Fresh home from a week in the Italian Lakes, a friend complained to me that his new digital camera wasn’t up to the job. “In panorama mode, I push the shutter button and sweep the camera from the left to right. It takes a sequence of pictures and stitches them together to form one long shot. But whenever I tried it on Lake Como, I ran out of time before I ran out of view!”
Gampiero, a longtime local guide for Classic Journeys, has heard it before. “Perhaps,” he says, “your friend looks too much for the big picture and not enough for the small one.” It’s not so much a riddle as it is his philosophy of the Italian Lakes.
There’s no denying that gorgeous grandiosity is the Lake Region’s calling card. Snow-tipped mountains “jump down into the water,” as Giampiero puts it. Ribbons of deep, azure water ripple into infinity. Glamorous manor houses tiptoe up to the water’s edge. The mild climate caresses an emerald explosion of gardens and forests. You’ll have to choose your own camp as to whether you prefer to take your golden sunrise with an espresso or your long sunsets with a bottle of wine. Either way, you’ll soak it all in waterside (and a bipartisan vote for both is absolutely the best way to go).
“My heart nearly stopped,” says Classic Journeys guest Cindy Gurmann, as she remembers her first moments in the town of Bellagio. “Every view was what life should be all about. It’s all so natural and perfect that whatever ails you melts away.
“It’s also a very intimate place; a quiet place,” she says. “One of the nicest parts of the day was lounging on the patio after our afternoon walk with the water lapping and the birds chirping.” There’s no maneuvering required for that ringside seat either—both Classic Journeys hotels and virtually all of the restaurants we dine in are lakeside.
Despite the IMAX-ready scenery, many visitors remember the human scale with equal affection. The sliver of habitable land that rims the Italian Lakes has always limited the population, creating a closely-knit community. And the lakes—including Como, Maggiore and Orta—are not exactly on the way to anywhere. They are destinations unto themselves. Even the plague, though it haunted every other corner of Europe, never arrived here.
When he leads walks into the hills outside of town, Giampiero knows that personal encounters will be warm, inviting and absolutely sincere. “On one walk, an elderly couple waved us aside with great smiles and many questions,” he says, adding that the wife was 98 and her husband was 100. “They must never have known a stranger,” he says. “Every time we pass through now, I know the signora will wave us over to talk.”
Cindy recalls visiting the home of a guide’s mother-in-law. “Her small house had drop-dead views,” she says. “I wanted to talk to her about living in such an amazing place, but she was much more interested in the comings and goings of George Clooney.” If that doesn’t sound like a step into small-town life, I don’t know what does. (On a boat ride to Como town, the group passes the Clooney estate. They say that a white boat at the dock means he’s home.)
At even closer range, Giampiero encourages visitors to stop and smell the camellias. The lakes are famous for their lordly gardens, from the English-style grounds of Villa Melzi to the grand-tiered confection on Isola Bella, practically swarming with white peacocks, statuary and topiaries. This is what Giampiero means when he says, “Even the views have views.” Anywhere here, even if you turn your back to the lakes, there is something that amazes the eye.
“A tour is like life,” Giampiero says. It has its indelible experiences and grand-operatic vistas, but most of all it is a collection of wonderful little moments.” A tasting of syrupy sweet balsamico here. A come- talk-to-me ciao from a mamma leaning on her windowsill. After her week in the Italian Lakes, Cindy imagines that “nobody here wakes up with a headache or an ulcer”. True or not, what a remarkable place it is that inspires such a view of life.