I’m usually a proponent of saving the best for last, but many of you amazing readers got the impression that I love Verona best of all Italian destinations because I wrote about it first. Although I do love Verona that’s just not true (Sorry Veronesi!). The true site of my dreams is Lake Garda. It is my favorite place on earth.
The largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda spans about 31 miles long and just 10 miles wide at it’s widest point in the south. Located between Venice and Milan in northern Italy, Lake Garda is only a 30 minute drive from Verona and the perfect day or weekend trip from there. You can also catch a bus there from the Verona train station. The bus doesn’t have a number on the front but it will have Riva del Garda at the top with a scrolling display underneath naming other towns it passes through. The bus schedule is here.
The diverse shoreline is surrounded by beaches, rocky cliffs, quaint villages, medieval castles, and picturesque promenades. In 2007 I went with my friend Max, who is from Verona, and in 2009 my friend Tennille joined us. Our first stop both times was in the town of Malcesine, which has a historic center with tiny streets, a small harbor, and a medieval castle. The castle, Castello Scaligero, is from the 13th century and it’s medieval tower is even older. We didn’t visit the castle, but instead headed up the base of Monte Baldo, to catch the cable car that ascends to 1,600 m (5,249 ft) in just ten minutes. The mountain itself reaches an altitude of 1,760 m (5,774 ft).
I believe that you can catch the cable car at two different levels on the mountain, from the base and a little higher up. We drove up to the second location but it was an adventure getting there! The mostly dirt road is one European car’s width and steep! Did I mention that almost all cars in Italy are manual drive. We rolled back more than a few times and the car lurched and whined trying to carry three adults. Tennille was nearly in tears before Max got the car moving forward! Rolling off the mountain backwards was not an option so thank God we finally made it up.
When we arrived at the cable car there was no line and tickets were less than 20 € ($27) for a two-way trip. Just outside the cable car area is a cute little restaurant with an amazing view of the lake, especially at sunset. I could immediately picture having my wedding here!
Once on top of the mountain the view gets even better. Many people hang glide right off the mountain–they get a running start and then jump off the mountain from 5,000 feet high with some thin fabric attached to wings (basically)! The less adventurous folks, like me, can hike the paths all over the summit of the mountain. It’s chilly up there so a jacket is necessary, and sneakers or hiking shoes are recommended. There’s also a small cafe/log cabin up there with sandwiches and snacks but its offerings are sparse.
After we left Monte Baldo, we drove further north to Lazise and strolled around this living example of a medieval village. Actually, it’s a conjunction of several villages that have been around since the 800s. With it’s pasta and wine shops, lakeside restaurants, old buildings and beautiful scenery, it’s definitely worth a two hour stop here just to explore the nooks and crannies. There’s more than 10 similar castles you can choose to visit all up and down Lake Garda. We stopped at a few but I didn’t note all their names. Some are not inhabited and are just skeletons of their former glory, but others are vibrant.
Funny story I call “Mafia Swans”: While at Lazise we spotted some beautiful swans gliding on the lake. Captivated tourists were throwing the birds bits of bread. After we left the castle, we drove a few miles down the road, parked on the side of the street and laid our towels out on a wooden dock to sunbathe. I dangled my legs over the dock’s edge so my feet could touch the water. About an hour into our swimming in the lake and sunbathing topless (our neighbors were totally nude), we see the same swans swimming toward us from a distance. When they finally reached the dock the birds circled my legs for a minute (my guess is that they were hoping to receive some food). When I didn’t produce any treats for them they started violently pecking at my legs!! I jumped up to avoid their jabbing and ran. Thankfully they didn’t jump up on the dock to follow me. After five minutes they swam away. Little bastards!!
Anyway, it’s not too hard to find a secluded or nearly secluded place along the shore to relax, but there’s also more crowded beach areas.The water is clear, calm and pretty warm. It’s possible to swim quite far out into the lake. Parking can be very difficult and Max was taking a chance by parking along the side of the road. There is metered parking in places but they were mostly packed by the time we arrived to the water. As I mentioned, it’s not uncommon for people to go topless or nude. But even the secluded places are not far from the main road so people will most likely see you. Tennille and I had a guy pull over from the road and come up to us while we were tanning to ask if he could take pictures of us! Max sent him packing.
That evening we continued further north to an area called Lungo-lago, a lakeside promenade with restaurants, bars, boat docks, and shops.Nearby Max has two friends, Giovanni and Viviane, a couple who own a bed and breakfast near the lake called Elefante. In 2007 we stayed there for the first time and the place is amazing. On the ground floor there’s a cute dining and living room, a small but efficient chef’s kitchen, and then an outside patio equipped for dining al fresco. Upstairs there are many large rooms painted in vibrant colors and neatly furnished. The bathroom is modern and clean.
It was at Elefante that I had my second culinary epiphany! But let me start from the beginning. I have a thing about eating at strangers’ homes (How clean is their kitchen? Did they wash their hands? Were they tasting with the cooking spoon? — You get the idea.) So before heading to Giovanni and Viviane’s place, I stopped for some pizza even though I knew they were cooking dinner (tisk, tisk!) So we arrive, and Andrea, Max and Giovanni’s chef friend, is in the kitchen putting on this energetic display over the stove. He’s got a frying pan in the air, flipping some rice and vodka while flames are shooting up from the mixture. Minutes later he places this dish of risotto with zucchini in front of me. Tentatively, I take a taste and –MY WORLD IS ROCKED. I’ve never tasted something so amazing in my life. It’s actually better than the pumpkin ravioli that rocked my world just days before in Borghetto. After greedily scooping a few forkfuls into my mouth, an unpleasant feeling comes over me. I’m full. My stomach will not accept anymore, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of my plate. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I wanted to cry. Damn that pizza! I learned an important lesson that day.
Unfortunately, during my visit in 2009, Andrea wasn’t there to bring back the risotto. The group of us headed back to Lungo-lago for dinner at Il Giardino Delle Rane instead. The food was amazing but it couldn’t touch Andrea’s risotto with a ten-foot pole. Later that night we walked further down the promenade to the beach and had drinks at Restaurant Lido.
My vacation to the lake was relatively relaxed but there are tons of activities to entertain, including windsurfing, sailing, horseback riding, golf, and sightseeing. One place that I would have enjoyed seeing is Villa degli Albertini, a 16th century villa that includes an enchanting park designed in the second part of the 19th century, grottos with waterfalls and fountains, towers, panoramic points, temples and summerhouses. the villa is located right at the center of Garda on the street to San Vigilio.
There are many more trips to Garda in my future and one day I really do hope to get married there. I’m not against discovering a new favorite place as my travels continue but for now Garda is undefeated!