Italian Lakes (2013)

EASTERN LAKE GARDA

Garda’s eastern shore is a pleasure playground – whether you find your pleasure on a roller-coaster or a mountain bike, in a glass of Valpolicella or in the deep gold of the setting sun over old Venetian stone.

Main Attractions

Parco Giardino Sigurtà

Gardaland

Lazise

Zeni Museo Del Vino

Monte Baldo

Castello Scaligero

The drive towards Lake Garda’s eastern shore from Verona or Brescia can be offputting and busy with traffic and superstores along the coast road, but don’t be discouraged. You only have to drive a few kilometres to find an idyllic medieval village or a spectacularly crenellated castle covered in vines with a stunning view across the azure waters.

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The Monte Baldo cable car offers great panoramic views over Lake Garda.

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Peschiera del Garda 1 [map] , in the far south, stands at the outlet of the lake. Although named as a fishing port, this has above all been a garrison town since Roman times, fortified by Venetian walls 2.3km (1.5 miles) long, later reinforced by Napoleon. The medieval Rocca Scaligera (castle), built on Roman foundations and turned into a Venetian dockyard, is joined by the Palazzina Storica (tel: 045-640 0600; closed at the time of writing, check website for re-opening times www.peschieramuseo.it ), built by the Austrians in the mid-19th century, and home to the official archives of the Risorgimento and World War I. The Battle of Solferino (for more information, click here ) was fought nearby. The tourist office can advise on a walking tour of all the military buildings and battlements.

At the Laghetto di Frassino , a tiny glacial lake 3km (2 miles) out of town, the very elaborate Santuario della Madonna del Frassino marks the spot where the Virgin miraculously appeared, enthroned in an ash tree, in 1510.

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Parco Giardino Sigurtà.

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Parco Giardino Sigurtà

Further south, the small town of Valeggio sul Mincio 2 [map] is renowned for its excellent restaurants, its Saturday market, and as home of one of the finest gardens in Italy, the Parco Giardino Sigurtà (Via Cavour 1; tel: 045-637 1033; www.sigurta.it ; daily mid- to end-Mar, Oct–early Nov 9am–6pm, Apr–Sept 9am–7pm, last entry one hour before closing). This huge park, now covering 56 hectares (138 acres), was first created in 1617 and was used by Napoleon III as his headquarters in 1859. As well as rolling parkland and great trees, the park is famous for massed flowerings of tulips, irises, roses, lilies and asters, and for its 40,000 topiary box bushes. If the walking gets too much, you can hire bicycles, golf carts or take the road train.

Eat

Give yourself over to the spirit of a jolly family night out at the Medieval Times banquet (Canevaworld; tel: 045-696 9900; www.canevaworld.it/medievaltimes ). Expect splendid court jesters, displays of horsemanship and other “medieval” entertainment.

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Lazise harbour.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The Garda playground

Heading back up to the lake, there may be a moment when you think you have strayed from Italy into Orlando. The area just to the north of Peschiera has several theme parks. A forest of signboards directs you to large car parking areas, free shuttle buses run between Peschiera station, and all the parks and those on the water have their own jetties. Gardaland 3 [map] is the biggest, but others include Canevaworld , Parco Natura Viva at Bussolengo, a little further inland, and Park Jungle Adventure at San Zeno di Montagna, to the north (for more information, click here ). Tucked among the big names are a multitude of smaller attractions offering arcade games and go-karts, medieval banquets, bouncy castles and slot machines – a great deal for families looking for entertainment.

The Villa dei Cedri 4 [map] (Piazza di Sopra 4, Colà di Lazise; tel: 045-759 0988; www.villadeicedri.it ; Mon–Thu 9am–10pm, Fri, Sun 9am–11pm, Sat 9am–1am) is a great grown-up playground. It is a quiet thermal park with wonderfully landscaped grounds around two swimming lakes, one with a cave, with thermal water at a constant 37°C/98.6°F (body temperature). There are therapies and treatments, or you can just swim and sunbathe, and there are restaurants and accommodation on site as well.

