Lake Maggiore

Monday, September 17, 2018
Stresa, Piemonte, Italy
The drive from Lezenno to Stresa is about 90 min after which we checked into our apartment – Costa Azzura which was on the fourth floor with great views of Lake Maggiore.
After settling in, the four of us spent the day exploring Stresa. Stresa is a popular tourist destination as it is on a main trainline from Milan and is very convenient for visiting the three Borromean Islands in the lake. The centre has a number of walking streets with lots of restaurants, some fashion stores and great food shops. That night we went to our favourite Stresa restaurant, La Botte – real Italian food in an authentic setting.
Next day while Rebecca and Mark relaxed, Sue and I went on the Lago Maggiore Express, which is an all day excursion with two trains and a ferry trip. The first part is the train from Stresa to Domodossola, a town on the Swiss border. We had been to Domodossola previously so just had a coffee waiting for the next train. This was on the narrow gauge “Vigezzina-Centovalli” train that is a 2 hour trip from Domodossola to Locarno, which is on the Swiss part of Lake Maggiore. It’s a breathtaking journey through wonderful landscapes of woods, wild mountains, rivers and waterfalls along a route of 52 kilometres including 83 bridges and 31 tunnels. The Italian part is especially picturesque, especially the small mountainside villages. An interesting aspect of the trip and some other parts of Switzerland we visited, were the number of vineyards even at some of the high altitudes we visited.
As this was a Sunday, as happens in Switzerland, most of Locarno was closed. It did not look too exciting anyway, so we caught the local bus to Ascona, only a few kilometres away, still on the lake and known for its beautiful lakeside promenade. Just off the lake, there are also a few very nice shopping streets. There was lots of happening as there was a classic car display on the promenade which included two 1950’s Mercedes Gullwing models (estimated value $ 2 - 3 million each), a 1930’s Bentley coupe ($500,000) and many other incredibly valuable classics all in working condition and still being driven. One of the reasons for visiting Ascona was that Sue had recently done a painting of the lakefront for a friend who had spent his childhood holidays there, so it was interesting to see it in real life – the painting and the real thing are in the attached photos.
The trip back to Stresa is a 2 hour ferry ride. Although not as spectacular as Lake Como, Lake Maggiore is still beautiful with its villages, many churches and quite a few islands. It was a memorable day.
From Stresa, a cable car ride and then a chair lift takes you to the top of Mottarone (1491m), where there is the spectacular 360° panorama of the surrounding lakes and Italian and Swiss Alps. It was quite foggy and extremely cold when we were there but on a clear day, it is possible to see seven surrounding lakes. Sue had decided to relax so it was Rebecca, Mark and myself that made the trip. At the top, there is a toboggan run which Rebecca was courageous, or stupid, enough, to try. It’s spectacular with some pretty hairy bends and downhill runs. From there, the three of us did the 4½ hour walk through forests and across the fields back down to Stresa. There are some spectacular views of the lake on the way down. The final part of the walk along some of the local roads gets quite steep and the legs really start to feel it – great fun though. Another great meal that night at another local place.
Next day we did our hop-on, hop-off trip of the lake visiting the three Borromean Islands. Isola Bella has a palace and a small village. Isola dei Pescatori is the only one inhabited all year round (25 people) and has a promenade all the way around. It has a narrow street on its spine with cobble lanes running off containing a few ceramics stores, tourist shops and some fashion stores. There are also some really pretty restaurants along the lakefront. The third island, Isola Madre is the largest and is home to the Palazzo Borromeo which contains rooms with 16 – 17th century furniture and paintings and a wonderful display of antique marionettes. The island also has a renowned garden with trees from many different countries and exotic birds.
Our next outing was to the ancient village of Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta, a small lake 20 kms west of Lake Maggiore. The medieval town is full of narrow streets, with lovely religious and cultural buildings, nice piazzas and a 15th century church, Chiesa dell Assunta. There was an exhibition by an artist who makes amazing art with paper mache, quite unique and unlike anything we had seen previously. Although we decided not to go there, there is a small island, Isola San Giulio, a few hundred metres offshore which has a12th century basilica and some Romanesque building. The island is mainly a religious sanctuary. One of the pleasures of our visit was sitting on the terrace of the Hotel San Rocco enjoying the sun and an afternoon cocktail. What is amazing about Orta San Giulio is that this small village has two Michelin star restaurants, one in the Villa Crespi (2 stars) and the other Locanda di Orta (1 star).
Our final day with Rebecca and Mark was spent in Varese, quite a large town situated between Lakes Maggiore and Como. It’s a town of about 80,000 inhabitants so as stated previously, typically has great fashion shops and restaurants. The central area is a nice place to walk around and lots of locals were enjoying the al-fresco dining in the last of the summer weather.
It was sad to leave Rebecca and Mark as we had a wonderful time together, firstly with Mark’s family and then Sue and me showing them the delights of Lake Como and Maggiore. It was very special for all of us.