Italian Lakes (2013)

WESTERN LAKE GARDA

The blend of Alpine and Mediterranean scenery, gorgeous villas and gardens, as well as wine-tasting forays into the hills, make this a beguiling region.

Main Attractions

Sirmione

Solferino

Villa Romana, Desenzano

Salò Waterfront

Il Vittoriale

Giardino Botanico Fondazione Andre Heller

Valtenesi Wine Route

Limone Sul Garda

On Garda’s dramatic western shore, the scenery ranges from soaring, snow-capped peaks and deep conifer forests to rolling vineyards and olive groves. Despite the Alpine glaciers to the north shelving down to the water’s edge, the lake itself radiates Mediterranean warmth. Towards the north, the Alpine landscape is softened by glistening lemon and olive groves and heady scents. Magnolias and oleanders, figs and roses, palms and pomegranates all thrive in this mild climate, adding southern warmth to the chill of the Alps. Exotic plants, imported from Asia, the Americas and Australia in the late 19th century, were selected for the villas’ gardens around the lake. Amazonian water lilies and lotus blossoms, Japanese maples and jasmine were all part of the grand design to combine art and nature in a harmonious scene.

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Winding shore road around Tignale.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Sirmione

Set on a peninsula at the southern end of the lake, Sirmione ( [map] is a delightful spot, despite the waves of day-trippers. Only Limone is more besieged in summer but, unlike this more northern resort, Sirmione is adept at crowd dispersal. A most self-consciously charming resort, this is a place for pottering down alleys, wallowing in sulphurous hot pools or meandering through olive groves to Roman ruins.

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Dog-walkers in Sirmione.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The Grotte di Catullo , which crown the rocky tip of the peninsula, have ruins infused with heady romance because the villa belonged to Catullus, Rome’s greatest lyric poet. It was here that the poet languished while suffering rejection from Lesbia, his fickle mistress in Rome. These lakeside hot springs have proved popular ever since. The steamy, sulphurous thermal baths of Aquaria ( www.termedisirmione.it ; for more information, click here ) are Sirmione’s best cure for stress.

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Maria Callas’s Villa Meneghini.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Rocca Scaligera (Scaligera Castle; Piazza Castello 34; tel: 030-916 468; Tue–Sat 8.30am–7.30pm, Sun 8.30am–2pm), a battlemented fortress complete with drawbridge and moat, dominates the centre of Sirmione. In medieval times, this fortress controlled the southern part of the lake. The Scaligeri built both the castle and the town walls in the 15th century when they were lords of Verona, using Roman foundations for their fortress. Today, these bastions tempt visitors into an unfolding parade of ice-cream parlours and craft shops. More charming are the walks through olive groves, the lapping of the lake, the public beach, and the faint mood of nostalgia that pervades Sirmione.

It was to the remoteness of the Villa Cortine Palace that Princess Diana’s mother retreated after the death of her daughter – to seek the solace she couldn’t find on her small Scottish island. Villa Meneghini , opposite, was where Maria Callas lived in her 1950s heyday. Here, she pondered the merits of her husband, an ageing Italian tycoon, and her lover, the ship-owning Aristotle Onassis. The diva embarked on a turbulent affair with Onassis that took her on trysts all over the world – until Jackie Kennedy entered his life. Callas’s ochre-coloured villa is not open to the public but the Palace Hotel Villa Cortine still serves the best Bellinis in town. From the terraces are views of Roman ruins and Monte Baldo, which reminded Callas of Mount Olympus.

Solferino

Military buffs will be drawn south to the battlefields of Solferino and San Martino della Battaglia , [map] , just inland from Lake Garda. This part of the lake became a theatre of war during the Risorgimento, the 19th-century patriotic struggle for nationhood, which was driven by Piedmont and the ruling House of Savoy. On Midsummer’s Day in 1859, the combined Italian and French forces defeated Emperor Franz Joseph’s Austrian army in these battlefields. A circular tower now dominates the skyline, while an ossuary chapel holds the bones of the slain.

