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Summer by the water's edge

George Clooney may be a recent convert, but Italy's lakes have been stirring souls and generally causing hearts to skip a beat for millennia. So where better to head on a modern-day grand tour?

Featured September 13 Words by Simon Kurs
Summer by the water's edge
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Photography by Tim E White

If you close your eyes and just listen, it sounds as if the lake is breathing. Lying in the afternoon haze, waves lap soporifically around - in, out, in, out. Nearby, a motorboat creaks rhythmically in its mooring - in and out, in and out. It's more a feeling than anything else, but the very landscape of Como seems caught in a languid expansion and contraction. Surely, this is something to do with the mountains. Crowding the water on all sides, they create the sense of an enclosed place, one that exists, as the writer Henry James aptly put it, “out of the rush and crush of the modern world”.

It's only taken one afternoon lazing beside the floating pool at CastaDiva (castadivaresort.com), bobbing in the light current on the lake's eastern shore, and we're already in love. This sprawling estate of landscaped gardens, rich with towering pines, hanging willows and Cypress trees, epitomises the rarefied grandeur you expect of Como, which is about an hour's drive north from Milan. Plunging down the hillside near the village of Blevio, it's a place of escape where guests can live out an A-lister fantasy, padding between a beautiful, subterranean spa or enjoying an Aperol spritz, as the sun sets on the terrace of Villa Roccabruna, the ludicrously opulent 18th-century Renaissance residence that sits at the heart of the resort.

I can see why some probably never even leave the grounds. We, however, are on a mission. This is but the first leg on a 1,000km road trip that will see my wife and I braving the (slightly hair-raising) motorways of Italy in our white Fiat 500L, taking in two more stretches of water after this one - Garda, also in the north, and Trasimeno, near Pisa. The plan, aside from possibly eating slightly too much in the process, is to try to glean some sense of just why these giant puddles have captivated visitors since Roman times.

Every day, thousands of sightseers load up on the many regular ferries that circle Lake Como, heading to towns such as Varenna, with its 13th-century Castello di Vezio, and Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo for a piece of the area's history. But top of everyone's list is Bellagio, which is considered the quintessential lakeside town.

So, that's where we decide to head on our second day. Como may only be 46km long, but its narrow coastal roads are, well, not designed for getting anywhere quickly. Even at 9am on a Sunday, the snaking route is already busy with traffic, not to mention groups of cyclists, geared up as if they're in their own private Giro d'Italia, riding three abreast and impossible to overtake.

I make a mental note to take the ferry next time, but the slow progress is made worthwhile when we arrive. Stretching up the hill from the lake shore, Bellagio is a tourist-pleasing maze of medieval alleyways: wrought-iron balconies poke out above artisanal craft stores, and the scent of honeysuckle and lavender fills the air.

The first job is to meet Paula, our guide for the day, whom we find waiting on the bustling waterfront next to Piazza Mazzinni and its abundance of grandly crumbling fin-de-siècle hotels. After a morning stroll through the cobbled passageways, taking welcome respite from the sun, Paula leads us down the pretty tree-lined promenade that runs alongside the water and past a cool-looking lido. There are only a few public swimming spots on the entire lake and this is one of the best. We stop to admire the giant oleander trees that feature in the stunning botanical gardens around Villa Melzi, probably the area's biggest visitor attraction, before passing through the back gates to where our final destination lies.

The leafy canopy of Alle Darsene di Loppia (ristorantedarsenediloppia.com) is not only a serene backdrop for lunch, it's also suitably removed from Bellagio's crowds. After a delicious meal that's both rustic and refined - my highlight was ricotta-stuffed courgette flower on candied red pepper - I catch up with owner Nicolette on her feelings about Como. Is she as taken with it as we are, I ask? “I like to wake up in the morning and see the water, the mountain, the colour,” she replies wistfully. “There really is nothing like it.”

I defy any writer not to be inspired by Italy's lakes. They make you want to gush, EM Forster-style, about the stirring, wild scenery. While I'll try my best to refrain, it's no surprise that Como has inspired many over the years, acting as muse for poets, authors and composers - Bellini composed his opera Norma at Villa Melzi, for instance. Few, however, have been more passionate than DH Lawrence. In 1912, he lived in Gargnano on Garda's north-west shore. It was there he wrote Twilight in Italy, and this quiet village, 180km to the east, is our next stop.

Heading away from industrial Milan, the landscape is recognisably that of northern Italy - flat farmlands wind past in an array of muted yellows and greens. Hills roll in the distance. Then something dramatic happens between Brescia and Garda. As the crystal blue water hoves into view, more sea than lake, the landscape unfolds before the eyes like a fertile, green blanket.

