The villas and gardens of the Italian lakes are as spectacular as the alpine landscape surrounding them. This 14-day tour visits many of the finest villas and gardens of Italy, from the shores of Lake Como, with their elegant villas and exuberant displays of springtime blooms, to the Renaissance country villas and town houses of Andrea Palladio in the Veneto. The tour concludes on Lake Maggiore, best known for the baroque splendour of Isola Bella, and enjoys the lakes, villas and gastronomy of the region at a gentle pace.
The villas and gardens of Lake Como in bloom: Villa Melzi, Villa Carlotta and Villa Balbianello
Asolo and Mantua: the surprising histories of their Renaissance courts
Elegant Vicenza and Palladio’s extraordinary vision for its palaces and country villas
The fascinating towns of Lake Garda and tranquil Lake Orta
Excellent regional cuisine and wine, including lunches at Villa d’Este and in scenic Valdobbiadene, home of prosecco
The Borromean Islands: baroque masterpieces on Lake Maggiore
Days 1–3: Explore Lake Como by boat, visiting Villa Balbianello and Villa Melzi, with lunch at the Villa d’Este.
Days 4–5: From Vicenza, discover Mantegna and Giulio Romano’s Mantua, and Palladio’s town houses and theatre.
Days 6–8: In fairytale Asolo, enjoy fine gastronomy in the Valdobbiadene and Veronese and Palladio’s country villas.
Days 9–10: On Lake Garda, explore the Italian villa tradition from ancient to modern.
Days 11–14: Travel to Stresa via Lake Iseo. Experience the extraordinary villas and gardens of Lake Maggiore and enjoy the tranquillity of Lake Orta.
The tour begins and ends at Milan Malpensa airport. Qatar, Singapore, Emirates and Etihad airlines all offer connections to Milan Malpensa airport from most Australian cities. Contact us for quotes and bookings.
Included meals are shown with the letters B, L and D.
Friday April 22: Lake Como
A group transfer to Bellagio, spectacularly situated on Lake Como, is available for those arriving in Milan’s Malpensa airport on early morning flights. Those travelling independently should make their own way to the hotel. On arrival there is the chance to freshen up (hotel rooms may not be available until early afternoon), before we take a short stroll around the town. In the afternoon, we enjoy Lake Como in the way it was meant to be seen, from the water, on our private boat tour, stopping for an afternoon tea break and visit to the picturesque Villa Monastero. There is a light, early dinner in the hotel, which looks out across the lake. Overnight Bellagio (D)
Saturday April 23: Luxury and Escape
The villa has historically been a place for otium – a place for the rest and regeneration we need from the world of business and public life. Today we visit two villas that capture different ways to achieve this end. Our first visit is to the 18th-century Villa Balbianello, which occupies an exceptional position on a promontory with panoramic views of Lake Como. We take a guided tour of the interior, decorated in the 20th century by Italian entrepreneur and explorer Guido Monzino. After our visit of the villa, we continue by private boat to Villa D’Este, the best-known villa on Lake Como, where we enjoy a sumptuous welcome lunch, with time to explore the grounds before returning to Bellagio. Overnight Bellagio (B, L)
Sunday April 24: Neo-classicism to modern
Please note: today is a public holiday
Villas and their gardens often have stories to tell, and the two we visit today speak volumes about Italy’s travails at the turn of the 19th century. The Villa Melzi was built in the neo-classical style for Napoleon’s Vice-President of Italy, Francesco Melzi D’Eril. He called in the designers of the Royal Park at Monza to do his gardens, which flow graciously down the mountainside to the lake. After visiting the gardens this morning, we cross the lake to the Villa Carlotta, commenced by Gian Battista Sommariva, the great rival of Melzi D’Eril of the Villa Melzi. Villa Carlotta became a fixture for Grand Tourists because of its collection of works by Canova and Thorvaldsen, the two best sculptors of the period. In the mid-19th century, Sommariva’s villa was sold, then given as a wedding gift to Princess Charlotte of Prussia, whose husband Georg of Saxe-Meuningen was an avid botanist. He is largely responsible for the garden’s appearance today, with its cascading azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias, and extensive botanical gardens which take full advantage of the lake’s microclimate. Overnight Bellagio (B)
Monday April 25: The court of Mantua
We leave Lake Como today and travel by coach to Vicenza, stopping at Mantua, a small town that was a vibrant 15th-century court under the Gonzaga dynasty. Andrea Mantegna’s celebrated frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi, and Giulio Romano’s mischievous gods and goddesses at the Palazzo Te, are two different indications of the concerns of the dukes, whose city declined from the 16th century due to problems with succession. After a guided visit of the town, we continue on to our hotel and enjoy a meal together. Overnight Vicenza (B, D)
Tuesday April 26: Palladio in the city
Vicenza, today a vibrant regional centre, was the home of Andrea Palladio, the great Renaissance architect whose Four Books of Architecture are among the most influential works ever written in the field. With our guide, we explore his youthful contributions to the streetscape of Vicenza, from his early proposal to retrofit the town’s celebrated Basilica Palladiana, to his urban palaces inspired by a patrician Roman ideal and the late masterpiece of the Teatro Olimpico. This theatre still preserves it original stage set and is an iconic example of Palladio’s innovative and practical designs. The afternoon is at leisure, to continue your survey of Palladio’s works or perhaps to enjoy a stroll past the city’s elegant shops. Overnight Vicenza (B)