The campaign’s bloodiest battle came at Solferino ⁄ [map] , a few kilometres to the south. Here, the combined forces, led by Napoleon III, crushed the Austrians in a victory commemorated by a bridge over the Seine in Paris. As one of the most decisive Risorgimento battles, Solferino has spawned a museum, military fort and ossuary, but the battlefield is also significant for more important humanitarian reasons. Appalled by the brutality of the conflict, with its 40,000 casualties, Swiss citizen Jean-Henri Dunant was spurred into founding the Red Cross.

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The library of the Fondazione Ugo da Como.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Lonato

Further west, another intense experience awaits at Lonato ¤ [map] , a slightly sombre medieval town nestling in low-slung hills off the lake. Dominated by the Rocca , a hulking Venetian fortress, the well-preserved town is of less interest than the fortress and the museum-residence that faces it.

The Fondazione Ugo da Como (Via Rocca 2; tel: 030-913 0060; www.fondazioneugodacomo.it ; daily 10am–noon, 2.30–6.30pm) is a fitting memorial to its austere founder. Shaped by the will of a singular aesthete, Ugo da Como (1869–1941), this home is a convincing neo-Gothic folly that conveys a passion for medieval culture. In turning his back on his own times, Ugo da Como created a treasure-trove that, while not on the scale of Il Vittoriale, is still an enthralling invitation to a richly imagined world. The library contains over 30,000 volumes, including illuminated manuscripts dating from the 12th century. The original mansion, the medieval Podestà, the ruler’s seat during Venetian rule, was not so much restored to its Gothic splendour as re-imagined as “essence of Gothic”. Studded with Lombard art and medieval furniture, Ugo da Como’s house feels more like a museum than a home. The glorious library was modelled on a medieval Lombard church. As a bookish politician, Ugo da Como retreated to his Gothic ivory tower as a satisfying retreat from the political fray.

Fact

The Napoleonic victory at Solferino, one of the most famous battles in the war of Italian independence from Austria, began the process of unification under Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont. Despite their perceived heavy-handedness and duplicity, the French planted the seeds of a united Italian state.

Desenzano

Back in the modern world, Desenzano ‹ [map] feels more worldly than the rest of the lake, despite its undoubted charm. As the business capital of Lake Garda, the resort represents a transport hub, with a terminus for lake steamers, a station on the Milan–Venice line and a convenient A4 motorway exit.

As a wealthy commuter resort, Desenzano commands its share of designer boutiques, lively nightlife and gourmet restaurants. Yet a deeper identity harks back to Roman times, and is underscored by the discovery of a 3rd-century AD Roman villa close to the harbour. Set on Via Crocefisso, the Villa Romana (tel: 030-914 3547; Mar–Oct Tue–Sun 8.30am–7pm, Nov–Feb until 5pm) is northern Italy’s finest late imperial villa. Although built in the 1st century BC, the multicoloured mosaics mostly date from the 4th and 5th centuries and bear comparison with those at Pompeii. Curiously, the Christianising effect of that era left its mark on the artefacts, which include a late 4th-century glass bowl engraved with an image of Christ.

In Roman times, Desenzano was an important trading town, and today’s bustling Tuesday market evokes that entrepreneurial spirit. Built over a Roman fort, Desenzano’s ruined castle stands in the lofty Capo la Terra district, close to the former grain market. Desenzano also flourished under Venetian rule and owes its quaint inner harbour to these times. Even if it feels city-like, the resort reveals a softer side in its tree-lined waterfront and scenic inner harbour. No visit is complete without a gluttonous seafood dinner in one of its lakefront restaurants, the place to see Desenzano at its greedy, bourgeois best.

Wine country

Padenghe sul Garda › [map] has a split personality, part prosperous little wine town overlooking a pleasant marina, part medieval strong­hold, once dominated by a 10th-century castle. Surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves, Padenghe is at the heart of the Valtenesi wine route (for more information, click here ). Neighbouring Moniga sul Garda boasts its own wine roots in the form of Chiaretto, an adaptable rosé. The village itself is a scenic spot, framed by a 10th-century crenellated castle. The road down to the shore winds through olive groves and vineyards, culminating in a harbour lined with restaurants and cafés.

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Desenzano waterfront.

