Before I start my review I must make a slight apology regarding its length. Because this was my prize in a Silver Traveller competition last year, I felt that I could not skimp and had to do justice to what was a fabulous prize.
The thought of a holiday at Lake Garda and the north of Italy exploring the classical cities of Verona and Venice, sampling the region’s wine and learning how to cook Italian food properly, has tremendous appeal. Never more so than on a dull and overcast Wednesday at Gatwick Airport waiting for the scheduled Monarch Airways flight to Verona airport and expectation. The flight with Monarch was perfectly reasonable, with the cabin staff balancing efficiency with service admirably. The flight continued across Europe above a continuous cloud bank, until the pilot announced that we were starting our decent into Verona airport and as if on command the cloud parted to reveal the magnificence of Lake Garda stretching out before us.
The provincial airport at Verona made a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle normally encountered at larger hubs, and allowed the holiday to start off in calm and relaxing manner, and a welcome change from the usual pre-packaged airport experience. First a staircase is rolled up to the plane door, reminiscent of films of the 50’s and 60’s when passengers emerged shading their eyes from the bright sunlight. After a very short shuttle ride we arrive inside the terminal to wait for our bags, and finally exit to find the taxi driver carrying the obligatory piece of Archer’s headed paper with our name on it.
The 45-minute taxi ride to the 4* Continental Hotel at Nago-Torbole gave an interesting taster for the experience ahead as we noticed that almost every available acre of land was given over to the cultivation of vines. Arriving we check in and go to our room, which is spacious with a king sized bed and balcony which wraps around the corner of the building affording us a glimpse of the lake below. The hotel advertises itself as a hub for outdoor activities, e.g. hiking, cycling and motor cycling, that take advantage of the stunning local countryside. The north end of the lake also prides itself on being a centre for windsurfing.
Nago is a small village situated some 2km away and 120mtrs above the north end of the lake huddled at the base of the south western edge of Monte Creino, and is reached by a steep winding road. The buildings have a Tyrolean flavour to their design which reflects the history of a region that was part of Austria until 1918, consequently German is still the second language of the region, and unsurprisingly this area is a favourite destination for German and Austrian holiday makers. Running through it is the main road taking traffic from the area to the A22 (Autostrada del Brennero) and on to the Brenner Pass into Austria and Germany. Being advertised as a centre for motorcycling, everyday a procession of Kawasaki, Ducati, Harley-Davidson and other large and expensive motorbikes, usually ridden by middle-aged men and women, passed through the village. This means that there is a regular flow of traffic, sometimes heavy, through the village during the daytime which could be an issue, but luckily our full itinerary negated exposure to the worst of the noise the traffic created. Access into the village centre is afforded by a set of pedestrian controlled traffic lights at the end of the hotel access road which facilitated a safe crossing point.
We found that due to the limited number of clients staying here there would not be a regular visit from a holiday rep to the hotel, in lieu of this we are provided with a letter outlining the details of our itinerary for the week, departure details and the contact details for the Cosmos resort office. While we did not find this too onerous, holiday makers used to such visits may find the situation a little disconcerting. And as if to emphasise this, we found that on the Venice excursion, more information was needed, especially where optional extra activities are planned that require payment on the day.
Our hotel booking had been made half-board which gave ample time to sample the varied menu on offer in the restaurant. Breakfast was the usual continental cold buffet which had a good variety of fruit, cheeses and cold meats, there was also a selection of hot food available so that an ‘English breakfast’ could be had if you wanted. As usual with hot buffets, the quality of the food depended on how long it had been under the lights, but it appeared that fresh food was put out in small batches and replenished regularly, lessening the drying effect. Dinner was a standard Italian format with a self-service antipasto course followed by three formal courses, each course having three choices. The food was of a quality compensate with the hotel’s rating and I can honestly say that throughout the week I did not have a course that I was dissatisfied with. To speed up the dinner service you were asked to make your menu choices at breakfast, which may have not suited everyone but we had no issue with it. The menu changes daily and I can honestly say that I did not have a course that was disappointing. Checking out our fellow diners we are quite surprised at their apparent age profile, given the impression the hotel’s literature gives, we were expecting them to be fit young things, but the majority appeared to be not too different from ourselves (50’s – 60’s). However, the couple on the table next to us did epitomise the hotel’s ethos and would make us feel really old when they related their exploits that day. Due to the area’s history it is not a great surprise to discover that this is a favourite destination for German holiday makers, and so it proved with a quick estimate that with between 70-80% of the diners were German.
