Lake Maggiore, Switzerland: the waterside paradise with hidden depth
Extreme sports, sub-tropical plants and getting to grips with grappa – turns out there’s a whole lot more to Lake Maggiore than just, er, water
Lakes are lovely, aren't they? I used to live near one once, and I don't think I ever had a bad experience involving it – even that time I got chased by a rabid fox is now looked upon fondly. And that's just a lake in the middle of England; it is not a lake in Italy, or a lake in Switzerland, and it certainly isn't a lake in both.
Lake Maggiore, located near the beautifully quaint town of Ascona, is precisely that: a lake in both. It borders the two countries, and prides itself on being an impossibly stunning stretch of shimmering, sub-tropical water that offers an all-inclusive and altogether rather fascinating snapshot of both Italian and Swiss cultures.
So, I went. As an uncultured swine, I jumped at the chance to experience double the pastime for my buck, and of course, as I mentioned previously, I do love a lake.
Turns out, I also love a sail, which was my first port of call upon arrival – dump your bags and get out on the water, as the saying doesn't go. Once away from the shore, a brisk wind provided ample horsepower to propel us around the crystal waters, sometimes at a rather disconcerting speed. Thankfully, a grizzled local sailor, well-versed in the art of ducking under heavy metal poles, was along for the ride. As such, he literally showed us the ropes, and we didn't end up in the drink.
Of course, if you're not keen on commandeering your own vessel, you can hop into one of the many tourist boats that embark regularly from the surrounding coast. I climbed aboard one of the very same when I journeyed to the distant Brissago Islands, slap bang in the middle of the lake, later in the trip.
There are two in total, a smaller one and a bigger one (obviously), and both are lush with peculiar foliage and flora. On the largest island is housed a botanical gardens, which was introduced by an eccentric millionaire called Antoinette Saint Leger back in 1885, and is home to a hypnotising array of sumptuous Mediterranean vegetation. Of course, the sight of exotic jungle plants in Europe is a jarring (and fascinating) sight, but there's a reason for it.
Three more European water-bound adventures
Lake Attersee, Austria
Austria’s Salzkammergutweg (great name) region is home to a lovely bunch of warm bathing lakes, with Lake Attersee reaching temperatures of up to 25°C in the summer. But alongside the great opportunity to get your skimpies on, the sailing conditions are top-notch, due to the constant ‘Rosenwind’ – a legendary rose-scented wind that glides across the lake, and straight into your sails/nostrils.
If you fancy staying a little closer to home, then the deepest lake in England is worth a visit. Surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the country, it’s not exactly the type of pool you’ll want to dive into (it’s pretty cold, tbh), but it once won an award for the greatest view in England, so there’s a lot to look at if you do plan on staying on dry land.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
If it’s views you want, then this cluster of ridiculously beautiful lakes form a large part of the biggest national park in Croatia. There are 16 picturesque, turquoise (the world’s best colour, if you’re asking) lakes, connected by serene waterfalls and cascades – Google the place and peep at any of the jaw-dropping photos on offer for proof. Also, for those looking for a bit of animal action, it’s one of the only places left in Europe where you might catch a glimpse of a bear or a wolf. Scary!
The two islands are protected by the Alps, as the lake is surrounded by mountains, and during the summer months all of the heat collects down at the bottom.
Because of this barrier, it then stays there throughout the winter – it's like its own micro-climate. As a result, vegetation that's unusual for the area is able to flourish. And so is a big old massive mansion (or palazzo) and a sexy Roman baths built by a wealthy businessman called Max Emden, who bought the islands off old Antoinette. The sense of excess that drips from every corner betrays its history – Max was a bit of a womaniser, you see, one whose favourite pastime was to throw pennies into the baths so that he could watch topless women dive in to fetch them. He called his lavish lifestyle "the art of living". Beats watching Take Me Out, I guess.
The fun isn't all to be found out on the water though, and there's a wealth of other, less wet, things to do too. Nip up the road a bit and you can attack the glorious Cardada mountain, where an alpine adventure awaits. Take a cable car up and either hike, bike or even paraglide back down. I hiked. Not because I'm a scaredy cat or anything – ask my mum – but because devastatingly, the weather conditions meant it was too dangerous. Real shame. I think…
Still, while I was up there nosing about, I got the chance to sample a local speciality – polenta – and at a place that boasts the best in the region. It's a sort of savoury porridge made from cornmeal, with a variety of flavourings and topped with cheese – I'll admit it doesn't look like the first thing you want to hurl down your throat, but after the first bite that's exactly what I did. This was top stuff. Our hosts and chefs at Capanna Lo Stallone certainly weren't messing about with their lofty claims.
But enough about the Swiss, where's that all-important Italian influence? Well, it raised its boozy head any time anyone mentioned grappa. This incredibly tart spirit is made from grapes after they've been crushed to make wine (the pomace) – so it's distilled leftovers, basically. Of course, I loved it. I loved every single type of the many varieties. Great stuff, especially when paired with chocolate, it turns out.
Too much grappa lazily signalled the end of my stay – an early night was ushered in at my flawless home for the trip, the beautiful coastside Hotel Eden Roc. A quick tour around the charming town of Ascona was the only other activity I was able to fit in before heading home. This, I was quite pleased about – a few minutes down the road stands the third highest bungee jump in the world. Think how many grappas I'd need in me to get on that…