Bigstockphoto

Perched on a headland overlooking the lake, Manerba del Garda fi [map] is a cluster of hamlets bordering wine country. On the promontory, Rocca di Manerba is one of the loveliest spots on Lake Garda: the site dates back to the Stone Age but the castle, as such, was razed by the Venetians in 1575. No traces of the original Longobard castle remain, and there are few signs of later castles. On a sparkling summer’s day, this pastoral setting conjures up balmy Sardinia rather than Alpine Lake Garda. When the crowds in the touristy lake resorts become tiring, clambering around the Rocca provides a perfect antidote, as does the orchid-studded nature reserve below the ruins.

San Felice del Benaco fl [map] is a low-key resort overlooking the Isola del Garda, an island which can be visited on a guided tour. In San Felice, the Gothic parish church of Madonna del Carmine displays a Renaissance altarpiece by Romanino and, curiously, has recycled the castle tower as its church bell tower. It is just south of the village, on the road to Manerba.

The Republic of Salò

One of the most shameful episodes in Italian history took place in Salò’s name. Between 1943–5, the Republic of Salò was a fig leaf of respectability used to disguise the brutality of the Nazi regime. Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano was the seat of the puppet government, with major villas commandeered as embassies or propaganda offices. Mussolini’s private residence was a secluded villa, where his wife devoted herself to her pet hens while Mussolini passed time discussing casualties with the German ambassador. His mistress, Clara Petacci, lived in Villa Fiordaliso. He took the opportunity to exact revenge on former colleagues, even executing his son-in-law, but failed to survive the vengeance of the partisans in 1945.

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Salò lights up at night.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Salò

The most elegant resort on Lake Garda, Salò ‡ [map] retains its sense of self, and resists the blandishments of the tour operators and trinket-sellers that have tarnished lesser resorts. Welcoming, yet supremely indifferent, Salò is the closest visitors will come to feeling how the lakes might manage without us. Perfectly well is the answer. Strolling along Via San Carlo , the arcaded shopping street, allows visitors to snoop on the sophisticated and self-contained lives of the inhabitants. This is a serious shopping street, such as those in Como, Verona and the bigger centres, and culminates in the quaint city gate. Chic matrons and yummy mummies browse the designer shoe stores before calling in for coffee and cake in Vassalli Pasticceria , a citadel of good taste since the 1930s.

After the world has been put to rights over an iced coffee and crunchy hazelnut biscuits, saunter along the Lungolago , the waterfront. This bracing promenade, which sweeps around the seductive bay, is the longest and best on Lake Garda. On the waterfront is Piazza della Vittoria , the showpiece square and the gateway to Salò’s medieval heart. On Piazza Duomo, just off the lake, the handsome Duomo lacks grace, reflecting the heavy Baroque hand that descended with the reforming zeal of San Carlo Borromeo. The highlights are the Renaissance portal, a 15th-century altarpiece and works by Romanino. Tourists have impinged enough on the local consciousness for there to be a collection of scarves and veils “to cover better oneself” (sic) waiting by the cathedral door.

Salò is inevitably linked to Mussolini, who set up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the delightful Hotel Laurin , an Art Nouveau gem. Even so, Mussolini’s puppet state, the Republic of Salò (see box), is a slight misnomer as most of the ministries were clustered around Gargnano, further along the coast.

D’Annunzio’s Destiny

Cast in the heroic mould, the soldier-poet, war hero and founding Fascist occupies an odd place in Italian hearts, somewhere between reverence and bafflement.

D’Annunzio declared, “Destiny calls me towards Lake Garda.” In fact, it was Mussolini who presented the villa of Il Vittoriale to the maverick patriot in 1925. Il Vittoriale is a decadent Disneyland, a shrine to one of Italy’s most flamboyant pre-war figures. Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) was a poet, patriot, pantheist, dandy, daredevil, aviator, aesthete, maverick and megalomaniac.

As a right-wing nationalist who posed as the saviour of his country, D’Annunzio favoured Italy’s entry into the war in 1915 and plunged into the fighting, carrying out derring-do missions, such as flying over Trieste in 1915 and Vienna in 1918. Believing that Italy had been cheated by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, he led an unauthorised invasion of the Dalmatian port of Fiume, which he ruled until 1921, on the basis that it had been promised to Italy before the war. Such activities convinced Mussolini that the dangerous maverick should be pensioned off to Lake Garda.

