Touring Lake Garda

Let's see what Lake Garda has to offer tourists...

Bardolino View

Bardolino view

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider Lake Garda located mostly in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. It is hardly undiscovered, but that shouldn’t stop you from going. With a little effort you should be able to find some relatively untouched spots. Be sure to read the companion articles in this series that present Milan, small town Lombardy outside of its capital Milan, and the Lake Como district. While people often think of Lake Garda as being part of Lombardy that is not entirely true. This beautiful lake spills over into the neighboring regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto as indicated below.

Lake Garda is an alpine lake, formed by glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age roughly ten thousand years ago. It is Italy’s largest lake measuring about 30 miles (52 kilometers) long and at most 10 miles (17 kilometers) wide. Near the lake the terrain tends to be mountainous in the north and flat in the south. The lake is relatively clean, but as tourism continues to expand…

We start our Lake Garda tour at its northern tip, Riva del Garda, situated just inside the region of Trentino-Alto Adige. We will travel counterclockwise around the lake, crossing the border into Lombardy and stopping first at Tignale, then at Gargnano, and next at Gardone Riviera with its historic neighbor Salo, and finally at Sirmione near the lake’s southern tip. We then enter the Veneto region stopping at Bardolino, Punta di San Virgilio, and finally come to Macesine, not far from our starting point.

Riva del Garda is probably the best-known resort on Lake Garda. It’s also one of the less expensive areas around the lake. You’ll find a castle with a moat. The Museo Civico (Civic Museum) is part of the Rocca, a medieval fortress on the lake. If you don’t know how to sail or windsurf don’t despair, local schools can teach you. The Thirteenth Century Torre Apponale (Apponale Tower) defended the city from invaders and held prisoners. Look for Riva del Garda’s symbol, Anzolin, the little angel on the top of the tower who welcomes all who enter the town as she spins in the wind.

Tignale, our first stop in Lombardy, is actually on the panoramic road off the main road. It consists of six hamlets each about sixteen hundred feet (five hundred meters) above sea level. This setting is great with its hills, mountains, ravines, olive trees, and luxuriant vegetation. Early in the First Millenium Tignale was evangelized and subsequently became the site of the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Star, or the Madonna of Montecastello, probably built upon a temple to a pagan god. Later this area was fortified. Be sure to see the painting of the pursuit and killing of a famous local bandit, Giovanni Beatrici of Gargnano. Given the difficult terrain and the independent nature of the local residents Tignale has been active during numerous wars. Some military installations can still be seen in the area. Tignale is home to the Visitor’s Center of the Parco Alto Garda Bresciano (Upper Brescian Garda Park) an Alpine landscape that covers almost 150 square miles (380 square kilometers) and nine local municipalities on Lake Garda’s western shore.

Gargnano, population about three thousand, is a great place for fishing, snorkeling, and sailing. In fact it is one of the best places to sail on the western shore of Lake Garda. The town’s major attraction is the Chiesa di San Francesco (Cloister of Saint Francis) and its campanile (bell tower). The church graveyard contains Roman gravestones. As you walk around town you may see some houses that still show the traces of cannon balls fired during the Third War of Italian Independence in 1866.

In 1943 Mussolini founded his short lived Repubblica Sociale Italia (Italian Social Republic) here. He installed himself in a late Nineteenth Century art nouveau villa called Villa Feltrinelli about two miles (three kilometers) north of town. You can get your revenge by staying in Villa Feltrinelli, which is now an upscale hotel, but you’ll have to shell out big bucks to do so. I’m told that you won’t be disappointed with its beauty and luxury including magnificent gardens and a fine library. So we see that even towards the end of his days, Benito was able to live well. Shortly thereafter…

Gardone Riviera, population twenty-five hundred, is best known for the mansion Vittoriale degli Italiani (The shrine of Italian victories) and the major Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzio who lived there from 1922 until his death in 1938. This building has been called a Fascist Luna Park so you probably can guess d'Annunzio’s politics. He was both Mussolini’s mentor and major competitor. Mussolini purportedly stated: "When you are saddled with a rotten tooth you have two possibilities open to you: either you pull the tooth or you fill it with gold. With d'Annunzio I have chosen for the latter treatment.”

So d'Annunzio enjoyed extensive huge funds to expand the property, construct and/or modify the buildings and to create its impressive art and literature collection. The Vittoriale degli Italiani complex includes the plane which he flew over Vienna in World War I and a light cruiser. In the interest of full disclosure d’Annunzio did attempt to influence Italian politics almost until his death. In 1933 he wrote Mussolini trying to convince him to avoid making a pact with Hitler. In 1934 he wrote a satirical pamphlet about Hitler. And in a 1937 meeting in the Verona train station he tried to convince Mussolin to leave the Axis alliance.

Can you guess who also lived in Vittoriale degli Italiani? Mussolini’s mistress, Clara Petacci, conveniently resided here to be close to her heart throb Benito when he was not exactly roughing it in nearby Gargnano’s Villa Feltrinelli as described above.

Be sure to visit the two acre (one hectare) Giardino Botanico (Botanical Garden) Andre Heller formerly known as Giardino Botanico (Botanical Garden) Hruska. You’ll see thousands of exotic Alpine, Mediterranean, and subtropical plants. Not bad for such a small site.

