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Paradise on the Sunny Side of the Alps
The largest of Italy’s lakes creates a Mediterranean microclimate where olive, lemon and palm trees flourish on the sunny side of the Alps. Lake Garda’s temperate atmosphere has always drawn artists and poets, with Goethe considering himself “splendidly rewarded” when he visited in 1786 and Gabriele d’Annuzio building his unique mid-century villa on its western shores.
The special quality of the air was even considered to be curative; in the 1800s a series of hospital gardens were built in Arco to allow the breeze to work its healing powers. The winds carried on the lake are so reliable that locals can tell time by them and tourists come to revel in them. The “Pelèr” in the morning and the “Ora” around noon assisted the towns to the north of the lake – Malcesine, Torbole and Riva del Garda – to develop around world-class sailing, windsurfing and kitesurfing opportunities. Sports tourism exploded in the area, as visitors discovered the beauty, challenges and satisfactions Garda gives. For those looking to gain some altitude and amazing views, the hiking, climbing and biking in the surrounding mountains cannot be beat. The Gardasana road that wraps around the lake affords such remarkable panoramas that it was used for the opening scene of a recent James Bond film. A super project to build a parallel path for cyclers is underway and has been completed in the area around Limone.
In the south, those seeking more serene holidays for singles, couples or families can be found in the spa towns and farm stays around Sirmione and Bardolino. The historic city of Salò (which was briefly the Italian Social Republic between 1943-1945), has a lovely lakefront promenade with cafés, restaurants and shops. Its southwestern waters give divers the possibility to see an array of statues that serve as a sphere for changing political and artistic expression.
As the lake lays at the intersection of three regions, the possibilities for day excursions are endless: the Veneto includes highlights such as Venice, Verona and the UNESCO recognized vineyards of Valdobbiadene; the Trentino-Alto Adige Dolomites invite adventure seekers and medieval castle enthusiasts to see all that they have to offer; and Lombardy not only enables for quick connections to its major Milan airports, but to experience the frescoed buildings and fine cuisine of Mantua. Whether Lake Garda is the base for visitors’ travels or the destination for a day trip, the effects of its jaw-dropping beauty inspire art, extend space for relaxation and present possibilities to pursue an array of mountain and water sports.
One of the most important vestiges of the Roman Empire is located on the southern shores of Lake Garda. The Catullo “Grottoes” on the Sirmione peninsula are actually ruins of a residential complex surrounded by picturesque olive groves. The villa included thermal baths where the poet Caullus enjoyed spending time. Though the house was not built until after his death, the area took his name. Today only a part of the ruins have been uncovered and a museum helps visitors understand its history. Since 2012 various organizations, with the backing of the Italian government and the European Union, have started to cultivate the 1,500 olive trees, some of which are centuries old.
Though the Isola del Garda is a private island owned by the Cavazza family, it is open to the public. Visitors can enjoy a boat ride in to see the grounds that once served as a Roman burial site, a pirate’s stronghold, a Franciscan monastic area, a boundary fort and now the nineteeth century Borghese-Cavazza Venetian neo-gothic villa. The family opens their residence for tours from March to October. It can be reached by ferry from Sirmione, Salò, Barbarano or from the Gardone Riviera or by boat transfer from most of the towns located on the south of the lake. All transfers last less than a half an hour and the tour generally takes around two hours.
A promontory, located between Garda and Torri del Benaco, below a dream-like hillside covered with lemon, olive and cypress trees, is an ideal place to spend some time enjoying the depths of nature’s beauty in total relaxation. Lawyer and writer Agostino Brenzone undoubtedly chose the most breathtaking spot on Lake Garda for his marvelous estate in 1540. Brenzone, originally from Verona, was a humanist and chose the stunning area as the perfect place to retreat from the city. A small, historic luxury resort nearby echoes the aspiration, with a plaque reminding visitors at its harbour to “leave business and worries to the city.” While the villa is privately owned, the hotel continues to welcome guests, including Napoleon, Churchill, Prince Charles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Prince Charles and Vivien Leigh. The area includes a park, a lakefront walking path, a small café, the Church of Saint Vigil and a tiny beach on its Bay of Sirens.
