The romantic atmosphere of the lakes, the magnificence of the surrounding alpine peaks, the ancient rural history and the excellence of top quality food and wine. All these things make Italy’s Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta and a nearby Ossola Valleys a paradise for an active vacation. Lake Maggiore outdoor vacation is an ideal combination of fun-filled activities coupled with quality relaxing time on the beach. I was privileged to receive an invitation from Distretto Turistico dei Laghi and enjoy many thing Lake Maggiore and the surrounding regions have to offer. The trip took place in the middle of June 2019. This is the first of three Blog Posts about my trip (link to post two and post three).
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and approximately 80% of its territory is located in Italy, where its shores touch Piedmont in the west and Lombardy in the east. The northern part of the Lake Maggiore is located in the Swiss Canton of Ticino. Lake Maggiore itself extends for 66 kilometers between Italy and Switzerland. The lake was named Maximus (Maggiore) by the Romans in ancient times. Many prominent people were impressed by the lake’s beauty. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, ordered building a road to access the lake. Also Ernest Hemingway sealed the lake in history in his novel “Farewell to Arms”. The main character of the novel, Frederic, together with his lover, Catherine, runs away from Italy, crossing Lake Maggiore on a boat towards the Swiss border.
Borromeo is Lake Maggiore’s Royal Family
The Borromeo family has a significant and acknowledged legacy in Italian history, a legacy that you can see and experience for yourself with a visit to their island “Isola Bella” located in the middle of beautiful Lake Maggiore. To this day, the Borromeo heirs hold the titles of “Prince” and “Princess”. The flag raised in the courtyard of their palace informs curious visitors when the family is in residence. The first Borromeo came to prominence is the 14th century and earned their wealth in banking in Milan. In the 16th century, the family acquired three rocky islands in the middle of Lake Maggiore to begin construction of a palace and gardens on Isola Bella. It took four centuries to complete this magnificent work.
The palace conserves most of the original furnishings. In the 20 rooms that are open to the public (the upper floors of the palace are the private residence of the Borromeo Family), curious travelers admire ornamental rooms with super high engraved and gilded ceilings, historic furnishings and endless pieces of art. History lessons are felt throughout the palace. You walk through the room Napoleon and his wife slept in and where the King and Queen of Piedmont stayed in the early 19th century. The Music Room stirs up regret – that is where in 1935 the Conference of Stresa took place, a last attempt to contain WW II. In that same room Mussolini met with officials from Britain and France discussing an ally against Hitler. As we know, it didn’t work out. I was, however, most impressed by the six grottoes on the lower level. They were designed with pebbles from the lake, slabs of marble and lava from Vesuvius to keep the Borromeo guests cool during the hot summer days. The gardens outside are one of the best conserved Baroque Italian-style gardens. Moreover, the gardens is where signature white peacocks stroll around welcoming admiring guests.
Outside the palace, the Borromeos want you to be a part of “Borromeo Experience”. A steep and narrow shopping street that sells only high-end products made in Italy leads visitors to a few dining establishments worth paying a visit. We stop at Ristorante Elvezia and sitting on a shady terrace admire the views of the lake, the town of Stresa, and the Mottarone Mountain (our next stop) across the lake. A cool glass of local white wine goes well with “fish chips”, a tiny deep fried fish from Lake Maggiore that can be eaten as a whole.
Mottarone Mountain above Lake Maggiore: Borromeo Experience for Outdoor Enthusiasts
A short boat ride from Isola Bella and we board the Cable Car to go up to Mottarone, a granite mountain rising up to 1,492 meters between Lakes Maggiore and Orta (more about Lake Orta in the second part of my North Piedmont trip report). Only an hour train ride from Milan, Mottarone high above Lake Maggiore is a hiking and mountain biking area in summer and a ski area in winter, a paradise for outdoor vacation. From the cable car’s middle station Alpino we explore the easiest mountain bike route on an E-bike to the newly built “Mottarone Adventure Park”, a high rope climbing course that features the range of bridges, nets and pulleys. With four different routes, the adventure park high above Lake Maggiore is suitable for outdoor loving guests as young as 3 years old!