The poet’s home fails to solve the riddle of the man, but offers enough clues to keep legions of psychiatrists and biographers in business. D’Annunzio accepted the 18th-century villa as a monument to his massive ego, called it Il Vittoriale, in memory of Italy’s victory over Austria in 1918, and remodelled it out of all recognition. The virtual recluse lived here from 1921 until his death.

Il Vittoriale is as crazily complex as its creator. The greatest contrast is between the loveliness of the grounds and the hideousness of the creations that inhabit them. There is the grandiose mausoleum, a magnolia grove housing a war memorial, while the Puglia battleship that featured in the Fiume fiasco is bizarrely beached amid cypresses. On display in a hangar are other vehicles from the escapade, the biplane used for the flight over Vienna and the Italian flag D’Annunzio flew over Yugoslavia. The mausoleum where the Italian “patriots” are buried is also a monument to kitsch, while an eerie museum contains the poet’s death mask. Despite this disfiguring gloom, pockets of the former lemon gardens escape the philosophical straitjacket and even the Fascistic amphitheatre has fine views from the top tier.

Isola del Garda

Travel by boat from Salò, Garda, Bardolino and Gardone Riviera to Isola del Garda ° [map] (tel: 328-384 9226; www.isoladelgarda.com ; island open late Mar–mid-Oct, booking required). The trip includes food and wine-tasting in the fee. In medieval times, Garda’s largest island once supported a monastery that attracted a triumvirate of saints, including St Francis of Assisi; it is thought that Dante Alighieri also stayed here. The monastery was razed by Napoleon and replaced by a neo-Gothic Venetian-style villa and lush English and Italianate gardens. The down-to-earth owners of this palatial pile, including Countess Cavazza herself, also own campsites on Lake Garda.

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Villa Fiordaliso.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Gardone Riviera

Gardone Riviera · [map] , a fabled resort that has fallen out of favour, is still home to the most famous villa-museum on the lake, Il Vittoriale, and to the arty botanical gardens. In Gardone’s palm-court glory days, royalty, writers and heads of state filled the dowager-like hotels. The pretty lakeside Villa Fiordaliso (for more information, click here ), formerly Mussolini’s love nest, now a chic villa-hotel, remains an evocative tribute to those times.

Not that faded grandeur characterises the delightfully bohemian Giardino Botanico Fondazione Andre Heller (Via Roma 2; tel: 0336-410 877; www.hellergarden.com ; Mar–Oct daily 9am–7pm). Alpine plants and Mediterranean vegetation grow happily on this rocky spur lying in the shadow of the Dolomite peaks. The gardens are enlivened by playful or surreal installations by the Austrian artist.

Il Vittoriale

A testament to the megalomania of two men, Mussolini and Gabriele D’Annunzio, stands Il Vittoriale (Via Vittoriale 12, Gardone Riviera; tel: 0365-296 511; www.vittoriale.it ; Apr–Sept 8.30am–8pm, Oct–Mar 9am–5pm). The soldier-poet D’Annunzio transformed this unremarkable Art Nouveau villa and park into a bombastic folly, a kingdom of kitsch, which is his true memorial. His home, presented as a shrine, is a gilded cage fit for a fin de siècle poet who abhorred daylight. In every over-stuffed room, the decor reflects the delusions of a cigar-smoking aesthete who strutted around in silk dressing-gowns, declaiming verse and rearranging his reliquaries before snoozing in a coffin. Such self-aggrandisement led D’Annunzio to create a low entrance to his study so guests had to stoop, bowing to the poet’s genius. His warped sense of humour is revealed in the gleaming Art Deco dining room where his embalmed pet tortoise, which died of indigestion, is displayed.

Fact

As a morbid hypochondriac with poor eyesight, D’Annunzio preferred the penumbra of light filtered through stained glass. When even the half-light became too much to bear, D’Annunzio retreated to the bier in “the death chamber” (the spare bedroom) in order to think cosmic thoughts.

