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Lake Maggiore: The Second Largest Lake in Italy
Lake Maggiore Information and Facts
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy by surface area (after Lake Garda) and by depth (after Lake Como). It is also the most westerly out of these three great southern pre-alpine lakes. The lake’s lush green surroundings, dotted by small picturesque villages, sensational alpine scenery, with a pleasant microclimate and Mediterranean vegetation attract thousands of tourists every year.
Geography and Hydrology
Most of Lake Maggiore (80%) is located in Italy, whilst the remaining 20% is located in Switzerland. Maggiore, also known by the name Lago Verbano, occupies parts of the Italian regions of Piedmont (to the West) and Lombardy (to the North), and the Swiss canton of Ticino in the Northern part, where the lowest point of the lake can be found.
Lake Maggiore stretches for 65 kilometers from Locarno to Arona, making it the longest Italian lake. It was named “major”, because it was believed that Maggiore was the largest pre-alpine lake in the region.
The upper end of the lake is completely alpine in character. The middle area differs a bit, lying between gentle hills. The lake’s lower end is at a lower altitude, making its way towards the borderline of the plain of Lombardy. The lake basin is of tectonic-volcanic origin.
Lake Maggiore has irregular shores and is surrounded by the Lugano, Lepontine and Pennine Alps. The tallest peak in proximity is the 4618 meters high Grenzgipfel summit, of the Monte Rosa Mountains, located 50 kilometers west from the lake. Other notable peaks in the lake’s immediate surroundings are the Grindone (2188 m), Montetamaro (1962 m), Monte Nudo (1237 m) and the Mottarone (1492 m).
The lake has many tributaries, of which the largest are the Ticino, Maggia, Toce and the Tresa, the latter being the sole emissary of Lugano. Other major inflows are the Verzasca, Giona and Cannobino rivers. The lake’s main outflow is the Ticino, which makes its way into the Po River, South-East of Pavia. Interestingly, the main affluents have different waterflow patterns. Since the catchment areas of Ticino and Toce are located at high altitudes, their peak flow periods are between the months of May and October, corresponding with the melting snow. The other tributaries’ flows are strongly influenced by precipitation.
A generally mild microclimate dominates the area, which enables the existence of subtropical plants and Mediterranean vegetation. The ideal time to visit the area is between April and October, when the temperature is good enough to enjoy both the sun and the numerous botanical gardens that govern the precinct.
Since water releases its heat and energy generally slowly, winter temperatures are maintained at a higher level than in the surroundings of the lake. Snowfall during this time is erratic, primarily affecting the higher peaks in the region. Winters are generally cold, but milder than inland.
Summer months are usually moderately hot and humid. At this time of year temperatures are cooled down by the breezes that blow on the water’s surface. The lake’s temperature in the summer is usually set between 20 and 22OC in July and August, making it ideal for swimming.
There are a total of 2,300 hours of sunshine each year. The average annual temperature is 15.5 degrees Celsius. The area witnesses abundance in rainfall during spring and autumn, when floods often occur.
Maggiore is crossed by two principal winds. One usually blows in the morning, making its way from the mountains towards the plains. The other wind blows in the afternoon, from the plains towards the mountains, creating ideal conditions for water sports like sailing and windsurfing.
Flora and Fauna
Local flora is strongly influenced by the lake basin’s unique climate. A number of flowers can be found in the lake’s surroundings, such as lemons, olive trees, laurel, camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias.
Fishing is a popular sport in Lake Maggiore, mainly because of the large populations of whitefish, perch, pike, bleak and trout that live in the waters. Bird-watching is also a favored activity, since the lake area provides ideal nesting conditions for waterfowl, like swan, gulls, cormorants and ducks.
The Borromeo Archipelago, located between Stresa and Verbania, is probably the most famous of Lake Maggiore’s islands, composed by three larger islands (Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori) and two islets (San Giovanni and Scoglio della Malghera). The Brissago islands are also made up of two larger islands, San Pancrazio and Isolino. There are three rock formations emerging from the water on the Cannero Riviera, just off the coast, offering scenic views. They are called the Castles of Cannero.
