However much the Italian Lakes District is culturally set apart from the more well-traveled museum-saturated Venice-Florence-Rome-Naples route, the region’s breathtaking scenery, invigorating alpine air, virtuoso villas, and splendid gardens are as enthralling as any Botticelli or Tintoretto. While the tradition of the European Grand Tour dated back to the 16th century, because of geographical and logistic constraints and limitations, it was not until more than a century later that Lake Maggiore and Lake Como developed as destinations for the idle, the curious, the privileged, the adventuresome, or those in need of healthier climes.
During a continental walking tour, William Wordsworth described the harsh impenetrable barrier between Switzerland and Italy in his 1799 poem titled The Simplon Pass as a place of “ … unfettered clouds and region of the heavens.” The Lake District’s first tourism era was several decades in the making as it took a series of impressive engineering feats. In c.1805, Napoleon completed the Simplon Road between Paris and Milan. The area’s first steamboats were introduced in 1816. A decade later, hairpin carriage roads and rocky footpaths were replaced by a ferry service connecting the medieval villages and towns. By the early 1840s English travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook was selling tour packages to the “Italian Land of Lakes,” as the train from Turin to Genoa stopped in Arona which connected to other towns on Lake Maggiore’s shoreline, including Stresa and Baveno, along the Simplon Road. With the completion of the Simplon tunnel in 1906 between Domodossola and Brig, the region became even more accessible, opening an entirely new train route from London and Paris to Istanbul – the Venice–Simplon Orient Express – which led to another era in European travel.
Ever since, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore has hosted the rich, the royal, as well as writers, poets and painters, all lured by the region’s fabled enchantment. During my recent visit, I sidestepped museums, instead opting to tour several of the grandest of the grand hotels, having a drink at some and dinner at others, to see what was left from travel’s Golden Age. And while I found some have preserved their white-glove charm (Are the waiters at Villa D’Este actually flying?) I was shocked to find the GH Milano in Brunate and the Grande Bretagne in Bellagio were all but completely abandoned, in dire disrepair if not in pre-demolition stages.
Here is a look at Grand Hotels on Lake Maggiore and Lake Como along with some vintage views.
Grand Hotel Et Des Iles Borromees Corso Umberto I, 65-67. Stresa www.borromees.it