Lazise

Only a few kilometres up the road, Lazise 5 [map] is a glorious little town – a sort of mini-Venice, its grandly crenellated town walls stamped by the Venetian lion. A Bronze Age village and a Roman castrum , it is a natural harbour that became one of the most important towns on the lake in the Middle Ages. The beautifully preserved castle with five imposing towers was built in 1014, and restored by the Scaligeri in the 14th century. In the little harbour, the early 12th-century church of San Nicolò has some lovely frescoes. Next to it is the arcaded Dogana Venezia (Venetian Customs House). Above all, with the streets filled with cafés and the old stone glowing gold in the sunset, this is a wonderful place to spend a leisurely evening, drinking in the scenery and the fabulous local Bardolino wine. The local market day is on Wednesday.

The Olive Riviera

Garda’s eastern shore is also known as the ‘Riviera degli Olivi’. This 50km (31-mile) stretch of coastline is backed by cliffs which protect the world’s most northerly olive groves from the harsh winters. Olive trees have been cultivated here since ancient times. Most of the olives are used for extra virgin olive oil which is made by cold pressing (without the use of solvents or heat). It is mostly produced in small family enterprises and available for purchase at producers’ shops. Lake Garda olive oil is renowned for its delicate and fruity flavour, low acid content and deep golden green colour, due to a high chlorophyll content. This high-quality product even has its own DOP (denominazione di origine protetta ). Vineyards, cypress trees, oleander and other Mediterranean plants also thrive in this area.

There are several vineyards that you can visit for tastings nearby, along with the Zeni Museo del Vino 6 [map] (for more information, click here ) up the road near Bardolino. In Cisano is the Museo dell’Olio d’Oliva (Olive Oil Museum, Via Peschiera 54, Cisano; tel: 045-622 9047; www.museum.it ; Mon–Sat 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–7pm, Sun 9am–12.30pm, closed Sun Jan, Feb, closed first week and last two weeks in Jan; free). This started life as an olive mill, but has grown into a huge enterprise attracting thousands of visitors with its reconstruction of a 19th-century watermill, the possibility of a tasting, and the chance to buy olive oil, olive-based beauty products and local wines.

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Olive grove above Lake Garda.

Dreamstime

Bardolino

The next town up the shore, Bardolino 7 [map] is again an ancient one, its name known throughout the world for its wonderful wines (for more information, click here ), which it celebrates during the Feast of Bardolino Chiaretto (Clear Bardolino) in May, the Bardolino Grape and Wine Festival in October, and the Festival of Bardolino Novello (New Bardolino) in November. Between visiting cellars and vineyards, allow time to wander around the pretty centro storico , where the lovely 11th–12th-century church of San Severo (daily 9am–6pm; free) has an imposingly huge campanile and some lively 13th-century frescoes of the Passion and the Apocalypse. The crypt, behind the high altar, is a surviving fragment of a far earlier Lombard church. Nearby, the 8th-century chapel of San Zeno (Via San Zeno 13–15; daily 9am–6pm; free), with a simple barrel-vaulted nave and pillars of red marble, is one of the oldest surviving churches in Italy. Market day is on Thursday.

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Bardolino vineyards in autumn.

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Wines of the Region

Whether you are a true aficionado or simply want a few bottles to take home, head for the hills of Eastern Garda – home to some of Italy’s most popular wines.

There is a cluster of well-known wine varieties around the southeastern corner of Lake Garda. The sheltered climate, sunshine and rich, well-irrigated soil produce perfect grape-growing conditions.

Custoza ( www.stradadelcustoza.com ), to the south, produces soft, dry, intense and slightly bitter white (bianco) wines from grapes including Trebbiano Toscano, Garganega, Tocai Friulano, Malvasia Toscana, Riesling Italico and Cortese.

To the east of Verona, the rolling hills of Soave ( www.stradadelsoave.com ) produce popular white wines, based mainly on Garganega grapes, popular as easy drinking across the world. Look, too, for spumante (sparkling) and dessert wines.

