bedecked with lavender wisteria, you can peer across the water and see the city of Bellagio.

Often called "The Pearl of Lake Como," Bellagio is located right in the middle of the lake’s two "branches" and has an Old World atmosphere with its chic shops that help give an air of elegance to the town, while still maintaining a quiet dignity.

Most, if not all, of Bellagio’s restaurants are sure to tempt the pallet with freshly caught lake fish and local wines. You can see the Villa Serbelloni that, according to most scholars, was erected on the location of Pliny’s villa "Tragedia." Running along Bellagio’s beach is also a great workout.

Once you experience the tranquility and natural splendor of Lake Como, the only thing you’ll be using your return ticket for will be a coaster for your vino.

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