The Italian Lakes
Formed at the end of the last ice age, and a popular holiday spot since Roman times, the Italian Lakes have an enduring, beguiling beauty.
Travellers traversing the Alps wind down from snow-capped mountains to be greeted by a Mediterranean burst of colour: gardens filled with rose-red camellias, hot-pink oleanders, lemon trees and luxurious palms surrounding cerulean blue lakes. It’s impossible not to be seduced. Fishing boats bob in tiny harbours, palaces float in the Borromean Gulf, rustic churches cling to cliff faces and grand belle époque spas and hotels line the waterfronts in bijou towns such as Stresa, Como, Bellagio and Salò. No wonder European aristocrats, Arab princes and Hollywood celebrities choose to call this home.
A Modern Legacy
Since Leonardo da Vinci broke all the rules in his stunning Last Supper, the indefatigably inventive Lombards seem to have skipped straight from the Renaissance to the 21st century. Not only is Milan a treasure trove of modern and contemporary art, but art-deco and rationalist architecture abound. Around the lakes, Michelin-starred restaurants push the boundaries of traditionalism, and vintners, oil producers and textile houses experiment with sustainable technologies and techniques. Even now, jackhammers are hard at work on Milan’s futuristic new skyline modelled by star architects Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Arata Isozaki and César Pelli.
Living By Design
Though Italian design is distributed globally, seeing it in its home context offers fresh appreciation. From Como’s silk weavers to the Brianza's furniture makers and the violin artisans of Cremona, this region has an outstanding craft heritage. Today Milan is home to all the major design showrooms and an endless round of trade fairs. But it’s not just a coterie of insiders who get to have all the fun. Northern Italian design houses have branched out into spas, bars, hotels, galleries and restaurants. So why not join them for a touch of la vita moda (the stylish life).
The Lake Lifestyle
Home to many of Italy’s foremost musical talents, writers and artists, Milan and Verona are on the tour circuit of the best European and North American music acts, dance troupes, opera and theatre. In summer, film, music and art festivals abound in city theatres and palazzi, lakeside gardens and historic villas. While at weekends, urbanites escape to the mountains and lakes for morning markets, sailing, cycling and walking, and long afternoon lunches. The key to it all is an unswerving dedication to life’s fine print.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Italian Lakes.
Milan's most famous mural, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, is hidden away on a wall of the refectory adjoining the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie. Depicting Christ and his disciples at the dramatic moment when Christ reveals he's aware of his betrayal, it's a masterful psychological study and one of the world's most iconic images. You may very well kick yourself if you miss it, so book in advance or sign up for a guided city tour.
A vision in pink Candoglia marble, Milan's extravagant Gothic cathedral, 600 years in the making, aptly reflects the city's creativity and ambition. Its pearly white facade, adorned with 135 spires and 3400 statues, rises like the filigree of a fairy-tale tiara, wowing the crowds with its extravagant detail. The interior is no less impressive, punctuated by three enormous stained-glassed apse windows, while in the crypt saintly Carlo Borromeo is interred in a rock-crystal casket.
Behind striking Renaissance-revival black-and-white walls, Milan’s wealthy have kept their dynastic ambitions alive long after death with grand sculptural gestures since 1866. Nineteenth-century death-and-the-maiden eroticism gives way to some fabulous abstract forms from mid-century masters. Studio BBPR’s geometric steel-and-marble memorial to Milan’s WWII concentration-camp dead sits in the centre, stark and moving. The tombs are divided into three zones: Catholics lie centre stage, while people of Jewish descent rest on the right and non-Catholics on the left. Grab a map inside the forecourt.
Located upstairs from one of Italy’s most prestigious art schools, this gallery houses Milan’s collection of Old Masters, much of it ‘lifted’ from Venice by Napoleon. Rubens, Goya and Van Dyck all have a place, but you're here for the Italians: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and the Bellini brothers. Much of the work has tremendous emotional clout, most notably Mantegna's brutal Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
A stroll around the Quadrilatero d'Oro, the world's most famous shopping district, is a must even for those not sartorially inclined. The quaintly cobbled quadrangle of streets – loosely bound by Via Monte Napoleone, Via Sant'Andrea, Via Senato and Via Manzoni – have long been synonymous with elegance and money, and even if you don't have the slightest urge to sling a swag of glossy shopping bags, the window displays and people-watching are priceless.
One of the Italian Renaissance's most notable buildings is the splendid Certosa di Pavia. Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan founded the monastery, 10km north of Pavia, in 1396 as a private chapel and mausoleum for the Visconti family. Originally intended as an architectural companion piece to Milan's Duomo, the same architects worked on its design; the final result, however, completed more than a century later, is a unique hybrid between late-Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Originally a Visconti fortress, this iconic red-brick castle was later home to the mighty Sforza dynasty, who ruled Renaissance Milan. The castle's defences were designed by the multitalented da Vinci; Napoleon later drained the moat and removed the drawbridges. Today, it houses seven specialised museums, which gather together intriguing fragments of Milan’s cultural and civic history, including Michelangelo’s final work, the Rondanini Pietà, now housed in the frescoed hall of the castle's Ospedale Spagnolo (Spanish Hospital).
For more than 300 years the enormous Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Gonzaga – a family of wealthy horse breeders who rose to power in the 14th century to become one of Italy's leading Renaissance families. Their 500-room, 35,000-sq-metre palace is vast; a visit today winds through 40 of the finest chambers split into three historical parts: the Corte Vecchia, the Corte Nuova and the Castello di San Giorgio. Outside is a courtyard garden known as the Giardino dei Semplici.
The Upper Town's beating heart is the cafe-clad Piazza Vecchia, lined by elegant architecture that is a testament in stone and brick to Bergamo's long and colourful history. Its highlights include the Palazzo Nuovo, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo della Ragione and the Torre del Campanone. Tucked in behind the secular buildings of Piazza Vecchia, Piazza del Duomo is the core of Bergamo's spiritual life