Along the shore between the lake and the Adige River are Bardolino wines ( www.stradadelbardolino.com ). The growers claim the success of the mainly full-bodied reds (rosso) is due to St Zeno, who taught their ancestors to cultivate the grapes. His face is on many bottles. The wine is typically blended using Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Negrara grapes and comes in classico , novello and superiore . The chiaretto is a rosé, young and fresh with overtones of peach and apricot.

Classic reds

Valpolicella ( www.stradadelvalpolicella.com ), east of the Adige River, means “valley of many cellars”. Its classic reds are some of Italy’s most famous, created from corvina, molinara and rondinella grapes. A fruity, medium-weight wine, Valpolicella is usually drunk at about three years. Amarone-Valpolicella is made using sun-dried grapes aged in toasted oak to produce a deep-coloured, dry, fruity wine with flavours of liquorice and vanilla, tobacco and fig. It can be drunk young, but will age for up to 20 years. Recioto is a sweet, intense red dessert version.

North of Valpolicella, the wines take on the lighter, more perfumed characteristics of German wines. In the valley of Terra dei Forti , the local wine is the robust red L’Enantio, but the international success story is the fruity, elegant white Pinot Grigio.

Wine-tasting and history

A number of wineries offer tastings, but the best place to start is at the Zeni Museo del Vino (Via Costabella 9, Bardolino; tel: 045-622 8331; www.museodelvino.it ; Mar–Oct daily 9am–1pm, 2.30–7pm, Jan–Feb, Nov–Dec Mon–Sat 8.30am–12.30pm, 2.30–6.30pm; free), a vineyard that has been run by the same family since 1870 on the hill slopes of the picturesque Costabella region. It offers explanations of local wines, production methods and tastings. The museum runs you through all the stages of production from looking after the growing grapes to the harvest, then on to grape processing and bottling stage. You can purchase the entire range of Zeni wines as well as local olive oil and vinegar at the shop (same opening times as the museum).

Valpolicella winelands

From both Lazise and Bardolino, roads head east from the lake across the Adige River to the villages of Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella 8 [map] and San Giorgio di Valpolicella , the villages at the heart of the Valpolicella winelands ( www.valpolicella.it ), where a number of vineyards open the doors of often stately mansions to those wishing to tour, taste and buy.

There are 80 patrician villas in the region, most built during the years of the Venetian Republic, some with architects as great as Sanmicheli and even Palladio. Most are still in private hands. Some open for limited hours or by appointment; ask the tourist office for details. The Pieve di San Giorgio di Valpolicella is a glorious little church, an almost intact early 8th-century chapel, that has somehow survived war and earthquake.

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Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Waterfall canyon

Mountain roads north from here lead to the remote Parco Regionale della Lessinia (tel: 045-679 9211), where the medieval village of Molina 9 [map] stands at the head of a canyon of waterfalls. The Parco delle Cascate (Via Bacilieri 1; tel: 045-772 0185; www.parcodellecascate.it ; Apr–Sept daily 9am–7.30pm, Oct daily 10am–6pm, Nov–Mar Sun 10am–3.30pm) has walking trails past the crashing spray, slabs of rock and caves, and some of the 300 species of plant found in the area. There are plenty of other sights worth investigating in the park, too.

Garda

North of Bardolino, on a curved gulf framed by olive groves and cypress trees, the town of Garda ) [map] , like the lake, takes its name from the Germanic (Longobard) word Warte (fortress). A suitably powerful example, built by Ostrogothic King Theodoric in the 5th century, once loomed from the top of the 294 metres (964ft) Rocca di Garda . It was here that Berengario II once imprisoned the widowed Queen Adelaide of Borgogna who managed to escape, and married Ottone I who promptly exiled Berengario. The castle was destroyed in the 13th century and only a few ruined walls now remain, but there are plenty of grandiose palazzi , such as the 16th-century Palazzo Fregoso (Via Spagna) in the town centre, to keep architectural sightseers happy, while the church of Santa Maria Maggiore has a fine 15th-century cloister. Try to make the Friday market, one of the biggest and best on this side of the lake.

