We did not set off to tour cathedrals and museums, formal gardens and important villas. That had been the agenda, and a marvelous one, on previous visits to Italy.
This trip was different. No restaurant guide in hand, no must-see art galleries, no cities on our itinerary. My husband and I had a road map, a rental car and the urge to amble.
Our destination was the three largest lakes of northern Italy -- Maggiore, Como and Garda, which lie mainly in Lombardy, at the foot of the Alps and Dolomites. We traveled last fall, after the tourist season and in the midst of the apple harvest. I wanted freedom from train schedules, the option to visit small towns where the train didn't go and, truth be told, trunk room for purchases from the markets I planned to visit throughout the region.
Spending three nights each in three different lake towns, we eschewed the extraordinary for the splendor of the ordinary. The play of afternoon sunlight on the walls of a medieval embattlement became our frescoes, roadside altars on swerving country roads our churches, a peek over a fence into a backyard vegetable patch our manicured gardens.
We ended up hearing a jazz band perform Frank Sinatra tunes on a mountaintop, attending a vintage car show, savoring olive oils at a museum tasting, visiting the Alessi design factory, hanging out at a blacksmith's shop and playing lots of gin rummy and Scrabble when we were socked in by rain (nine days out of 17).
After spending a few days in Venice, we picked up our car in Vicenza, 45 miles west, and kicked off the 10-day driving portion of our trip. We drove 595 miles in all, and learned quickly that motoring down the fast lanes of the autostradas is a two-person job: The navigator has to read road signs at breakneck speeds, alert the driver to the car that's about to eat the bumper, and fumble for the right coins at toll booths. Our side trips on smaller roads were calmer, except for the roundabouts, which we just went roundabout two or three or four times.
We took it slow, saving time for detours and picnics in the northern countryside, with its Roman castles and pastel-colored palaces, vineyards and orchards. The deep blue lakes are surrounded by Mediterranean vegetation -- citrus trees, swooping palms, even stands of bamboo. Velvety pastures for cattle and the region's notable cheese industry give way to rolling foothills that rise into steep, craggy mountains to the north.
The castle town of Sirmione sticks out like a lizard's tongue at the southern end of Italy's largest lake, Garda, about 55 miles west of Vicenza. Most visitors enter by foot via a bricked-over drawbridge of the 13th-century fortress, Scaligero Castle. (Cars are prohibited on the narrow cobblestone streets unless they carry hotel guests and have prior clearance.) Once you're inside, the town is beach-resort touristy, tossed with a few Roman ruins. Our hotel was at the far end of the peninsula, away from the gelato stands, vendors and day-trippers.
Lavender and balsam scented the air. Chestnuts trees dropped their nuts. Rosemary grew in hedges. Roses and hibiscus still bloomed in October. An opera aria wafted down from the famed Villa Cortine Palace Hotel, on a hill behind our more modest accommodations. We were drawn to the music but locked out at the gate, which opened only for guests. Undeterred, we sat on a bench in a park outside the lavish grounds and listened for free.
Then we went to work. Scouting just the right cafe table from which to view the sunset was a daily task we took seriously.
More than two dozen villages cling to the water's serpentine edge. Launches ferry passengers from here to there like city buses. We headed out on a slow steamer, or ordinario, and returned on the hydrofoil with a rooster's tail kicking up behind us. We hopped on and off at whim, visiting small towns with big personalities. Limone is noted for its lemon groves and its residents' long life expectancy. Windsurfers prefer Torbole. Torri del Benaco is a fishing haven. Gardone Riviera has a well-regarded botanical garden. Malcesine has a mountain; Bardolino, an olive oil museum.
A stop at Museo dell'Olio made me wish I could load the trunk with huge vessels of locally grown and pressed olive oil and head home as the locals were doing. It was torture to only taste from the sample bottles and not buy them all, so different and delicate were the flavors. The array of balsamic vinegars was impressive as well. Some were nearly black and thick as molasses -- suitable, we were told, as a topping for strawberries.
The museum has a collection of antique millstones, presses, curing vats and glassware decanters that have been used by the region's olive industry since the 1700s, as well as photographs outlining the cultivation of olives and production of oil.
The extravagance of wealth and eccentric taste fills the Vittoriale degli Italiani, near Gardone Riviera in Gardone di Sopra, home of poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, who died in 1938, and the only great house we visited. Art deco in design and wacko in furnishings, the villa includes a coffin-shape bed, a stuffed tortoise on the dining room table (it was found dead in the garden after eating too many tuberoses and preserved by D'Annunzio to thereafter remind guests of the dangers of gluttony), a bathroom with nearly 1,000 blue objects, a ship embedded in the garden, religious icons and a library with 33,000 books.
One of our best lunches of the trip was at the Bellavista Cafe across from the villa. Under the grape arbor, we ate bruschette tirol, bread spread with a piquant olive pate, topped with a wedge of brie, fresh arugula and a sweet pickle.
We took the land route to Malcesine, a town at the northern end of the lake, sharing the road with dozens of Sunday motorcyclists who possibly thought they were competing in a cross-country race. The drive was an exercise in breathing: I would gasp at the vistas, then hold my breath when a cyclist passed on a curve. It took us nearly 11/2 hours to drive the mountainous 40 miles around the lake. Malcesine has a bohemian flair and, being near the border, lots of German tourists. Its narrow streets march up from the water to the castle past artists' studios and an unusual number of leather goods stores, which were packed with shoppers. We took the 15-minute cable car ride to the top of Mount Baldo, having no clue that there was an afternoon jazz concert tribute to the big-band songs of Frank Sinatra.
