It is one of the idiosyncrasies of the Giro d’Italia that it rarely does justice to one of the country’s most beautiful regions, the Italian Lakes. Often, after a leisurely journey from the south, the race is in such a hurry to hit the climbs in the high mountains that it shoots straight past. We can forgive the Giro its haste, but there’s really no excuse for anyone else to miss out on the sublime attractions of Lakes Garda, Como, Lugano and Maggiore, along with their smaller, less famous neighbors.
The lakes sprawl across northern Italy, with Lake Garda farthest east, not far from Verona. Como and Lugano sit just north of Milan, and to the west is Maggiore—the latter two lakes both crossing into Switzerland. To the north lie the dramatic peaks of the Alps and Dolomites, and for anyone traveling from Paris or London, the process of arrival accentuates the beauty. In an 1870 letter, Henry James wrote: “Down, down—on, on into Italy we went—a rapturous progress thro’ a wild luxuriance of corn & olives & figs & mulberries & chestnuts & frescoed villages & clamorous beggars & all the good old Italianisms of tradition.” After the Swiss mountains—sublime but chilly—dropping to this verdant, almost-Mediterranean world with its azure waters, abundant lemon trees and riotous gardens of camelias and oleander was always most welcome for anyone escaping from northern Europe.
When they were formed at the end of the last ice age, roughly 10,000 years ago, the glaciers pushing down from the Alps and Dolomites carved out deep trenches, then melted into lake water. And, as they moved, the glaciers churned up magnesium-rich limestone, depositing it onto what would become the sides of the lakes. Which is why the ground is so fertile for growing olives, fruit and flowers. Tourists have been visiting since Roman times, attracted by the landscape and climate, the opportunity to mess about on boats and the civilized towns and villages sprinkled along the shores. Wealthy Italians have summer villas by the lakes; actor George Clooney has a property at Láglio on Lake Como and reportedly enjoys zooming around the local roads on his Harley-Davidson.
The literary heritage of the area is deeply intertwined with tourism. The first writing eulogizing the lakes was that of Catullus, the poet of the late Roman Republic whose family lived in Verona and had a villa near Sirmione on Lake Garda. Among his many love poems, Catullus wrote of how happy he was in Sirmione. Perhaps it was good to get away from Rome, where the object of his adoration, a woman named Lesbia, was being distinctly unresponsive to his charms. Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets, was influenced by Catullus and also visited Lake Garda. And perhaps this connection between place and poetry would have been forgotten were it not for the Romantic poets of the 19th century. Shelley and Byron visited the lakes and enthused of their beauty. And in 1880, seeking out Catullus’ ruined villa in Sirmione, Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote: “There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow, There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow.”
From there the literary daisy chain continues. And it’s one with a strong American thread. James travelled extensively in Italy between 1869 and 1907, staying often in Rome and Venice, but also spending time on Lake Como. Over the course of those years the American author wrote many essays and stories about Italy, published in various periodicals, then collected in one volume in 1909 as “Italian Hours.” Of Lake Como, James’ entry was brief but lyrical, skewering the extravagant lifestyle that the location seemed to inspire in wealthy American tourists: “It is all so unreal, so fictitious, so elegant and idle, so framed to undermine a rigid sense of the chief end of man not being to float for ever in an ornamental boat, beneath an awning tasselled like a circus-horse, impelled by an affable Giovanni or Antonio from one stately stretch of lake-laved villa steps to another…”
James was ever more interested in affairs of the heart than stunning landscapes and noted Lake Como’s reputation for illicit romance: “It is commonly the spot to which inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion…. Lake Como is the place to enjoy à deux—it’s a shame to be here in gross melancholy solitude.”
Ernest Hemingway first came to Lake Maggiore in melancholy solitude, but he wasn’t the type of man to be alone for very long. The Nobel Prize-winning author of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Death in the Afternoon” first came to Stresa, a glamorous resort on the shores of Lake Maggiore, in the autumn of 1918. Hemingway was 18 years old and had just been through an event that would mark him for the rest of his life.
