It was express perennial youth and freshness, joyousness and peace. They partake of the Alps and of the South Sea Islands. They recall Switzerland and Samoa. Their mornings sparkle with the glint of glaciers, their noons recall those of Venice or Naples, and their evenings lie hushed under the shadows of great mountains. In their atmosphere there is both the zest of the winter’s snow and the warmth of the fruitful summer, and these two combined produce a touch of constant spring.
The Italian lakes are bordered by the pick of Italian gardens. Their blue basins catch the drip from the melting snows and are set in a land of pink palaces, of orange and lemon groves, of camellias, azaleas, and rhododendron bushes. It is the land of the nightingale in the thicket, the cuckoo in the forest, the lark on the uplands, and the gorgeous lizard in the crevices of the walls. Arboured walks, pergolas of vines, and rare shrubberies lead from parterres to porticos, from grottos to grand terraces. The mountainsides of this lake region rejoice in the lilac crocus, early and late, in the primrose, the starry anemone, and the scented violet of the spring, in the lily-of-the-valley, seeking the shade, and in the gay narcissus on the grass lands. The forest-trees are of chestnut and walnut, larch and cembra and decorative laburnum; and in the heights the alpine flowers, the gentian, the soldanella, the ranunculus, the primula, and a galaxy of others cling and cluster about the rocks.
With never waning winsomeness the Italian lakes have long been making friends among the people of all nations. Ever since it became the fashion for Englishmen to make the Continental tour, for Germans to indulge in an Italianfahrt, or for Americans to include these lakes in a trip to Europe, they have been established in popular estimation as representing the very acme of scenic beauty in form and hue. When Bulwer-Lytton wished to mention an environment in his ” Lady of Lyons” which an audience could recognize as a veritable prodigy of natural loveliness, he described a spot near Lake Como:
“A deep vale, Shut out by Alpine hills from the rude world, Near a dear lake, margined by fruits of gold And whispering myrtles, glassing softest skies As cloudless, save with rare and roseate shadows, As I would have thy fate.”
Today, when some scenic painter desires to produce a drop curtain which shall sum up on a few square yards of canvas all that is most striking and picturesque in scenery and outdoor art, he is very apt to paint a bit of an Italian lake, throw in some mountains for a background, and place an awninged boat in a corner of the foreground. What with satin lakes, velvet slopes, red umbrellas on white roads, and tinted villas on the shore line, the region of the Italian lakes is aglow with colour surprises for travellers from all quarters of the globe, especially for those from the soberer north. The picture these lakes present would seem to have no unfinished or incomplete corners, no crudities needing to be patched up. As they lie, amid their surroundings of peak and plain, they have even been improved upon by man’s handiwork. What man could do to emphasize natural beauty has already been largely done through the centuries.
Though the Italian lakes bear a certain family likeness, they are strictly individual; each has its special charms, its distinctive beauties, and its own historic or artistic associations. In private we may have our favourites, but it would be invidious to award the prize of preference publicly.
These lakes recall Mazzini plotting for Italian independence, Garibaldi fighting for it, and Cavour organizing the result; Brabante building churches and Bernardino Luini and Gaudenzio Ferrari decorating them; Carlo Borromeo travelling about his diocese; the missionary Julius preaching on the shores of Lake Orta; the two Plinies residing on their estates at Como; Volta experimenting with electricity; Thorwaldsen and Canova supplying statues for lakeside villas; Manzoni romancing about the people of Lecco and Stoppani writing of its rocks; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, famed for her letters from Constantinople, taking her ease at Lake Iseo; Virgil, Catullus, Claudian, Dante, Goethe, poetizing about Lake Garda; and Ruskin and Symonds popularizing the art treasures of many of the towns with discriminating literary touches.
Three great railroads have pierced the wall of the Alps and brought the Italian lakes into direct communication with northern lands: the Brenner route, the St. Gothard, and now the Simplon, to give them in the order of their construction. The Mont Cenis, by reason of its position on the extreme west, can hardly be called a direct feeder to the Italian lakes. Each of these railroads is a marvel of industrious ingenuity, and, in an ascending scale, their constructors have each overcome greater engineering difficulties and discovered improved methods for boring. The simple facts about the Simplon, for instance, the last of the great tunnels, are sufficiently astounding. It is the longest railroad tunnel in the world, being twelve and a quarter miles long; its cost has been nearly fifteen millions of dollars; it has taken six and a half years to construct; and the mountain mass above it rises to a maximum height of some seven thousand feet. It was inaugurated on May 19, 1906, by King Victor Emmanuel and the President of the Swiss Republic conjointly at Brieg, the Swiss terminus of the tunnel.
By contrast with the present method of passing through the Simplon, the following letter from Ruskin to his mother, describing his trip over it, and dated at Domo d’Ossola, May 5, 1869, will prove of interest: ” I left Brieg at six exactly—light clouds breaking away into perfect calm of blue. Heavy snow on the Col — about a league, with wreaths in many places higher than the carriage. Then, white crocus all over the fields, with soldanella and primula farinosa. I walked about three miles up, and seven down, with great contentment, the water-falls being all in rainbows, and one beyond anything I ever yet saw, for it fell in a pillar of spray against shadow behind, and became rainbow altogether. I was just near enough to get the belt broad, and the down part of the arch ; and the whole fall became orange and violet against deep shade. Tomorrow I hope to get news of you all, at Baveno.”
When the visitor, homeward bound, has taken his last glance for the season from such points of vantage as the high-placed railroad stations of Como or Lugano, has ejaculated his final exclamations of delight, as he travels along the shores of Lakes Maggiore and Orta, or views for the last time on any particular trip the ever memorable expanse of Lake Garda from the defile of Nago, he is sure to confess to a strong desire to return another day and revisit these lakes of azure, lakes of leisure.
The grand hotels, equally with the unpretentious pensions and wayside inns, have opened their hospitable doors. There have been trips by steamboat, possibly moonlight rows and climbs to points of view, certainly strolls through gardens full of grace and charm, and visits to stately villas rich in treasures of art. The country folk by their labour have beautified hillside and plain, terracing and planting the slopes with vine-yards and many-coloured crops. The gay native sense of colour has brightened the landscape, and even the clatter of the wooden sandals on the cobbled ways has been pleas-ant to the ear.
And so there is satisfaction for the visitor in knowing that the little return he has made in currency will contribute in some measure toward the prosperity of the districts he has traversed; will help increase the stock of this world’s goods where it may be small, replenish the bare stone barns, rejuvenate the worn-out fields, cause the orchards to bloom more daintily and bear fuller fruitage—in a word tend to make living less arduous on the tiny patches of land, alongshore or up in the heights, whence the view is so noble.