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Poets, writers, composers, and mere mortals have been rhapsodizing about the Italian lakes for centuries -- most vocally since the 18th century, when it became de rigueur for travelers taking the Grand Tour to descend through the Alps and enjoy their first days on Italian soil on the shores of the lakes. Everyone from Catullus to Ernest Hemingway has sung their praises.

The lakes are among northern Italy's greatest treasures. Stretching from the Piedmont border across northern Lombardy to the Veneto border, backed by the Alps and ringed by lush gardens and verdant forests, each has its own charms and, accordingly, its own enthusiasts. Not least among these charms are the lakes' easy accessibility to many Italian cities, making them ideal for short retreats: Lake Maggiore and Lake Como are both less than an hour's distance from Milan, and Lake Garda is tantalizingly close to Venice, Verona, and Mantua.