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Rick Steves: Nature and romance in Italy’s Lakes District

Rick Steves' European favorites

Rick Steves: Nature and romance in Italy’s Lakes District
Wandering the ruins of Hadrian's Wall is a highlight of any visit to northern England.
Do your research on the big aggregator sites, but then book directly with a family-run hotel for a glimpse into the local culture.
Monks at Sénanque Abbey in Provence divide their day between prayer and work, which includes tending their perfect rows of lavender.
Iceland's thermal features are fascinating — but beware that testing the waters can result in severe burns.
The thatched roof of Anne Hathaway's Cottage, where Shakespeare's wife grew up, seems to drip over the 500-year-old building.
Though expensive, riding a gondola in Venice at night is one of the great experiences in Europe.
The picture-perfect village of Oia in Santorini, resting a thousand feet high above a volcanic crater, is a dream come true for photographers and sunset watchers.
A trip to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, is one of Europe's richest experiences.
Ireland's legendary green countryside is the backdrop for the coastal town of Kinsale, a winner in the annual "Tidy Towns" contest.
Get your ticket to cross Northern Ireland's Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge first thing in the morning, before the cruise groups — and the wind — take over.
Visitors to Switzerland's gorgeous Berner Oberland can take in spectacular peak views from the Thrill Walk on the Schilthorn cliffside.
The Rhine River is best experienced from the deck of a relaxing riverboat, surrounded by the wonders of this romantic and historic gorge.
Taking a train like Switzerland's Bernina Express keeps you close to Europe's charms.
Going up the Eiffel Tower is one of the great travel thrills in Europe.
European department stores (such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris) can be glamorous platforms for top fashion and people-watching.
Scotland's sparsely populated Isle of Skye is easiest to explore with a set of wheels that allows you to enjoy the scenery at your own pace.
France's Chartres Cathedral boasts the world's largest surviving collection of medieval stained glass, filled with stories and symbolism.
Balance out visits to hectic big cities by also spending time in tranquil villages like Beilstein, in Germany's Mosel Valley.
The burgeoning HafenCity district and its spectacular new Elbphilharmonie concert hall are revitalizing Hamburg's riverfront.
Florence's Duomo Museum, which reopened in 2016 after an extensive renovation, offers one of Italy's great artistic experiences.
Little tuk-tuks are a fun way to sightsee around Lisbon.
London's many attractions — such as its famous Harrods department store — make it a great winter destination for sightseeing and shopping.
Carcassonne, in the south of France, is the perfect medieval fortress-city.
Attending a Gaelic football match at Dublin's Croke Park is a great way to meet new Irish friends — as long as you root for the same side.
The little village of Gimmelwald, high in the Swiss Alps, is one of my all-time favorite European destinations.
Experiential sightseeing, such as this food tour of Rome's Testaccio neighborhood, is time and money well spent.
The ultimate Riviera port town: Vernazza.
Europe’s most scenic train rides are Switzerland’s top three: the Golden Pass, Bernina Express (shown here) and Glacier Express.
The best Gothic interior is found in Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle church.
Café-sitting, coffee-sipping and people-watching are some of the best ways to slow down and enjoy life like Europeans do.
London, York, Bath and Edinburgh (shown here) are the most interesting cities in Britain.
A European picnic is a fine way to enjoy a cheap — and local — meal.
If you want a Swiss city, see Bern (shown here) or Luzern instead of Geneva.
Sognefjord is Norway’s most spectacular fjord.
Europe’s most underrated sight is Rome’s ancient seaport, Ostia Antica.
After Prague, Kraków (shown here) and Budapest are Eastern Europe’s best cities.
Grocery stores in St. Petersburg brim with colorful drinks, pickled goodies, fresh produce and friendly locals.
The ultimate hike in England’s Lake District: Catbells above Keswick.
Hadrian’s Wall will give history buffs goose bumps.
The most pleasing French château is Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Paris.
The ultimate medieval walled town in Germany: Rothenburg.
Splurging on a gondola ride in Venice buys you a memory for a lifetime.
Head to a historic British pub to make friends with a bartender and get a glimpse — and a taste — of traditional English culture.
There's magic afoot when you sightsee at night in Rome, as this young girl discovers near the Spanish Steps.
Memorable seaside views, whitewashed homes scrambling up the hillside, well-worn harborside cafés perfect for lingering — and no cars — all combine to make Hydra my ideal Greek isle.
Standing at a bar with a sampler of tapas and chalkboard specials on the wall is a quintessential Spain experience.
The views from the Rock of Gibraltar take in two continents, one ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
For the best food deals in Frankfurt, line up with locals at Kleinmarkthalle, a delightful old-school market.
Warsaw's magnificent Lazienki Park, filled with Neoclassical palaces, statuary and water features, is a great place to see Poles at play.
Ireland's romantic Dingle Peninsula is gloriously green.
Sitting on a stone at the Castlerigg circle, in England's Lake District, inspires contemplation.
Splurging at a French restaurant often includes dining leisurely at an outdoor table.
The town of Varenna on Lake Como is the perfect place to savor a lakeside meal or aperitivo.

