A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
For the traveler who wants to combine the magic of seeing some of the world’s most splendid mountains with the joy of visiting Italy’s scenic northern lakes, this itinerary is ideal. Contrasts will heighten the impact of visual delights as you meander through dramatic mountains and then on to some of the most romantic lakes in the world. Along the way are giant mountains piercing the sky with their jagged granite peaks and lush meadows splashed with wildflowers. Continuing on you arrive at lazy blue lakes whose steep shorelines are decorated with villages wrapped in misty cloaks of siennas and ochres. This itinerary can stand alone. However, it is also perfect for the traveler arriving in or departing from neighboring countries. All too often the tourist thinks he has finished Italy when his tour ends in Venice, and he rushes north into Austria or Switzerland. What a waste-a very picturesque region still remains. Please linger to enjoy the mountains and lakes that truly are some of Italy’s greatest natural treasures.
Recommended Pacing: To do this itinerary “well” you need three weeks. This may seem to be dawdling a bit, but less time than indicated would not allow you to enjoy your destinations. Remember that three nights really means only two full days with travel in between. Allow at least three nights in Venice-more would be preferable, especially if you want to explore some of the small islands such as Murano (famous for its hand-blown glass) and Burano (well-known for its colorful cottages and hand-made lace). Your next stop, Asolo, needs two nights. Not only is the town delightful, but also you will want to visit some of the Palladian mansions in the area. Your next suggested stop, the Dolomites, needs another three nights. The scenery is spectacular and you will want time to explore some of the exquisite mountain back roads and take hikes. From the Dolomites your next destination is spectacular Lake Garda. Again, you need three nights. You must have time to take advantage of the romantic boat trips around the lake and also a side trip to nearby Verona. Your next stop is another exquisite highlight, Lake Como. Here you need three nights to enjoy the boat excursions around the lake. From Lake Como, it is on to Lake Maggiore, another lovely destination. Here you need three nights to enjoy both boat trips around the lake and visits to the romantic islands in the lake. After Lake Maggiore it is on to Lake Orta, a much smaller lake with great personality. Because it is not so large, two nights should suffice here. From Lake Orta you leave the Lake District and are in the splendid Aosta Valley in the Alps, which trace the border with France and Switzerland. Here you need another two nights in order to have sufficient time to take walks and enjoy the awesome parks. You might not have the luxury of time to spend three weeks on this “Mountain & Lake Adventures.” If not, tailor this itinerary for your own schedule. Perhaps visit just one of the lakes instead of all four, or save the lakes for another trip and leisurely enjoy just Venice and the Dolomites. Whatever your choice, you are in for a special treat in this incredibly beautiful region of Italy.
Venice: This itinerary begins in Venice, one of the most romantic cities in the world. Venice’s many narrow waterways are crisscrossed by storybook bridges and shadowed by majestic palaces whose soft hues reflect warmly in the shimmering water. Black gondolas quietly glide through the narrow canals as the gondolier in his red-and-white-striped shirt softly serenades his passengers with an operatic selection.
Venice is not a traditional city with streets and automobile traffic, but rather an archipelago of 117 islands glued together by 400 bridges.
There is a wealth of things to do and see in Venice. See our itinerary Italian Highlights by Train & Boat-or Car for sightseeing suggestions.
When it is time to leave Venice for Asolo, you need to take a boat to your car since all the “streets” in Venice are canals. If you are renting a car, take the boat to Piazzale Roma where most of the car rental companies are located. Also in the Piazzale Roma there are overnight car parks for storing your car if you drive into Venice. The choice of conveyance to the Piazzale Roma, Venice’s hub of transportation, will depend upon your budget and your inclination. The vaporetti are the most reasonable: similar to river buses. They leave regularly from St. Mark’s Square, stopping along the way to pick up passengers. It is approximately a half-hour ride to the Piazzale Roma. The motoscafi are motorboats that duck through the back canals and usually take about 15 minutes to the Piazzale Roma. The motoscafi are like private cabs and are much more expensive than the “bus,” but can be very convenient, especially if your hotel has a private motorboat landing. The most romantic mode of transportation is by private gondola: however, these are very expensive and usually take about an hour to reach the Piazzale Roma.
