Tony Eklof, originally from New England, has settled in Clonakilty after a career as a librarian at University College Dublin. His knowledge and passion for wine has been inspired by frequent visits to the wine growing regions of the continent, particularly Italy and France.
My first ever visit to Italy included a short stay in beautiful Orta San Giulio, the only town of note on Lago di Orta one of the lesser known northern Italy lakes. I guess that is when I fell in love with the Italian lake area.
There are actually seven major lakes in the north of Italy, but by far the most famous and the most visited are from east to west, Garda, Como and Maggiore. Garda is the largest, Como the deepest and with the most stunning lakeside villas, and Maggiore for my money the most beautiful and blessed with the most amazing gardens. History abounds in the area from the Roman villa of Catullus in Sirmione to the castle at Torri del Benaco guarding Lake Garda for the powerful Milan city state, to wonderful Salo where the Germans set up a puppet state under Mussolini towards the last days of WWII.
Visit Villa Malzi just outside Bellagio on Como, and home to Francesco Melzi, Vice President of the Italian Republic set up by Napoleon, or the Hotel des Borromees in Stresa, where Hemingway worked on ‘Farewell to Arms’, looking out on the gorgeous garden islands on Lake Maggiore. (Pictured above: Wine Buff outside‘Hemingway’s hotel’, Stresa, Maggiore)
Garda: Hotel Villa Anthea.
Short walk to the lake, modest but clean and well run with friendly staff.
Torri del Benaco: Hotel Gardesana. Possibly the best on the lake, right on the harbour of one of the more tranquil and beautiful of all lake towns.
Sirmione: fascinating Roman town, though one of the most visited and thus crowded in tourist season. Hotel Catullus is an oasis from the crowds with a lovely private garden and decking right on the lake. The owner does his best to make every guest happy and is a knowledgeable wine buff!
Tremezzo: La Darsena – just returned from a stay in this lovely lakeside hotel.
More a restaurant with rooms than the other way around but the rooms are clean, bright with modern facilities and the best ones have balconies right over the lake. Short walk to the unmissable Villa Carlotta with one of the most famous gardens on the lakes. The villa houses some artistic masterpieces, which were removed from Milan to protect them from WWII bombing.
Varenna: Hotel du Lac. Classy, friendly hotel in one of the best towns on the lake.
Stresa: Hotel Verbano. Looking for a slightly different hotel experience? The Verbania is a small boutique hotel on Isola Pescatore, the only Borromean Island not given over completely to ornate Italian gardens. The hotel has its own boat to bring you back and forth the short distance to the beautiful historic town of Stresa, and a fine restaurant.
Cannero Riviera: Hotel Cannero. Time to reveal my favourite hotel! We were staying in the nearby town of Cannobio when we took a ferry ride to Cannero and discovered this wonderful family run hotel in an unspoiled atmospheric town with a pleasant palm tree and flowers lined promenade right on the lake. Everything about the hotel is class, the rooms, the restaurant, the bar with piano music at night, the cafe on the water, and for the wine buff, a cantina, which opens every night at 6pm so that you can have a free tasting of the wine of your choice from their impressive cellar, the idea being you can try to match your wine with your dinner.
Other hotels please copy! Cannero is in a beautiful location at the northern extreme of the lake.
You can take a pleasant ferry trip to the pretty Swiss town of Ascona, remembering to bring your passport as Switzerland is not a member of the EU.
You won’t be short of quality choices of wine on the lakes, from Bardolino and Valpolicella on the east coast of Garda, to the west shores of Maggiore located in the Piedmont and famous for Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Nebbiolo.
Don’t be afraid to try lesser-known wines such as Valcalepio from the area between Bergamo and Como, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, and those from the Lombardy area north of Como, Valtellina. Both of these wines will appear on the list of better trattorias and hotels in the region and represent excellent value.