During the first week of the summer holidays we travelled as a family to Lake Maggiore for an Italian adventure amidst vast lakes, imposing mountains and spectacular views. This post is Part Two of our travel diary, covering the middle section of our Italian adventure to this beautiful area of the country that I first fell in love with fourteen years ago. The third and final part of our trip will follow in the coming weeks.
TUESDAY – DAY 4, CANNOBIO
Each morning, inevitably awake before the rest of the household, I’d sit at the breakfast bar in the kitchen of our lovely villa and figure out a rough idea/plan for what we could do that day. I knew that both the husband and our girls would want a quiet morning following our late night last night after going out for dinner (still definitely the best pizza I’ve ever tasted). I’m not great at doing nothing though, much preferring to be active so as not to ‘waste’ a precious half day of our Italian adventure holiday, and so I decided to go for a walk on my own, further up the mountain to see what I could find, hoping for even more dramatic views of the glittering lake below.
This was no easy task. Firstly, it’s incredibly steep so my calves and thighs had already got an almighty workout before I’d even reached the top of the driveway to the villa! And secondly, I was pretty much dicing with death at every turn – there is no pavement and locals come hurtling round every hairpin turn at top speed with no warning. It was well worth it though. As I walked beneath the cool shade of the trees that cover the mountainside I came across house after house – some modest and rustic, some impressive and luxurious, each with beautiful gardens spilling over with flowers. I loved imagining who might live there and what they do all day, making up stories in my head about their lives. Every so often I was rewarded with a peek through the trees at the lake – that view will never ever get old.
The girls thoroughly enjoyed their lazy morning of reading on the balcony, doing puzzles in the spacious lounge and playing made-up games together, so after a bite to eat for lunch we decided to try heading to Cannobio again, as we’d originally planned to do the day before and hadn’t quite managed to pull off. This time we made it to the ferry port in Luino with time to spare (hooray!), having decided ahead of time to park in the free (we think!) underground car park of one of the supermarkets.
All three girls LOVED the ferry. They’ve only ever been on one (very brief) ferry journey before, when we visited friends in the New Forest last summer, so I wasn’t too sure how they would react to it. Ella in particular really loved it. She seems to find being near water very calming and soothing – it’s definitely her happy place. It took a quick 25 minutes to get from Luino to Cannobio, with a stop halfway to let passengers on and off at Maccagno. The lake was calm, the views as we sped to the western shore were incredible and we all enjoyed sitting at the front of the (surprisingly small) ferry watching the other sailboats, speed boats and jetskiers on the water as we chugged on by.
I had no idea what to expect from Cannobio, beyond other people who have visited telling me that it’s a ‘must-visit’ destination. I think sometimes having no expectations of a place definitely works in your favour when travelling – Cannobio ended up being my absolute favourite place out of our whole Italian adventure.
Cannobio is the last Italian town on the western shore before you reach the Swiss border and it dates back to medieval times. It is such a pretty little place! I’m certain that we only just scratched the surface of what it had to offer on this first visit and that there was plenty more we could have explored. Disembarking the ferry with excitement, we stepped onto Piazza Vittorio Emanuele III, a wide and picturesque pedestrian area lined with bars and restaurants overlooking the harbour and the lakefront.
We turned right out of the ferry landing dock, towards the north end of town, ambling slowly along the cobblestone streets as we took it all in with every single one of our senses. We passed tiny, traditional trattorias; fascinating-looking trinket shops stuffed with curiosities; and bustling gelaterias with people spilling out onto the streets clutching gelatos in an assorted rainbow of colours. Well, of course we couldn’t resist (it’d be rude not to, right?) so we stopped at one and filled our bellies with the most delicious gelato I’ve ever tasted, people-watching from the waterside seating area.
Sweet-tooth’s satisfied, we continued on towards the lido. I’d come prepared this time and had brought the girls’ swimming costumes and towels with us. As soon as we arrived they stripped off and raced towards the water, shrieking with glee. It was busy – the continuing fabulous hot and sunny weather drawing people to the beaches and water in droves, like flocks of seagulls towards an abandoned punnet of chips. There was less shade here than at Maccagno but the beach itself was more sand-and-shingle rather than rocks-and-pebbles, making it a bit more comfortable to settle down on.
I stayed in the shade and guarded our bags, happily people-watching from behind my sunglasses whilst the husband played with the girls in the water, throwing them up in the air, catching them as they leapt off the pontoon in the water. Hearing their giggles and whoops filled my heart with happiness – this is exactly how I imagined our Italian adventure to be.
After drying off in the sun we retraced our steps towards the main square, stopping off to wander around one of the trinket shops that had caught our eye as we’d walked in. There were so many amazing things inside! I could have spent hours in there. The girls each bought a fan with their holiday money, which they were absolutely thrilled with, and I purchased a fridge magnet – my traditional souvenir from wherever we visit in the world. I’m slowly beginning to build up quite a collection now.
We sauntered briefly southwards past the tiny harbour whilst we waited for the return ferry: gazing at pretty coloured houses with wrought-iron balconies; admiring old-fashioned, curled lampposts; and enjoying the cheerful fluttering of the flags in the gentle breeze. The ferry that took us back to Luino was larger than the one we caught on the way to Cannobio, and direct rather than stopping at Maccagno on the way.
