A collective gasp of wonder sounded from rail coach number five as the snow-capped French Alps came into view on the TGV from Paris to Turin. Smartphones were abandoned and bookmarks placed as we admired the majestic peaks soaring above forest-carpeted foothills. We were not gazing between airplane wings and banks of clouds at these monumental Alps, we were gliding right alongside them… and congratulating ourselves for opting for train travel – ‘the green way to go’.
Watching the world pass by – villages, valleys, vineyards, flatlands and farmlands, even industrial yards and wastelands – reinforced the travel mantra that getting there is half the fun. Leaving London’s St Pancras station that morning, we were on our way to the southern shores of northern Italy’s Lake Garda, with an overnight stop to explore the stately baroque buildings and elegant squares of Turin.
Although many in our group of 25 came by train from across the UK to reach our St Pancras starting point, my husband David and I only had to travel one stop on the underground to join this Great Rail Journeys (GRJ) called Simply Lake Garda – a seven night stay beside the country’s largest and most popular lake.
As committed independent travellers, we were slightly anxious about joining a group and following a leader. But the Simply Lake Garda itinerary allowed enough autonomy during free days and a dose of reassurance when navigating heaving stations in London, Paris, Turin and Milan while travelling almost 1,300 miles round trip across three countries. As our dynamic GRJ tour manager Jane Lawson said, ‘leave the strain to Jane.’ We did.
Although dubbed the Simply Lake Garda tour, it was not simply Lake Garda. Our itinerary also included a selection of northern Italy’s most iconic cities: Turin, Venice and Verona.
In our charming, but lively base of Desenzano del Garda, we were steps away from the train station – our gateway to these celebrated cities, but also to local destinations for independent adventures. We particularly relished a free day in Brescia, just 15 minutes by train. An under-appreciated treasure chest of astonishing Roman ruins including a temple, wall paintings and mosaics, Brescia boasts not one, but two cathedrals.
Where trains don’t run, buses offer links to regional sites including Gardone Riviera with the whimsical, sculpture-and-pond graced Heller Gardens tumbling down the hillside. Nearby stands The Vittoriale, a totally eccentric tribute to Italian war hero and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio with gardens, museums, a grandiose villa, amphitheatre and a sky-high mausoleum.
In between our own exploration days, we happily surrendered to excursion leaders in Venice, Verona and on Lake Garda’s largest island – Isola del Garda where the island’s proprietors welcomed us to the Villa Borghese Cavazza, reminiscent of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. We wandered through the terraced gardens lush with roses, lemon trees, and ripening pomegranates and persimmons, before enjoying aperitivos on their terrace overlooking the lake. We felt more like guests than tourists.
To reach Isola del Garda we swapped high-speed trains for a luxurious private launch plying the lake’s waters. We crossed the lake again on a state-run ferry to the picturesque peninsula of Sirmione featuring the remains of a palatial Roman villa built 2000 years ago. Sirmione also hosts thermal spas and the magnificent Scaligero Castle, everyone’s fantasy of the perfect castle with its swallowtail battlements and walls.
Indeed, fortress castles crowned almost all of our destinations – Verona, Turin, Brescia, Desenzano – offering hands-on mediaeval history as well as spectacular birds-eye views. Nowhere near as ancient but impressive just the same, the train stations that welcomed us stand as exemplars of 19th and early 20th century architecture – St Pancras (1868), Paris Gare du Nord (1866), Gare du Lyon (1849) Turin (1864), Milan Central (1931) and Venice’s Santa Lucia (1952).
Emerging from Santa Lucia station, we were embraced by a magically frenetic Venice with vaporettos sashaying between rococo churches and exquisite palazzos lining the Grand Canal. We toured Saint Marks’ Square, one of the finest in the world, before entering its multi-domed basilica encrusted with 85,000 square feet of golden mosaics. From a side street off the square we slipped away on gondolas into a romantic web of water corridors.
After a week discovering Lake Garda and its fascinating environs, it was all aboard for the return rail journey to London. But the holiday was not yet complete; we still had the scenic rural and urban landscapes to enjoy… all the way home.
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Rosemary travelled with Great Rail Journeys. Book your rail holiday by calling our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.