Of course, 45 minutes of pedaling, even on an E-bike, call for a refreshment. The newly constructed Bar Stazione (translated as “station”) that is tucked among the pine trees seems to be a perfect place for that. Created from the conversion of the old railway station, Bar Stazione suited well for gourmet lunch breaks, snacks and aperitifs with locally sourced products.
Cadorna Line Trail: Beautiful Panoramic Bike Ride High Above Lake Maggiore
Can a trip around northern Italy’s wonderful Lake Maggiore get any more spectacular? Yes, just get an E-bike and coast high above the Lake Maggiore’s craggy cliffs and crystal-clear Alpine waters. We are lucky to experience this beautiful panorama on the second day of our trip. The Linea Cadorna trail is named after General Luigi Cadorna, who created it as a military road for defense during the World War I. The guns were aimed at Switzerland to protect Italy from Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in the event they would decide to attack from the north. Fortunately, the road was never used as intended.
Cadorna Line bike path is not too steep and an easy cruise on an e-bike, although there are sometimes bigger rocks and tree roots on the road to watch for. This activity with gorgeous views of Lake Maggiore is suitable for any outdoor loving families (kids 6 years old and above) and can be done on a regular mountain bike too. An E-bike just makes it easier to relax and enjoy the beautiful landscape around you. During our bike ride we were rewarded with the breathtaking panorama of Lake Maggiore, picturesque views of Monte Rosa massive and nearby peaks of the Val Grande National Park. Cadorna Line trail also doubles as a hiking trail with a possibility to hike 26.5 km and 650 meters in elevation gain. Route description, elevation profile, and GPX file are available on the website https://www.distrettolaghi.it/ in four languages. You can also read more about our bike tour in German written by charming Steffi from gipfel-glueck.de
Tip: take a detour near Colle to visit the fortified tunnels and bunkers of Cadorna line. Located just below the summit of the Cima di Morissolo, the labyrinth of bunkers and tunnel-like passages in the mountain served as a storage place for weapons and supplies of the Italian soldiers during the WW I. The access to the tunnels is free and open to the public.
Adrenaline junkies must combine the Linea Cadorna bike tour with Lake Maggiore Zipline experience. Fly alone or with a friend and experience 90 seconds of pure excitement! You are hooked to a 1,850 meter long steel cable and plunge in a lush-green ravine. The flight gives you the sensation of a cliff dive that quickly accelerates to the highest speed of 120 km/h. I was lucky enough to share the ride with lovely Anja who has he own YouTube Channel “Ophelia Talks”. You can watch our whole flight here.
Stresa and Baveno: Lake Maggiore charming towns
Back on the lake shores, a stroll along the lake promenade in Stresa is a must do. From all of Lake Maggiore towns, Stresa is a most famous one. With its cafés, restaurants, and a row of 5-star hotels Stresa is guaranteed to satisfy even most demanding travelers. After a long activities-filled day, there is still some beautiful sunlight and an evening air that tempts you into staying outdoors. What can be better than enjoying the last sun rays over the lake form a rooftop bar? We are headed to the Sky Bar of Hotel La Palma and taste an Italian Aperitivo accompanied by the sights and sounds of Lake Maggiore.
Stresa’s next-door quieter neighbor, a town of Baveno, retained its Italian small town charm with narrow streets and smaller family-owned hotels. Instead of Stresa’s grand hotels, we spend a night in Hotel Rosa in the historical city center of Baveno, just a few meters from the lake. A tasting menu of local fish specialties completes a perfect day on Lake Maggiore.
Camping on the cleanest lake in Europe: Lake Mergozzo
Since 1967, camping villages that are run by the Manoli Family, attract visitors from all over Europe. Camping village Isolino is located directly on Lake Maggiore in the Borromean Gulf (yes, the Borromeo Family even has a gulf named after them). We opt for visit of the Continental Camping Village that borders Isolino but has access to a small, pretty Lake Mergozzo, which boasts a reputation as the cleanest lake in Europe, because boat navigation is prohibited there. Continental Camping Village features cozy sandy beaches, two large pool parks, a new playground, every kind of facility for fun and sport and evening entertainment in the big arena for big and small. There is some activity for kids on the beach but with kids laughing and having fun. We ignore the noise and plunge in the lake for a refreshing swim after our Cadorna Line bike tour.