The little town of Salo, population ten thousand, once had big ambitions. It was the capital of Mussolini's Nazi-backed puppet state, the Italian Social Republic, also known as the Republic of Salò. Its main sights include a Fifteenth Century Duomo (Cathedral), the Sixteenth Century Palazzo della Magnifica Patria (Palace of the Magnificent Fatherland) with a historical museum covering among other subjects, the Resistance against Fascism, and a Palace hosting an archeological museum. Every Saturday morning there is a great outdoor market where you can forget about politics, but frankly this part of Italy has not been a major political center for more than sixty years.

Sirmione, population about seven thousand, is our last stop in Lombardy. This area was definitely settled by people more than two thousand years ago; some may have lived in houses on stilts. Its number one tourist attraction is the Grotte di Catullo (Grotto of Catullus) a large rectangular structure said to have been the site of the fun-loving Roman poet Catullus. The truth is that his villa was most likely nearby. Some say this was once the finest private villa in Northern Italy, others say it was a public bath with water piped in from a nearby hot spring. Go visit the ruins and the museum anyway.

Stop by the Castello Scaligero (Scaliger Castle) which dates back to the Thirteenth Century. You can climb a tower to get a different perspective of Lake Garda. Churches to see include the Lombard San Pietro in Mavino already renovated in the Fourteenth Century with its collection of frescoes and a Romanesque bell tower dating from the turn of the Millennium, and the Fifteenth Century Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1889 a diver from Venice was laying pipes on Lake Garda's cracked, clayish base when out gushed a sulfur spring from the bottom of the lake. To make a long story short, Sirmione is now a spa town. Of more interest to the kids is Italy’s largest theme park, the Gardaland Theme Park with dolphins, state-of-the-art roller coasters, and lots more. It’s about 8 miles (12 kilometers) east of Sirmione on the Veneto side of the border. Kids measuring less than one meter tall get in free. (Usually we give dimensions in feet, miles, etc. with the approximate metric equivalent in parentheses. In this case, it’s the metric measurement that counts, period.)

Bardolino, population somewhat exceeding six thousand, is situated on the eastern shore of Lake Garda. It’s the biggest resort on the lake with numerous shops and historical remains. Bardolino’s main claim to fame is its wine, discussed at the end of this article. In the fall it hosts an annual Cura dell’Uva (Grape Cure) Festival. Some of the participants put crushed grapes on their skin, others drink grape juice, and still others drink the local wine. I think they all have fun, even if they aren’t cured.

The Romanesque San Severo Church and San Zeno Church both date from around the turn of the Millennium. San Severo is the most important church in the region and features huge frescoes. San Zeno’s chapel is considerably older than the church itself. For a change of pace visit the local Oil Museum, devoted to olive oil, not to petroleum products.

Stop to admire the Punta San Virgilio (Saint Virgil’s Promonotory), perhaps the most romantic spot along the lake. Nearby is the Fifteenth Century Villa Guarienti di Bronzane but you can only see it from the outside. The Parco Baia di Sirene (Mermaid’s Bay Park) for kids and adults is open to the public.

Malcesine, population thirty-five hundred, also claims to be the most popular resort on the lake. It’s near the mountains and provides several ski lifts. A cable car takes you to the summit of Monte Baldo. If you’re ambitious head back down by mountain bike. Be sure to see Castello Scaligero (Scaligero Castle). Several Italian castles carry that name including one in Sirmione, but the Malcesine version is said to be the best. You can even climb the tower and see the town and its surroundings from above. But to my knowledge, you are not allowed to descend by mountain bike.

What about food? When you talk lake, fish forms a major part of the local cuisine. Indigenous fish include the rare Lake Garda carp, whitefish, lake trout, eel, pike, tench, and perch. Citrus fruits, cheese, and wine also form a major part of the diet. Lake Garda’s olive trees are quite special. To conserve land they are trained to grow high, so high that scali, special long poles originally invented for lemon trees are needed to harvest the olives. Their olive oil is exceptional, even by Italian standards.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Bigoi con le Agule (Spaghetti with Sardines.) Then try Luccio in Salsa (Pike with Sauce, eaten cold). For dessert indulge yourself with Torte di Mele (Apple Cake.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We conclude with a quick look at Lombardy wine. Lombardy ranks 11th among the 20 Italian regions in acreage devoted to wine grapes and in total annual wine production. The region produces about 62% red and rosé and 38% white wine, but there is little rosé. There are 15 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Over 47% of Lombardy wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the sparkling Franciacorta said to compete with French Champagne and priced accordingly, the red Sforzato di Valtellina, and the red Valtellina Superiore.

Remember, Lake Garda is shared by three regions of Italy, Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto. The best-known local wine comes from east of the lake near Bardolino, part of Veneto. Bardolino DOC is produced in a variety of styles from a specified variety of local grapes. Bardolino Superiore DOCG is a dry red wine also produced from local grapes but to more stringent specifications. This wine must be aged for a minimum of one year prior to sale. Notice, when introducing Bardolino wines I said the best-known local wine, not the best local wine. Wines are produced all along Lake Garda. Determine for yourself which one is truly the best.

About the Author

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.

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