Once you have retrieved your car from the parking garage, head north from Venice toward Treviso, about an hour’s drive. If time allows, stop here. Stroll through this picturesque city spider-webbed with canals and surrounded by 15th-century ramparts-perhaps have a cup of coffee or a bite of lunch. Treviso is famous for its arcaded streets, churches lavishly decorated with frescoes, and painted houses. You might want to climb the ramparts for a view of the Alps beckoning you on.
Asolo: From Treviso it is approximately another hour north to Asolo. However, just a few kilometers before you reach Asolo you see signs for the town of Maser where the Villa de Maser (sometimes called by the name of Villa Bararo) is located. This is a splendid villa designed by Andrea Palladio and fabulously decorated with frescoes by Paolo Veronese. It also has a very interesting museum of old carriages and antique cars. This elegant villa has erratic days and hours when it is open to the public-usually in late afternoons on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. However, it is only about 1½ kilometers out of your way, so it is well worth a detour to investigate.
Your prize tonight is Asolo, a gem of a medieval village snuggled on the side of a hill with exquisite views of the countryside. The town is so romantic that it is no wonder Robert Browning was captivated by it and chose Asolo as his home. As you drive toward Asolo, the terrain does not seem to hold much promise-just modern towns and industry. Then a side road winds up a lovely hillside and into the intimate little town. Although definitely a tourist destination, Asolo maintains the atmosphere of a real town with colorful fruit stands, candy shops, and the neighborhood grocer for those lucky few who live here. In addition, there are boutiques with exquisite merchandise for the tourist. Of course, a castle adorns the hill above the village-mostly in ruins but setting the proper stage. Naturally, there is a wonderful cathedral dominating the square, just as it should. You will find all this plus vineyards and olive trees on the hillsides and the scent of roses in the air.
There are a couple of towns that are worth seeing while you are in the Asolo area. If brandy holds a special interest for you, visit Bassano del Grappa, an old town famous for its production of grappa (or brandy). The town is also a pottery center. However, Bassano del Grappa is rather large and, in our estimation, much less interesting than Marostica, a tiny town just a few kilometers farther on. If you are in this area in September, check your calendar and consider a stop in Marostica. Here, during the first part of September (in alternate years) the central square is transformed into a giant chessboard and local citizens become the human chess pieces. Even if it isn’t the year of the chess game, you will enjoy this picturesque little medieval town encircled by ramparts, its pretty central square enclosed by colorful buildings and castle walls. There is also a second castle guarding the town from the top of the hill.
The Dolomites: From Asolo, you head north to one of the most stunning regions of Italy, the Dolomites-breath-taking mountains. It is important to have a very detailed map of the region because this is a confusing area for driving. Adding to the confusion of finding your way is the fact that most of the towns have two names: one Italian and one German. Before World War I this section of Italy belonged to the Austrian Empire, and most of the towns have retained their original names along with their new ones. The food is a mixture of Italian and German-strudel is the favorite dessert and ravioli stuffed with meat, vegetables, and cream cheese is called either ravioletti or schulpfkrapfeln.
There are various routes for driving north into the Dolomites. The major highway heads north through Feltre and Belluno and then goes on to Cortina d’Ampezzo. However, if the day is nice and your spirit of adventure high, there is really nothing more fun than taking the back roads through the mountains. Journey through tiny hamlets and gorgeous mountain valleys far from the normal tourist path-always keeping a map accessible so that you don’t wind up hopelessly lost.
You might want to travel casually and stop in a village that captures your heart as you drive through the picturesque Dolomite valleys. A good base for exploring the region is Corvara, a small village ringed by breathtaking mountains. Another excellent choice is Cortina d’Ampezzo, a tourist center that is larger due to its excellent skiing facilities. Its location is truly breathtaking-the town spreads across a sunny meadow ringed by gigantic granite peaks. Although the true allure of Cortina is its beauty, there are a few other attractions-the lovely frescoes in the Romanesque Church of SS Filippo e Giacomo; the stadium where the 1956 Olympic ice-skating competition was held; and the Museo Ciasa de Ra Regoles with its geological display and contemporary art exhibition.