Next morning it was up early for our first excursion to Venice, after breakfast we make the short 5 min walk to catch the coach at 0730 at the bus stop on the main road. The bus stop is used because the road front of the hotel is only a single track that heads up to the mountain behind. The coach arrives and we climb aboard along with two other couples from the hotel and find only about a dozen people on it, now this either means that this trip is a little sparse, or there will be some frequent stops on the way. We soon find out that the latter is the case and because of the relatively small size of the hotels around the lake, only between 2-4 people are picked up at each stop as we journey down the lake-side, as a result it takes the best part of an hour to exit the lake area. Consequently, the return journey over the same course resulted us arriving back at the hotel with just 15-minutes left before the closure of the restaurant at 9 p.m.
All aboard our guide for the day, Remo, introduces himself and begins the first of a number of light-hearted commentaries, alternately in English and German to break up the monotony of the journey and to familiarise us with the area. At roughly the midway point we make a short comfort stop and then begin the final stage of the trip into Venice. He gives us a brief history of Venice and also explains some of the reasons behind the attitude and culture of its people and how that will affect our day. In particular he brings to our attention the practice of some prominent restaurants to vary the price of an item the nearer to the street you sit. It is now that we are told of the itinerary for the day and the additional activities, namely Lunch (€15), Gondola ride (€22) and the boat trip around the Lagoon (€16). Of course these were optional, but it would be difficult not to take them as it may be the only time we have the chance, so some advance warning would have been useful if only to be sure that we had brought sufficient funds to accommodate these and the rest of the day.
The image conjured by Venice is one of intrigue and romance, but disembarking from the ferry boat bringing us from the coach park, we soon learn from Remo some important truths to be aware of:
1). Don’t be late otherwise you are likely to be left behind, the ferry boats run on a tight schedule and won’t wait.
2). During the high season there are just too many tourists to squeeze into such a relatively small area, so be prepared to elbow your way in to get that photo.
3). Venice was built on trade and runs for profit, so there is no such thing as a free anything, even sitting down on some steps is frowned upon, as a couple found out in St Mark’s Square. There is a local saying that says that if you want a free seat go to a church.
4). Venice is waging a constant war against time and the lagoon, with numerous buildings in various stages of repair and renovation. To pay for it Venice has invited sponsorship and as a result a number of buildings have large hoardings erected in front of them emblazoned with the emblems of the proud sponsors. This is not restricted to the ‘ordinary’ buildings, some of the most famous landmarks like the Rialto Bridge and some Gondola stations are not spared the hording plague.
5). If you get lost in the tight back streets, all you have to do is look up and search for the yellow signs located at intersections pointing the way to the main attractions, e.g. Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square); Canal Grande (Grand Canal).
The obligatory tour guide’s flag is raised and off we march heading for St Mark’s Square. We pass a myriad of vender’s carts and over four canal bridges, including one that offers a photo opportunity for the Bridge of Sighs, if you can elbow yourself enough room for a clear shot. On arrival at St Mark’s Square we are given a brief history of the area and then its lunch time and we head off down a narrow alley following the flag in case we miss a turn and get lost. We arrive at an unpretentious door and enter to find a restaurant waiting for us, with wooden bench tables and an array of wine bottles arranges around the walls. We are offered a choice of Pasta with pesto, Pizza or Lasagne with Tiramisu for dessert. Carafes of water and two bottles each of red and white wine are placed on each table, and I wonder if we are expected to do much this afternoon. The meal was everything you could want, simple, well cooked and accompanied by good wine, everything you expect Italy to be.