It's as if you've been transported to the Mediterranean. Suddenly, there are olive groves and lemon trees, creeping bougainvillea creates a vivid splash of pink on crumbling stone walls, while cicadas chirp shrilly in the trees. Even the air seems denser and more humid.

Indeed, this was particularly noticeable as we settled down to supper at the Hotel du Lac (hotel-dulac.it) on our first evening. This charming period guesthouse has a terrace that literally hangs over the water's edge and while we sat there polishing off a seriously good venison ragu, that haziness - the result of a warmer microclimate created by the nearby mountains - became increasingly apparent. It lent a dreamy quality to the advancing dusk, causing the orange lights that were appearing on the opposite shoreline to resemble a string of opalescent pearls. DH Lawrence actually described something similar in his book: “The lake lies dim and milky,” he wrote, “the mountains are dark... the sky glistens....”

The author's house is actually a few doors down from Hotel du Lac and well worth a stroll past. Like much in Gargnano, it retains an old-world charm. Narrow, medieval streets lead to a square on the waterfront where locals sit eating gelato and children jump from a nearby jetty into the water. Venetian-style lamps extend in a line down a promenade, a row of inviting cafés and bars face the lake.

In many ways, Garda, which is about 45-minutes' drive from Verona, is the antithesis of Como. Both vaster and less rarified, its waters are a beating, lapping heart in a way they're not in Como. Exploring the shoreline the next afternoon, we watch weather-beaten fishermen chug by in small motorboats and young local men row past, standing up in that strange Venetian fashion as they prepare for one of the many regattas that take place on the water. We pass a multitude of small harbours, and kayaks, windsurfers and sailboats also appear in significant numbers. While Gargnano may be exceedingly quiet, many of the other towns here, such as Riva, Limone and Malcesine, are crowded during the peak season with holidaymakers who come to get seriously active. Hiking, mountain biking and water sports are all a really big deal here. 

Of course, if you want to get away from it all, there is an option. The LeFay Resort (lefayresorts.com) sits high in the hills above Gargnano and it provided an ideal point of comparison for our final night in these parts. Super-modern in design, with a focus on wellness, it's a serene and luxurious alternative to the classic lakeside hotels. It's also extremely relaxed: guests can rock up to breakfast in bathrobes before heading for a massage or to bob up and down in the womb-like embrace of the salt lake, which I wholeheartedly advise doing.

The one thing that recommends the place above all else, however, is the view. Lazing beside the infinity pool, gazing out, it's a majestic scene. Even so high up, the edges of the lake, which is 52km long and 17km at its widest, blur into the horizon. “We built the hotel around the view,” enthuses managing director Alcide Leali over an espresso before we depart. “We wanted all our guests to enjoy it.” For Leali, whose family started out in steel and aviation, Garda hasn't yet begun to realise its potential, but this is something he believes will come. “The unique asset our country has is its beauty,” he says, “and we need to realise the lakes are a big part of this.”

Our final destination - Lake Trasimeno - is some 400km south of Garda and it's just as far removed in terms of scenery. A volcanic basin only 4m deep, with two islands in the middle, it sits on the border of Umbria and Tuscany. On another occasion, I'd love to explore the areas we pass but, instead, Florence and Siena whizz by in a blur. Then, as we near the water, a sudden explosion of colour forces us to take notice. Purples, yellows and greens everywhere, a patchwork of meadows and undulating hills; in the sky, the sun sets in a bursting, bleeding swirl of red and pink.

There's no time to stop and marvel, however, as we're running late for dinner. When we finally arrive at Country House Montali (montalionline.com), an agroturismo near the town of Tavernelle, it's after numerous wrong turns and 45 minutes late. Owner Alberto is waiting outside, resplendent in a white linen outfit. “Hurry, we've already started,” he says.

We rush inside. Montali, Italy's first vegetarian hotel, opened 25 years ago. This would be interesting enough in the urbane northern reaches of Italy, but here in Umbria, where meat reigns supreme (virtually every village we passed en route seemed to have posters advertising boar festivals), it's nothing short of astounding. The only thing more astounding is the food cooked up by Alberto's wife, Malu. Beginning with a stack of buckwheat polenta sandwiching meaty mushrooms and cool, green broad bean purée, it's a revelation. We also enjoy a deeply flavoured aubergine tart with accompanying quenelles of both beetroot and ricotta cheese and chive as part of the four courses. With Alberto acting the consummate host and music playing in the background (indie band Beirut, if you're wondering), there's the convivial atmosphere of a dinner party. By the time we finish, we're more than ready for bed. It might be the country air, the charmingly rustic bedroom or the sheer distance we've come, but it's the best night's sleep we get on the trip.

