5 things to do in a day at Lago Maggiore

Wednesday 5th June

Taking advantage of my apparent health improvement, we were up in good time to get in our first bit of hiking. We had seen in our Cicerone walking guide that there was a good hike involving a mountain just beyond our village. Actually, the hike suggested getting the cable car up to Mottarone (1491m), and then hiking all the way back to the lake (200m). But we thought that seemed a bit tame, and anyway, our village was already at an altitude of 600m, so we set off from our front door straight up the mountain.

Declan had planned the route and had his swanky new GPS watch ready with a map, but one of my favourite things about Italy is the brilliantly well signposted routes that the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) has marked out. We were following route L1, and not only were there signposts, but also CAI red and white stripes painted on rocks and trees at regular intervals with the route number.  Once we got started, it was really hard to get lost!

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It was also really hard to walk up the mountain. I mean, this random hill was higher than Ben Nevis, I was recovering from several days of being ill and barely eating, and we were both probably a little worse for wear from wedding boozing! The route was pretty steep, but thankfully it was a really good path, and every now and then we’d catch a view of the majestic lake below us. We passed under the cable car a few times too and felt very virtuous as we continued to plod our way up the hill in the 27C heat.

Just as we approached the top, sweaty and tired, someone called out “Declan”? We thought we were hearing things, but sure enough a (much less sweaty) couple strolled over to us (they clearly hadn’t just hiked up the hill), and it was one of Declan’s old school friends he hadn’t seen for years. It just proves how small the world is sometimes.

A quick and random discussion, and then the couple then disappeared off down the mountain (they were clearly doing as the guidebook said!) and we continued up, realising that there was still actually about 100m of climbing to do.

The top of Mottarone is meant to provide you with views of seven lakes. Primarily Maggiore and Orta, and then Mergozzo, Biandronno, Varese, Monate and Comabbio – all smaller lakes. There are views of mountain ranges in Italy and Switzerland and the Po Plains.

On a good day. It was 27C and hazy when we went up, and the view, quite frankly, was a bit underwhelming. And yet we were still ecstatic. There was finally a breeze on our hot faces, and we could see across Maggiore and Lake Orta, if not the others. Standing at the top, you at least got a sense for just how vast these rolling mountains and lakelands are.

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Before setting off in the morning our B&B hosts had eagerly told us about things to do at the top of Mottarone – one was Alpyland, a tobogan roller coaster over a kilometre long, and descending over 100m. The other was a rifugio/mountain refuge, where apparently we could get a really good lunch, and the mixed platter was meant to be great.

I was dubious about Alpyland. Did we really want to waste our money on such frivolities? But then we saw someone on the ride, and it was only €5 a pop, and we thought, why not?

BEST. DECISION. EVER. There was no queue, and no other riders, so we hopped straight on, where we were first told how to use the brakes, and then told we didn’t need to use them at all. With Dec in control, this meant the brakes were completely abandoned, and oh boy, did we pick up speed! Not knowing just how safe the ride was, or how feasible it was our tobogan might be derailed certainly added to the exhilaration! I screamed the whole way down and we laughed the whole way back up. In fact I was still laughing after lunch!

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After, we went to find the fabled Rifugio Genziana. Not the most obvious spot, it was around the back of the mountain, away from the lake. We were the first to arrive, and quite glad as we were still a hot sweaty mess. Parking ourselves in a quiet corner, we quickly spotted and agreed on the mixed platter of local produce, along with a half litre pichet of Barbera wine. After all, I was feeling better now and neither of us was driving!

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The superb platter was all Piemontese specialities, including wild boar and deer cold cuts, bresaola, and various local cheeses including my favourite, taleggio!

Feeling very jolly and full, we almost skipped off down the hill to the Funivia to get the cheat’s option down to the lake for the afternoon. We hesitated outside it – the entrance looked a bit like a derelict communist-era building, but soon we were lapping up the views as we headed down the mountain.

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The haze that had surrounded Mottarone hadn’t affected the areas nearer the lake, and we watched as the view changed from grey to brilliant blue. An older couple on the funivia with us had mentioned they had already visited the Borromean Islands – our next port of call, and of the three, they most recommended Isola Madre. Isola Bella (the closest and most famed) was apparently lovely but to get to the beautiful gardens you had to schlep through an entire palace, which they claimed was quite tedious.

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However, on reaching the ferry port for the islands, we realised we definitely only had time for one island, and Isola Bella’s proximity (we reckon we could have swum across) made us pick it anyway.

A brief wait (in which we changed out of our heavy hiking boots, cooled our feet in the lake and managed to down a cold beer), and then we were off! And arrived! We barely had time to blink on the boat before we had disembarked.

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The whole of Isola Bella is dedicated to the palace and gardens, and has actually been designed to look like a ship in the water. It’s a tiny but beautiful island. You pay a fair fee to get in, but we honestly couldn’t work out why this couple hadn’t liked the palace. It was really interesting, and beautiful to walk around. The grotto underneath the palace spanned several vast rooms and was truly something to behold with its shell lined walls!

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The gardens were lovely, the white peacocks a lovely addition, and we learnt that the citron (like a lemon but bigger) is the symbol of the Borromean islands.

After such an active morning, it was lovely to just have a leisurely stroll through the palace and gardens, and enjoy the scenery from the middle of the lake.

We’d booked to have dinner at a restaurant up the hill that evening that our B&B hosts insisted we visit as we were on honeymoon, so once we had finished looking around the island we made our way back to the mainland.

The original plan was to get the funivia back to the midway point and hike down the hill for about 15 minutes, but the funivia was super pricy, so we decided we’d walk.

So now in birkenstocks, and our bags heavier from having boots in them, we hiked 400m back up the mountain in 5pm heat. It only took about 50 minutes, but with some slopes having at least 25% gradient, it felt like the toughest hike ever.

We made it back though with plenty of time to freshen up and head back out.

Dinner was at La Rampolina, a restaurant in a village just a short drive along from ours, with some seriously good views of Lago Maggiore. The waiter tried to seat us at a table with no view, but I may have demanded a better spot. It was definitely worth it.

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We sat all evening with uninterrupted views of Lago Maggiore, watching as the lake turned from day time, to sunset, to twinkly lights in dark. The atmosphere was brilliant, with families, friends and couples all enjoying the informal atmosphere. The food was amazing – I had a salmon tartare to start, followed by fish from the lake, while Dec started with his first of many plates of ham, followed by a special pork dish in a honeyed sauce. Dessert may have included some classics, tiramisu and panna cotta. I drove, and so only had a glass of white wine, but we asked if we could get a bottle of red for Dec, and take the rest home, so the sommelier suggested a delicious Nebbiolo d’Alba – a wine of the region, from just south of Turin. (And as you can see below, he served it in a glass almost bigger than the bottle!)

Part of me wanted to stay all night drinking in the views and atmosphere, but i also wanted to get back and drink some wine! So as it was getting pretty dark, we headed off – but not before visiting the restaurant’s wine shop to pick up a few more bottles of Nebbiolo to take home with us!

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And then it was off home to the B&B to finish some delightful wine and soak in what an amazing day we’d just had.

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