Northern Italy's seductively beautiful lakes district – in the shadow of the Alps – seems heaven-sent for communing with nature. Though just an hour north of Milan, this area feels a world away from the business and bustle of Italy's second city.

In this romantic region, wistful 19th-century villas are overgrown with old vines that seem to ache with stories to tell. Stunted palm trees appear to be held against their will in this northern location. And vistas are made-to-order for poets. In fact, it was early nature lovers who wrote and painted here and put this area on the tourist map in the 1800s.

Tourists have several lakes to choose from, and all have their charms – especially Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. But my favorite is Lake Como, offering the best mix of accessibility, scenery, sightseeing and relaxation, with a heady whiff of aristocratic old days.

Lake Como is lined with luxurious villas, crowned by snowcapped mountains, and busy with fleets of little ferries darting from one cute town to another. The most famous town is Bellagio, the self-proclaimed "Pearl of the Lake" – a combination of old-world classiness and new-world luxury. Steep steps rise from the harbor front up to a smattering of sun-splashed squares. With spendy five-star hotels and high-end shopping, Bellagio pleases well-heeled travelers.

Hotel tour: The legendary Villa d’Este on Lake Como, Italy

Originally built in 1568 as a summer residence for an Italian cardinal with a penchant for expensive art, the Villa d'Este later transferred hands to the Princess of Wales and wife of King George IV of England, Caroline of Brunswick. It was converted to a hotel in 1873 and has remained one of the premier vacation spots for the rich and famous ever since.
Villa d’Este's fleet of boats is available for guests to rent if they wish to visit various towns around the lake. Along the way, the residence of George Clooney and Gianni Versace’s former home line the shore, and guests can hire a guide to show them around.
Guests climb the grand marble staircase from the entrance foyer and arched-ceiling lobby to reach many of the rooms in the historic wing. From this vantage point, the sparkling Murano glass chandeliers, immense floral arrangements and massive, gold-framed works of art are on full display.
Guest rooms boast the finest silk fabrics, starched and ironed bed linens, and antique furnishings that demonstrate a variety of styles that make up the hotel’s 140-year history. The most prized rooms have furnished balconies with full-frontal views of Lake Como.
The largest is the Cardinal Suite on the first floor, where reservations are booked up years in advance. Once you step onto the largest balcony of any of the accommodations here, you will quickly understand why it is so popular.
Its living room has hosted many of the most well-known guests including Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Ralph Lauren and George Clooney. Alfred Hitchcock created one of his first movies, "The Pleasure Garden," while at the hotel. With so many windows, natural light streams in throughout the day and majestically illuminates the mountains across the lake once the sun begins to set from behind the hotel.
Even the Double Executive rooms are quite spacious, with small ensuite sitting areas boasting Queen Anne-style pieces and windows that open to either garden or park views. The blend between historic and modern is obvious with flat-screen TVs from LG placed next to restored armoires dating back more than a century.
Villa d’Este has 55 junior suites, many with small furnished balconies with views of the lake. Décor can vary between rooms and suites with different fabric hues and patterns. Some guests may enjoy the serendipity from one room to the next, which is a result of the hotel’s meticulous refurbishment that takes place each year.
Closed between mid-November and mid-March, when most of Lake Como hibernates for the winter, Villa d’Este removes all furnishings including those from this junior suite. Accommodations are deep-cleaned, examined for necessary maintenance updates, and many are redesigned completely. The result is a unique collection of room layouts and décor that keeps all return guests pleased; no two rooms or villas are identical. Some even have working fireplaces, and repeat guests often have their favorite options with junior suites facing the park costing nearly $1,000 per night in low season.
Four villas surround the property and provide more living space and the utmost in privacy. Among them, the Mosaic House demonstrates some of the accommodations with a more contemporary style.
