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Writers such as Goethe and DH Lawrence have lavished praise on the Italian Lakes. Strung out across the Swiss border, from romantic Lake Orta to island-studded Maggiore and wooded Como, they comprise exquisite islands, wedding-cake villas and rural villages.

See

The focal point of Lake Orta is San Giulio island, dominated at its southern end by the 12th-century Basilica di San Giulio. Full of vibrant frescos it alone makes the trip to the island worthwhile. (lagodorta-cusio.com; Isola San Giulio; open daily, closed lunchtime; free).

Captivating views unfold during the 20-minute cable-car journey to the top of Monte Mottarone by Lake Maggiore. In summer, cars depart every 20 minutes (stresamottarone. it; Piazzale della Funivia; 9.30am-5.30pm; £15).

Fringed by opulent villas and classic lakeside towns, Lake Como is the lake of choice for aristocrats and movie stars. Scenes from the James Bond film Casino Royale were shot at Villa Balbianello – an extraordinary location open to the public (fondoambiente.it; Via Comoedia 5, Località Balbianello; 10am-6pm, Tue and Thu-Sun, mid-Mar to mid-Nov; £9).

Just a stone’s throw from the east side of Lake Maggiore, the tiny mountain village of Arcumeggia is a true delight to explore; with its cobbled streets, footpaths winding up into the mountains and houses with bright murals painted by a group of artists in the 1950s.

South of Lake Iseo and stretching to Brescia are the vineyards of the Franciacorta wine region. The Castello del Grumello is part of a winery where you can book a guided tour (castellodigrumello.it; Via Fosse 11, Grumello del Monte; by appointment; £12).

Eat and drink

Ristorante Sociale is a local Como institution. The upstairs dining room has an outsize baroque fireplace and frescos. Cooking is no-nonsense, ranging from risotto trevisana (with chicory) to huge Milanese veal escalopes (00 39 031 26 40 42; Via Rodari 6; lunch and dinner, closed Tue; mains £8-£16).

In an elegant contemporary dining room in the old town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore, Il Clandestino serves up lake fish in dishes inspired by Sicilian ingredients (00 39 032 33 03 99; ristoranteilclandestino. com; Via Rosmini 5, Stresa; lunch and dinner, closed Tue; mains £12-16).

Agriturismo Il Cucchiaio di Legno on Lake Orta is a down-to-earth agriturismo restaurant. The handwritten menu offers delights like seafood risotto, and salami and cheese from the local valleys (00 39 0322 90 52 80; Via Prisciola 10, Località Legro; dinner Thu-Sun; menu £22).

People flock to Albergo Silvio hotel restaurant for its lemon rice and Parmesan topped with fresh lake fish fillets (00 39 031 95 03 22; bellagiosilvio.com; Via Carcano 12, Bellagio; lunch and dinner Mar to mid-Nov and Christmas week; mains £15-£20).

The restaurant Restel de Fer is one to linger at for seasonal delicacies such as rabbit wrapped in smoked mountain ham (00 39 0464 55 34 81; resteldefer.com; Via Restel de Fer 10, Riva del Garda; lunch and dinner daily Jul-Aug, closed Wed Sep-Oct and Dec-Jun; 4/6 courses £30/£42).

Sleep

Lounge on the timber sundeck of the Hotel Marconi beneath blue-and-white striped umbrellas and admire the azure waters of Lake Garda. Run by the Visani family, it’s relaxed with sunny rooms. Breakfast is a spread of homemade cakes, pastries and tarts (00 39 030 91 60 07; Via Vittorio Emanuele II 51, Sirmione; from £65).

Just a couple of blocks’ stroll from Stresa’s cobbled main square on Lake Maggiore, the charming La Stellina is housed in an early 19th-century building. The b&b only has three rooms, all floral-themed with heavy antique furniture (00 39 032 33 24 43; Via Molinari 10, Stresa; from £65).

Any closer to Lake Orta and you’d be right in it. On Piazza Motta, Hotel Leon d’Oro is irresistibly romantic, with its more expensive doubles looking directly across to Isola San Giulio. There are luxurious curtains, tiled floors and, in some rooms, Jacuzzi-style baths (00 39 0322 91 19 91; albergoleondoro.it; Piazza Motta 42, Orta; from £84).

Hotel La Pergola is a 15-minute walk from Bellagio in the tiny port of Pescallo. Perched on the edge of Lake Como its fine restaurant juts out over the lake. The one-time convent’s rooms are classic in style (00 39 031 95 02 63; lapergolabellagio.it; Piazza del Porto 4, Pescallo; from £93).

Lakefront gardens dotted with palm trees make the 18th-century Villa Giulia on Lake Garda feel like a Mediterranean hideaway. Villa bedrooms are rich with antiques, thick rugs and soft golden fabrics, while the chalet is more contemporary (00 39 036 57 10 22; villagiulia.it; Viale Rimembranze 20, Gargnano, Garda; from £190).

Getting around

Trains serve main towns and some strategic ferry launch pads. Elsewhere there’s a network of buses. Car hire is preferable. Lake towns often hire bicycles (from £8 per day). Ferry services criss-cross the lakes (navigazionelaghi.it; one-day ticket £20).

Getting there

Airlines such as Alitalia, British Airways and easyJet serve Milan’s Malpensa airport from London Heathrow (£120) and Manchester (£130; ba.com). Trains and buses from Milan’s Stazione Nord run to Como (£3; ferrovienord.it). Hire a car from £40 per day (europcar.com).

The article ‘Mini guide to the Italian lakes, Italy’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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