The other Italian lake district, offering peaceful escapes without the crowds

Trasimeno in northwestern Umbria is the largest lake in central Italy: alamy

Italy has a host of scenic lakes to explore beyond the famous destinations in the north. Many, including the beautiful Lake Bracciano and Lake Bolsena in Lazio and Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, are concentrated in the heart of the country.

They are all ideal for a standalone trip or as part of a touring holiday, and although they all have their own appeal, they all offer water sports as well as swimming, cycling and walking. If you love a good castle, look no further: almost all the pretty towns and picturesque lakeside villages have one, with beautiful views over the water.

Fishing traditions are deep-rooted and local chefs make good use of the lake’s fish, with bass, tench, carp, whitefish and smelt often featuring on menus served grilled, fried, with pasta or in soups. Roman and Umbrian specialties including artichokes, verandatta, pecorino cheese and tasty pasta and legume-based dishes also abound and there is a tempting selection of local wines.

While the lakes can be busy in mid-summer with city dwellers escaping the heat, at other times they are peaceful oases. Here’s my pick of the best:

Lake Bracciano

Bracciano, the smallest of the three lakes, with a circumference of around 35 kilometers, is just an hour by train from Rome and although day trippers come from the capital, you can make it your base to enjoy peaceful evenings at the more. The ancient Romans built villas on the lake which today is surrounded by wooded hills, olive groves and reed fields, interspersed with sailing schools and campsites between the lake’s three main settlements.

Bracciano is just an hour by train from RomeBracciano is just an hour by train from Rome

Bracciano is just an hour by train from Rome – Alamy

On the northern shore is Trevignano Romano, a charming village with black cobbled streets made from local volcanic rock and Blue Flag status for its beaches. The ruins of a 13th-century castle overlooking the lake are free to explore and reached via well-maintained steps. Freshwater fish, homemade pasta and seasonal vegetables are among the specialties served at restaurants including the excellent Il Porticciolo, located in a secluded cove with a lakeside garden and shady pergola, a short walk from the centre.

The lively town of Bracciano, on the west bank, centers around the magnificent and imposing 15th-century Odescalchi Castle, often chosen by international stars as a wedding venue. The castle’s impressive interior is home to Renaissance art and richly decorated rooms, and the lake views are spectacular from the towers. Just outside Bracciano, the collection of the Italian Air Force Museum includes numerous historic aircraft.

Anguillara Sabazia, on the southern shore, has a wide waterfront promenade and a maze-like historic center with ancient Roman, medieval and Renaissance remains and narrow streets leading to striking panoramas across the lake. The city’s favorite vegetable – broccoletti – is celebrated during an annual festival: Broccoletti in Piazza (in 2024 it will be on April 14).

Lake Bolsena

Romantic landscapes, beautiful villages, beaches with black volcanic sand, colorful traditions and delicious wines aged in ancient caves make Lake Bolsena remarkable. The lake, the largest of volcanic origin in Europe, is located in the north of Lazio, in the Tuscia area, where a dense concentration of suggestive Etruscan sites can be found.

Bolsena itself has an attractive stone center that slopes down to a majestic medieval castle and, five minutes’ walk away, the fascinating Etruscan-Roman site of Poggio Moscini. The Corpus Domini festival, celebrated with intricate petal designs throughout the center (June 2, 2024), originated in the Santa Cristina Basilica, which has atmospheric catacombs.

Bolsena has an attractive stone center that slopes down to a majestic medieval castleBolsena has an attractive stone center that slopes down to a majestic medieval castle

Bolsena has an attractive stone center that slopes down to a majestic medieval castle – alamy

While the trattorias on Lake Bolsena specialize in freshwater fish, the centre’s delicatessen shops, Antica Norcineria Morelli and Retrogusto, are ideal for plates of local produce.

On the western shore are the attractive villages of Marta and Capodimonte, starting points for boat trips around the island, while Montefiascone rises above the southern shore, an important waypoint on the Via Francigena to Rome pilgrimage route.

Montefiascone’s highest point is its stately fortress, the town’s cathedral dome is a landmark visible for miles and San Flaviano has some beautiful frescoes and is home to the tomb of Johannes Defuk, the 12th century wine lover, thanks to its curious name of the famous white wine of Montefiascone, ‘Est! Est!! Est!!!’ Try some during the Fiera del Vino festival (1-15 August 2024), with a tasting on the panoramic terrace of the family-run Stefanoni or with typical dishes in trattorias such as the simple Dante. Semi-aromatic red Aleatico is the special wine of the northern edge of the lake; Antonella Pacchiarotti, whose small, historic winery is in the village of Grotte di Castro, makes six different versions.

Lake Trasimeno

With a circumference of 58 kilometers followed by a cycle path, Trasimeno in northwestern Umbria is the largest lake in central Italy. On a promontory on the western shore, close to the Tuscan border, is Castiglione del Lago, the main centre, with a variety of restaurants including the Slow Food-approved L’Acquario. In addition to tasty fish dishes, try the specialty fagiolina del Trasimeno beans and soft wines made with Trasimeno gamay, the local name for Grenache.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the northeast coast, has the atmosphere of a charming fishing villagePassignano sul Trasimeno, on the northeast coast, has the atmosphere of a charming fishing village

Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the northeastern shore, has the atmosphere of a charming fishing village – alamy

For more wines from the region, book a tasting at the nearby Madrevite winery. If you can, come to the Trasimeno rosé festival, held during Castiglione’s annual tulip festival (April 25 – May 1, 2024) or the Castello di Vino event in Corciano (early October).

Castiglione’s highlight, the richly painted Renaissance Palazzo della Corgna, is connected by a 180-meter passageway to a medieval fortress overlooking the lake; views from the ramparts are spectacular. Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the north-eastern shore, has the atmosphere of a charming fishing village and its own panoramic castle, while in San Feliciano the historic Cooperativa Pescatori del Trasimeno offers fishing trips and a lakeside restaurant. From here ferries leave for Isola Polvese, one of the lake’s three islands, where an environmental research center is located. Isola Maggiore is home to a small community and attractions include a museum dedicated to the island’s lace-making tradition; ferries here from Tuoro sul Trasimeno take just ten minutes.

A lovely place to stay near Tuoro is Montemelino, an award-winning olive oil and wine estate with attractive accommodation in converted stone farm buildings. Also radiating Umbria’s characteristic rural charm is the Podere Marella winery, which has a beautiful, secluded, five-bedroom stone farmhouse surrounded by woodland and vineyards.

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