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Saturday, March 24, 2012

FYI: Lake Maggiore, Italy -- Readers' Tips, Recommendations And Travel Advice


The UK publication the Telegraph has a travel competition each week in which readers are asked to submit their reviews and recommendations for a particular destination. Recently, the destination asked for was Lago Maggiore. I thought that it would be interesting, as well as helpful, to share with you the results of that competition. Keep in mind that these are the opinions only of the writers, with their own thoughts on the pros and cons of Stresa and other spots along the lake:


A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW
When visiting Stresa, take a trip on the Mottarone cable car (which departs from the Lido) for a 20-minute ride to one of the most stunning views in Italy. At the midway stop you can stroll around the Alpine gardens and look out over the three beautiful Borromean Islands of Bella, Madre and dei Pescatori set in the glittering waters of Lake Maggiore below. You could walk down to Stresa at this point, but that would mean missing the breathtaking 360-degree view at the top. Jump back on the cable car and carry on to the summit. After a short uphill walk you will be staring in awe across the magnificent Po Valley to the Alps, with the astonishing sight of seven blue lakes (Maggiore, Orta, Mergozzo, Varese, Comabbio, Monate and Biandronno) nestling into the surrounding landscape like shimmering jewels. Amazing.

GO BY RAIL...
Take the train to Maggiore with the help of Railbookers(railbookers.com) or RailEurope (raileurope.co.uk). Whichever your destination – Stresa or Locarno – the first stage is by Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord. If you’re heading for Stresa, you take the TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon to Lausanne on Lake Geneva; from here Swiss Rail takes you via Brig direct to Stresa. Leave Paris at lunchtime, be in Stresa for your evening meal.
If you’re heading for Locarno, take the TGV from Paris Gare de l’Est, via Strasbourg to Basle; change there and Swiss Rail takes you forward, via Lucerne, direct to Locarno. Leave Paris after breakfast, in Locarno for late afternoon tea. Whichever route you take, the scenery is magnificent.

...OR BIKE
We had booked a fortnight’s break to cycle around Lombardy. While the Italian side of Maggiore is absolutely superb, we found ourselves diverting to Switzerland on several days. It’s much quieter and the roads around the lake are not as terrifying. From Lugano there are several routes you can take and the boats that cross the lake are easy, inexpensive and frequent, so you can cover every part of the lake easily.
There is a fantastic market in Luino every Wednesday and as it takes over the whole town, it’s much more accessible on a bike. If you are on a bike, don’t stop at the main towns (Locarno, Ascona and Verbania) – it’s much better to stop at some of the smaller villages and take advantage of the lower prices. Orta is beautiful, too, but has too many coaches, tourist tat and inflated prices.

CANNERO RIVIERA
We visit Maggiore year after year. We stay in Cannero Riviera, where the family-run Hotel Cannero (0039 0323 788046; hotelcannero.com) is lakeside, just steps from the boat station. From there you can visit the Borromean Islands, the market at Luino, Villa Taranto, the Swiss towns of Ascona and Locarno, or the busy Maggiore towns such as Stresa and Intra.

MAGGIORE IN SPRINGTIME
The best time to visit Maggiore is May or June. You will see numerous varieties of wild flowers. Cruise on the lake at the north-western extremity to Locarno for different landscapes and magnificent views. If time permits visit Baveno, famous for its marble quarries. In Stresa, stay at the Hotel Astoria (0323 32566; hotelstresa.info/astoria/uk/hotel.asp) or theRegina Palace Hotel (0323 936936; regina-palace.com).

ISLAND JEWELS
The jewels of Lake Maggiore are the Borromean Islands, accessible by taking one of the reasonably priced hop-on/hop-off boats that visit them daily. Our first stop was Isola Bella, with its enchanting gardens. Back on the boat we headed for Isola Madre, where a beautiful palace surrounded by 19 acres of English-style gardens awaited. Finally we disembarked at Isola dei Pescatori, with its delightful cobbled streets and a promenade that encircles it, to relax with refreshments at one of the restaurants.
Eve Etheridge, address withheld

END WITH A SUNDOWNER
Unless you have a private yacht, the finest way to experience the magic of the lake is from the deck of the Locarno-to-Stresa steamer. There’s even a good Italian handbag shop opposite the Stresa ferry landing.
For spectacular views over the lake and beyond, ride the mountain bus from Locarno to Porera. Walk over the wooded ridge to the hamlet of Rasa, returning via the cable car and Centovalli railway.
The three famous Borromean Islands are a photographer’s dream, but they can become overcrowded and overpriced. For genuine lakeside dolce vita, take a morning stroll through the botanical gardens of Villa Taranto. Enjoy a lazy lunch under a sunshade on the island of Brissago. End the day with sundowners on the picturesque harbour front of Ascona.