Boats leave from Garda, as well as other points around the lake, to visit the lake’s largest island, the Isola del Garda (tel: 328-384 9226; www.isoladelgarda.com ; late-Mar–Oct Tue, Wed, Thu, Sun, May–Oct also Fri; guided tours only and advanced booking essential; for more information, click here ).

Just south of the town, Monastero d’ Eremo , or Camaldolesi Hermitage, is a working monastery in an old clifftop fort. Women have only recently been allowed to visit. One of the monks responsible for the current building became Pope Alessandro VII in 1673. Beside it is the small Romanesque church of San Pietro .

Inland at Costermano ! [map] is Italy’s Cimitero Tedesco (German World War II Cemetery), consecrated in 1967. There are 21,920 German soldiers, previously buried across northern Italy, who were transferred to this vast graveyard. It is full of heather and roses and marked with a dove of peace. East of Costermano, sandwiched between the autostrada and the Adige River, is the small town of Rivoli-Veronese @ [map] , where history-lovers will enjoy the Museo Napoleonico (Napoleonic Museum; see box).

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Napoleon Bonaparte.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Madonna della Corona

If that doesn’t appeal and you would prefer something more rural, take the twisting mountain road around the back of Monte Baldo to Cortelline, where the Santuario della Madonna della Corona £ [map] stands, with Madonna peering out across the Adige Valley from her lofty 774 metres (2,540ft) location since 1530. You can walk up the 450 steps to the church, but there is also a road for the less energetic.

Further along at Ferrara di Monte Baldo $ [map] , the Orto Botanico del Monte Baldo (Botanic Gardens; tel: 045-624 7288; May–Sept daily 9am–6pm) showcase the many endemic species that have led geologists to speculate that Monte Baldo survived the Ice Ages. More than 60 species of orchid are found on the mountain along with gentians and edelweiss, and other wildlife includes chamois, martens and golden eagles.

The Battle of Rivoli

In September 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies began a series of skirmishes and battles against Venetian and Austrian forces from Legnano and Arcole east of Verona to Borghetto near Valeggio sul Mincio, Castelnuovo del Garda, that decided the fate of Europe. In the 1797 Act of Campo Formio, the area north of the Adige River was given to Austria. After the Battle of Rivoli (14–15 January 1797), Napoleon erected a memorial (1806), later destroyed and replaced by an Austrian fort. Ironically, that fort has now become a Napoleon museum (Piazza Napoleone I 14; tel: 045-728 1309; Mar–Oct Tue, Thu–Sun 9.30am–noon, 3.30–6pm, Mon and Wed, and rest of the year by appointment), with memorabilia and documents from the corporal’s Italian campaigns.

Punta di San Vigilio

Situated at the neck of the lake, where the gentle bowl of the south abruptly gives way to the narrow mountainous drama of the north, about 3km (2 miles) from Garda, the Punta di San Vigilio % [map] is as near a piece of scenic perfection as you are likely to find, an avenue of cypresses leading down to the tiny harbour past Sanmicheli’s elegant 16th-century Villa Guarienti and a rare surviving 17th-century limonaia (lemon house). With some fine hotels and restaurants, perfect views and one of the best beaches on the lake overlooking the Baia dei Sirene (Mermaids’ Bay), it is pretty close to paradise.

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Punta di San Vigilio, a little piece of paradise.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Numerous celebrities, from André Gide to Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, have been drawn to the area by the Hotel Gardesana just to the north at Torri del Benaco ^ [map] . This began life as a Roman town, Castrum Turrium (Camp of Towers). There are a few Roman remains in the piazza in front of the church, but the town’s surviving towers belong to the squat Castello Scaligero (Viale Fratelli Lavanda 2; tel: 045-629 6111; Apr–mid-June, mid-Sept–Oct 9.30am–12.30pm, 2.30–6pm, mid-June–mid-Sept daily 9.30am–1pm, 4.30–7.30pm), with swallowtail battlements, built in 1383. These days, it is a wide-ranging local museum focusing on local fishing, olive and lemon cultivation and petroglyphs found in the nearby hills (see feature).

