For many people, visions of Italy are fueled by scorching days spent on sandy beaches and throngs of tourists in sweltering piazzas. But for me, the best time to visit Italy is in the autumn. Once the summer crowds leave and the temperatures drop, Italy’s culinary and pastoral heritage really comes into their own.
With the numerous harvest festivals, hiking trails in crisp air and the regional dishes that get richer and more delectable the higher into the mountains further north you go, this is the season to discover Italy at a slower, calmer pace. The foliage in northern Italy even rivals that found in New England for color and diversity – with the countryside ablaze with bright reds and purples found in every mountainside and city’s parks.
Hiking around Italy’s great lakes is a great way to work up an appetite for the region’s epic cuisine. I recommend getting up early to experience the hills alive with Alpine romance: enjoy quiet forests as the mists rise to unveil pine trees, mountain tops and glittering lakes. Most of the regions of Piedmont and Lombardy’s best cuisine can be found in the small-town taverns and agriturismi surrounding the hiking trails.
Here are the best towns to reach by train from Milan.
Lake Lugano: Porto Ceresio
This pretty town sits on the southern shores of Lake Lugano. From the train station you can look straight across the lake to Switzerland. Follow the Cadorna Line hiking route from the station and hike high up into the hills where you’ll undoubtedly come across the locals foraging for mushrooms. When you arrive back to the town, stop at one of the numerous lakeside restaurants for some delicious autumn fare. La Trattoria del Tempo Perso serves excellent pumpkin pasta, steaming risottos and sumptuous Barolo wine which you can work off after with a stroll along the lake which affords great views and photo opportunities.
Lake Como: Varenna
Take the train from Milan to Varenna, a pretty town located on Lake Como’s eastern shore. From here, an old mule track called The Wayfarer’s Way (Il sentiero del Viendante), will take you up into the hills where you can admire a gorgeous view over the lake. The trail is 5 miles (8km) to the town of Bellano where you can catch a train back to Varenna. From Varenna, you can hop on frequent boats to visit other little towns on the lake: tourist-favorite Bellaggio is only 5 minutes away.
Lake Maggiore: Laveno
A train direct from Milan takes you to the pretty town of Laveno on the Lombardy side of Lake Maggiore. From the station, head into the hills to hike the Sasso del Ferro mountain. This 5km trail is suitable for all levels and hikers and takes you up through beautiful countryside, past grand villas and verdant gardens, before arriving at the Ristorante Funivia, which offers spectacular views of the lake and the Alps beyond. A cable car also whisks less energetic travelers up and down to the restaurant and Sasso del Ferro peak (1062m).
Lake Varese: Marzio
Located between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, the hamlet of Marzio lies along the tangle of hiking trails that make up the Sasso Paradiso within the national park of Campo dei Fiori. History enthusiasts will be enthralled with this particular hiking trail as it’s home to some well-preserved World War One and Two trenches. The partisans built the trenches in order to stop an Austro-German attack in both wars and their lookouts are still accessible today.
From the top of the Marzio trail, there is a beautiful view out to Lugano in neighboring Switzerland. On the way down, make sure you stop and rustic eatery, Hotel Vittoria, for some excellent tagliatelle ai funghi porcini.
Piedmont: Oropa Trail
Avid hikers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to take the Oropa Trail in Piedmont. Part of the Slow Travel Movement, the walk covers 62km that span from the flat rice paddies near Vercelli to the Biella Alps and ends at the basilica in Oropa. The basilica is home to a black madonna statue said to be carved by St Luke and brought to Italy in the fourth century. You can also stay at the headquarters of the Slow Travel Movement, la Casa del Movimento Lento, in Roppello. While you’re in the area, don’t miss booking a table at the Rolle restaurant and to try a sumptuous truffle risotto which will surely keep your energy levels up for walking along the trail.