This is a mountain lover’s area where the roads are slow and winding. The scenery is beautiful, with green valleys dominated by the stark mountain walls, but the driving is hard, with lots of hairpin bends. Many routes are spectacular. The 48 and 241 from Cortina to Bolzano form the stupendous Great Dolomite Road (Grande Strada delle Dolomiti). Another lovely route runs through the Alpe di Siusi, high Alpine meadowlands beneath towering mountains. (From the Verona-Brennero autostrada exit at Bolzano Nord and follow a route through Völs [Fiè allo Sciliar], Siusi, and Castelrotto.) It continues on into the Val Gardena (Grödner Tal) to Ortisei (Sankt Ulrich) and up to the Sella Pass. We enjoyed a sensational 50-kilometer drive over four mountain passes that ring the Gruppo Sella mountain group-from Corvara we took the Gardena Pass, the Sella Pass, the Podoi Pass, and the Campolongo Pass, which returned us to Corvara.
The only relaxing (albeit strenuous) way to truly appreciate the Dolomites is to get out of your car and walk the well-marked trails that feather out into the hills. Cable cars and ski lifts run in summer and are excellent ways to assist the walker to higher altitudes. At gift shops or tourist offices you can purchase detailed hiking maps that show every little path.
Lake Garda: Your next stop is Lake Garda. From the mountains, drive to Bolzano where you join the expressway (E7), heading south toward Trento (Trent). Trent is best known as the town where the Catholic Council met in the 16th century to establish important articles of faith that emphasized the authority of the Catholic Church.
Leave the freeway at Trent and head west on 45 toward the small, but lovely, green Lake Toblino, which is enhanced by a superb castle on its north shore where you can stop for lunch. From Toblino head south on the pretty country road, lined with fruit trees and vineyards, heading directly south toward Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. When you come to Arco, the road splits. Take the road to the left and continue south to Lake Garda and then follow the 249 as it curves along the eastern shore of the lake.
Lake Garda abounds with romance. Don’t rush. Take time to explore the lake by boat. Get off at colorful small hamlets that capture your fancy; it is hard to choose since each seems impossibly tempting. Have lunch, then hop back on a later boat to continue along your way. The boat schedules are posted at each dock, and if you ask the attendant, he can usually give you a printed timetable.
There are many alluring villages you should not miss, each a gem. One of the most charming towns is Sirmione, accessible by a picturesque drawbridge. This walled medieval village at the south end of Lake Garda is positioned on a miniature peninsula that juts into the lake. During the summer Sirmione is absolutely bursting with tourists, but you can easily understand why: this is another one of Italy’s “stage-set” villages, almost too perfect to be real.
At the north end of the lake is the larger town of Riva. Although much of the town is of new construction, it has at its medieval core the Piazza III Novembre and 13th-century Tower of Apponale. A good place to eat lunch is on the terrace of the Hotel Sole, located directly across from the boat dock.
Along the western shore of the lake our favorite villages are Gargnano and its tiny adjacent neighbor, Villa di Gargnano. Both are medieval jewels hugging the waterfront with colorful fishing boats tucked into little harbors-truly adorable towns.
Also on the western shore of Lake Garda is Gardone Riviera. From here it is just a short drive to a Vittoriale, once the home of Gabriele d’Annunzio, the celebrated Italian poet. (For those who are fascinated by stories of romance, Gabriele d’Annunzio is also famous for his love affair with Eleanora Duse.)
The east side of Lake Garda also abounds with unbelievably quaint towns, each so perfect that you want to get out your camera or sketchbook to capture the beauty. Our favorites are the medieval walled towns of Garda, Lazise, and Torri del Benaco-each a gem. You mustn’t miss them. Of the three, Torri del Benaco is our favorite.
It will be easier to leave the Lake Garda knowing that beautiful Lake Como awaits your arrival.