The First World War Victory Monument and Museum is unusual, as it is located on the grounds of an Italian poet’s house in Gardone. The royal airforce pilot and “wordsmith”, as Gabriele d’Annuzio referred to himself, built the residence in the 1930s. With an expansive park incorporating a mausoleum of war veterans, the battleship Puglia, an amphitheater, an auditorium, a pond as well as a series of other buildings, the poet and his contributions are immortalized in the museum complex. The places destined for entertainment were not all finished at the time of the poet’s death, but are used today for concerts and performances. The Prioria (House of the Prior) is the highlight. Stepping into the dimly lit villa one has the feeling of entering the lair of a true eccentric; dark walls clad in heavy curtains cast shadows on eclectic art, with an effect as interesting as it is unsettling. The house is brimming with symbols and pieces conveying the unique breed of the poet’s sense of humor. Starting with the two sets of stairs for his visitors – the right for those invited, the left for those unexpected – give a first impression of what awaits inside.
The limonaie (lemon groves) are an eye-catching novelty on the northwestern shores of Lake Garda. Lemon cultivation was an integral part of the local economy from the first half of the 17th century to around the time of Italian unification in 1861. With terrace-shaped gardens painstakingly carved into the ridges rising above the lake, the residents then added a series of pillars to which planks and glass panels were fastened to form greenhouses. Lemon trees are sensitive and grow well in the mild climate around the lake; when winter temperatures dip the greenhouses protect them. At the peak of their production around 6 million fruits were harvested annually and exported as far as Russia. Nowadays many of the lemon groves are for personal use or for decorative purposes. Architects in the area have even sought to incorporate the historic elements into the houses that have sprung up in their stead. The restored Castel lemon grove and open-air museum in Limone welcomes visitors to come and learn about its history.
The Madonna della Corona sanctuary is nestled into the cliffs halfway up Mount Baldo. A hermitage as early as 1000, the sacred site slowly underwent a series of transformations to become the basilica that stands there today. The name of the church is taken from the Diocesan shrine depicting the Madonna with a crown. It is believed to have been transported there by angelic intervention from Rhodes when the island fell to the Turks in 1522. The existence of a fourteenth century painting of the Mother Mary with Jesus found in the recesses behind the shrine leads believers to consider an alternative explanation for the shrine. For those who choose not to do the trail of 1,540 steps to the pilgrimage site, a shuttle bus service operates between the parking area and the church.
Visit the romantic lagoon city of Venice. As a day excursion from Lake Garda, visitors have ample time to take in the marvels of the unique urbanscape and experience its phantasmagoric charm. A walking tour is the best way to maximize the time spent on the island, as it enables day trippers to get to the highlights easily. The licensed, private guides provide key information as they lead groups to the Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Rialto Bridge, the Grand Canal and among the series of colorful waterways. (Entrances to any of the sites can be organized at an additional cost.)
Verona is an inspiring art city in Veneto and was the second place where the Romans settled. A walking tour with a licensed, private guide will show you the Piazza Brà Square with the magnificent Roman amphitheatre that is a mirror to the one in Rome. The tour continues in the historic district, along the elegant shopping street Via Mazzini, and past Romeo and Juliet’s house. You can enjoy the history, art and modern life in the world famous city of love. When returning back to Lake Garda you can opt for a stop at a winery for a tasting in the excellent wine region of Valpolicella.
Borghetto sul Mincio is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. The romantic town with its tiny streets, restored mills and quaint houses are located on the Mincio River, just south of Lake Garda. The medieval Borghetto is a magical place that invites visitors for a stroll on its Visconti Bridge and to step inside its Scaligero Castle, which from the distance appears as an clawed hand reaching into the sky. The small center of the town is filled with colorful flowers, a joy to see reflected in the surface of the river’s waters as it streams past.
