Lake Garda: Introduction

  • © anssi-ruuska,

    © anssi-ruuska,

Discover Lake Garda!

There are not very many lakes that have so many varied facets and can satisfy so many different people’s idea of the perfect holiday. For those of you seeking peace and quiet who don’t like to hear anything when you’re reading a book or newspaper but the gentle flapping of sails in the wind and the sound of moored boats rubbing shoulders, then Lake Garda is the place for you. Peace reigns supreme half way down the west shore.

Classy hotels are traditional on this part of the lake. In the late 19th century, German hotelier Louis Wimmer recognised the charm of Lake Garda and built the first grand hotel, in Gardone. Others soon followed. A rather old-fashioned, respectable tourism still prevails there. If you’re gregarious and want people around you till late, Bardolino and Garda will suit you. The little lanes of the Old Towns are almost more crowded in the evenings than during the day, and you still see little children running around with ice creams in their hands at midnight.

Young adults will head for the south shore if a real nightlife is what they’ve come for. Some of the biggest discos in Italy are in and around Desenzano. If a sporting holiday is your thing, go north. The north shore sometimes seems to be one large adventure playground. In the steep valleys and wild streams of Trentino there’s a tradition of kayaking, swimming, windsurfing and sailing. The latest sport to have been added is rafting. If all that is not enough, you can even try canyoning. Enveloped in neoprene suits and equipped with helmets and lifejackets, adventure sports fans plunge into ravines – under professional guidance, one trusts. There’s even a season for diving on the lake. With luck – or a guide – you can locate sunken galleys from the period of Venetian rule.

Mountain bikers and hikers roam the mountain slopes. Where it gets steep, rock climbers ascend vertical rockfaces, sometimes directly over the lake. On summer weekends, tourist offices of the ‘Olive Riviera’ organise excursions and guided tours to Monte Baldo. There are botanical excursions, tours to church festivals and moonlight hikes. And on the lake, the armada of surfers carry on their battles with or against the wind – from the shore, it’s not always so easy to distinguish which. The steep mountains have a funnel effect, regularly creating quite strong winds.

Many chefs are finding out more about their roots

The fact that Lake Garda offers such diverse outdoor activities has a further advantage. In the evening you can tuck into mountains of pasta since you’ve spent all day burning off those calories. That’s just as well because the food here is excellent (as long as you avoid the excessively touristy places, often those directly by the harbours), whether it’s a lavish three-course meal in a gourmet restaurant in Salò or a simple Lake Garda grilled trout. Even though the hordes of tourists show no signs of abating, the food is getting better. They say that more and more cooks are returning to their roots – to mama’s home cooking. But it is also a fact that demand has changed, and with it the food. More and more holidaymakers want the real thing – traditional Lake Garda dishes and fresh ingredients. 

The same applies to wine. Whereas 20 years ago, holidaymakers still used to buy large bottles in straw holders, the demand is now for quality. The Strada del Vino in the hills behind Bardolino is popular for that very reason. While Italian red wine has become increasingly full bodied, winegrowers and lovers have rediscovered the rosé. Slightly chilled Bardolino chiaretto, the Lake Garda rosé, is the perfect match for a light summer meal.

Peace all around in the middle of the west shore

On the other shore, heading north from Gargnano, you can still see how people made a living on Lake Garda before the tourists came. Limonaie are where lemons were grown. Generally, the meagre income from agriculture or fishing was not enough to keep a family. In the 19th century, many inhabitants of Lake Garda’s villages emigrated to try their luck in America. Before the arrival of tourism, Lake Garda was a poor region where life was simple and hard. In the chestnut and pine forests above Gargnano people carried on the archaic business of charcoal-burning, while the women worked the narrow strips of land from early morning till late at night.

Artists and writers, but especially the latter, have always been attracted to Lake Garda. In 1786 Goethe enthused about the ‘wonderful effect’ of the lake during his trip to Italy. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Habsburg-ruled town of Riva attracted many illustrious guests, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Mann. In 1917, Franz Kafka also paid a visit.

The old villages and towns are surprisingly well looked after

Perhaps these early celebrities were, like modern visitors, on the look-out for cultural treasures. The Romanesque churches of Bardolino, San Zeno and San Severo are veritable gems, and Sant’Andrea in Maderno is no less interesting. Other sights are found on short trips to places like Trento with its delightful Piazza Duomo or the Roman Arena in Verona. But you don’t need to home in on cultural treasures and sights to enjoy the atmosphere of Lake Garda’s towns and villages. The traditional buildings in their centres are astonishingly well preserved, as a stroll along the narrow lanes and alleyways of the Old Towns will show you.

Life on the lake is nowadays largely governed by tourism. It is of course not just those directly affected by the streams of tourists (hoteliers and restaurateurs, for example) who make a living from them. Fruit vendors selling at market stalls, craftsmen rebuilding holiday homes, Lake Garda fishermen supplying the trattorias, cheese-producing dairy farmers up in the mountains and even solitary truffle-hunters are also dependent on them.

While tourism is a blessing for the region on the one hand, it is also a curse. The heavy traffic in particular is a problem. It therefore makes sense not to use the car too much when holidaying on the lake. And, to be quite honest, it’s also more fun without! By taking the boat to the market in the next village and feeling the wind on your face will save you a nerve-racking hunt for somewhere to park and the parking fee.

By using the buses which run frequently and on time to visit a village you can enjoy a glass of wine while there without worrying. And if you go off on a hike you don’t have to return to where you started but can simply take a bus. An even more appealing alternative is cycling. On the East Shore in particular the cycle path along the lake is continuously being improved and extended, and you can hire bicycles at many hotels. You don’t even need to be sporty at all to pedal along the lakeside or to a beach. But if you really want to earn that dish of pasta properly, just zoom up and down a couple of hills through the vineyards.

Yet despite the strong concentration on tourism, you don’t need to worry about being ripped off as a holidaymaker. Requests for bus timetables, or information about bathing and biking centres, are treated very civilly in tourist offices. In many hotels, you are welcomed as if you have been a regular visitor for years and in the restaurant in the evening the waiter may well casually burst into song. Lake Garda values its visitors – and vice versa.

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