Meandering along on our approach to the Italian Lakes, our view of Switzerland’s alpine peaks was suddenly enhanced by the stunning beauty of Lake Maggirore.
At 212sq km, this is the second largest lake in Italy, with a distinctive beauty to the natural features surrounding it. It was the perfect start to our summer tour of northern Italy.
The winding roads led us to the breathtakingly beautiful town of Cannobio, on the shores of the lake. As the morning sun broke over our sosta, or aire, on the banks of the River Cannobino, we took to our bikes to join an adjacent cycle path, embracing the romance that the incredible surroundings had to offer.
We were quite simply smitten – this was our first time in Italy and it was love at first sight!
Finding the perfect pit-stop, we parked the bikes on the café-lined promenade, where elegant buildings stood before a pretty harbour. Compact cobbled streets led us through the old town, away from the lake, bringing the historic character of the fine buildings and the tempting artisan shops to life.
Refreshed and back on the bikes, we arrived at Sant’Anna Gorge, crossed by two stone bridges and watched over by the pretty church, the Orrido di Sant’Anna. Here, we stopped to admire the view of the 25-deep narrow gorge, where older locals sat chatting in the shade and children cooled off in the clear river water below.
Heading off again in the ‘van, a ‘wow!’ moment came at the lovely resort town of Stresa, where the road passed immaculately tended lakeside gardens. The elegant hotels served guests tea on their manicured lawns, while colourful floral displays framed the stunning mountain backdrop. We guessed that stopping here in a camper would be a little difficult – resorts of this refined nature don’t usually provide for motorhome enthusiasts!
Lakeside stopping place
Our next town was Arona, a fairly low-kept place but full of atmosphere from the many wonderful pavement restaurants. Here, a fine lakeside sosta provided our stop for the night.
At Sacro Monte di Arona, an imposing statue, the San Carlone, dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo and also known as the Colossus, stands 35m tall on a hillside above the town. This is one of the largest statues in the world – and you can climb up inside, to peer out through his eyes!
Never ones to miss an opportunity, we headed on foot towards the statue, soon finding ourselves clinging to a tiny metal ladder in the dark hollow of the towering copper saint. Eventually, 85 steps later, we reached his head and could look down through the eye sockets, which framed the lake in the distance. It was a little eerie.
With feet firmly back on the ground, we caught the regular ferry to Stresa, taking a seat on the open upper deck, tucking into a fruit lunch as the ferry glided gracefully through the water. It was a relaxing journey, passing tiny harbours and the refined elegance of towns along the lake, romantically offset by the mountains.
Stresa is one of the most popular resorts in Italy, full of character and majestic style. From here, there is easy ferry access to the picturesque Borromean Islands just across the water.
Venturing through the town’s cobbled streets, we soon reached the pavement cafes, where we happily spent the rest of the day enjoying Italian coffee, while watching the world go by.
Leaving Lake Maggiore behind us, the equally impressive Lake Como was next on our itinerary. Arriving in good time to explore the town of Como and now familiar with the sosta system, parking was easy. A short walk through little squares and alleyways, passing elegant shop fronts, led us to our first glimpse of the lake.
As we enjoyed some delicious gelato, a walk along the lakefront gave us a good first impression of what Lake Como is all about – the people, palatial villas, elegant wooden speedboats crossing the water, and wooded hills above the lake.
Continuing in the ‘van along the lake’s western fringes, we squeezed through gaps in oncoming traffic, made worse by narrow bends and low bridges. There’s always a bright side, though, and this came when we passed the fabulous lakeside retreat of actor George Clooney, at Laglio.
With no sign of the man himself out mowing the lawns, a glimpse of the gated entrance was quite exciting enough and made the madness of the route slightly more worthwhile!
Getting our breath back, we stopped for respite and a sosta at Menaggio. A stroll to the lake didn’t disappoint, with the lido providing the perfect relaxation opportunity. Unfortunately for us, storm clouds appeared, meaning a quick dash along the flower-filled promenade to the historic old centre, where we took refuge at a pavement café, sipping the local liqueur, Limoncello, until the sky cleared.
