Nestled between the massive Lago di Maggiore and much smaller Lago Varese, on the side of a mountain and within a forested nature park, is the tiny town of Cerro, our home base for the week. Barely qualifying for the title "town," Cerro consists of a handful of ancient buildings, a church (with a very enthusiastic bell ringer), and a gang of pre-teen Italian boys that cruise the narrow streets on their bicycles each night. A large sign at the town's parking lot (the streets are too narrow for most cars to drive through) reveals that its location within the Campo Di Fiore nature park also makes it the starting point for multiple trails that twist through the mountains behind.
We’ve read that Lake Maggiore is where the Italians holiday, and serves as a beautiful, less costly alternative to the famed (thanks a lot, Clooney), Lake Como. As the second largest lake in Northern Italy, it’s long and narrow, extending about 40 miles south to north and just 6 miles across, all the way up into Switzerland. However, after a few days in Cerro, we learn that it’s not just the lakes that make this region special; it’s the peace and calm of the mountains, the mild climate and slow and relaxed vibe of the towns that fit in between.
Northern Italy’s lake region is made up of many lakes of many different sizes. Each one is surrounded by tall lush mountains and dotted with small towns and villages that spill down hillsides to the water’s edge. The climate is mild (the annual average temperature is 60 degrees) and lakeside residents enjoy 2300 hours of sunshine a year. When we visit in late July, summertime at the lake is in full force, with people boating, waterskiing, fishing and eating every meal al fresco.
The flat we've rented for the week sits within a gated garden, up a short flight of wooden stairs. It has a spacious kitchen and an upstairs loft with shutters that open to a mountain view. It’s quiet, peaceful and the perfect place for a week of lake life, Italian style. Non-stop travel can be tiring and after nearly four months, we’ve really started to appreciate the stops that don’t include a lengthy sightseeing list. Instead, we relish in the lack of agenda, sleeping in, running the mountain trails, cooking dinners, sipping wine and eating gelato by the lake.
On our third day the sun finally pokes out after a stormy morning, inspiring us to throw on our running shoes and explore the mountainside we’ve been calling home. We stand in front of the map and agree to take on the longest trail, to Forte Di Orino at the top of the mountain. We set off on our 4.6 kilometer trek up, up, up, and hike through variations of dense forest reminiscent of an episode of Game of Thrones. As we climb, we hypothesize what we have in store for us at Forte Di Orino. Ryan taps into his college Spanish vocabulary and recalls that “oro” translates to gold en espanol (having forgotten the name of the fort and replacing orino with oro…). With visions of a gold fortress awaiting us, we continue to climb until the trees thin and the summit nears. After a solid two hours of hiking, we arrive at Forte Di Orino, a 3-foot tall old rock wall that was once a small hilltop fort. Far from a gold fortress, it's remarkable nonetheless. The views from 3720 feet are incredible and we gaze down at three different lakes, small villages nestled in the valleys, Switzerland to the east, and the Matterhorn in the distant west. Like most hikes with a steep ascent, the view makes the effort worthwhile. We squeeze out the last few minutes of daylight and arrive home at dusk. Over homemade minestrone soup that evening, we do some digging and learn that Orino is actually the town located 4 kilometers north of us. Looks like we’re getting a little lazy in our research.
Life at the lake is perfect. A cozy retreat made up of rainy mornings, a lot of time in the forest and a few lakeside dinners out. We celebrate our first anniversary together and reflect on the last year, proud in what we’ve accomplished and resolved that we’re exactly where we want to be. It’s difficult to leave what could only be described as a perfect vacation, but we’re trading pasta for potatoes and wine for beer as we pack our bags for our sixth country: Germany.