Victoria's birthday trip to Italy

By ani - February 01, 2019

Instead of organising a party for Vicky’s 1st birthday, we decided to do a short 2-day family trip to the Italian Lake District.

Italy is one of our favourite European destinations. Food, nature, culture, music, people...everything is so rich! Rich in flavours and colours, rich in views that take your breath away, rich in sounds that heal your body and mind, and rich in signs of love...wherever you look.

This and the fact that we’ve got a very strong emotional connection with the country (as we got engaged in Rome) made us choose namely Italy as a destination for Vicky's 1st birthday celebration.

Once we'd chosen the destination, we started looking for interesting sights and places to visit. Como was one of the first places we visited with my husband as a couple and we loved it! So, we thought it’d be a good idea to go back to the lake district and explore some of the other lakes.

The closest and most convenient arrival airports for the lakes Maggiore, Orta and Como are the major international airport Milan Malpensa and Milan’s other two minor airports Milan Linate and Bergamo Orio al Serio. For Lake Garda and Lake Lugano, you can also fly to Brescia or Verona and Switzerland's Lugano airport. We reviewed all options and managed to find some budget and time-friendly flights to Milan Malpensa.

Then, we decided to rent a car so we can explore the region at our own pace and comfort (very important when you're travelling with a toddler). To our surprise, though, renting a car in Italy during the high season turned out to be very expensive and you should bear this in mind if you’re travelling on a tight budget. The Italian state railway network is very well organised, convenient and cost-effective, so if you’re more flexible, I’d definitely recommend to consider travelling by train.

With flights and car sorted, we looked at different routes and places to see, and planned to spend the 1st day in Lugano and the 2nd in Maggiore. Then, we searched for accommodation. The lake region is widely known as one of the most luxe destinations in Italy, and a favourite haunt of world celebrities and Hollywood A-listers. So, unsurprisingly, most hotels and villas around the major tourist locations and towns were extremely expensive - we are talking about €200 per night for a basic 2 or 3-star room. As we were planning to spend most of the time sightseeing and were mobile, we looked for some alternative remote accommodations that were still within easy reach of the major locations, but much more affordable.

Here is a brief itinerary of our 2-day trip to the lakes Maggiore and Lugano.

Day 1 - Lake Lugano

We arrived at Milan Malpensa on Thursday, the 9th in the afternoon and drove straight to Lugano. We stayed at Hotel Caroline located in the small town Brusimpiano on the Italian side of Lake Lugano within 60km northwest of Milan and about 15 kilometres (9 mi) north of Varese, on the border with Switzerland.

The hotel is small and basic, but very well maintained, offering clean rooms with access to a small outdoor pool, jacuzzi and sauna. A very good value continental breakfast is included in the rate and a baby cot is available at an extra fee. Overall, we had a very pleasant stay - Tony & Vicky enjoyed having a splash in the pool, while I loved having my morning coffee and breakfast at the hotel’s sunny terrace.

In the evening, we had dinner at Trattoria Al Grottino con Alloggio. We chose the place because of its high online ratings and authenticity. Wherever we go, we always opt to try the local cuisine. The restaurant is in an Alpine cottage style with cozy and family-like atmosphere. The staff were very friendly. The food was tasty. My husband went for their signature polenta pizza that was basically polenta spread in pizza shape with some toppings. So, if you’re expecting a traditional pizza, you should definitely avoid it :). Other than that little disappointment and mismatched expectation, we had some really good time. They were also very baby-friendly, offering to cook a special, small meal for Vicky that was great. A baby high chair was also available.

The next morning, we drove to the city of Lugano in Switzerland. Lugano is located on the northern side of Lake Lugano and is the largest town in the holiday region of Ticino. Interestingly, Lugano is also Switzerland’s third most important financial centre and a conference, banking and business centre. Surrounded by numerous mountains, the town offers splendid viewpoints, parks and flower gardens as well as numerous buildings in Italianate Lombardy style and exclusive museums and historic sights.

We spent the day strolling around the historic town centre and visiting Monte Bre. Monte Brè (925 m) is a small mountain east of Lugano on the flank of Monte Boglia, revealing a spectacular, picturesque view of the bay of Lugano and the Pennine Alps and the Bernese.

In the evening, we drove back to Italy and Lake Maggiore. On the way to the hotel, we stopped by Ristorante Cardini for a quick dinner as Vicky was getting very tired and grumpy.