Wednesday April 27: Palladio in the country
We continue our survey of Palladio’s glorious contribution to architectural history today, visiting the best known of his ‘suburban villas’: the Villa Capra ‘La Rotonda’. Its siting and proportional rhythm have been endlessly influential on subsequent designs, such as Jefferson’s Monticello estate. We continue to the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, still in private hands, before heading to Asolo, our base for the next three nights. Dinner is in our hotel, which boasts one of Asolo’s best restaurants. Overnight Asolo (B, D)
Thursday April 28: Villa Barbaro & the Valdobbiadene
This morning we visit another of Palladio’s masterpiece, the Villa Barbaro. The villa was commissioned by two brothers from one of Venice’s leading families, one of whom, Daniele, collaborated extensively with Palladio on a new edition of Vitruvius, the only treatise on architecture to have survived from Roman antiquity. The interiors have extensive frescoes by Paolo Veronese, who plays with Palladio’s interior spaces by creating trompe-l’oeil balconies (complete with people looking down on you), doorways and windows with imaginary landscapes. After visiting the villa, we travel to the Valdobbiadene, a string of valleys along the Piave River most famous for producing prosecco, where we have lunch in a country restaurant overlooking the vineyards. We return to Asolo via the village of Possagno to visit the monumental tomb of Antonio Canova, modelled on the ancient Roman Pantheon. Overnight Asolo (B, L)
Friday April 29: Asolo and Villa Emo
Asolo is one of the most beautiful hill towns in Italy, and the morning and early afternoon are free to relax in the charming town. There are numerous walks through the countryside or up to the medieval fortress above the city, as well as an interesting local museum, cafes and small shops, and a cathedral with works by Lorenzo Lotto and other local artists. This afternoon we take a short excursion to Palladio’s Villa Emo, the most perfectly conceived of the architect’s villas. Overnight Asolo (B)
Saturday April 30: Villa Arvedi and Verona
This morning we travel to Verona, stopping to visit Villa Arvedi, the residence of the Count Arvedi who will be our guide. The villa contains frescoes by French artist Ludovico Dorigny and a fine parterre garden ‘all’italiana’. We continue on to central Verona for lunch and to visit the formal Giardino dei Giusti. In the late afternoon we continue on to our base on the western shores of Lake Garda, in the quiet lakeside town of Gardone Riviera. Overnight Gardone (B, D)
Sunday May 1: Lake Garda
We begin the day by making the short trip from our hotel up to the villa of the 20th-century war hero, poet and eccentric Gabriele D’Annunzio. The interior is extraordinary: dark, intense, eclectic and certainly unique. It is complemented by peaceful gardens and terraces, replete with gifts given to him by the Italian state, including a small WWI warship he then had installed in the mountainside. Il Vittoriale is surely the most iconoclastic of the Italian villas we survey on our tour! After a break for lunch by the lake in Gardone, we embark on a leisurely private boat tour of Lake Garda, travelling as far as the fortress built by Verona’s Scaliger dynasty at Malcesine, with its dramatic backdrop of Monte Baldo. Overnight Gardone (B)
Monday May 2: Lake Iseo
This morning we depart for Stresa, stopping to visit Lake Iseo. Relatively undiscovered, this beautiful lake was recently “wrapped” in striking orange silk by the artist Christo, and a number of islands – one with an elaborate and private Medieval Revival castle – rise up from the water. Monte Isola, the largest island in this lake (and in southern Europe in general), rises to a peak of 600m, and we stop for lunch at leisure here, perhaps at one of the lakeside fish restaurants. In the afternoon, we continue to Stresa and share a group meal. Overnight, Stresa (B, D)
Tuesday May 3: Isola Bella and Villa Taranto
The Borromean islands, lying just off the shores of Stresa on Lake Maggiore, are named after the noble Milanese Borromeo family, who have owned them since the 13th century. This morning we take a private boat to Isola Bella, an entire island given over to their baroque palace and magnificently theatrical gardens. We then travel by boat across Lake Maggiore to visit the Villa Taranto. The villa was bought by Neil McEacharn in the 1930s and artfully transformed into one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in northern Italy, with more than 3,000 species of plants and a design that takes full advantage of its setting with lake and mountainside views. Returning to Stresa, the evening is at leisure. Overnight Stresa (B)
Wednesday May 4: Lake Orta
This morning we travel to nearby Lake Orta. This lake is yet to be discovered by mass tourism and we visit peaceful Orta San Giulio, a small town on the shore. From here we take a boat to Isola San Giulio, the site of a medieval abbey. The abbey, according to tradition, was the 100th church founded by San Giulio, a 4th-century Greek monk who evangelised this mountainous region. Today the island remains a monastic retreat, and its church contains medieval frescoes and sculpture. After a break for lunch, we return to Stresa where the afternoon is at leisure before we meet for our farewell dinner. Overnight Stresa (B, D)
Thursday May 5: Departure
An early morning group transfer to Milan’s Malpensa airport is available for those joining midday flights. (B)
A garden and art historian, formerly the Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney.
