The villages around the lake evoke layer upon layer of history. It’s impossible to spend time here without occasionally imagining villagers from the 17th century appearing around the next corner, as you explore the cobbled alleyways. The houses and streets tumble down the mountainsides – hard to believe they have been there for three hundred years without crumbling into the lake. Every now and again, at the water’s edge, you can come across a relic of time even more ancient: an arched Roman bridge for example, or a portico sheltering the ghosts of stoneworkers and fishermen from ages past.
The period of the 18th and 19th centuries that saw the aristocracy of Europe turn the lake into an elegant playground for the wealthy, building their lavish villas, has shaped the image of the lake in the world’s imagination. Yet above the waterside ribbon of development, the lake and the hillsides around it belong to poor working people – farmers, villagers, tradespeople, fishing folk, spinners and weavers. Up until about sixty years ago, the hills above the villages looked very different from how they are today. The visitors to the grand villas looked not across at deep green forests, but at ranks of terraces where peasants eked out a living growing vegetables, wheat and fruit. Above these terraces were the alps that provided summer pasture. If you look along the shoreline at a village, and then let your eyes follow the road that snakes above it up the mountain, you invariably see another village directly above the first one. Here are the houses where the villagers from below would send a member of the family to spend the summer tending the animals, the animals they had driven up the stony tracks as soon as the spring came. This was not an easy life, and the beauty of the landscape must have been lost on these exhausted people much of the time, as they dragged their weary legs up the cobbled paths, or forced their heaving arms to row across the water to the village opposite.