In 1996 we visited Lake Garda on a day trip from Verona, were overwhelmed with its beauty and vowed to return soon. It actually took us 20 years (so many other places to see!) but last August we booked an apartment in Densenzano for a week and set off to explore as much of the lake and its glorious towns and villages as we could fit in.
We chose Densenzano because it is the transport hub of the region – from here ferries, buses and trains can take you to anywhere on the lake itself and also, should you feel for it, to Venice, Verona, and other lovely towns on the Veneto.
The first day was devoted to exploring the town itself, with its delightful old port, castle and cathedral and then a 5-mile walk around the lake to Sirmione, which lived up to its reputation as both unbelievably beautiful and unbelievably crowded! Well, it was August, I suppose.
During our lakeside walk we had noticed a booth selling boat tickets to Isola del Garda and booked for the following day. The boat was somewhat smaller – and faster – than we had expected as we assumed we would be travelling on a ferry, but this was a 25-foot motor cruiser which raced over the lake, bouncing above the waves and after 30 exhilarating and windswept minutes deposited us at the private quay of the Borghese Cavazza family, owners of the island. There we were met by our guide for a tour of the enormous neo-gothic villa and the gorgeous gardens, and a tasting of the family’s olive oil, delicious bread and delightful white wine. Yummy!
Next day was spent on a round tour of the lake to Riva del Garda and back. From the ferry we admired all the lovely lakeside towns we briefly put into and noted which we would return to later in the week. We had a couple of hours in Riva, the northernmost town on the lake, dramatically framed by mountains on either side, and enjoyed a stroll along its elegant waterfront, dominated by the 13th century clock tower, the Torre Apponale . We resisted the chance to climb the 165 narrow steps, despite the blandishments of the ticket-seller and his offer of half-price tickets (€1) for we over-65s. Deciding discretion was definitely the better part of valour we settled instead in a lakeside café to eat ice-cream as only the Italians make it, admire the view and await our return ferry.
On the return journey we were particularly taken with the look of the town of Gardone Riviera, an up-market resort with several impressive luxury 19th-century hotels and a traffic-free paved lakeside promenade visible from the ferry. Our guide book waxed lyrical about the resort’s two most famous tourist attractions, which persuaded us to jump on a bus around the lake the following day and see for ourselves.
Said attractions were the Heller estate, a delightfully chaotic botanic garden, filled with monumental and unusual statuary as well as water features and tropical plants; and the Vittoriale, the bizarre house and fantastic surroundings which were the creation of the ‘eccentric’ (for which read totally bonkers) Italian poet, Gabriele D’Annuzio. The dominating feature is the prow of a full-sized battleship – which you can walk on – embedded in the hill overlooking the lake, with a dozen other weird and wonderful buildings scattered around the grounds, including a mock-Roman amphitheatre used for classical concerts and the poet’s enormous rotunda mausoleum. Just has to be seen to be believed.
We also managed to fit in short visits to Bardolino and Lazise, both delightful in their different ways, but there are still many undiscovered gems on this gorgeous lake so we will just have to return – however, this time we won’t leave it another 20 years.