On your way from Lake Garda to Lake Como, stop at Bergamo, about an hour’s drive west on the A4. As you approach Bergamo, the congested city doesn’t appear to be worth a stop-but it is. The shell of the city is deceiving because it hides a lovely kernel, the Cita Alta, or high city. The lower part of Bergamo is modern and a bit dreary, but the old medieval city snuggled on the top of the hill holds such treasures as the Piazza Vecchia, the Colleoni Chapel, and the Church of St. Mary Major. Should you want to time your stop in Bergamo with lunch, there are several excellent restaurants. One suggestion would be the Agnello d’Oro, a cozy, charming, 17th-century inn in the Cita Alta. From Bergamo it is a short drive on to Lake Como.
Lake Como: Lake Como is spectacular. The lower half of the lake is divided into two legs, the western branch called Lake Como and the eastern branch called Lake Lecco, enclosed by soaring cliffs that give a fjord-like beauty to the area. On the tip of land where the two lower sections of the lake join, is one of the lake’s most delightful towns, Bellagio, a medieval jewel that exudes great charm. The town traces the shore of the lake and has a medieval walled entrance into the picture-perfect central square from which narrow lanes lined with colorful boutiques and restaurants lead up hill. Views of mountains, painted medieval buildings, flowers everywhere, promenades around the lake, and paths into the hills enhance your stay here. A particularly appealing walk follows a path that climbs up the wooded hill behind Bellagio and drops down into a tiny village, Pescallo, that nestles in a small cove on the other side of the peninsula.
In addition to Bellagio there is a rich selection of gems on the lake-picturesque, softly hued little hamlets, tucked into intimate coves around the shore. Most of these villages are accessible by boat. You can settle onto a steamer equipped with bar and restaurant and from your armchair lazily enjoy the constantly changing but always intriguing shoreline as the boat maneuvers in and out of the colorful little harbors, past elegant private villas, by enchanting villages. It is great fun to hop aboard one of the ferries and get off at one of the towns for lunch. There are also some swift hydrofoils that will whisk you about the lake and car ferries that transverse the lake, making it convenient to travel from one side to the other without going all around the lake.
Another bonus of Lake Como (besides the quaint towns to explore) is that it has exceptional villas to visit, many accessible by ferry. One of these on the western shore near Tremezzo is the Villa Carlotta, a fairy-tale-like 18th-century palace-worthy of the Prussian Princess Carlotta for whom it was named. Built by the Marquis Clerici, the villa with its surrounding formal gardens filled with rare plants and trees is outstanding. From the terrace you have an enchanting view over the lake to Bellagio. You reach the villa by a short drive from the ferry landing at Tremezzo along the beautiful tree-lined Via del Paradiso, www.villacarlotta.it. The interior of the villa with its prominent art collection and statues is open every day from 9 am to 6 pm from April to September. It is also open in March and October from 9 am to 11:30 am in the morning and in the afternoon from 2 pm to 4:30 pm.
Our favorite villa to visit because of its extraordinary beauty and romantic setting is Villa Del Balbianello at Lenno, located on the west side of Lake Como. Built in 1700 by Cardinal Durini, this picture-postcard perfect villa is so beautiful it looks like a painting (and many artists have captured it on canvas). It is perched on the tip of a tiny peninsula with terraced gardens down to the lake. Have your camera ready and charged because as the ferry approaches the town of Lenno you will see the villa to your left and won’t be able to stop taking photos. When your ferry arrives into Lenno, ask for directions to Sala Comacina, where you take a special motorboat to the landing where a flight of steps leads up to the gardens that are open to the public from the beginning of April until the end of October on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 am to 12:30 pm and again in the afternoon from 3:30 pm to 6 pm.
Como, located at the southern tip of Lake Como, is one of the larger towns on the lake. It is a pretty walled town with excellent shopping-including a colorful market every Saturday. Como is easily accessible from Milan and has many ferry departures from its dock.
Varenna is another small lakeside town accessible by ferry that is exceptionally attractive. Located about midway up the east side of the lake, it nestles on a promontory with great views. The heart of the town has a quaint, tiny square lined by medieval buildings. From Varenna about a half-an-hour hike takes you up to Castello di Vezio, a 13th-century castle with beautiful views of Lake Como. Varenna is a main hub for ferries, including car ferries that shuttle back and forth from Varenna to Bellagio and Menaggio, enabling you to quickly cross the lake without having to drive around it.