After lunch we assemble back at St Mark’s Square ready for the Gondola ride, not from the water front we saw on arrival, but from the Gondola Station Bacino Orseolo reached via an archway in the northwest corner or the Square. Here we encounter more scaffold cladding covering a walkway through which we have to pass to board our craft. The famous black gondolas seat up to six people: two at the back; one on the right; two on the left and one at the front with the iconic gondolier standing on the rear. We are quite firmly warned to sit still once moving, as the gondolas are surprisingly unstable if the load shifts, as we experienced when one of our party suddenly moved to get a better view of a building. Once securely seated, we began our sedate journey along a narrow canal admiring the architecture and the quiet. Turning left into the Rio de S. Salvadore canal leads us to the Grand Canal and the iconic highway of the city. Moments later we emerge onto the Grand Canal and are told to look right to gaze on the famous Rialto Bridge. However, the view was not so splendid today because there was another of those enormous advertising hoardings for the sponsor of its restoration, erected across the entire centre section completely obscuring it. Disappointed we turn divert our gaze back to the canal and are given a commentary on the important buildings joining the canal front. All to soon we turn left again and leave the Grand Canal onto the Rio de S. Luca to head back to the Gondola Station.
After the Gondola ride we are left to our own devices to undertake a brief exploration of the back streets. Taking the opportunity to sit and have a reasonably priced coffee in a back street café, before making our way back at our original arrival point on the Riva degli Schiavoni ready for the boat tour of the lagoon and some of its islands, where again Remo provides the commentary in English and German. After the 45 min cruse we arrive back at the Venice quayside to pick up those who were not taking part in the Lagoon cruise and we head back to the coach park to start the return journey. This journey is commentary free, except for announcements for the upcoming hotels for disembarkation along the lakeside. The additional time taken for this means that we do not arrive back at the hotel until 8.45 and with the restaurant closing at 9.00 p.m. it was something of a rush to dinner before it closed.
Next morning, we could be found back at the bus stop waiting for the coach to take us to Verona, but this time it was 08.30 so breakfast was a little less rushed. Thankfully the coach had already picked up from the lakeside hotels so the prospects were good for a timely dinner tonight. The guide today is Tomas who again gives the commentary and introductions in German and English and with not a little humour. We arrive at the city and circle the old town following the loop of the river Adige having landmarks pointed out, until we arrive at the Ponte di Castelvecchio the fortified bridge leading into Castelvecchio, then make our way to the Piazza Bra. Where we are given a brief introduction and told to be back by the statue at 14:00 for a guided tour.
Whereas Venice is a relative youngster as far as Italian cities is concerned, having been founded in the 5th (or 6th century depending on which book you read), Verona is an elder statesman being some 600, or 700, years older and as such retains some architectural gems from the Roman period, chiefly remnants of the city wall and the Arena. Apart from the third external wall where only one section remains, the Arena is intact and although used as an operatic concert venue, it retains all the presence and atmosphere it must have had 2000 years ago. Climbing up to sit on the topmost stone steps and looking down, I can almost hear John Cleese in The Life of Brian berating members of the Judean People’s Front, or Judean Popular People’s Front, about their life choices.
After an amble around the nearby streets and piazzas, and then some lunch, we all meet up under the statue to be split into two groups one German speaking and one English speaking for a 30-minute walking tour of the old town. Numerous historic buildings and the old roman city gate later we end up in a courtyard looking at what in popular culture purported to be the balcony that Juliet pleaded for her love Romeo. Of course this is reality and the balcony is a fake only added to the building in 1928 to appease the tourists, but it fills a need. What does strike me is that the walls of the courtyard are covered in ‘John loves Mary’ type graffiti, such that not an inch of the original wall can be seen, just goes to show that not everyone is as cynical as me. Following the official tour, we find that we have an hour to ourselves before we need get back to the coach waiting at the Ponte di Castelvecchio, so decide to take a stroll along the river bank as far as the city’s oldest bridge, the Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge). After taking a number of photographs we make our way through the back streets, purchasing some local wine on the way, to the Castelvecchio and over the bridge to where the coach is waiting.