Once he had settled on his ambition to be a writer, Hemingway also hungered for adventure, travel, and war. As a result, the native Chicagoan volunteered to be an ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian Front, arriving in Milan in June 1918 after a long journey via Paris. The Italians were fighting a bitter series of battles with the Austrians. Sometimes the Italians, with American support, managed to push up into the Alps, only for an Austrian offensive to drive them back all the way to the Adriatic coast. The front was bitterly fought, and in the hills the harsh weather complicated supply routes. Hemingway was keen to get near the action and volunteered to deliver cigarettes, chocolates and other supplies to the Italian troops on the frontline at Fossalta di Piave, north of Venice.
On July 8 Hemingway was among many Red Cross volunteers helping to evacuate wounded Italians from the trenches when he was hit by shrapnel from a trench mortar bomb that exploded a few feet away from him. One soldier nearby died, another was injured and despite his wounds Hemingway carried the wounded man some 50 feet before Austrian machine gun fire sent bullets ripping into his right leg.
After being patched up in the American hospital in Milan—where Hemingway fell in love with a nurse who was to become the model for Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms”—the writer took a leave of convalescence at Stresa. There he stayed in some style for an 18-year-old volunteer at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées, drinking with aristocratic Italian families and even falling in love (again) with a young woman from Turin. Her parents, though charmed by the ebullient American, did not consent to the relationship going any further.
On his return to the United States in 1919 Hemingway began writing about his experiences in Europe. His time in Italy is reflected in the classic “A Farewell to Arms,” in which Stresa is a pivotal location. The novel, his second, established Hemingway’s growing literary reputation.
Though more commonly associated with Spain, Florida and Cuba, Hemingway had a deep love for Italy, borne of his early experiences there. He felt that Italians knew how to truly live well, a sentiment that echoed Henry James. Living in Italy was an education in luxury—in the pleasures of sunshine, recreation, good food and wine, art and romance.
But it was an Englishman, albeit an estranged one, who really got under the skin of the Italian Lakes. In March 1912, at the age of 26, D. H. Lawrence met Frieda Weekly, the wife of his former college professor. They began an affair. Weekly was six years older than him and had three young children. Nevertheless, such was the power of their love that she agreed to elope with him. They went first to Metz, her parents’ hometown; then, after Lawrence was accused of being a British spy by the local authorities, they moved to a small village near Munich. But they could not stay in Germany; the tensions between Germany, France and Britain were simmering. So Lawrence and Frieda headed south, through the Alps, on foot.
Lawrence at this time had published his first novel “The White Peacock.” He had been teaching in South London to support himself and working on the first draft of what was to become “Sons and Lovers.” Like Hemingway, he wanted to travel, to experience the world. But there was also a sense that he needed to find the space and time to write. He found that in Limone, a small village on Lake Garda. He and Frieda settled there and stayed for the autumn of 1912 through to the spring of 1913. It was indeed to be a time of incredible creativity for Lawrence. Not only did he finish “Sons and Lovers,” published a year later to critical acclaim, but he also wrote a short travel book about his time on Lake Garda, “Twilight in Italy.”
Lawrence describes the physical surroundings with lyric intensity: “I sat and looked at the lake. It was beautiful as paradise, as the first creation. On the shores were the ruined lemon-pillars standing out in melancholy, the clumsy, enclosed lemon-houses seemed ramshackle, bulging among vine stocks and olive trees. The villages too, clustered upon their churches, seemed to belong to the past.”
His view of life in Italy is romantic. Like James and Hemingway, he was seduced by the simplicity of a rural life in the sunshine, a welcome contrast to the industrial heartlands of England where he grew up. Yet Lawrence also trains his writerly eye on the local people, connecting with the reality of the place rather than the wealthy tourists in grand hotels farther down the lake.
In 1913, Lawrence returned to Britain but he didn’t stay there long. He and Frieda returned to Italy, to La Spezia, the pretty fishing village northwest of Florence, and there he began work on “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love.” Two further travel books on Italy were published, “Sea and Sardinia” and “Etruscan Places,” illustrating Lawrence’s abiding love for the country.
It’s hard not to romanticize Italy. Perhaps, though, when confronted with the beauty of the Italian lakes, we can indulge ourselves.