Bathrooms boast marble surfaces with extensive vanity space stacked high with towels, bespoke toiletries made locally, and warming towel racks. The hotel’s crest is etched on the glass shower stalls and embossed into the towels.
The Queen’s Pavilion, a separate building of accommodations, joined the hotel later and has rooms and suites, almost all of which have lake-view balconies. Many travelers like these rooms because they are closer to the marina where expensive boats bob in the waves. It is also closer to the floating swimming pool.
Through many of the guest room windows, views of the manicured gardens that surround the hotel are commanding. The gardens have a palatial look with winding pathways, melodic fountains, and a colorful, recently restored mosaic wall that frames a hillside path that leads to a statue of Hercules.
It is said that the 25-acre gardens, designed like colorful fortifications, were built by a former countess that resided here and wanted to keep her military veteran husband entertained. Close to 100,000 flowers are planted around the hotel grounds annually, and the chef has his own garden where he grows herbs and spices.
Cuisine is a highlight here and is best enjoyed on the panoramic lakefront terrace where tuxedoed servers deliver choreographed service using plates, silverware and glassware bearing the hotel’s crest. Many pieces were designed exclusively for Villa d’Este.
Elton John dined here and was so impressed with the service that he sent his personal chef to take cooking lessons here. Guests, too, can take one of the hotel’s cooking classes.
With a staff-to-guest room ratio of nearly two to one, service is impeccable. Even the kitchen employs four dozen chefs to prepare everything from its signature white truffle risotto (remember, Italians never use cream in risotto!) to fresh seafood catches of the day prepared tableside. Chef Michele Zambanini’s garden grows many ingredients in the menu like rosemary, parsley and oregano among other herbs and vegetables.
The hotel’s floating swimming pool sits gracefully on the edge of the lake and has its own boat dock and whirlpool. Now a staple of the finest hotels in Lake Como, Villa d’Este was the first hotel in Europe to create a floating pool for its guests in 1966.
If sunbathing by the lake is not paramount, climb the grand staircase to the resort’s spa for a massage or beauty treatment, or visit the private Sporting Club for a workout or swim in the indoor pool. This high-brow club has a handful of local members that pay for the privilege of relaxing here.
Each spring, the hotel clears its lavish, lakeside terrace for the Concours d'Elegance, a vintage car show that draws a worldwide audience. Collectors swarm around expensive cars to potentially purchase and add to their fleet.
The four exclusive, multi-bedroom villas at the hotel are popular with celebrities or couples seeking the most privacy. Built in 1833, the six-bedroom Villa Garrovo is one of four that come with their own outdoor patios, kitchen, and private gardens.
Villa d’Este is a longtime member of The Leading Hotels of the World collection (LHW), which recently relaunched its Leaders Club loyalty program with new perks like the Sterling elite level with confirmed suite upgrades and fewer date restrictions for redeeming earned points at other LHW hotels.
Sibling property 16th-century Medici Villa La Massa on the outskirts of Florence (also a member of The Leading Hotels of the World), provides a Tuscan villa setting on the banks of the Arno River. Here, guests can relax poolside with views of the rolling hillside or take part in numerous activities like wine tastings in the 15th-century wine cellar or biking around the gardens.
The newest addition to the property is Casa Colonica, a remodeled farmhouse that dates back to the mid-1800s, which now boasts four suites with a private kitchen and courtyard featuring a historic 16th-century oven. Villa La Massa produces its own olive oil and even offers truffle hunting excursions with two Italian princesses, Natalia and Irina Strozzi, descendants of the woman who inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s painting "Mona Lisa."
While an hourly transfer can whisk guests to the Ponte Vecchio in central Florence, many choose to take a break from touring to enjoy a Chianti-infused oil massage at the Arno Spa or soak in the riverfront pool. Villa La Massa is planning yet another expansion to restore two more historic buildings and add 13 more rooms and suites plus a new restaurant and swimming pool in the coming years.