The oldest archaeological finds in the Lake Maggiore area belonged to a nomadic group, who lived on its shores in prehistoric times. The precinct was later under the control of the Ligures. The Celts conquered the area, which was later taken over by the Romans, who called the lake Verbanus Lacus or Lacus Maximus.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the lake was under various dominations. Most of the settlements that can be found on the lake shores today were under Della Tone, Visconti, Borromeo and Habsburg family rule.
The lake is known for its methane concentration, which was first discovered and isolated in the 18th century by the Italian physicist and chemist, Alessandro Volta, who analyzed the gas emitted from the lake’s marshlands between 1776 and 1778.
An interesting fact is that a Bugatti Type 22, built in 1925, was sunk in the lake in 1936 by employees of an architect of Zurich, when officials investigated the taxes that came with the car. It was recovered in 2009 and sold at a classic car exposition in 2010 for 260 500 euros.
Tourism and Recreation
Because of the unspoiled nature of the region, offering spectacular scenery, ideal climate, major cultural events, beaches, sports activities, wine and food specialties, it is home to plenty of leisure activities for tourists. The more active types can go hiking on the many trails of the Val Grande National Park, the Alpe Veglia Regional Park and the Riserve Naturali Speciali del Sacro Monte, which is under UNESCO protection.
The lake’s main tributaries offer ideal opportunities for rafting and kayaking. Scuba diving is also possible near the Lombard shore. Canoeing, sailing, and waterskiing are other popular activities which can be practiced on Lake Maggiore.
Cycling paths in the area are also diverse, ranging from relaxing tours along the lakeshores to up-hill mountain bike trails. Local ferries and hydrofoils connect the towns and cities around Lake Maggiore.
The lake and its shores offer year-long activities for tourists, having some of Italy’s best ski trails in the Formazza Valley, such as the Riale, San Michele and the Formazza Ski Centers. A number of golf clubs can also be found, like the Alpino and the Pian di Sole Golf Courses. For those in search of a relaxing stay, there are plenty of wellness centers and thermal baths in the towns around the lake, such as the baths of Premia in Antigorio Valley and the Bognanco thermal baths in Bognanco Valley.
Stresa is the main Italian city, which is chosen by many tourists as a base, often characterized by its grandiose style. There is a variety of accommodations, from campsites and B&Bs to five-star hotels. By staying in Stresa one must not miss the Mottarone cable car ride, offering one of the most beautiful views of Italy, of the Po River valley, surrounded by the Alps and the seven blue lakes. There are several shops that sell Murano glass at a much cheaper price than one can find in Venice.
The lake’s north-western part is said to be much more beautiful, quiet and less touristy. One mustn’t miss the train ride to the Centovalli to enjoy spectacular mountain views, accompanied by waterfalls.
There are also plenty of man-made attractions located in the Lake Maggiore area. Stunningly arranged botanical gardens attract the most tourists. The most frequented parks and gardens are Isola Bella, the gardens of Isola Madre, the Botanical Gardens of Alpinia (in Stresa), and the world-famous Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto.
Castles like the Visconti Castle Locarno, Rocca di Arona and Rocca Borromeo of Angera also serve as popular tourist attractions. The Visconti Castle has an impressive history. It was constructed in the 13th century, was destroyed and rebuilt in the 16th century. Visitors also pay a visit to Italian villas such as Giulia (in Verbana), Ponti (Arona), Pallavicino (Stresa), Treves (Belgirate) and Faraggiana (Meina).
The lake and its shores host a number of events each year. The Spirit of Woodstock festival is held every summer at the end of July or in early August and it is one of the largest open air music festivals in the region. The Verbania Vela Festival held in June offers sailing regattas and contests. The Locarno Film Festival is the fourth most important film festival in Europe, held in August, whilst the Ascona Jazz Festival held in late June is the best of its kind outside of the United States.