STRESA’S QUIETER NEIGHBOUR
The streets of Stresa are lined with interesting local shops selling Murano glass, much cheaper than in Venice. At night, the local restaurant-goers are serenaded by gentle Italian violinists. But stay in Baveno, Stresa’s quieter neighbour. The pink-stuccoed Simplon Hotel (0323 916507; zaccherahotels.com) is a beautiful fin-de-siècle building set in lovely parkland. Walk through the hotel’s underground tunnel, lined with famous art replicas, to its sister hotel Grand Hotel Dino (0323 922201; zaccherahotels.com). Take a day trip to Milan, easily reached by train from Stresa. Other places in easy reach are the smaller but nonetheless lovely Lake Orta and Lake Lugano in Switzerland.

EAT ON THE WATER
The Ristorante Milano (0232 556816; ristorantemilanolagomaggiore.it) in Pallanza is very much on Lake Maggiore. With glass on three sides, it sits on stilts on the water. It has a garden and private parking but you can also arrive by boat. The menu is classic Italian and the clientele is mainly Milanese weekenders. The service is exceptional – all of the staff are of retirement age and take great pride in their roles. Families and children are welcomed and as you reluctantly leave, female guests are offered a bag of individually wrapped amaretti biscuits.

PERFECT PEACE
The traffic around the lake is no joke so use the water buses whenever possible. A quiet spot is the botanic garden behind Stresa, approached by the funicular.


RIDE THE CENTOVALLI
After you have visited the Borromean Islands and taken the cable car to the summit of Mount Mottarone, catch the mainline train to Domodossola and then experience a ride on the Centovalli narrow-gauge line (visitcentovalli.ch for train times and fares) through magnificent mountain scenery, trundling slowly over precarious viaducts spanning ravines, admiring waterfalls plunging down the valley sides on the way to Locarno.

Enjoy wandering the streets of elegant Locarno or take the funicular to the Madonna del Sasso sanctuary, before catching the ferry back to Stresa, sitting back and relaxing in the sunshine.

ADMIRABLE ORTA
If you want to see Lake Maggiore, but wish to avoid large-scale tourism, stay on the nearby Lake Orta. Because it is quieter and not as famous as its larger cousin, it is cheaper. You get all of the benefits and none of the disadvantages.
Stay in Orta San Giulio, five minutes by car from Maggiore, and you can look out across water, enjoy Baroque and Roman architecture, wonderful Italian food and coffee in a 2,000-year-old piazza. Of course, it does help if you have a beautiful lady or young children to accompany you because Italians warm to both, and preferential treatment for seats, tables and tours is guaranteed. You can rent a villa here, but why bother when you can enjoy Italian hospitality such as the three-star Hotel Aracoeli (0322 905173; orta.net/aracoeli/info.htm). Perfection.

MAGICAL MAGGIORE
When visiting Lake Maggiore, we like to stay in Locarno/Ascona for four enjoyable reasons: first, for the walks along the shoreline. Spring is an ideal time to visit, as owing to Locarno’s microclimate, hydrangeas, camellias and magnolias will all be in bloom. Second, for the cable-car ride up to Mount Cardada (the cable-car station is near the church of Madonna del Sasso in Orselina). On a clear day, the views are spectacular. Third, for the train ride from Locarno to Domodossola (see “Ride the Centovalli” above). And fourth, for the boat excursions along on the lake. Magical.

HEAD NORTH
Shun the popular, touristy resort of Stresa and head north towards the Swiss border. The small lakeside resorts are more peaceful, but just as full of atmosphere. Cannobio has a superb traffic-free lake promenade, a maze of small streets in the old town, good walking in the hills and valleys behind the village and good places to eat. Don’t miss market day, when the promenade is lined with fascinating stalls and tempting local produce.
Stay in the centre at the wedge-shaped Hotel Pironi (0323 70624;pironihotel.it), to soak up the atmosphere and be within a stone’s throw of all Cannobio has to offer.


What to avoid
FOLLOW THE SUN
Don’t miss out on the sun. When planning a trip to Lake Maggiore, or any of the Italian lakes, do your homework on where the sun will be during your time there. Some of the lakeside resorts have less sun due to the mountains around the lake.

BUDGET-BUSTERS
The boats on the lake are the best and most pleasant way to see the lake and its environs. However, one real bone of contention is their cost, as they can become expensive if you use them everyday. Added to that, they don’t let you break your journey so beware – you may have to pay extra if you get off at a stopping place and then want to rejoin a later boat.

CURRENCY ADVICE
If you’re travelling the length of the lake, don’t forget you’ll need Swiss francs as well as euros. Lots of places in Switzerland will take euros but by no means all, and you’ll get a better exchange rate in a bank.

HEAD NORTH
The southern part of Maggiore is built up and not as pretty as you might be expecting – don’t despair: the northwest reaches are much better.

FOOD, NOT TAT
The big Luino market is well known, but avoid the cheap handbags and similar tat and concentrate on the food stalls.


So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Would you have other ideas?  


photos courtesy of UK Telegraph


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