It’s a crime. We know it. We’ve always known it. To get to this stage in our lives without having visited Italy is a disgrace.
For years it was number one on our list of countries to visit in Europe. But twice it was discarded at the last moment for somewhere else… somewhere more exotic. Three weeks in Thailand and then three weeks in Malaysia and Singapore for the price of one week in Italy sealed its fate.
It was put away at the back of the ‘appealing destinations’ cupboard. There it stayed as tales of how expensive it was to eat there gossiped with stories that some parts were better if you were… err… a bit on the mature side, pushing it further and further to the back of the travel closet.
Finally a combination of circumstances placed it firmly back on the agenda and a visit changed from a dream to a reality.
Was it as beautiful as we hoped? Was it expensive? Was it full of retired Brits pottering around?
These are our overall impressions.
The Beautiful Italian Lakes
We stayed within a stone’s skim of five lakes; Ledro, Garda, Iseo, Orta and Maggiore. Each seemed more exquisite than the last. The lakes and surrounding countryside are overwhelmingly beautiful. I’ve always claimed that Scottish lochs, with their moody waterside castles, serve up about the most romantic of views you can get. Italian lakes and their tiny pastel coloured islands come close… and with better weather.
We like mountain scenery and we like dreamy, watery views. The Italian Lakes delivered both by the shovelful. Magnetic, hypnotic, enchanting… all of the above and more. The Italian Lakes make the heart soar and soar. Simply scenery to make you beam.
Is it Expensive to Eat Out?
Within 10 minutes of dumping the car in beautiful Bergamo we were questioning the whole expensive label. This was a stylish, historic city, yet prices in bakers, cake shops and restaurants didn’t seem that much more expensive than parts of Spain and a lot less so than France. Two to three course meal deals came in at about €10-15; pizzas were around €7/8; a bowl of polenta with wild boar or venison was €5 and chunky pastries and cakes set you back €2. We found prices more or less the same wherever we stayed. Even in the more touristy areas the cost of eating out wasn’t anywhere like as prohibitive as we’d expected. Of course there were expensive restaurants but even the prices in Michelin star establishments seemed not too dissimilar from equivalent restaurants in other countries.
A Country for Old Men?
The perception in Britain that the Italian Lakes might be more suitable for mature travellers is quite interesting. I think I can see where it comes from. A couple of locations were extremely popular with coach excursions. Their numbers weren’t excessive; however, the average age of people on these excursions these was around 70+. In these locations that there was definitely an imbalance in the ages of visitors exploring historic streets and leafy gardens. And that did have an impact on their character. In one town I saw Shearings coaches – I didn’t even know they still operated. The sight of a Shearings coach made me think of budget travel for pensioners in the early 80s.
In most locations, where visitors were more of the independent variety, the balance was much like anywhere else. In fact, because of the range of outdoor activities around the lakes (hiking, cycling, sailing, kayaking etc.), there was quite an energetic vibe in the air. In bigger towns such as Novara and Bergamo, the atmosphere was vibrant and the style of the people sickeningly chic.
The sedate tag is a misleading and inaccurate one that is possibly influenced, as are so many things, by the way the lakes are ‘sold’ as a destination by the British tourism industry.
What a bonus. The people who lived and worked around the lakes were just exceedingly friendly – waiters, bar staff, chefs, fishermen, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, ferry staff, hotel staff… everyone. Our inability to speak Italian was embarrassing but not a barrier. On a couple of occasions we ended up in conversations with enthusiastic locals who couldn’t speak a word of English. It didn’t matter, somehow (thanks to some Italian words being similar to Spanish) we muddled through. Warm, funny, exuberant, passionate – the Italians were all wonderful and their generous spirit, humour and camaraderie added to what was already a mind-blowing experience.
It took a long time for us to set foot on Italian soil but it was worth the wait. We’re just kicking ourselves that we took so long to finally getting around to visiting.
In short, the Italian Lakes exceeded what we believed were impossibly high expectations.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+