The Baroque church of SS Pietro e Paolo has a glorious organ, built in 1744, while the small church of Santissima Trinità (Piazza Calderini) has some fine early 15th-century frescoes worth a look. The little harbour, which was built on Roman remains, is surrounded by cafés that make a good place to chill out, and there are several local villages such as Pai , Albisano and San Zeno di Montagna where you can climb high up the slopes for panoramic views of the lake.

Tip

If you fancy going horse-riding there are several stables in the area and fabulous trekking routes along the lake and into the mountains.
Centro Ippico Rossar (Garda; tel: 045-627 9020).
Genziana SRL (Ferrara di Monte Baldo; tel: 045-722 0366).
Maneggio (Lazise; tel: 045-647 0577).
Gruppo Equibaldo (San Zeno di Montagna; tel: 045-728 5333).

Monte Baldo

To the north, the little hamlet of Prada & [map] is the proud possessor of the Funivia Prada–Monte Baldo (tel: 045-728 5662; www.funiviedelgarda.it ; reopening in summer 2017), the chairlift which carries those not afraid of heights in open buckets up to a breathtaking terrace 2,218 metres (7,277ft) high, to take in exquisite views.

A ribbon of tiny villages collectively known as Brenzone connects Torri del Benaco with Malcesine 20km (12 miles) to the north. A lakeside walking and cycling route stretches much of the way, and parked cars are crammed into every available space as people swim from the rocks. Behind the road soars the bulk of Monte Baldo , actually a mountain chain, not a single peak.

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Malcesine viewed from its 13th-century castle.

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Malcesine

Malcesine * [map] stands at the gateway between Venetian and Austrian territory and at the northern end of the Riviera degli Olivi, in a fabulous setting with a distant backdrop of the Dolomites. Undoubtedly one of the most charming towns on the lake, it is always busy with tourists. Castello Scaligero (Via Castello; tel: 045-740 0837; daily 9.30–6pm), perched on a rock to the north of the town, was built by the Scaligeri in the 13th century. The view from the battlements is striking, but the castle is best seen from the water. Goethe was so taken with the look of the place in 1786 that he took out a sketchbook to draw the scenery and was arrested as a spy, spending some time in the castle as a prisoner before he was identified and released. Some of his sketches are on show in the castle museum.

Down in the harbour area, the Palazzo dei Capitani del Lago (June–Sept daily 8am–7pm) was formerly the home of the Venetian governors. The weekly market is on Saturday.

Historical Graffiti

In 1964, on the remote slopes of Monte Luppia, behind San Vigilio, archaeologists uncovered pictograms similar to those at Val Camonica (for more information, click here ). To date, around 3,000 inscriptions on 250 rocks have been uncovered, in an area of 40 sq km (15.5 sq miles) from Monte Luppia right up to Monte Baldo. Dating from the Bronze Age (1500 BC), they include religious symbols, games, battle scenes, mounted warriors, ships, captives and weapons – the Castelletto di Brenzone (in Verona Natural History Museum) shows 73 axes and eight daggers. They are best seen in early morning and are more visible if you wet the rock. Local tourist offices can provide maps, itineraries and details of walking and cycling tours.

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Malcesine harbour.

Getty Images

The highlight (in every way) of a visit to Malcesine is the Funivia Monte Baldo (tel: 045-740 0206; www.funiviedelbaldo.it ), the cable car that swings up the mountain from a station 2km (1.2 miles) north of town, reaching a stunning 1,760 metres (5,774ft). Queues can be long and queues for the car park even longer, but the 360° views are worth every minute. If you want to come down the hard way, mountain biking and paragliding are options, and there are 11km (6 miles) of ski runs in winter. There are also plenty of walking trails, with opportunities to spot wildlife, rare wild flowers and some petroglyphs.