Friday, July 16, 2010
I highly recommend spending a weekend in Stresa, Italy. It's near Milan, on the shores of Lake Maggiore.
The cheapest way to get to Stresa is probably to fly on EasyJet to Milan's Malpensa airport (MXP). Of course you have to deal with the EasyJet nightmare (toll number for customer service, no order for boarding, only one carry on bag (including a computer bag or purse), and the smallest leg room I've ever seen) but the price is right.
From MXP there is a bus straight to Stresa. You'll need to call ahead the day before by 11 am to book your ticket (and they're closed Sundays so for Mondays you have to call on Saturday). Returning to the airport, the concierge in your hotel likely will call for you.
Alternatively, you can take the bus to nearby Gallarate Station and take a train right into Stresa (Fodor's has the details). This is what we did on our return trip because we didn't book the bus far enough in advance. Whole trip takes probably takes 75 minutes, including walking from the hotel to the train station. You can buy the train tickets in the station and the bus tickets aboard the bus.
Finally you can always take a cab, which we did on Friday to make it by Shabbat. It will cost 110 euro or so, and take about 45 minutes.
Stresa city hall
In Stresa, we stayed at a wonderful hotel (Albergo Luina) and ate at two fabulous restaurants (Loco Stresa and La Rosa dei Venti). See links for my reviews on TripAdvisor.
Finally, we spent a day on Isola Bella, which was beautiful. You can buy boat tickets to just that island at the dock in Stresa. Individually small boat drivers will try to hard-sell you a ticket. It ended up being roughly the same as buying from the main window, and saved us waiting in the line. Just make sure you only pay to go the isles you actually want to go to (instead of getting a more extensive pass that you don't need).
Isola Bella's terraced gardens are a great spot for a picnic lunch. There is a large supermarket in Stresa that has reasonable prices on bread, cheese, fruits, spreads, nuts, and more. In some cases the exact same items were 50% more in the tourist trap shops a few blocks away. That said, there were some small grocery stores that had larger selections then the supermarket (such as fresh figs), so it's worth checking those out too. Just look for the ones where customers are native Italian speakers and you're less likely to get ripped off.
A note about fruit grocers (this does not apply to supermarkets): do not handle your fruit. Tell an employee what you want and they will get it for you. If you don't like the individual fruit they pick, tell them and they'll change it or let you change it. But don't just start feeling your way through all of the plums the way you would in most other countries.
A note on water: Italians seem to only drink bottled water. Most restaurants won't even serve you tap water. Nevertheless, we drank the tap water throughout our visit and had no problems.
A note on tipping: Italians seem not to tip in taxis or restaurants. (If you use a credit card, you'll get it back without extra lines for a tip and the final total). You can leave a few euros in case if the service was particularly excellent, but it's not expected.
Let me know if in the comments if you have any questions about Stresa.