Lake Maggiore: From Lake Como, the next stop is Lake Maggiore. Take advantage of the expressways to make your drive as easy as possible because there is usually heavy traffic in this part of Italy. It is best to head directly south in the direction of Milan to pick up the freeway.
Keep on the bypass that skirts the north side of Milan and take the freeway northwest to Lake Maggiore . Like Lake Garda and Lake Como, Maggiore offers ferries to many of its quaint towns and adds a special treat, the Borromean Islands, a small archipelago of three small islands, Isola Bella, Isola Madre, and Isola dei Pescatori. These enchanting islands can be reached by ferry from Stresa, Baveno, or Pallanza, but the most convenient of these departure points is Stresa. There are private taxi-boats available, but the most reasonable transportation is by public ferry.
Our two favorites of the Borromean Islands are Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori. You can easily visit them both in one day. If you enjoy gardens, be sure not to miss Isola Bella (Beautiful Island). Allow enough time to see its sumptuous palace, which is bound by formal gardens that terrace down to the lake. Fountains and sculptures make the gardens even more alluring. Afterwards, head to Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island) for lunch. Isola dei Pescatori is an enchanting island with twisting, narrow, alley-like streets and colorful fishermen’s cottages. As the name implies, this is still an active fishing village. During the tourist season the island teems with people and the streets are lined with souvenir shops, but it is hard to dull the charm of this quaint town.
Another sightseeing excursion on Lake Maggiore is to the park at Villa Taranto. Its gardens, created in the 20th century by a Scottish captain, Neil McEacharn, are splendid with over 2000 species of plants, including huge water lilies, giant rhododendrons, and colorful azaleas. Adding to the botanical masterpiece, are fountains, waterfalls, beautiful trees and sculptures.
Lake Orta: Lake Orta, situated just west of Lake Maggiore, is one of our favorite lakes. Because it is so close to Lake Maggiore, it can be visited as a day trip from there. However, because it so appealing, we feel it deserves a stopover on its own. One doesn’t hear much about Lake Orta, although it abounds with a charm and is filled with of Romanesque and Baroque treasures. It is probably less known because it is so small and doesn’t have many quaint towns tucked along its shoreline. However, it does have one outstanding village, Orta San Giulio. It is picture perfect with a tiny square facing the water, narrow cobbled streets, noble mansions, a wonderful, very old, town hall, many boutiques, fragrant gardens, painted houses, and picturesque churches.
Adding to the perfection, just across from the town, you see Isola San Giulio shimmering in the water. You can take a boat out to this tiny island where you can walk the narrow street that circles the island and visit the Romanesque style church with 15th-and 16th-century frescoes.
Italian Alps: After visiting Lake Orta, drive south to the main freeway and head west on A4 toward Turin heading for the Italian Alps. Before Turin, when the freeway branches, take A5 heading northwest toward Aosta and beyond to the French border. As you head into the mountains, many small roads lead off to narrow valleys accented by gorgeous meadows, blanketed in summer with wildflowers. Most of these roads dead end when they are stopped by impregnable mountain ranges. In the winter, this is a paradise for downhill or cross-country skiing. One of the most famous ski areas is Breuil Cervinia, almost at the Swiss border, just over the mountain from the Swiss resort, Zermatt. In summer the mountains beckon one to explore the beautiful paths that lead off in every direction.
Our favorite place for walking or hiking is in the Grand Paradis National Park, just south of Cogne. To reach the park, from the A5, take the road south to Cogne. From here you can walk through a glorious meadow that stretches to the foot of the Grand Paradis, a majestic mountain that soars over 4,000 meters into the sky. If you drive a few kilometers beyond Cogne to where the road ends, you find Valnontey, a stunning hamlet of rustic, centuries-old, stone houses enhanced by pots of geraniums. As you stroll through the tiny village, it seems you have stepped back many centuries-it is so perfect, so untouched.
When it is time to continue your journey, the A5 continues on through the Mont Blanc tunnel and into France.