From weather dependent waters ranging from inky black to azure blue, the surrounding mountains and terracotta terrazzos of Piedmont’s regimented waterside residences, Iain Robertson proposes a visit to Stresa, on Lago Maggiore

Despite its name, Maggiore is not the largest of the Italian Lakes, as that honour lies with Garda, but it is every ounce as touristically popular as Coniston, or Windermere in Blighty and Stresa is its jewel-like capital. Naturally, it is advisable on a driving foray to locate an hotel that can also accommodate the car, because not all of them do, necessitating a search for a suitable spot in a more public arena and a luggage-laden walk along the interminably narrow back lanes of this charming city…enjoyable enough in late spring, or early autumn, but just barely tolerable in 30-degree summer heat. Yet, there are plenty of designer delights; wee boutique establishments (to our eyes anyway, they are the way of accommodation in Italy, remember), although driving a prestigious one-off from the Bavarian BMW factory, I personally preferred keeping an eye on the expensive car!

The hotel-spa selected was none other than the magnificent Villa e Palazzo Aminta, as its name suggests a former palace suitable for the glitterati and cognoscenti of prosperous Northern Italy, which provides a respite from the industrially wealthy areas of Milan and Turin, with a quick scoot up the autostrade, away from the city grime to fresh air and the lure of the lake. It is not cheap, costing a whopping £510 a night, with a lakeside view. Of course, there are innumerable other fine establishments that include the no less spectacular Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, The Estoria, or Hotel Regina Palace, all at around £210 per room and plenty of other residences ranging from £65 to £150 per night, most within easy reach of the peach and pink walled alleyways of Stresa’s most alluring ristorante…more on which later.

The Aminta’s airy, tall and wide rooms are typical of an age-old extravagance that has existed in northern Italy since Roman times, whether in public areas, or the privacy of the suites. You soon appreciate the cooling breeze blowing gently along corridors, sheer silk curtains billowing beguilingly from either end of the throughflow. In the room itself, the bed is clad in finest Egyptian cotton, with Muscovy down-filled pillows and bed cover, not that the latter would be needed unless the aircon was turned nocturnally to full chill. The obliging ‘butler’ delivered the Louis Vuittons and was already unloading their contents to the antique wardrobes and depositing toilet bags in the facilities. Well, I guess that it is the personal service you pay for.

How did I get here? Departing Munich, the location of BMW’s factory and design centre, the road south whisks you through the Alps at surprisingly high speed until crossing the Italian border from the Swiss side (don’t forget the essential 40 Swiss francs carnet/road tax sticker demanded of all Swiss road visitors), where everything becomes automatically more relaxed, yet somehow no less stressed. The changing scenery is wondrous. Let’s face it, Switzerland, in spite of its postcard perfect image and relative cleanliness, is always worth a visit. Yet, anywhere in this region is worthy and just so beautiful, especially on sunny days, which can claim the majority share. Departing the autobahn reveals Alpine meadows that can chorus with distant horns and cowbells. The flow of the roads and their bends are met with peerless BMW chassis work. The Touring Concept may be a styling exercise, in the mould of a Scimitar GTE, or a Ferrari FF, a nod to a grander touring proposition, but it is no less an engineering competency exercise to BMW. It works energetically, springs and dampers flexing athletically over less forgiving surfaces, with only the merest hint of hide-on-hide squeaking, possibly from the (ironically) Italian Poltrona Frau trim but more likely from the luggage in the leather-lined and capacious boot.

Beneath the car’s stylishly long bonnet is BMW’s exquisite 3.0-litre bi-turbo six-cylinder petrol engine. Although the power output is unpublished, you have to reckon on it exceeding 400bhp; it feels it, silky smooth delivery but with a 0-60mph purpose of around 4.0s and a typical 155mph restricted top whack. However, this is no performance trek, useful and engaging as it is, as nursing its progress along the tortuous main roads surrounding Maggiore, avoiding buses, millions of scooters and the inevitable heavier delivery vehicles that service the perpetual comestible needs of this tourist zone, are the priorities. With front windows open to take the air and ingest the atmosphere in every other respect, the occasional whiff of diesel, or two-stroke oil is inevitable but elemental to Italian motoring life. You get it on the water too, from water taxis, speedboats and touring craft that are almost as innumerable as the main road clutter. It’ll come but eco-politics has not yet demanded an all-electric presence on the waters of Maggiore. Fortunately, the BMW’s beautifully crafted interior, one-off though it may be, provides a familiarity inherent to the German carmaker and it is a comfortable place from which to view the world. Unsurprisingly, the beautiful looking car becomes a centre of Latin fascination wherever the traffic stops, with iPhones snicking snaps at every juncture.

Naturally, the streets of Stresa are also a great viewing platform. Whether grabbing a café latte at a streetside table and people-watching, which is always a popular continental habit, or partaking of a bowl of fresh pasta, or (dare I say it?) rough-thrown pizza, perhaps peppered with pescatarian delights, the choices are myriad and seldom disappointing. Waddling tourists are always worth a chuckle but so are the locals possessing their inimitable air of insouciance, as they go about their downtown shopping needs. Surprisingly classless, Italian hospitality is all about La Dolce Vita and Stresa epitomises the best of Italian qualities in memorable lakeside splendour that is more big village than city. You have to love it.


Iain Peter Robertson. RIP