Italy is full of history and walks, so combining the two, we followed the old Roman road on foot from Menaggio to the delightful fishing village of Nobiallo. Our path taking us gradually higher above the lake, we enjoyed views across the harbour, as we passed the leaning 13th-century bell tower of the village church.
Later, we hit the road to Sorico, at the northern tip of Lake Como, finding a pristine campsite, Camping La Riva, the only site we used on this trip. It’s located by a handy cycle path, so we took the marked lakeside route to Domaso, which is celebrated for its wine – winemaking here dates back to Roman times – and it offers lovely views across the narrowing lake, where the mountains seem closer than ever.
Walking and cycling
Driving 8km beyond Lake Como, the small hamlet of Novate Mezzola, on the smaller Lake Mezzola, beckoned.
Here we found the most beautiful sosta, one of the prettiest such places we’ve stopped at. Looking out onto the water’s edge, surrounded by mountains, with walking and cycling trails stretching for miles around, we found the whole place mesmerising and once again, we unfolded the bikes and headed off to explore.
Back on the road, we were ready to drive along the eastern shores of Lake Como, hoping to stop the night at Colico. Unfortunately for us, it was the weekend, the crowds had swarmed in and the fabulous sosta was full. The nearby towns of Mondello and Varenna were also packed.
Eventually, we arrived at Bellagio, on the central peninsula of Lake Como. Our motorhome is under 6m long, so we managed to park in a car space, giving us just enough time to enjoy pizza against the backdrop of the refined architecture of the old town, watching boats speed across the lake to and from the opulent villas,
The fourth largest of the lakes, Lake Iseo, was next – laid-back but equally beautiful. Sarnico, our first stop, was perfect for a relaxing stroll along the immaculate, flower-lined promenade, before setting off to Marone. Here, a mountain pass led us inland to the village of Zone, where the geological formations tower towards the sky in a pyramid formation. We followed a path that took us to the base of these rather dramatic structures.
Later that day, driving on around the lake, we took the quite hair-raising, but very scenic, route through tight tunnels. We hoped that the ‘van would make it through the height and width restrictions boldly displayed on the road signs, and very carefully double-checked our motorhome measurements before we actually committed to the route!
At last, Lake Garda
Our final lake – the most famous, largest of them all, Lake Garda – was indeed huge, and we wanted to see all of it! As we approached the classy resort of Desenzano, at the southern end of the lake, the difference in tourist numbers was immediately noticeable. A private sosta with fabulous lake views provided our first night’s stop and gave us the chance to walk to the town centre.
One of the big tourist sights was next on our itinerary, the moated medieval town of Sirmione, dominated at its entrance by the 13th-century castle of Rocca Scaligera. Navigating our way along the maze of narrow streets, we arrived at the Villa Romana, impressive Roman ruins jutting out on a headland. Natural hot springs in the lake looked very tempting, but with our swimwear back in the ‘van, we had to give them a miss.
Peschiera del Garda is one of the big resorts, full of campsites lining the lakeside, with the fortified town centre nestled between canals and an old fortress. As usual, the floral displays here were gorgeous; we had enjoyed fabulous flowers on all of the lakes and this was no exception.
We found a private sosta close to the town centre and spent several hours exploring the lake by bike, eventually arriving at Lazise, 8km from the sosta. This medieval town, with quaint alleys and a fine harbour, was full of atmosphere and home to some classic Italian villas.
We now understood the lakes’ unique charm, which has attracted the rich and famous for so long: the ambience of the architecture against the stunning backdrop of mountains and clear waters, combined with the elegant people, who effortlessly embody sophistication and romance.
Swimming and strolling
A pre-breakfast spurt of exercise, a 30-minute lake swim, had us energised for the day ahead. The brilliant sosta system meant we had a parking spot next to the lake, ideal for walking by the water to the historic towns of Bardolino, and Garda. With such a lovely atmosphere, everyone enjoying the outdoors and the lure of the lake, we could see why it was all so popular.
