Lake Maggiore is 54 km long, with a coastline of over 150km and at its widest is 12 km. Like all the other Northern Italian lakes it is a deep glacial basin fed by rivers; Verzasca, Giona, and Cannobino flow into the lake. Its major outlet is the Ticino which, in turn, joins the river Po just south-east of Pavia.
Piedmont and Lombardy are two major regions surrounding the Lake but the most northerly section of Lake Maggiore extends a dozen kilometres into Switzerland, the lowest point above sea-level in Switzerland.
The climate as with all these protected lakes is mild in both summer and winter, producing lush vegetation, with beautifully planted gardens in wonderful villas growing rare and exotic plants. Well-known gardens include those of the Isola Madre, Isola Bella and the Isole di Brissago, that of the Villa Taranto in Verbania, and the Alpinia botanical garden above Stresa (See Stresa page). These lakes are almost like a lost world. They also have their monsters apparently!
Exploring the Italian Lake District
The Italian Riviera, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast and Capri; when you think of Italian beaches these are some names that spring to mind. However, if you think of Northern Italy you could either imagine skiing or live art-history tours around Venice, Verona or Milan. You don't however, think of beaches. But the Italian Lake District boasts much of Italy's most breathtaking scenery and stunning lakeside beaches.
Lake Maggiore is the largest at around 65km long and roughly 4km wide. It's 193 metres above sea level but the depth of the lake extends to 179 metres below sea level. The top of the lake is surrounded by fresh-smelling pine trees and alpine overgrowth. The middle around Verbania, is more open and lush with small hills pinpricking the descending terrain before opening into a broad flood plain near Domelletto.
The small towns and villages clinging to its banks are so stunning they will make you gasp. A quaint and charming blend between Swiss order and function and Italian frivolity and classical art they are at their most photogenic at dawn or dusk when a captivating mist swirls around the bays, coves, hills and into the streets and alleys.
For a base, choose the lip-bitingly pretty Verbania if you want a wider choice of restaurants and shops and a buzz of life. For more of a whisper but just as pretty try Cannobio. If you are uncertain which village or region to pick along the kilometres of water-lapped shores, opt for a multi-centre holiday or even camp in one or many of the numerous well-equipped camp-sites located right on the river's banks.
Like all the lakes in the region, explore by boat. You can hire your own or jump on a tour or cheat and get ferried from east to west, north to south. Aside from exploring the built-up areas, the natural landscape has a huge amount to offer. You don't have to spend your whole time on the water as you can hike, mountain bike and go horse riding as well as wine and cheese tasting learn how to make pasta, paint or cook Italian style.
The most famous and largest of the lakes is Lake Garda. It is just a hop and a skip from Verona so makes the perfect first or second half of a twin centre Italian holiday. Once you have exhausted all the watersport activities, get the cable car to Montbaldo. At 1750 metres the views are truly spectacular and if you are daring enough you can hire a mountain bike to get back down to lake level again.
Lake Como is the third largest lake but is one of the deepest lakes in Europe. The slopes are more sheer and it’s a wonder the houses and castles don't slide into the water below. The eastern side boasts some of the prettiest, quietest and more traditional villages such as Tremezzo and Varenna. Get one of Italy's best known foods, gelato and lick your way around the 4km walkway skirting the west side of the lake.
One of the major tourist attractions of the entire region are the "Borromean Islands" are three small islands and two islets in the Italian part of Lake Maggiore. They are located on the western arm of the lake, between Verbania to the north and Stresa to the south.
The Borromeo family started "accumulating" them in the early sixteenth century (Isola Madre) and still owns some of them (Isola Madre, Bella, San Giovanni) today. This latter island started life a s a rock with little or no life or vegetation. The Island was built upon by count Carlo III between 1629 and 1652, his son Vitaliano the 6th also built a summer palace. To achieve the verdant foliage and gardens he brought in vast quantities of soil, no mean feat without mechanisation.
Isola Madre is the largest of the four islands who is also known for its gardens, which were established on a typical English stately home gardens in the mid 1880's. The palace is a masterpiece of culture and furnished with XVI to XIX century Italian works of art and antiques.
Two small islets complete the group. Isolino di San Giovanni is just off Pallanza (now part of Verbania) to the north. Finally there is the tiny uninhabited rock of Malghera which lies between Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori and offers only scant vegetation.
Isola dei Pescatori or Isola Superiore is the only island with a permanent population (albeit it very small). It has a fishing village and is well worth a visit if you want to go back in time!
Here is an extract you may find interesting. You may also not wish to swim in the Lake. It is an extract from the Fortean Times, which was written by Ulrich Magin:
"Although Italy’s second largest lake, with its palm trees and neo-classical villas, hardly looks like the kind of remote spot one would expect to find surviving plesiosaurs, the lake monster of Lago Maggiore is well known in cryptozoological circles, mainly through a reference in Peter Costello’s classic book In Search of Lake Monsters: "[I]n the Italian Alps Lake Maggiore is the reputed haunt of a monster.
In 1934, fishermen reported they had seen it where the River Ticino runs into the lake. It was not however dreamed up just to cash in on the fashion for monsters, because this particular monster – said to have a horse’s head and to live on fish – was mentioned at the beginning of the 19th century in one of his travel books by the novelist Stendhal." The quote by Stendhal – who wrote extensively on Lake Maggiore – has not yet been traced and probably does not exist.
As for the lake being the creature’s "reputed haunt", my own experience indicates that people around the lake are not aware of any monster, and that it is mainly tourists who see and report it. Also, strange as it seems, no Italian or Swiss source (the point where the Ticino joins the lake is actually in Switzerland) for the incident mentioned by Costello has yet been found."
Lots of things to do and see
You can do a lot of things in this region. It is best if you are active to see the whole of the Lake. There are a multitude of walks, boat trips, gardens and much more. We will be trying to cover all these as the months progress. But as a starter why not take a train ride....
The Centovalley Train or Lake Maggiore Express is a day's round trip by narrow gauge train and ferry, which will give you some stunning scenery and allow you to get arounded view of the lake.
Depart Stresa on the normal train and travel as far as Domodossola. Change here to the narrow gauge "Centovalley" train. This is recognised as being one of Switzerland and Italy's most scenic journeys. The Lake Maggiore Express slowly winds its way through many bridges and viaducts that span the valleys constantly getting higher. There are spectacular views from the train and the train stops occasionally to visit some of these scenic villages.
The "Centovalley Train" goes to Locarno in Switzerland at the very northern tip of Lake Maggiore. Although a wonderful town in its own right, use your time wisely and we recommended you continue to travel on to Ascona by ferry and spend time in this little town. A couple of hours here and then take the late afternoon ferry back to Stresa.
Prices: The cost of the full round trip 2008 is €30.00 for adults and €15.00 for children (4-12 years). A return journey on the "Centovalley" railway only, costs €21.00 for adults and €10.50 for children.