The Gonzaga family was so
wealthy and mighty they could create cities. While they molded their Mantua duchy to fit their aims and desired
aesthetics during their 400 year rule, they transformed the neighboring village
of Sabionetta into a Renaissance model city in just thirty-five years. Vespasiano Gonzaga, inspired by Vitruvius and
desiring to create a space for the expression of his humanistic dreams,
succeeded in designing a “Roma Novella” based on examples of classical antiquity. Sabionetta arose from marshlands during the
second half of the sixteenth century to become the city for art and culture
until the city architect’s death. When
Vespasiano passed, his city started to decline and its population
dwindled. Fortunately, the monuments
remained intact and visitors can still visit the marvelous old town. The Teatro all’Antica Theater, the historic
frescoed churches and the Palazzo Giardino and Palazzo Ducale residences
exhibit the ideals the Gonzagas sought. Sabionetta, together with Mantua are now a recognized UNESCO World
Follow the Mincio as its waters leave Lake Garda and head south towards the Po. Arrive in the bite-sized city of Mantua, tucked into one of the river’s curves. The triangular shaped area is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage city for its literary, artistic and musical contributions. It was the birthplace of Latin poet Virgil. It served as a great diffuser of Renaissance trends, as exemplified in the architecture and frescoes found in the Ducal Palace, residence of the Gonzaga duchy and important patrons of art. Claudio Monteverdi wrote the first masterpieces of opera while he worked in the powerful family’s court, effectively marking the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music. Giuseppe Verdi chose the Ducal Palace as the setting for his “Rigoletto.” A guided walking tour takes visitors to view the façade of the castle and on to see the highlights of the old town. With Etruscan and Roman beginnings, a notable amount of medieval development, Renaissance transformations and Austrian and French influence, the current city displays its layers of history in: its ancient square, Piazza Sordello; the Palatine Church of Santa Barbara, which houses a unique sixth century organ; the Bibiena Theater, where Mozart performed in 1770; the Rontonda di San Lorenzo, a circular church with a Byzantine layout; and Piazza delle Erbe, where the market is held. On the edge of the town the Palazzo Te is another Gonzaga palace. The residence is noted for its marvelous Sala dei Cavalli (the Horse Room), featuring art depicting the horses the family bred, and its novel Chamber of Giants, with playful audio and visual effects. (Entrance to any of the sites can be organized upon request and with an additional cost.)
The Heller Garden in Gardone is an artistic collection of plants from many of the world’s regions. The area was first developed as a vineyard until it was bought by Czechoslovakian dentist and naturalist Arturo Hruska. Hruska, captivated by the colors of the lake and the slopes of the surrounding mountains, decided to create a botanical garden in Gardone in 1901. The garden encompasses 15,000 square meters of terrain. There are gardens interspersed with statues and works of art, terraced gardens and ponds. When the Austrian artist André Heller’s foundation opened the park to the public in 1989 visitors were excited to find over 3,000 species of plants, including an array of trees and flowers and bamboo forests. Many elements within the park highlight symbolism taken from Buddhism and Hinduism. The Heller Garden is a relaxing space that instills a sense of ease and appreciation for the environment and its beauty.
The André Heller Garden can be easily combined with the Il Vittoriale degli Italiani Poet’s Residence and War Monument Complex.
To the south of Lake Garda the Sigurtà Park extends over fifty hectares. Considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful parks, visitors come to see the millions of flowers blooming there from March to November. Tulips, irises, roses, lilies and asters transform the colors the park takes on each season. Inside the park there is also a series of ponds, a water garden, a neo-gothic castle, a medicinal herb garden, a great lawn, a grotto, a dog cemetery, a sundial and a labyrinth. The box tree garden is sculpted into an array of forms, which children especially love.
To the east of Lake Garda sits Valpolicella, a wine area known even by ancient Greeks for its excellent variations of red wines. In fact, its most highly esteemed is Amarone, is produced using partially dried-grapes in the “greco” (Greek) style. Valpolicella, a wine taking its name from the region, is a light-bodied, fragrant wine made in the novello style (similar to Beaujolais Nouveau), table-ready a few weeks following the harvest. The Valpolicella wines are the base for another type of modern wine, Ripasso, which combine the pomace of leftover grape skins and seeds of Amarone and the dessert wine, Recioto. The vineyards of Valpolicella rank just under those of Chianti for their total amount of Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines. A tour to the winemakers, vineyards and cellars is a fantastic way to taste the flavors of the sun-kissed hills north of Verona.
The Malcesine Mount Baldo cable car ascends 1,760 meters in under 15 minutes. Taking visitors past three stations in rotating cabins that allow for jaw-dropping 360 degree views of Lake Garda and the mountain. The cable car is open 10 months a year, enabling hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, paragliders and day trippers to feel the thrill of making it to the top. Mountain huts and restaurants refuel the sporty before they make their way back down.
