Lake Maggiore, Course by Course
The Italian lakes region northwest of Milan is a melding of personalities: one Alpine, the other Mediterranean, with snowcapped mountains rising above palm trees and terra-cotta-tiled villages. The second-largest lake in Italy, Maggiore is an anchor for three superb public golf courses laid out along its banks and cliffs.
The place to start is the Golf Club Alpino di Stresa (greens fees, $40-$60; 48 Viale Golf Panorama; 39-0323/20642; www.golfalpino.it), a historic nine-hole track on the western side of the lake. Built nearly 80 years ago in the woodlands 2,400 feet above Lake Maggiore, it hosted the first three Italian Opens in the mid-1920s. The course begins with a hilly trio of par fours, the last featuring an elevated tee from which drives seem to disappear into the mountains across the lake before falling to the fairway.
On the south end of the lake, the Golf Club Castelconturbia (greens fees, $80-$115; 10 Via Suno; 39-0322/832-093) is a complex of three Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed nine-hole tracks and a small hotel. Opened in 1984, the courses wind among wooded hills and Maggiore's small satellite lakes. The layouts, which can be combined to create three distinct 18-hole courses, are the area's most challenging. Locals speak reverently about the par-four seventh on the Yellow Course, a dogleg left of about 350 yards that demands a precise second shot to an island green.
One of Italy's oldest courses, Golf Club Varese (greens fees, $65-$95; 32 Via Vittorio Veneto; 39-0332/229-302) is a hilly track on Lake Varese, about six miles from Maggiore. The first nine-hole loop opened in 1934; a second one was added 21 years later. The layout is tight, with some serious changes in elevation. But the setting is spectacular: long views of three lakes, frequent sightings of Monte Rosa, and the occasional peal of a church bell. Par is 72, and the favorite hole among regulars is No. 10, a downhill par four. Varese's clubhouse, a 12th-century Benedictine monastery with a bell tower and ivy-covered walls, is as divine as its surroundings.
EXTRA SWINGS For a few more rounds in the region, try Golf Club des Iles Borromées in the hills above Stresa (greens fees, $50-$80; Località Motto Rosso; 39-0323/929-285). Only 15 years old, this par-72 layout is famous for its silver birches and chestnuts and views of lakes Maggiore, Varese, and Comabbio, as well as the Swiss Alps; on a clear day, you can see Milan. Just as charming is the Golf Dei Laghi (greens fees, $50-$95; 926 Via Trevisana; 39-0332/ 978-101), an 18-hole track near majestic Monte Rosa.
WORTH A DETOUR Opened in 1928, Golf Club Patriziale Ascona (greens fees, $125-$135; 41-91/791-2132) actually lies over the Swiss border, but it's as fine as any course in Italy. It's just as notable for the mountains that ring parts of the layout, as well as the lake, which shimmers behind the fourth green.
Three Divine Day Trips
Milanese sometimes joke that the best thing about Milan is leaving it. A handful of charming towns offer easy escapes from the city, and our favorites are Pavia, an affluent village with a landmark monastery and a booming fur trade; Bergamo, a beautiful and bustling town where the composer Donizetti and the painter Lorenzo Lotto were born; and Mantua, a center of culture.
On the way to Pavia, just 30 miles south of Milan, you'll come to the Carthusian Monastery (Viale del Monumento; 39-0382/925-613). Surrounded by pine and eucalyptus trees, the ornate marble facade conceals a series of chapels and two peaceful cloisters. Monks conduct tours and the gift shop sells their handmade soaps and herbal teas. Once in town, the thing to do is shop at the handful of excellent furriers' stores. For designs like rabbit bolero jackets and classic chinchilla overcoats, go to Annabella Pellicceria ($2,450-$123,000; 1 Corso Cavour; 39-0382/21122). On the same street, Marco Mazzocchi (39-0382/25174) is reinventing the family fur business, adding Pucci-esque linings to coats and turning mink into weekend bags ($160-$61,500).
The best lunch spot in Pavia is Osteria della Madonna da Peo ($50; 63 Via Cardano; 39-0382/302-833), where chef Peo Rotondi recites the menu for each table. Trust his selection of local goat cheese and roasted red peppers with a splash of pesto. It's the perfect introduction to his light seasonal cooking, like risotto osso buco, and pasta with zucchini, asparagus, and tomatoes.