Bac on the road and – as usual on our trips – a glimpse of the next town proved too good to miss. Torri del Benaco looked pristine and so it was; walk took us past beautiful stone buildings and abundant gardens full of lemon trees. Parking was easy, too – in many ways, Lake Garda is more accessible than its neighbours.
Driving north, the geography of the lake took on a different appearance. The northern section felt more intimate, as we drove through the resort of Malcesine, admiring the cable car that was taking tourists 1800m up Monte Baldo.
A pearl of a place
Reaching the tip of the lake at Torbole, a paradise for windsurfing, we rolled into the nearby town known as the Pearl of Lake Garda, the amazingly beautiful Riva del Garda.
We couldn’t wait to look around. From the sosta parking we walked into the centre, where glorious green parks met white beaches, sun worshippers basked on the grass and windsurfers skimmed across the lake in front of us.
Olive trees, lush vegetation and enchanting buildings with a mountain backdrop reminded us we were on the doorstep of the Dolomites.
Fantastic mountain bike, cycling and hiking trails dominate this end of the lake – it’s a magnet for lovers of the great outdoors, with a Mediterranean feel and an energetic vibe. And as with all of the lake towns, a huge market took over the centre; it was enough for us to meander through and savour the fabulous atmosphere.
We couldn’t resist the Ponale trail from town, along the old mountain road. Now closed to traffic, but reopened as a biking and walking route, this full day’s walk was a fascinating hike through tunnels, gradually winding up the mountainside, giving us stunning views across the lake below.
As we left Riva to start the route south along the western shores of Lake Garda, the heat of the day proved too much, and we had to stop for a dip at Limone Sul Garda.
Later, walking through tiny streets full of busy shops selling the famed local lemon produce, we felt this place had a more upmarket feel. It is also home to the Lemon Houses – former greenhouses for the citrus crops – resembling Roman ruins and built on terraces sloping to the water’s edge.
Walking through history
Taking a leisurely drive through the towns along the western edge of the lake, our final stop was at Salò and another nearby sosta. Surrounded by flowers, we took the bikes out of the ‘van and cycled off to explore the town that became the seat of government for Mussolini in 1943.
We reached the promenade and locked up the bikes in favour of a walk. An antiques market lined the waterfront and the narrow streets shaded us from the sun as we checked out the smart shop windows.
More floral displays and enticing restaurants reminded us why Italy had become our new best friend. The lakes had been exquisite, drawing us into that joyous Italian lifestyle with charismatic charm. There really was only one question left to answer – why on earth hadn’t we been before?
Where we stayed
- Lake Maggiore: Cannobio Area di Sosta Camper; Arona Area di Sosta Camper
- Lake Como: Como Area di Sosta Camper; Menaggio Area Parcheggio Comunale; Camping La Riva, Sorico
- Lake Messzola: Area di Sosta Camper Comunale
- Lake Iseo: Zone Area di Sosta Camper
- Lake Garda: Sosta La Spiaggia, Desenzano del Garda; Sosta Area Camper, Peschiera; Area di Sosta Camper Comunale, Sirmione; Area di Sosta Camper Comunale, Bardolino; Area di Sosta Camper Comunale, Riva del Garda; Area di Sosta Comunale, Salò
- Charges varied per night between being free of charge and €21 per night.
Our tour was part of a larger trip using aires and stellplätze on our way to Italy. We use apps to find overnight stops. The two we use, both excellent, are Campercontact and Park4night, taking you directly to the camper stop or site, with instantly updated information and lists of facilities and wild camping spots across Europe.
Find out more
- Ferry: DFDS Dover to Calais – we booked our tickets online with the Caravan and Motorhome Club
- Tolls: Our route took us from France, through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
- France: £12 Emovis Tag, fitted to your windscreen – order before you travel at www.emovis-tag.co.uk
- Austria: 10-day vignette €9
- Switzerland: €36 for 12 months, up to 3.5 tonne vehicle weight, can buy at fuel stations close to the border.
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More floral displays and enticing restaurants reminded us why Italy had become our new best friend. The lakes had been exquisite, drawing us into that joyous Italian lifestyle with charismatic charm