In the twelfth century many northern Italian towns organized festivals and fairs to celebrate the beginning of the hunting season. As those areas see the greatest migratory movements, the event like the one in Cisano in September has held special importance for them. The festival in Cisano still opens with a sizeable ornithological exhibit coupled with a market area for hunting and agricultural equipment. The long weekend continues with live music and entertainment, guided tours of the town, food stands for tastings and competitions for the family. The unique bird song competition has been the highlight of the event for centuries. The festival finishes with flare: a fireworks display on the lake delights all attendees.
The exclusive plant exhibition, il Giardino di Delizia, takes place one spring weekend every year in the Baroque gardens of the eighteenth century villa Palazzo Bettoni in the town of Bogliaco. In addition to the possibility to see rare plants, the event is also a special opportunity to visit the park and villa, which is usually closed to the public. The residence is amongst the oldest and most beautiful on the lake; to suit the setting the plants and flowers are arranged thematically in the exhibition areas. The sections include flowering, fruit, aromatic and ornamental plants. In the evening the flowers are illuminated in spectacularly. On Sunday there is a unique pruning demonstration that involves an expert gardener climbing a centuries old tree for the job. Readings of scholarly works inspired by the lake are interspersed throughout the final day of the event.
La Notte di Fiaba is a much anticipated event held each year in Riva del Garda. A late August weekend at the lake is transformed into a series of magical days with children’s theater, street performances, food stands, workshops, concerts and a firework show that all take on the theme of the event. Every year a different children’s story is chosen for the Fairytale Nights.
Every year between the end of September and the beginning of October wine lovers from around the world travel to the picturesque town of Bardolino to celebrate the grape harvest. The festival extends from the beautiful historic district of Bardolino to the shoreline of Lake Garda. Artisanal product and food stands line the streets. Around twenty-five regional vintners share their wine for those eager to taste the nuances of the year’s production. Plays, shows and concerts are performed in dedicated areas throughout the town and parades pass by them, to the spectators’ delight. Admission to the festival is free. The wine tastings can be purchased at the entrance to the festival grounds. A wine glass in provided in a practical carrying satchel, so the merry can go about their tastings with their own personal glass – while limiting waste.
A three-day festival in Garda in July revolves around the lake’s freshwater sardines. The event was born from humble beginnings, when Garda was a fishing village that awaited its men to return with their boats with their catch towards dusk on summer evenings. The simple, celebratory moment of seeing the bounty gave rise to the Sardellata al Chiar di Luna. Just caught fish are cooked and enjoyed along with wine as the moon rises and music plays.
The Rustico Medioevo festival unfolds in the rustic village of Canale di Tenno every August. The medieval town is considered to be amongst the most beautiful in Italy, serving as the perfect setting for the event. Shows, dances, performances and a cake competition entertain visitors as they meander in the tiny streets sampling local foods, buying handmade wares and trying the long-forgotten games that were once regularly played there. Locals wear period clothing with pride and invite passers-by to try their traditional dishes like carne salada (a salt-cured beef), polenta, pevarada (a toasted bread crumb soup) and other specialities enjoyed there since the Middle Ages.
Feel the Lake Garda breeze ruffle your hair as you cruise from the north of the lake to Malcesine on the eastern shore. Malcesine is a historic town at the foot of Mount Baldo, surrounded by cypress, olive and oleander trees. In its center the Scaliger Castle is a splendid vestige of its medieval past. After some time to walk around the lively little center, continue the boat ride to Limone across the lake, on the western shore. Its labyrinthine streets weave in and out of the old lemon groves. In the past, citrus cultivation drove the small town’s economy. Though tourism carries it now, the pillars used for the lemon trees still stand, proudly demonstrating the town’s humble beginnings. At the end of some free time well spent in the charming area, the boat will bring you back to the north of the lake.
There is no more fitting way to arrive to the fishing villages of Garda and Sirmione than by boat. Leaving your hotel located in the south of Lake Garda, you can easily do a marvelous day excursion to the two historic towns. Splendid Sirmione is noted for its old town, located on a peninsula stretching out into the lake. Its thirteenth century fortress, Rocca Scaligera, at its narrowest part is one of the best-preserved castles in Italy. From the peninsula’s tip you can see Garda, the next stop on the boat tour. Enjoy a walk along Garda’s lakeside promenade before returning by boat to the town where you are staying.