An hour northeast of Milan, Bergamo's Renaissance squares and Alpine views are rivaled only by its shopping. Fatto a Mano (22D Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe; 39-035/235-576), the place for eclectic design, sells items like handmade photo albums and a Swan-style chair in rattan ($35-$350). Fashionable women buy their Gucci and Cartier at Tiziana Fausti (1A Piazza Dante; 39-035/210-535), which has a lovely terrace and a men's shop across the Piazza Liberté. At her by-appointment-only boutique, Dada Arrigoni (14 Via San Orsola; 39-035/237-213) creates terrific jewelry with jade, rubies, emeralds, Tahitian pearls, and gold.
For lunch, the Baretto di San Vigilio (1 Via Castello; 39-035/ 253-191), reached by funicular from the Citta Alta section to San Vigilio, turns out fresh dishes such as octopus salad and tuna carpaccio with mint and zucchini. For dessert go to La Marianna, a 50-year-old gelateria claiming to have invented stracciatella.
Visit Mantua, less than two hours from Milan, on Thursday, when locals gather at the morning market to buy vegetables and gossip. It's a good introduction to the arts scene: Marzia Corraini, who with her husband runs Galleria Corraini (7A Nievo; 39-0376/322-753), a shop selling Noguchi lamps and Sottsass vases, organizes the literary festival every September (Jonathan Franzen and A. S. Byatt have read). About two miles south, the 16th-century Palazzo Te (19 Viale Te; 39-0376/369-198) has a team of curators who, on our visit, were showing works by Nan Goldin and Cy Twombly.
An even better gauge of the city's buzz is a visit to Bar Venezia (9-10 Piazza Marconi; 39-0376/363-499), a writers' meeting spot in operation since 1796, and Caffetteria La Ducale (25 Via Calvi; 39-0376/321-305), where we spotted the mayor knocking back an espresso. For a taste of Mantua's famous pumpkin tortelloni, the best place—even if it's touristy—is Ristorante Grifone Bianco (dinner, $75; 6-7 Piazza delle Erbe; 39-0376/365-423). It also serves fantastic ravioli filled with wild greens.
The Best of the Lakes District
The Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda and the Villa d'Este on Lake Como are on our short list of the most magnificent hotels in Italy. No one knows the Lakes district like the villas' owners, Bob Burns of Feltrinelli and Jean Marc Droulers of d'Este.
ROOM TO GET The Al Lago. It has original Feltrinelli-family furniture and a terrace over the lake. Rate, $2,350. At 38-40 Via Rimembranza, Gargnano; 39-0365/798-000; www.villafeltrinelli.com.
PLACE TO EAT Osteria dell'Orologio in Salò (dinner, $75; 26 Via Butturini; 39-0365/290-158). It has the best lambchops. Also, La Tortuga (dinner, $90; 5 Via XXIV Maggio; 39-0365/712-51), in Gargnano. The rice for the risotto is grown right on the plain.
THE THING TO DO The way the wind blows down from the Brenner Pass makes windsurfing the perfect sport here.
GAME TO PLAY Croquet. Feltrinelli's course is run by Christophe Bergen, who was All-New England at Cornell.
VILLA TO VISIT Ferrari-Borghese-Cavazza (39-0365/62294; www.isoladelgarda.com), on the Isola del Garda, is an original. All the dogs and peacocks there are white.
GUIDE TO GET Chiara Garione (book through the hotel). A great historian, who speaks good English and German.
ROOM TO GET The Cardinal's Suite. Two bedrooms and a terrace on the water. Alfred Hitchcock stayed here. Rates, $2,200-$2,875. At 40 Via Regina, Como; 39-031/3481; www.villadeste.it.
PLACE TO EAT In Como, the elegant Trattoria Navedano (dinner, $125; Via Pannilani; 39-031/308-080). On the lake in Brienno, Crotto dei Platani (dinner, $140; 73 Via Regina; 39-031/814-038).
MUSEUM TO SEE The Silk Museum (3 Via Valleggio; 39-031/ 303-180). Silk is one of Como's most important industries.
GARDENS TO TOUR Villa Melzi d'Eril (39-031/950-318), Villa Carlotta (2 Via Regina; 39-0344/40405; www.villacarlotta.it), and Villa Monastero (2 Via Polvani; 39-0341/830-129). They're a must.
VILLA TO VISIT Villa Balbianello (39-0344/56110). It belongs to the Italian historical trust. Fantastic, truly fantastic.
GUIDE TO GET Otello Magatti (book through the hotel). He knows every detail of the lake.
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