The next day, we sit with Alberto, swinging on a hammock in the garden, several cats stretching lazily nearby. With purple and yellow daisies sprouting everywhere, scarlet poppies and buttercups, the place is beguiling. I've never stayed in an agroturismo before, but I'm a convert. “Here is a kind of isolation,” says Alberto. “You have to like it. But we have privileges too - air, food, quality of life.” They press their own olive oil, like many in the region, and the rows of fig, plum and cherry trees on the estate contribute to chutneys, sauces and even the jam we polished off at breakfast.

Alberto calls this a crazy place to start a vegetarian restaurant, but it makes perfect sense. There are wonderful local ingredients - olives, mushrooms, beans (known as fagiolina del Trasimeno), all made abundant by the fertile soil around the lake - and people here have an intimate relationship with food unlike anywhere else we visited.

And so it was the next evening, when we found ourselves eating the most outstanding meal of the nine days. In Bocca al Lupo (Montecastiglione, Gosparini, Lisciano Niccone; tel: +39 033 5648 9144) is in a pine forest high above the lake and it was there that we arrived for a veritable feast. Meeting up with my wife's family, who are from the nearby lake town of Tuoro, we dined the Umbrian way: drinking wine that had been made by one of our party, conversation buzzing across a table heaving with relatives and, of course, there was the food. Crunchy pepper fritters, two types of tagliatelle - one oozing cream and local truffles, the other the richest veal ragu I've ever eaten. By the time the meat arrived - a huge charred rib of beef laced with rosemary and lemon, I'd already eaten too much. Well, almost…

It meant we were craving fresh air on the final day, before the two-hour drive to Pisa airport. Passignano sul Trasimeno, the picturesque, medieval town where we were based, is on the lake's northern tip and surrounded by countryside. After a morning coffee at Bar Mayfair (24 Piazza Garibaldi)  - home to the best breakfast in town and also a supreme vantage point to people-watch on the piazza - we jumped on a pair of bicycles. Quickly, the town gave way to rural Umbria. We passed colourful villas and crumbling farms, olive groves and vines, apricots hanging fat on trees. There were fields of corn and meadows filled with sunflowers. It's this I'll always remember: the sunflowers, their deep yellow petals and black heads nodding slowly in the breeze, lost in a rapture of pure contentment.

With thanks to Europcar

Pedal to the Metal

From a surfari to a legendary Italian race, we round up eight of the best road trips (words by Dan Read)

1 | Euro Glam
Nice
Monaco's Grand Prix street circuit is just half an hour's drive from Nice along the pretty French Riviera. Once in town, you can pretend to be an F1 driver by following the route of the famous track, then share the night with the glitterati at a harbourside cocktail bar.

2 | Culture Club
Copenhagen
Stroll the cobbled streets of Denmark's capital and take a picture with the Little Mermaid, then treat yourself to a meal at the double Michelin-starred Noma restaurant. Afterwards, drive over the spectacular Øresund suspension bridge (one of the world's longest) to Malmo, Sweden.

3 | Island Escape
Palma
Majorca is home to the RennArena racetrack (mallorcarennarena.com), where you can have
a blast on a go-kart, but the island's greatest driving treasure is the 10km twisty mountain road leading to Sa Calobra. Because it's so quiet, you'll most likely have it all to yourself.

4 | Surfari
Porto
Fly to Porto and drive south on the N109 along the Atlantic coast, home to some of the planet's best surf. For the top breaks, visit Ericeira. Keep going south and you'll reach Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point on mainland Europe, before flying home from Lisbon.

5 | High and dry
Fez
You'll need to hire a 4 x 4 for a road trip over the sky-high Atlas Mountains. Drive south to the Sahara and continue for around six hours till you  arrive at the classic Merzouga sand dunes, where you can swap the car for a camel and trek into the desert.

6 | Fire and ice
Reykjavik
Route 1 is the national highway that circles Iceland. The total loop is 1,339km and takes in the island's full buffet of geological weirdness. If you're feeling brave, you can even drive up an active volcano (we'd suggest hiring a guide) before a dip in the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik.

7 | Whisky and Wildlife
Inverness
Here you have distilleries, wildlife and the Highlands, but the best bit is driving between them. The old military road from Braemar to Pitlochry in the Cairngorns or the breathtaking stretch through Glencoe are particularly good - just remember not to drink and drive.

8 | Road Race
Verona
One of the most famous and dangerous road races, the Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles), ran from Brescia to Rome and back. It was eventually banned, but you can still follow the route. The course record was set by Sir Stirling Moss in 1955 with 10 hours - don't expect to beat it.


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