Two days in the Italian Lakes
Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy, is picturesquely set amongst vibrant green mountains. (Bethune Carmichael/LPI)
The Italian Lakes: The name evokes romantic images of twisty roads and James Bond car chases, palatial lakeside villas owned by movie stars, a daring rowboat escape in A Farewell to Arms and young Darth Vader in love. Luckily, you do not have to be a Jedi or George Clooney to enjoy what the region has to offer. The Lakes are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, but if you only have two days to explore the area you can still cover a lot of ground and get a good taste of both the Swiss and Italian sides of the border.
Day 1: Lago Maggiore and Valle Maggia
Sitting on the northern tip of Lago Maggiore just over the border into Switzerland, Locarno has a pleasant mix of the rustic and the luxurious, the pace is slow and comfortable and the natural beauty of the setting is tough to beat. With the mild weather, the palm trees, the pizzerias and the sunbathers tanning themselves by the lake, it can be hard to convince yourself that you are in Switzerland.
Apart from the annual Locarno International Film Festival in August when the town fills up and hotel prices skyrocket, Locarno is peaceful and an ideal place to do nothing but relax. On a warm summer day the siren call of sitting by the lake, dangling your feet in the water, eating pistachio gelato and watching the swans drift by is difficult, and perhaps foolish, to resist.
Santuario della Madonna del Sasso
Perched dramatically above the town on a steep cliff that looks in no way suitable as a site for a large church, the Santuario della Moadonna del Sasso is a must visit for a trip to Locarno. The views of Lago Maggiore from here are unmatched, and the yellow church set against the lake and mountains is the definitive postcard picture of Locarno. The church is easily accessed via funicular from central Locarno, located across the road from the train station. The walk is not especially difficult, but who can possibly resist a funicular? You can purchase a return ticket, but the walk down from the church is easy and pleasant and you can explore the numerous azalea-filled gardens, narrow stairs and twisting alleys of the old town as you work your way back to the lakeside.
In typical Swiss fashion, alpine grandeur is never far away. For one of the prettiest drives in the region, follow the Maggia River out of Locarno through the idyllic Valle Maggia into the southern slope of the Swiss Alps. Literature fans may want to take a brief side trip to Tegna where the author Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) spent the last years of her life (her grave is in the Tegna cemetery). Continuing up the valley you are treated to broad meadows, towering waterfalls, colourful villages (any one of which is worth stopping to explore and may prove irresistible to photographers) and occasional roadside grotto restaurants that open in the warm part of the year.
When the valley splits just past Bignasco, turn up the road into Val Bavona, where the world returns to the Stone Age. Houses, sheds, inns, whole villages - everything seems to be made of granite and traces of the modern world disappear. Stop at Ristorante La Froda in Foroglio for lunch (do not miss the polenta), snap a few pictures and soak in the alpine landscape before heading back to the lake.
On your way out of Valle Maggia, stop in Ascona, a town tucked in a small bay just minutes from Locarno. The waterfront promenade is one of the prettiest spots for a stroll on the lake. When you are ready to kick your feet up for a while, snag a table at one of the waterfront cafes, re-energize with an espresso, and watch the world go by.
Back in Locarno, as dinner starts sounding like a plan, stroll up the wide path that runs along the shore of the lake to Minusio. Duck through the small tunnel under the train track and emerge at Chiesa di San Quirico for a quick look around the church and gardens and then treat yourself to an unforgettable rustic meal among the locals at the nearby Ristorante Campagna, watching the sun set over the lake. After a big meal, a carafe of the jammy house wine and a postprandial grappa or two, it is probably time to head back to the hotel and rest up for the next day.
Day 2: Lago di Como