Gongoozling around Garda

I knew that title would get your attention.

Not the Garda bit, which you correctly identified as a reference to the Italian lake, but that first splendid, tri-syllable eye-catcher which, even as I write, has you thinking: “He’s finally cracked. He’s making it up as he goes along, and inventing words when he can’t remember the right ones.”

Not so, gentle reader.Gongoozling’ exists. It may not be as much used as it once was, but my plan is to restore it to its proper place in the vocabulary. Well, almost to its proper place.

Cannobia, on the shore of Lake MaggioreHere’s how it goes. I have just returned from a super holiday to the Italian Lakes – specifically to Maggiore and Garda – and intend to tell you about it in a moment or two.

However, as all good holidays should, this one gave us plenty of opportunities to sit at cafe tables, whiling away time as we enjoyed the sunshine and a cappuccino, and, in the words of the great travel writing cliche: “Watched the world go by.”

I hate that phrase. Almost as much as I hate the word ‘doyen’, but – as with all cliches – it sticks around because it describes succinctly what is happening.  

At the end of our second or third day, I mentioned my dislike of the cliche. It was then Meryl mentioned “gongoozling”, explaining that ‘gongoozling’ is a word used by canal folk to describe towpath loiterers watching them at work – “locking through” and doing complicated things with hawsers, I suppose. (I’m not sure what a hawser is, but I feel that using it gives me a certain air of authority.)

Anyway, though gongoozling may have originated as a Lincolnshire dialect word, and is strictly speaking only applicable along the canals, I think it is better than “watching the world go by” and hope you will follow my lead and use it on every appropriate occasion.  

A perfect location for 'Gongoozling'Like, for example, when you are sitting at a waterfront cafe in a beautiful place like Cannobio watching a chap laying out strips of artificial grass and placing upon them the apparatus for a series of simple games. And, as the cappuccino slips down nicely and the sun warms your shoulders, you observe people of all ages play those games – youngsters fitting together a large wooden jigsaw puzzle, oldsters trying to hook a wooden ring round the neck of an empty wine bottle, and so on.  

“The Italians have the knack of making something out of nothing,” somebody said, in a contented tone of voice. This, I thought, exactly described that ‘gongoozling’ experience on the Maggiore shore but, all too soon, we had to rejoin our coach and head towards lunch.

Looking back, we crammed a lot into our week, spending four nights in the Villa Paradiso at Meina on the shore of Maggiore, then three nights in the Hotel du Parc at Sirmione, Lake Garda. Both are four star establishments, but there the resemblance ends. 

The view over lake Maggiore from our hotel Villa ParadisoVilla Paradiso is old and a tiny bit frayed around the edges, but has character by the shedload and a staff whose cheerfulness more than made up for the fact that there weren’t quite enough of them.  

The Parc, by contrast is quite new and, frankly, lacking in character. Its staff were more plentiful and efficient, its rooms were larger, its balconies more substantial and it offered the facility of a kettle and all the trimmings for making tea and coffee in one’s room. (I used to disapprove of that, thinking a good hotel should willingly bring beverages, around the clock. But age has brought wisdom, as age has the habit of doing, and I now appreciate the convenience of tea or coffee on demand.)

We visited the 17th century Baroque palace of Isola Bella on one of Lake Maggiore’s Borromean islands. We popped into Locarno, Switzerland (where I searched, in vain, for a ballroom), returning by train through the Cento Valley’s breathtaking landscape.

Spectacular scenery on the rail journey down the Cento Valley back into Italy from Locarno.We saw a lot of lovely old buildings and attractive scenery, in the company of a superb guide. We ate quite well and, possibly, drank a little more than we should have. In short, it was an excellent and most refreshing break.

But the ingredient that made it special came in the form of Meryl Bullock and her husband Kelvin, along with Trish Alderson and her husband Allan, with whom Carole and I shared a table at breakfast and dinner. Dinner was best, because that’s when the conversation got going and when we got to know each other better as the evenings passed.  

There were, I think, about four dozen folk in our tour group. I didn’t manage to speak to all of them, but got the impression that, like us, they enjoyed their time exploring the Italian Lakes.

When we assembled on our first evening to be welcomed by our guide, we were a room full of strangers. By the end of the week we were a bunch of good companions.

Travel – and especially travel that gives you time to ‘gongoozle’ – has a way of doing that.  

More information

The holiday we took was ‘The Italian Lakes’, an eight-day escorted tour from the Newmarket Holidays brochure. It was in almost every respect an enjoyable experience. My sole reservation concerns Luton Airport, but as that is outside the control of Newmarket, and as I don’t want to sour the atmosphere, I shall deal with it in a later essay. If you happen to have any thoughts about Luton, please feel free to share them with me.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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