The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, are free days so we acquired a timetable from the hotel reception and decide to make use of the efficient and reasonably priced (€1.30) local bus service to visit to the town of Riva about 5Km away at the northern most tip of the lake. Riva is a pleasant little town with a quiet traffic free quayside, an unobtrusive hydro-electric power plant tucked up against the mountain side and yet another rather good Ice Cream vendor, luckily they seem to be everywhere in Italy. Enjoying our ice creams on a quayside seat watching the myriad of windsurfers dancing about like so many butterflies in the breeze, we notice three skydivers, streaming coloured smoke behind them, appear from the mountain top above the town and watch their progress. One pulls out somewhat early and drifts over the town, the second continues down and comes to what looks like a perfect landing on the quay front. The third with a red streamer, continues down and pulls the rip cord a little late to my uneducated eyes, and disappears from view. A little later on I find that my assumption had been correct as we saw the daredevil flyer apparently unhurt with the fire service trying to extricate him from a tree. It turned out that the skydivers were supposed to be the dramatic opening to a Wind Festival being held here today. Giant kites and wind surfers were preparing their equipment for displays during the day. Muttering words like ‘that’ll teach him” we wander on and come across a sign for a three-way ferry trip taking in visits to two towns on the lakeside: Limone and Malcesine which is planned for tomorrow. This seems an ideal way of spending a Sunday and the perfect opportunity to further investigate the lake.
Ever since we had arrived in the area I had noticed that there was a tendency not to treat steel and let it oxidise naturally, I had originally thought that this was a money saving measure, but I began to have second thoughts as we ventured further into the town. We can across a small shopping mall where there was a large steel plate along the full length of the structure had been left untreated and turning slowly rusty. From what I understand of the Italian psych I can only assume that this ‘naturalism’ had been in vogue at the time. Returning to the hotel we wisely decided to check the bus times for Sunday, which was fortuitous as it turned out that, as in most places, they are restricted and also that the ones posted at the bus stops were incorrect and out of date.
Next day we make our way to Riva and catch the ferry at the quayside. We enjoy a pleasant 10Km journey down the west side of the lake, wondering at the sheer majesty of mountains towering above us, and the lakeside road which darts in and out of dozens of tunnels cut into the mountain. I momentarily imagining slip way being in James Bond’s Aston Martin fleeing the baddies in the opening sequence of the Quantum of Solace which was filmed along this stretch of road. We approach the small village of Limone, which for years was one of the main lemon growing sites in the area until the mid 19th century when the coming of the railways enabled cheaper fruit from the warmer south to under-cut those grown here. Now Limone survives primarily on tourism, along with the majority of the area. For such a small place, Limone is blessed with three jetties: a main one for the larger ferries; one for the small ferries and one for the car ferry to Malcesine. We approach the small quay and tie up at the 2M wide breakwater, which was full of elderly passengers waiting for their boat to arrive and would not stand aside to allow us to disembark in case they missed their ride. After some raised voices and gesticulating in the Italian manner later we all made it ashore for a 90-minute exploration. First impressions are of a small village with two narrow cobbled streets sandwiched between the mountains and the lake. The businesses, some of which appear to be in caves built into the mountain, seemed to consist of hotels, restaurants, tourist nick-knacks, glass-ware, wine and of course lemon products.
The embarkation of the ferry for the 7Km leg across the lake to Malcesine was more orderly and we were soon on our way. Malcesine is the main settlement along the narrow strip of flatter land on the eastern side of the lake running north from Garda through to Torbole. Its main attractions are Scaliger Castle and the cable car to Monte Baldo allowing access to the numerous ski runs in the winter, and great views of the lake in summer. Essentially for the day visitor Malcesine is a larger version of Limone, full of the usual tourist shops and restaurants, but the docking arrangements are less chaotic. Two hours later we are waiting on the dock to board our boat for the return leg to Riva, via a stop at Torbole to allow some locals to leave.