While a part of me enjoys the "tramp in a palace" feeling I get in Bellagio, my ideal Lake Como home is Varenna. Easily accessible by train from Milan, Varenna packs its 800 residents into a compact townscape on the less-developed side of the lake. Individual homes are defined only by their pastel colors, and the old town has no streets – just characteristic stepped lanes. The passerella – a lakeside promenade connecting the ferry dock with the old town center – is a fine place to stroll.

On Lake Como, villas face the lake with front doors that welcome visitors arriving by boat (and ferries arriving from Bellagio and Varenna). Many villas are owned by the region's "impoverished nobility." Bred and raised not to work, they eventually were unable to pay for the upkeep of their sprawling houses. While some villas have been bought by the region's nouveaux riches, others have been transformed into hotels or sightseeing attractions.

For garden lovers, Villa Carlotta is the best – especially in spring, when many of its flowers are in peak bloom. But the dreamiest estate is Villa del Balbianello, which perches on a promontory near the village of Lenno and was featured in the movies "Casino Royale" and "Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones." Built at the end of the 18th century on the remains of an old Franciscan church, the villa reflects the exotic vision of its last owner, explorer Guido Monzino. The real masterpiece here is the terraced garden and splendid loggia, where the land fits the architecture and landscaping in a particularly lovely way.

Villa del Balbianello, the home of explorer Guido Monzino and the setting of several Hollywood movies, perches dreamily over Lake Como.

Though it lacks the cozy charm of Lake Como, Lake Maggiore is a suitable backup destination. The best part of any visit here is a wander through the exotic gardens and elaborate villas built by the wealthy Borromeo family, who lovingly turned several of the lake's islands into retreats.

Your handy transportation hub for these islands is the resort town of Stresa. While I find it generally lacking in character, it does have a fine waterfront promenade and stately 19th-century lakeside hotels dating back to when this town was on the Grand Tour circuit. Stresa is famous for its Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which served as an infirmary during World War I, hosting a recovering Ernest Hemingway. The writer later returned to the hotel, setting part of his novel "A Farewell to Arms" here.

But Stresa is mainly worthwhile as a jumping-off point for Lake Maggiore's garden islands. The best one is Isola Bella, dominated by a palatial villa boasting a grand hall with an 80-foot-high dome, paintings from the Borromeo family's private collection, and an 18th-century grotto, decorated from ceiling to floor with shell motifs and black-and-white stones. The terraced Baroque gardens, with the Borromeo family unicorn sitting on top, give the island the look of a stepped pyramid from the water.

The other main Borromean islands are Isola Madre, featuring the first Borromeo palace – dark and somber with a huge collection of dolls, marionettes and exquisite 17th-century marionette theater sets – and Isola Pescatori, the smallest and most residential of the three, with a couple of seafood restaurants, picnic benches, views and, blissfully, little else to do.

While you can visit Italy's lakes as a day trip from Milan, I recommend spending the night. You'll really feel the romance of Europe. Make it a point to stroll a waterfront promenade. As you pass under wisteria-drenched villas and caryatid lovers pressed silently against each other, you'll understand the importance of picking the right travel partner.

The charming villages of Italy's Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
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Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Riomaggiore, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
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Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
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Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Vernazza, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
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Manarola, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
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Manarola, Italy.
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Manarola, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
Manarola, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Monterosso al Mare, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.
Lightning bolt hits the ocean in the town of Corniglia in Cinque Terre, Italy
Corniglia, Italy.
Corniglia, Italy.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

Topic: #italy #milan
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