Bergamo family roadtrip, Northern Italy, Lake Como, Lake Garda, Lake Iseo, Varenna, Bellagio, Verona

Lake Hopping in Italy

21 Feb 2020

Prior to this trip, I had never been to Italy. Ever since reading 'A Room With A View', which inspired my dream to travel when I was just 17 years old, I had wanted to go. Although the novel is set in a different region, it no less excited me to finally achieve this particular dream. The Italians in general fulfilled the wonderful stereotypes I had always imagined - friendly, welcoming passionate, and (fortunately for us) with a love of children.

Family Feet on Italian mosaic

Visitors to Italy, like us, might be fascinated by the ease with which small children are not only tolerated but welcomed and accommodated with ease. In fact, they were greeted everywhere with warmth and enthusiasm. Our children approached Italy in a reciprocal manner. They ate an abundance of pizza, pasta and gelato, and so found that they had little to complain about.

Children welcome in Italy

We booked relatively cheap flights (for mid-August) from Manchester Airport to Milan Bergamo Airport (be aware: it is "Milan" Bergamo in the same way that Gatwick is "London" Gatwick – that is, it's over an hour away from that city, and has nothing to do with it at all) and retrieved our hire car. We had booked with budget car-hire firm Rhodium, and this was a huge mistake. We didn't check our terms and conditions well, and neither had we checked the Trust Pilot reviews.  We discovered we had to put down a humongous "refundable damage deposit" and that their reputation for returning said deposit was dreadful. To add to our stress, when we collected our car we found that it already had plenty of minor bumps and scratches, most of which had been recorded but, ultimately, we ended up taking lots of photographs just in case. Thankfully we were lucky, and we did get our deposit back when we returned the vehicle; all was well. 

We booked to stay just outside Bergamo in a Home Away rental – 2 bedrooms, with a huge sundeck and small private swimming pool, for about £1,200 for 14 nights; a reasonable price for the region, season and location. Its central location allowed us to explore the lakes and other highlights of the region with ease.

Bergamo, Italy

Bergamo was everything I wanted for our first experience of an Italian city. Its older upper district, called Città Alta, is characterized by cobblestone streets, encircled by Venetian walls and accessible by funicolare (if you're feeling frugal, then an equally enjoyable short - yet steep - walk will get you up to Citta Atla, or - perhaps more easily - down). Piazza Vecchia wowed us with its renaissance-era architecture, buildings with balconies, lush with overhanging Ivy, Roman columns, a central water fountain, and the all-important clock tower typical of an enchanting Italian piazza.

Fort in Sirmione, Italy

On the shores of Lake Garda we visited the beautiful town of Sirmione, which is set on a peninsula that is stretched out for a very enjoyable 4km walk through the old, cobbled town and along the shores of the lake. The peninsula is about 30 km above sea level and it offers an incredible panorama.

Sirmione is famous for the unique charm of its old town centre, with its narrow and irregular alleys, the Thermal Baths of Catullus, the churches "Santa Maria Maggiore" and "San Pietro" in Mavino, and the ruin of the Roman Villa of the poet Catullus, known also as "Grotta di Catullo".

Santa Maria Maggiore, Lake GardaView from the fort, Lake Garda, Italy

Upon arrival to the Sirmione, we were greeted by a police officer turning away the vast summer traffic – so we ended up parking quite far away and doing the rest by foot. The summer crowds were vast, which did distract from the beautiful alleyways and architecture, particularly when trying to keep up and keep an eye on our three little adventurers.  Like most places in Europe, I suspect that early or late summer might be the ideal time to go if you have a choice. However, Sirmione is well geared up for this summer trade with ample parking, eateries, shops and gelateria's. We paddled in the cool waters of Jamaica Beach at the top of the peninsula - the rocks are slippery, but the water is beautiful. Later, we traveled a bit further round the lake to at Spiaggia D'ora, where we found the crowds were much smaller, and we could all relax a little more whilst the children swam to their hearts content.