At 7,000 feet, it was windy and brisk, but the music was hot. We tapped our feet to familiar tunes -- and to keep warm -- while looking at the diamond-studded lake below and the snow-dusted mountains in the distance. We walked down from the midpoint relay station. It took us 90 minutes. The path was one long, steep S-curve past terraced fruit orchards and simple farmhouses. Cabbage, arugula and Swiss chard grew in tidy fall gardens. Wood was stacked for winter. Grapes vines supported patio arbors and vice versa. An old woman with a brown face wrapped in a black kerchief sat in the sun against an apricot house at a blue table peeling red apples, watched by a tabby cat. A fig tree hugged a wall for warmth.
Our favorite "still life" was a backyard garden decorated with broken bicycle parts -- handlebars, wheels, fenders, pedals. Some parts hung like Calder mobiles in the fruit and olive trees; others bordered small cultivated beds like Warhol pop art fences.
For the second leg of our trip, we drove past Lake Como to Maggiore, passing near Bergamo and Milan before heading north. We were almost at the Swiss border when we stopped at Cannobio, the last Italian town on the Piedmont side of Lake Maggiore, the country's second-largest lake. Stresa is the lake's most popular spot, but after lively Sirmione, we sought quiet. This medieval village had clearly escaped commercial development.
We also were at the beginning of a three-day rain that dashed our plans to hike to some of the numerous villages throughout the mountainous hinterland, many accessible only by funicular or foot. We gazed longingly at the map highlighting various mule paths, fruitlessly watched gray skies for a sighting of blue and resigned ourselves to another game of Scrabble in the hotel's intimate library, with its fireplace and collection of Italian art books. There are worse places to be caught in the rain.
On the second day of drizzle-downpour, we had an early espresso with the shopkeepers and tradesmen on their way to work, then hopped the hydrofoil and crossed the lake to Luino and its Wednesday market. The rain had no effect on vendors, who were set up under plastic tarps and selling everything you could find in a second-rate department store.
We dodged puddles and overhead runoffs and had a pretty miserable time. When we finally found the food and flower stalls, the rain abated for 15 minutes and we soaked up the smells and banter and bought lunch. It was raining before we got to the boat launch. That afternoon we drove 45 minutes to Lake Orta and the Alessi design factory, which we located via a large die-cut signature teapot in the sky. No factory tours here, only a discount showroom, with some prices a third less than retail.
Cannobio, architecturally distinguished by its heavy wooden doors, stone balconies and wrought-iron railings, has half a dozen upscale clothing and shoe stores, a Renaissance-era church and a working blacksmith's shop, which is where we passed some time. The forge fire chased away the gloom. We poked around overflowing shelves of graceful lamps, military statuettes and utilitarian cookware, buying two iron wall sconces shaped like spiders.
Conversation came easily with Massimo and Maria, owners of Ristorante A.D., where we ate dinner twice. It was one of the few places I found throughout the trip that served the time-consuming risotto for one. Maria prepared hers with fresh pumpkin. Foul weather and fall kept customers away, so we had time to talk about cooking, gardening and mushroom hunting. My husband spoke in broken Italian, our hosts in better broken English, and I drew pictures. Conversation never ebbed.
When it was time to prepare dinner, Maria ran up the iron spiral staircase to the second-floor kitchen. Dishes came down a dumbwaiter and were served by Massimo. Our meal ended with the four of us sharing a glass of Barolo Chinato, an aperitivo made from 32 herbs.
We arrived in Bellagio at Lake Como, Italy's third-largest but best-known lake, on a cloudless afternoon. Everyone was jockeying for a cafe table or bench in the sun. It rained for the next two days, but the skies cleared each evening, which gave us false hope and the chance to window shop and leisurely stroll in search of a trattoria. We'd take the long way home, promenading along the lake to catch the moon's reflection in the water.
We viewed the busy lake traffic from the French doors of our third-story room at the aging dowager Hotel Excelsior Splendide, an attraction in itself. The 1907 hotel is Old World charming with a yellow and pink marble floor, cherub frescoes and a magnificent internal stairway leading straight to a flaking Heaven on the ceiling. Two well-dressed poodles had the room next to ours.
The hotel does not attract the international glitterati who favor Lake Como. Fellow guests appeared to be middle-class Italians and German couples on quiet holiday, or English women of a certain age on tour. At night, the dining room was full at 7 sharp.
A dozen villas and gardens are near Bellagio and open to the public. We passed on them and drove to Kennedy Farm, located high above the village of Nesso, halfway between Bellagio and Como. It was another driving adventure, and we found the farm after several wrong turns along a seven-mile switchback road studded with grottos, ravines and waterfalls. Two hunters with their dogs pointed the way up the mountain, and we hiked up the Pian di Nesso, a mesa in the foothills surrounding the lake. It was a rare sunny day and an unknown path could not deter us.
We returned 11/2 hours later and the farmhouse restaurant had a fire crackling. There is no menu; guests eat what is harvested from the garden or is shot or raised on the farm. This day it was polenta, zucchini and an apple tart.
The next day there were whitecaps on the lake. Our gin game stood at 582 to 345 when we packed up and headed to Como to catch a train to Munich and a flight home. The sun shone all the way along our route through the Alps. The scenery was so mesmerizing I didn't even think about evening up the score.
Susan Harb last wrote for Travel about Guatemala.