The homeward leg to Torbole is a 16Km trip down the centre of lake allowed great views of the scenery on either shore and completed a very relaxing day. As we sat on the top deck admiring the views with the wind blowing through our remaining hair, we had time reflect on our time here and what so far had been four days of what could be seen as standard tourist fare. We could now look forward to two days that would hopefully make this holiday different, a wine tasting at a local family vineyard and a day at a cookery school learning to how to cook Italian properly.
Next day, as if an aperitif to the main event, we line up at the bus stop at 2.30, but this time for some reason there are considerably more people waiting. I wonder why? Luckily the coach arrives from the direction of the lake which means that we will be first to be dropped off on the return trip. For about 30 minutes we journey through the towns of Mori and Ala until we arrive at Maso Roveri vineyard located on the hill of Vò Sinistro d’Avio. Disembarking from the coach we are all lead to an area near to the vines where we are met by the patriarch who is be our guide today. Following a brief introduction, we start our tour and soon find out that rose bushes are planted by each row of vines to act as an early warning of aphid infestation. On a walking classroom, we also learn about the art of wine making as naturally as possible and also the vineyard’s long history. Throughout, the commentary is interspersed with dry comments and anecdotes like “yes I know that London village” and “always store wine at a constant temperature because like old men, wine hates change”.
After the tour we arrive at the place where we all really wanted to be, the tasting area. Sat at wooden tables we pick a glass and wait expectantly for the nectar, a Cabernet,
to be brought around not in a bottle, but in an earthenware jug, because, as the patriarch remarked “wine tastes better when served the old way, from a jug”. He was quite right, especially when they give such generous measures. Following the first red we are offered a second type, Piam Ros, again with the same generous measure and with the opportunity for seconds as well, what more could you want? Finally, the whites were broken out, first a Pinot Grigio, then a Muscadet after which a contented feeling began to come over the assembled throng. Soon after the official tour was over and we were invited to purchase some of the fine fare and then boarded the coach for the return some with contented smiles on their faces. That contentment lives on as I write this with a glass or two of Piam Ros at my side and remembering to good times.
Finally, the day arrived, the day that was to make this holiday different from the rest. At 08.30 sharp we were picked up from the hotel from door by a mini bus and proceed down to Torbole to pick up at two other hotels and then we were off, 14 apprentice chefs with anticipation in our hearts. We travel down the lakeside road to Garda town and then head into the hills along ever diminishing roads until we turn left onto a gravel single track with a sign post to Tenuta Valleselle vineyard.
We are met and welcomed with some cheese, olive oil, bread and prosecco wine, which made for a very convivial start, and gave us a chance to take in the beautiful surroundings. Rows of vines stretched out over the southern and western aspects of the villa, olive trees populating the northern side and the entrance on the remaining east side. Soon we were ushered into a large room laid out with 7 tables where the main event would take place. Standing there are our hosts for the day, whose names I now forget. The chef, dressed in white, is flanked on the right by a tall young man who we would find out later would be the wine expert and who, for reasons never really expanded on, is referred to as ‘Mr Bean’, and on the left by a young lady who was his sous chef, who we would find out would be the translator for the day, because the chef could not speak English.
After putting on our black aprons, which we would take away as a memento of the day and hopefully act as a spur when we return home, we began to make our desert that traditional staple made by impatient Italian mother in-laws everywhere, Tiramisu. The instructions were interspersed with a humorous banter in Italian and English between the chef and his young associates regarding the need for a ‘pick-me-up’. Having been given our instructions we begin by separating the eggs then beating the yokes and the whites with sugar and then added the Mascarpone. For some reason the chef did not trust us to add the Marsala liqueur to the mix, but poured out a rather meagre portion, in my opinion. We assembled the delight, sprinkled Cocoa powder over the top and added a label with our name on to make sure that we sample our own creation later. Now was time for a coffee break to rest after our exertions and allow them to clean up ready for the next challenge, the pasta dish.