Props from the summer opera at the Amphitheatre

We also explored Verona and, again, had a similar issue with crowds, especially at Juliet's balcony. We looked at the love notes stuck to the wall before realizing we were quite literally (tourist) trapped in the small court yard below, which hosts the entry to a rather small and overcrowded museum. In the court yard, tourists are invited to rub a bronze statue of Juliet to bring them some romantic luck – hopefully better than that of poor old Juliet's! The house itself was owned by the Cappello family, and dates back to the 13th Century; however, the famous balcony was only erected in the 1960's to draw in the tourists. The success of this attraction is all based on fiction, but the emotions that draw in the crowds are real; the loves notes pinned to the wall as you enter are a testament to this (although the chewing gum used to attach the notes, less so). I guess when it comes to romance, many of us prefer fantasy over reality, and this place has Shakespeare's fairy dust sprinkled all over it, making it a must visit if you find yourself in the area. The streets of Verona are breathtakingly beautiful. When we visited the gargentium, stage set/props from the summer opera at the Amphitheatre were outside on the Piazza Bra.

Love notes at Juliets Balcony, Verona

I started to worry that our holiday would be characterized by navigating the huge crowds of tourists that Italy attracts in the summer months; thankfully, it was not so. We started to focus our visits to Lake Como and Lake Iseo - slightly closer to us in Bergamo - and our efforts were greatly rewarded.

Waters of Lake Como

Lake Como is known for its opulence. It is home to the likes of Richard Branson and George Clooney, but we found that you don't need to be a millionaire to enjoy this area (although I am sure it would help!).  We found the beautiful towns which surround it to be much quieter and more easily navigated. We explored Lake Como's eastern shores, which had plenty to offer us - notably that of Bellagio and Varenna.

Varenna on Lake Como

Varenna is an absolute gem and perhaps are most memorable day of our holiday - every bit as beautiful as Sirmione, but just not as crowded. We loved exploring the alleyway staircases, paddling in the lake, and choosing from any number of restaurant cafes. Plus, the ease of getting there and parking was sweet relief. There is a multi-storey car park set into the rock and covered in fauna, making even this most practical of buildings look attractive. We really enjoyed wondering around the former convent Villa Monastero. If we understood correctly, its function ceased in the 1500s, when it was discovered that some Nuns were pregnant by the local priests. Today, however, it welcomes visitors to explore its idyllic grounds. The garden is everything I imagined of an Italian garden to be - citrus trees, palm trees, cypresses, roses and magnolias. Charge your camera beforehand - you will want to take a million photos! The charming, medieval cobble, traffic-free lanes of Varenna ensured that the kids could run free without anxiety. They could play in amongst the pigeons on the Piazza San Giorgio, whilst we drank coffee in the shade and swam/paddled in the turquoise waters of Lake Como.

Villa Monastero, VarennaGardens of Villa Monastero, Varenna

Ferries go from Varenna to Bellagio frequently, and we do wish that we'd taken this option, instead of driving the long winding (often scary) roads up to Bellagio - an experience that my husband (sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on an unfamiliar side of the road, which was about a third narrower than it needed to be, with sheer rock-face on one side, and devil-may-care Italians hurtling towards him on the other, in a car on which he already wasn't confident about getting his deposit back) needed more than a simple espresso at the other end to recover from. Again parking was relatively easy, even in mid-August. Taking the ferry wouldn't have been a cheap option but, perhaps, it may have been slightly more enjoyable.

Kids walking the streets of VarennaMosaic gardens in Varenna

Bellagio, known as the jewel of Lake Como: a few hours of wonderful strolling is needed to really enjoy this town. Despite the cobbles and staircases, you will want to keep an eye on your footing but remember to look up at this stunning architecture and be amazed.

Streets of Bellagio, Italy

On the whole we found this region to be a really terrific destination for a family holiday/road trip. Bergamo was a great place to base ourselves, with Milan being extremely accessible by train from Bergamo, and a relatively stress free way to see the city. You can also catch a direct train right into the heart of Venice making it a highly convenient option.

Waters of Lake Como

We were warned that eating and drinking in Italy would be expensive - and so we avoided the posh water front café's, where a single soft-drink could easily set you back 5 euros. Instead, when we did eat out, we opted for the quieter restaurants off the main streets. We also spent a lot of time in the local supermarkets, enjoying the affordable and enjoyable Italian delights. Like I mentioned earlier, the only thing I would do differently is consider going in late summer or early spring to avoid crowds. Oh! - and research car hire companies in more detail!

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