Ristorante Cardini is a small family-run hillside restaurant located nearby Stresa with a small outdoor terrace offering a lovely view of Lake Maggiore (only if you manage to get a seat with a view). We chose the restaurant due to its good reviews and kids-friendly environment - it provides high chairs and toys and books to entertain the little ones. The food was fresh and tasty. The service, though, was quite disappointing - the staff spoke English, but were very slow and inattentive. As I mentioned above, Vicky was getting really sleepy so we couldn’t really enjoy our meal and had to rush.

At night, we stayed at Lo Scoiattolo hotel. The hotel is very basic, but in close proximity to Stresa overlooking the Lake Maggiore, so it was a convenient option for an overnight stay. The hotel offers a cot at an extra fee and an outdoor pool, which we didn’t use. We checked out early in the morning and head back to Stresa to have breakfast, quickly explore the city and get a ferry to The Borromean Islands in the heart of Lake Maggiore.

Day 2, Vicky’s Birthday - Lake Maggiore

We parked near Stresa’s central train station, where we found a free parking space. Then, we walked to the town centre and looked for a place to have some coffee and breakfast. To our surprise, that was a real challenge. Most places were offering either English breakfast (eggs with bacon) or croissants/brioche with jam and butter (the traditional local breakfast :O). So, we ended up having some croissants at one of the main piazza’s cafes.

Stresa is the most popular resort town on the Lake Maggiore in the Gulf of Borromeo, where it overlooks the eponymous islands, the main attraction in the region. With only 5000 inhabitants, the town is bursting with sophisticated and elegant atmosphere characterised by its numerous luxury villas and opulent Art Nouveau hotels.

After breakfast, we had a quick stroll around the town’s centre and then hopped a ferry to Isola Bella; probably the most admired of the three Borromean Islands, situated on the western side of Lake Maggiore.

Owned by the wealthy aristocratic Borromean family, the Borromean Islands are a trio of islands: Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola de Pescatori. Over the years, Isola Bella and Isola Madre were completely transformed into grand, luxurious residences, while the third island, named “dei Pescatori” after its age-old fishing community, was preserved to maintain its traditional way of life.

Isola Bella is declared a natural treasure, dominated by its sumptuous Baroque palace and a luxuriant Italian-style garden, which reaches a height of 37 metres and is laid out on ten terraces. The palace is open to visitors and exposes numerous furnished rooms and opulent salons embellished with priceless artworks.

The garden is full of flowers and rare exotic plants; lavishly decorated with ponds, fountains and a plethora of statues dating from the second half of the 17th century. The white peacocks that wander over the manicured lawns further enchant the place.

To enter the palace, you’d need to get a ticket that costs €17 and provides access to the palace’s building, galleries and gardens. It also includes an audio guide. As we didn’t have much time and Vicky was getting a bit grumpy due to the heat and inability to sleep properly in the carrier, we rushed through the tour and only paid attention to the major sights, which took us about 2 hours.

After exploring the palace, we decided to stop by Ristorante Elvezia for lunch. As it was Vicky’s birthday, we were looking for a nice restaurant with a view. Ristorante Elvezia is on the main tourist street and has a lovely terrace overlooking Stresa and the other two islands. It has really high online rating so we decided to give it a try and we didn’t regret our choice. The food as you’d probably expect is mainly seafood - simple, yet very tasty and fresh. But the highlight of our lunch was definitely the dessert - it was delicious! The staff were also amazing - very attentive and friendly. When we told them that we were celebrating Vicky’s birthday, they all got together to sing happy birthday for her and took a picture with her :)!

By the time we finished lunch, Vicky was already extremely tired so we returned to Stresa and continued our journey to Milan.

On the way to Milan, Vicky fell asleep and as we didn’t want to wake her up, we decided to divert our journey and have dinner in Como. We arrived in Como around 6pm, so we literally just had dinner and jumped back on the car.

In Milan, we stayed at Lancaster Hotel, a small B&B hotel, situated close to the city centre. The hotel was clean, staff were friendly and helpful, and breakfast was good. Overall, it was good value for money.

The next day, we woke up early, had a quick breakfast and rushed to get to the city centre for a quick coffee and a couple of pics of the Duomo, and then we were off to the airport.

Travelling abroad for Vicky’s 1st birthday was a great, but quite challenging experience. We couldn’t see most of the places we originally wanted to. We were also stressed out during most of the time as it was difficult to follow Vicky’s routine. However, the opportunity to share all those unique moments with her and create memories for life was definitely worth it.

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