We resume by slowly frying some chopped vegetables: onions; peppers; aubergine and tomatoes, in olive oil, which were then put aside to be added later. And then finally came the main reason we were here, how to make pasta from scratch, properly. So we mixed the flour and the eggs until it formed a dough, and then learnt the trick for perfect pasta, don’t make it too moist. To check that we had the moisture content correct the chef came around and passed his fingers lightly over the ball and pronounced accordingly. When everyone had produced a dough of acceptable quality we progressed to the next important stage, kneading the dough until it is smooth. Kneading is hard work, and in the warm weather you have to be careful not to add some unwanted ingredients into the mix, and again we had to continue until the maestro gave his approval. Once the room has been decreed as acceptable, following a demonstration on how to use the pasta making machine which was fixed to our tables, we were let loose. First roughly rolling out the dough with a rolling pin then passing the dough through the rollers gradually thinning it until it had reached the desired thickness and then fed it to the cutters to make the finished fettuccine noodles.
Once all the noodles were collected, we clean up and were asked to gather around the chef’s table for a demonstration on old school pasta making that “momma used to make”. The chef produced his earlier demonstration ball of dough and cut it in half, and then preceded to roll it out, until he was satisfied with the thickness and then rolled it loosely around the rolling pin, sliding the pin out and thinly slicing the loops with a sharp knife into thin noodles when unravelled. Then, as is usual at time like this, the chef asked for a volunteer to do the rolling. When no one dared I thought, what’s the worst that can happen, it’s the same as rolling pie pastry right? I stepped forward and was handed one of the longest rolling pins I had seen and told to proceed. Well off I rolled until I thought it was thin enough, but no I got a frown and a shake of the head and told to keep going, and going, this was hard work. Finally, it was deemed thin enough to cut, so I loosely rolled it around the roller, trying not to split the delicate tissue, and cut the loops into noodles which were then declared ok by the experts.
The lesson completed we wash up and retire outside to wait for lunch and explore the grounds which confirms our original impression that this is a wonderfully tranquil location. Taking the chance to explore our surroundings further and I stumble across the final part of that classic Italian triumberate we will experience today: good wine; good food and stylish cars. The first two we will soon enjoy at lunch and the final part is there shaded from the sun under a flower covered arbour, a blood red Alpha Romeo Spider in pristine condition, a glorious two seat sports car that only the Italians seem to be able to design. Oh I wish!
After a short spell day-dreaming we were called in for lunch to taste the fruit of our earlier labours and proceed upstairs to a gallery above the class room. To make sure we don’t forget where we are, we are offered a glass of a Rosé wine produced by the vineyard which is very good. Soon the main course of Egg Pasta Fettuccine with seasonal vegetables sauce arrives, but no one seems to be able to pluck up the courage to ask if it is what we produced in the class or something the chef has prepared to ensure quality. What ever the source it is delicious, especially with a glass or two of an equally good red wine again from the vineyard. Then the moment arrives where we can guarantee that we will eat what we made, because the little dishes of Tiramisu arrive each one individually labelled. Even though I say so myself mine tasted superb. As we relax with another wine, ‘Mr Bean’ arrives and gives a short presentation about the vineyard and the wines we have just sampled and presents us with a couple of mementoes and a menu sheet covering the dishes we have just produced, but strangely we are not given an opportunity to purchase any of the wine we had just sampled3. The meal completed we say our goodbyes and make our way out to wait for the taxis back to the hotels and vowing that once home we’d show those celebrity chef’s how it was done.
Once back at the hotel it begins to sink in that the holiday has run its course and tomorrow we will catch our flight home and wonder if we will keep the promises made to our selves and cook all those ‘Italian’ meals the proper way and leave the packaged sauces and dried pasta in the cupboards. I can honestly say that the Saturday following our return, before I forgot the nuances of the recipe, I donned the black apron, dug out the recipe sheet we were given and recreated the same dish for dinner. With the exceptions of a little hic-cup with the garnish and trying to remember what “return to the fire” meant, it tasted almost as good as the one we were delighted with, even the pasta was almost perfect and even pleased the resident “expert”. Mission accomplished.