SEEN ON A BRILLIANT EARLY MORNING, glittering  beneath a rim of snow-dipped peaks, the Italian lakes come pretty close to heaven. Heart-stoppingly beautiful, wreathed in Alpine air and fringed in lush gardens, their shifting choreography of mist, mountains and water can turn the coolest soul into an incurable romantic.

The lakes of Garda, Como, Maggiore and Iseo – not to mention pocket-sized Orta – are the perfect antidote to city life. You can chug your way around the lakes on a steamer, calling in at tiny ports and stopping off where the fancy takes you for a lakeside picnic or a bottle of local Bardolino wine.

Generally reckoned to be the loveliest is Lake Como, whose famously glamorous shores lap at the jetties of opulent Belle Epoque villas. Wordsworth thought it “a treasure which the earth keeps to itself,” though that’s not the case these days.

While visitors in the early 1900s had to scale the Simplon Pass to reach this scenic corner of Italy, Como is now within easy reach of Europe’s top ski resorts and the great cities of Milan, Turin and Bergamo. And celebrities including George Clooney have famously bought their holiday homes there.

Como’s jewels include Varenna, whose tiny alleyways tumble down to the pine-shaded lakefront, and from where you can drift off across the lake on a steamer. Bellagio, poised centre-stage just where Como’s two long arms join up, is a tableau of leafy promenades and streets of pastel-painted fin-de-siècle houses.  Other compelling spots along the lake include Tremezzo, where a trip to the neo-classical Villa Carlotta is a must. 

Lake Garda is another visual cracker, and the ideal summertime base for music fans visiting Verona’s famous opera festival. Its Riviera shoreline is lined with pretty resorts, and there’s no better way to while away a sunny afternoon than taking one of the steamers on a full round-the-lake cruise.

The tourist honeypot of Sirmione has an undeniably lovely setting, while Gardone retains its olden-days elegance. Watersports fans can head for Gargnano, famous for its annual sailing race, or hop on a boat to Malcesine, famous for its steep funicular climbing the slopes of Monte Baldo
Lake Maggiore is also a great gateway to some of Europe’s grandest mountain scenery. Its lofty palms and oleander-lined promenades give it more of a Mediterranean vibe, and you can hop on a ferry to Isola Bella in the lake’s centre to visit the Borromean family palazzo and their over-the-top Baroque gardens – a riot of fountains and cherubs.

The perfect urban launchpad for the lakes is of course Milan – Italy’s swish design capital. Flex your plastic in the Giorgio Armani superstore on Via Manzoni or the original Prada shop in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. For a cultural fix, buy opera tickets for La Scala or admire the white marble Duomo and see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper fresco. Round off a real supper afterwards with Milan’s most famous dessert – panettone studded with raisins and candied orange peel, washed down with a fiery local grappa chaser.


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