Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Italy 8 – The Italian Lakes

31st March to 7th April 2011

Lake Garda is not particularly friendly to motorhomes. This is because every inch of shoreside land that could be used, is used, and with insufficient parking as it is for the hordes that descend every summer from Milan, ubiquitous height barriers and ‘no motorhome’ signs on the carparks ensure that people like us don’t make things any worse.

Manerba and Lake Garda

The Italian lakes lie at the very start of the Alps, where the mountains suddenly veer up from the Po valley plains. Lake Garda is a long tapering triangle, pointing north between ever steeper cliffs, but its southern end is broad and flat, and intensely developed as a kind of fresh-water Riviera. It was only on the west coast around Salò, attractively located below wooded hills by a bend in the lake, that we actually got close to the water, stopping for a stroll and ice-cream in this pleasant, genteel resort town. Once the centre of a mediaeval statelet, then for centuries an outpost of Venice, Salò achieved notoriety from 1943 to 1945 as capital of Mussolini’s ‘Italian Social Republic’, the last stand of state fascism in Italy after the rest of the country had booted him out. This period has left no trace and today the hotels are filled with well-heeled holidaymakers – a sort of Bournemouth with panache.


Away from the lake sides you can still escape from the crowds, and we slept in a layby above the narrow Lake Valvestino reservoir where barely a vehicle passed by. Some of the mountain scenery on the smaller road between the lakes is great, but parts of the valleys are very busy with industry and traffic, reminding you that Milan and the other cities of the north are not far away.

Lago di Valvestino - overnight spot, and Capovalle

There are lakes large and small. On Friday 1st April we passed lovely but tiny Lake Idro, and reached medium-sized Lake Iseo in the afternoon. Lake Iseo, like the other lakes, lies in a mountain-sided valley with distant snowy peaks, and villages clinging at incredible heights and angles to the valley walls.

Lake Idro

Despite having many of the same natural splendours as its larger cousins, Lake Iseo has somehow escaped the intensive development of Garda or Como. The result is a lovely laid-back place to relax for a few days taking in the lake and mountain scenery. That is not to say it is undiscovered, and even at the start of April the crowds still come at weekends, but they are enough to keep the little town of Iseo lively without swamping the whole area in traffic and holiday villages.

Iseo – lake and town

We stayed on a campsite just outside Iseo town. Now a proper campsite, especially at Italian prices, seems like splashing out to us after so much so much low-cost living since leaving Scandinavia some 9 months ago, but as soon as we saw the Camping Punta d’Oro there was just no contest. It had opened that very day for the season, and we were given a prime location on the lake front, which looked perfect early on Friday afternoon and which we were thankful for by the evening when all the spaces behind us were full. We had planned to stay at least two nights. As the place emptied out again on Sunday evening we opted for a third night, and then we didn’t manage to drag ourselves away until Tuesday. We can’t even say we packed in a lot of activities over that time. We walked into town a few times, but really we just chilled – we’re getting the hang of chilling now!

Iseo – campsite and lake

I (Rob) went out a couple of times on my bike, to try out the local hills as well as the flat rides around the lake. Italian leisure cyclists are a stylish and sporty bunch and the roads were awash on this warm weekend with brightly-coloured designer lycra, and I had long realised that only the more mature male cyclist wears logo-less gear like mine in this country. Still, undeterred I climbed the 500 metres up to the village of Zone, where erosion has created a landscape of weird stone columns topped by single large boulders that seem far too big for their supports. The heat haze, which had increased on a daily basis, all but obscured the lake from this height. On the Sunday I went a bit further afield, and caught one of the regular ferries back across the lake in the evening. The temperatures approached 30°C, and the papers said that the heatwave was unusual at this time of year.

The Pyramids of Zone and landscape around Zone

On Tuesday 5th April we finally made ourselves move on, though one or the other of  us kept on saying “shall we stay today?” even when we were 10km down the road getting some gas. Ah, that’s one big disappointment. Despite buying the Italian filling attachment near Naples, we haven’t been able to use it as anyone attempting to fill our bottles from a normal LPG car pump experiences a kick-back of gas and nothing goes into the bottle. We haven’t come across a bottle refilling plant either, even around Ravenna, where the industrial areas looked a likely bet. So we’ve had to resort to buying a new Camping Gaz 907 for €15, which wasn’t too bad, as we swopped it for one we got in Luxemburg for €28. Which begs the question, why the great variety in prices?

Bike ride views near Colli San Fermo, and Boat docking at Monte Isola.

After our gassy purchase we pushed on to Lake Como. The drive itself went though some lovely countryside, with the emphasis very much on some. In fact it was a drive we didn’t very much enjoy. We seemed to crawl through an endless string of small industrial towns which appeared to us to be extensions of some permanent hinterland of Milan. It was hot, which didn’t help, and the beautiful mountains around the edges of our traffic choked route just seemed to taunt us from afar. To add to our frustration we skirted first around the very interesting looking Bergamo, but pushed on, and then drove straight through Como, which also looked worth a visit, but we opted not to. Oh well, them’s the decisions you make and you have to live with them don’t you?

Lake Como -  Carate-Urio, one of the villa-villages on the west shore

Of course, by-passing the town of Como meant we were by then driving round Lake Como. We drove past fabulous scenery - steep sided mountains, a great expanse of glittering water and the most gorgeous villas spanning every architectural style from the 18th century onwards. The only drawback was we were in a blooming great van and there was this narrow road with few parking spaces, all of which displayed very clearly that they didn’t want blooming great vans parked there at all, let alone over night. It would have been a brilliant cycle ride. It would have been beautiful viewed from a small sail boat on the lake. But drive – no – not with the traffic lights at the narrowest sections of the road and the massive tailbacks, and the heat. Heavens, it was only the beginning of April. What must this route feel like in the summer? All we can say is don’t try it at the height of the tourist season unless you are some weird sort of masochist!

Carate-Urio on Lake Como – lots of bridges giving villas access to their shore-side terraces and one even had its own funicular.

Eventually we reached the pretty town of Menaggio, where there was meant to be a campsite. There was and it was OK, but the free carpark above it was much better for us, and had great views over the cemetery with its twinkling lights and flowers. We  walked into town and had a drink outside one of the bars in the main square, followed by an ice-cream from a gelateria with a very wide range of varieties, some of which, such as liquorice, just did not seem quite right. There were many ice-cream eaters out for an early evening stroll through Menaggio. They were an affluent looking international crowd and we heard a few Brits, an Aussie family, a couple of French speakers and many Germans, as well as Italians – all looking carefully casual in their expensive holiday gear, making us aware how worn our limited wardrobe is looking after nearly a year away.

Menaggio - villas and views across Lake Como

Our route into Switzerland from Lake Como took us through Porlezza, on a road narrow enough to justify restrictions on motorhomes in peak evening rush hour, and that was it – arrivederci Italy. We’ll definitely be back though, as we’ve have loved the eight and a half weeks we’ve spent here. We’d be spoilt for choice to choose favourite bits, what with every other town having a fabulous historic centre, the food being so tasty with lots of regional specialities and so much simply stunning scenery. Even the newspapers have kept us entertained with the constant stream of unbelievable exploits on the part of prime minister Berlusconi as he makes every move he can to wriggle out of a series of investigations and prosecutions.

Porlezza, at the start of Lake Lugano

A taste of Italy to take back to the UK - our home made Puglian lampascioni.

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