The Italian Lakes: Drawing the Rich & Famous for 2000 Years

Italian Lakes

The hills sweep upward from the shore
With villas scattered one by one
Upon their wooded spurs, and lower
Bellagio blazing in the sun.
And dimly seen, a tangled mass
Of walls and woods, of light and shade,
Stands beckoning up the Stelvio Pass
Varenna with its white cascade.
I ask myself, Is this a dream?
Will it all vanish into air-?
Is there a land of such supreme
And perfect beauty anywhere?    —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Italian Lakes Early Tourism

Many travelers are familiar with the Italian Dolomites but the Northern Italian lakes, and particularly Lake Garda and Lake Como, have been drawing in travellers since records began.

The Romans were the earliest known to have built holiday homes—and they chose the very best lakeside locations, as you will encounter on Alpenwild’s Italian Lakes Discovery trip. The next to pass through—and often stop off—were a steady stream of medieval pilgrims, as well as merchants and traders of various descriptions from all over Europe and beyond.

Both Lake Garda and Lake Como cross, or are close to, current or historic national borders. In Garda’s case, the topmost, narrower section of the lake was the border between Italy. It was what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire until as recently as 1918. Lake Como, at its closest point is just five miles away from the Swiss border. These long-distance travellers often travelled on foot, which almost always meant trekking over the mountains or across a pass, with breathtaking views of the lakes inspiring them onward in their pilgrimage.Lake Como Village

Premier Travel Destination

But the dawn of tourism at the lakes began with the writers and artists who flocked here in the 1700s, following in the footsteps of such earlier Italian cultural greats as Dante and Machiavelli. Both lakes soon became not-to-be-missed destinations for everyone from European aristocracies to penniless intellectuals. Many of them stayed for quite some time.

Lake Garda drew in German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—who narrowly escaped being arrested as a spy when he indulged his hobby of sketching on the lake. Goethe was followed over the centuries by some of the greatest, and most controversial literary figures of their day. Men such as Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Byron and James Joyce. Some of these came for health reasons and stayed at Riva del Garda’s celebrated sanatorium, sometimes for months. This was the case of Kafka who hoped that Lake Garda’s exceptional views might soothe his nerves.

Others, like DH Lawrence—years before writing the then infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover—and his wife Frieda, were running off together and escaping scandal, with just a rucksack on their backs and on foot. They lived in a small house on the western side of the lake—”a lake as beautiful as the beginning of creation’—which looked over towards Monte Baldo. We explore this on the Italian Lakes Discovery tour, and which towers over our hotel, admiring ‘green star Sirius dribbling over the lake’.

Literary Travelers

What generations of travellers to Lakes Garda all had in common was an appreciation of the restful, bucolic nature of the serene lake landscape. Lake Como has similarly always been a magnet to literary travellers, including Shelley who waxed lyrical over a ‘lake [which] exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty’, the ever-present Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley’s wife Mary, author of Frankenstein, who spent a whole summer here in 1840 after his tragic death.

Mary stayed in Cadenabbia, then famous for British travellers, and is visible across the water from day seven of our trip. She wrote a travel journal in which she described the effect the landscape had on her. ‘When I rise in the morning and look out, our own side is bathed in sunshine, and we see the opposite mountains raising their black masses in sharp relief against the eastern sky. While dark shadows are flung by the abrupt precipices on the fair lake beneath.’ (Rambles in Germany and Italy). And some of Europe’s greatest composers – Rossini, Liszt, Bellini and Puccini – were not far behind, spending whole summers here, with the Italian lake views inspiring their music.Villa Balbiano

Rich and Famous

In the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, there is hardly an international politician or celebrity who has not at least passed through the Italian lakes, with some of the most famous being Winston Churchill – who took several long holidays on Lake Garda. To name a few others: Kofi Annan, Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie, Charles and Diana, the Beckhams, Tom Cruise and Madonna. And, of course who doesn’t recognize, Lake Como’s most famous semi-resident is George Clooney, who has a 22-room house on the lake. 

‘When you write the story of two happy lovers, set it on the shores of Lake Como.’   —Franz Liszt

‘Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake’   —Wallace Stevens

Isabelle Johnson
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