Michael Turner is a cultural and garden historian. He has a strong personal and academic interest in the art, history, literature, and mythology of the Classical past and how these have shaped the gardens and landscapes of Britain and Italy – from the Renaissance, to the Grand Tour, to the present day.
Michael holds a BA (1st class Honours with University Medal) from the University of Sydney. In 2009, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London and in 2018, a Fellow of the Linnean Society, the world’s oldest active biological society.
In the early 1990s, following a high-profile career in women’s fashion in London, Michael returned to Australia to pursue his long-held passion for all things Classical. In 2004, he was appointed Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum, home to the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern hemisphere. On his arrival, the museum had less than 10,000 visitors a year; when he left in 2016, annual attendance figures were in excess of 100,000. Michael, now a regular on radio and television, curated over twenty exhibitions on everything from Sigmund Freud’s collection of antiquities, to the Grand Tour, to the hugely successful series of Lego creations: the Colosseum, the Acropolis and Pompeii.
Michael returned to England the better to pursue his interest in garden history. He now lectures in London for the Garden Historians, is researching the collection of Roman sculpture at Hever Castle in Kent, and working on his next book on the most delightful and largest of all English gardens, the humble hedgerow.
Michael lives in Sussex from where he is ideally based to design and develop new garden tours for Academy Travel. To date, these include ‘Gardens of a Passionate Mind: The Great Gardens of Southern England’ (2016 and 2018); From Yorkshire to the Lake District: The Gardens of the North (2017 and 2019); ‘The Great Gardens of Italy’ (2018); ‘The Gardens and Castles of Scotland (2018); and ‘From Bath to Land’s End: The Gardens of the South West’ (2019).
Historic and well-appointed four-star hotel. Rooms look out across Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands. www.reginapalace.it/en
What is included in the tour price?
Unless otherwise stated in the itinerary, our tours include the following:
Any flights mentioned in the itinerary that take place during a tour
Land travel by private air-conditioned coach. Where appropriate, taxis or public transport are also used for short distance travel on some tours
All accommodation in hotels or apartments as stated in the itinerary
Breakfasts, lunches and dinners specifically stated as included in the itinerary
Drinks at welcome and farewell meals. Other meals may not have drinks included
Background talks on tour, site notes and online resources
Services of tour leader throughout tour
All entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary
Local guides at some sites
Tips for drivers, local guides and restaurants for included meals
Costs involved in obtaining visas for countries visited, where required and when stated as included
Tours begin either at the arrival airport or the first hotel, depending on the itinerary. If you have booked your international flights with Academy Travel and arrive before the tour commences, we will provide airport to hotel transfers to the closest main city on your arrival, and to the closest airport at the end of the tour. These may be either individual or group transfers.
What is not included in the tour price?
Our tours do not include the following:
Return international/domestic air travel unless those flights take place during the tour
Special taxes and airport levies that can only be paid in cash at the destination. We will advise you of these charges (if any) before you depart
Travel insurance. We require all participants to have comprehensive travel insurance. A typical policy for one of our tours will cost from $160 upwards, depending on your age, pre-existing medical conditions, the countries you are visiting and the overall length of your trip
Lunches and dinners not specifically mentioned as included in the itinerary
Personal expenses such as laundry and phone calls
Costs associated with any activity mentioned as “optional” in the itinerary, or any suggested free time activity