Again, the girls loved feeling the breeze on their faces and watching the ripples spread out from the boat as it cut through the water. As we arrived back at the port in Luino and started walking back towards our car all three declared that it had been the best day of our Italian adventure holiday so far.
WEDNESDAY – DAY 5, LAVENO
After our successful trip to Cannobio yesterday, we decided to go on another excursion today – this time to Laveno, about 40 minutes drive south along the lake from where we were staying. When I was researching all the things there were to do around Lake Maggiore, I made a little list in my head of a few things that I really wanted to make sure we got the chance to do. Laveno was definitely one of them.
We arrived at lunchtime after a truly spectacular drive that hugged the shoreline of the lake: open-mouthed in awe at the dramatic cliffs rising imperiously out of the water; admiring the picturesque towns our route took us through; and impressed with the long tunnel with archway ‘windows’ that took us through the core of the mountains themselves. On arriving in Laveno we circled round the tiny streets several times looking for somewhere to park (as was becoming a bit of a theme of our whole holiday!) and ate a quick picnic in the cool interior of our blessedly air-conditioned car on what was definitely the hottest day of our Italian adventure so far – 33 degrees and climbing as the afternoon went on.
Our destination was the Funivia – a cable car that extends up to the top of Mount Sasso del Ferro, a full 949m above sea level (lake level?!). ‘Cable car’ is perhaps a little bit of an ambitious description – in reality it’s a bucket lift just big enough for two people to stand in as long as they don’t mind a snug fit. Some of the buckets have a roof and some are open-topped and I really wanted to experience it and see the views from the top. The husband doesn’t like heights one little bit and upon seeing the enormous scale of the vertical climb and the teeny buckets they’d be standing in, both Mimi and Lola opted out too. Ella nervously volunteered to accompany me, wanting to overcome her fear of heights and I’m so proud of her finding the courage to do it. Her only request was that we went in a bucket with a roof. Personally I would have preferred an open-topped one but in the end it was definitely the right choice as it did at least offer us a little bit of shade from the blazing sunshine.
We bought tickets, climbed the stairs and hopped in to the next available bucket as it slowed down a miniscule amount to let us on. The door shut with a reassuring slam (although the signs inside the bucket did warn us very firmly not to lean against the door in case it opened!) and we were off. It was a slow ascent – about 20 minutes in total – juddering and rickety and noisy and nerve-wracking, but the views were, of course, utterly incredible! Ella did brilliantly – managing to snap some photos on her phone and even letting herself look down to where we’d started from all those metres below. Just as we thought we’d reached to top we rose over a peak and realised that we were only about halfway with the steepest part of the climb (invisible to those at the bottom of the lift) still to come.
We jumped out at the summit and had a little walk around to get our somewhat wobbly legs used to being on stable ground again. The landscape beneath us, sprawling out as far as the eye could see, was breath-taking. The southern end of the lake, glittering in the sunlight, stretched out further than I’d imagined; we could make out Stresa and the Borromean Islands on the western shore opposite where we were standing; and the thick green forested areas in between the towns offered such a contrast to the deep blue waters of the lake itself. It really was quite something and these photos don’t do it anywhere near enough justice.
Mindful that we’d left the husband and the other two girls almost a kilometre below us, we hopped back into another closed bucket and began our descent, marvelling again at the sight that spread out at our feet. Ella was so proud of herself for doing something that had scared her and of course I was incredibly proud of her too – it’s something she’s talked about a lot since we’ve been home so it’s obviously made quite an impression on her.
We had planned to catch the car ferry across to Intra (the only way to transport a vehicle across the lake) and visit Villa Taranto – a late 19th century villa rumoured to have incredibly beautiful gardens, including *swoon* a dahlia maze. However it was so ridiculously hot and to be honest the girls had kind of had enough by then so we decided to have a little wander around the town of Laveno itself then get ourselves a gelato and sit in the shade by the harbour instead. I’m still learning that flexibility and adaptability when travelling with kids is key to keeping everyone happy.
We stood and watched the car ferry arrive at the port and unload it’s passengers before the next round of cars embarked – the girls found the whole process absolutely fascinating. Laveno is a pretty little place (as are all the lakeside towns) with plenty of beautiful flowers adorning the pathways and window-boxes, colourful flags merrily waving in the gentle breeze and stunning vistas across the water.
The girls dipped their toes in the harbour, sitting on the cobbled steps and chatting about goodness knows what together. I love just observing them when they’re in an agreeable mood – they might argue multiple times a day but they really do love each other deeply and can be the best of friends when they want to be. We sat for a good hour on the wooden bench by the water, watching the world go by, before heading back to our villa for dinner and yet another spectacular sunset.
It certainly was a busy couple of days – probably my favourite two days out of our whole Italian adventure at Lake Maggiore. I just love exploring unfamiliar places and experiencing new things – there’s something about travelling that lights me up inside, makes me feel alive and gets my creativity flowing. I’m never happier than when I’m wandering around a place I’ve never been to before, getting lost with my camera in my hand, my eyes wide open and my family by my side.
The third and final part of our Italian adventure will follow in the coming weeks and below is a vlog of our whole trip. These videos take me absolutely ages to put together but I love looking back at our travels and all the memories we’ve created together as a family.