Given that the villa had been expropriated from a German art critic, D’Annunzio’s first task was, as he put it, to have his new home “de-Germanised”. Not that the result is remotely Italian. The once lovely grounds are scattered with symbols of wartime exploits and delusions of grandeur, from a battleship to vintage warplanes, a recreation of a Roman amphitheatre and a doom-laden mausoleum.

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Giardino Botanico Fondazione Andre Heller.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The villa itself has two waiting rooms, a faintly cheerful one for favoured guests and a gloomy temple for unwelcome guests, such as Mussolini. The mad aesthete and the brutalist dictator were never soulmates. In the parlour for undesirables, a cutting inscription above a mirror was apparently aimed at Mussolini: “Adjust your mask to your face and remember you are merely glass against steel.” Mussolini’s reaction is not recorded, but D’Annunzio lived to tell the tale.

Even if the maverick war hero and proto-Fascist started out as a supporter of Mussolini, he was swiftly walled up in this decadent Disneyland for ever. The coda, of course, is that despite his bombastic bohemianism, Mussolini’s fellow megalomaniac had the sense to counsel his leader against a Faustian pact with Hitler. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Gargnano waterfront.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Windy shores

Toscolano-Maderno , with several distinctive churches, a rash of apricot and pink facades and an appealing sandy beach, is before Bogliaco , an erstwhile fishing village which marks the beginning of the best windsurfing and sailing waters. Here, the lake narrows and attracts the “Ora del Garda”, a local wind system which blows from the south with a very specific timetable.

Dominating the lakefront is Palazzo Bettoni , an impressive ochre-and-green Lombard Baroque mansion that belongs to Brescian aristocrats. More typical is the inviting beach at the end of Via Castello, and the bold view of Monte Baldo on the far bank.

Gargnano

Beyond is Gargnano º [map] . A favourite among sailing enthusiasts, it is arguably the least spoilt resort on the lake, and certainly the most understated. The lure here is the sumptuous Villa Feltrinelli (for more information, click here ), built in 1892 by the sons of a lumber merchant, Faustino Feltrinelli, and now a luxurious hotel. With its crenellated roof and ochre-and-vanilla stripes, the villa has something of the look of an overblown wedding cake about it. In 1943 the Germans commandeered the villa and installed Mussolini in this gilded cage. He was effectively under house arrest, guarded by German officers, until he escaped in 1945, ending in his capture and death at the hands of partisans.

By the harbour is the tiny Romanesque church of San Giacomo (pick up the key from fishermen next door), a pilgrimage chapel founded on the site of a pagan temple. This was the medieval harbour, when the steepness of the slopes forced pilgrims to arrive by boat. Fittingly, fishermen, admittedly a dying breed in these parts, still set sail from this harbour. They even stack their nets in the portico of a chapel frescoed with a St Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

Nearby, the 13th-century Franciscan foundation of San Francesco (8am–noon, 2.30–6pm) boasts Romanesque cloisters with citrus fruit sculpted on the capitals, proof that lemons were part of the landscape even then. D.H. Lawrence stayed just outside Gargnano while penning Twilight in Italy , an evocative account of a disappearing way of life. Touchingly, the old way of life has survived better in Gargnano than on other Lake Garda resorts.

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From vines to barrels.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Valtenesi’s Wine and Oil Route

The Valtenesi or “Little Tuscany” is the most appealing drive on the lower lake, combining olive oil estates and vineyards with rustic inns and gourmet restaurants.

North of Desenzano stretches a patchwork of rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves, situated on the Strada dei Vini e Sapori ( www.stradadeivini.it ), that, after a few glasses of wine, can conjure up Tuscany. From Salò, this foodie circuit meanders through the hills behind Lake Garda and visits the most individualistic estates close to the western shore. (Vineyard visits and lunch stops are best booked beforehand.)

From Salò , follow the lakeshore on a circular route heading down to Desenzano and back. Towards the headland is the hamlet of Portese , overlooking the Gulf of Salò, and the first port of call: the wine and oil estate of Le Chiusure (tel: 0365-626 243; www.lechiusure.net ). Enjoy the inspirational views from the ruined castle at Rocca di Manerba before considering lunch at Ristorante da Rino, a chic restaurant overlooking the lake.

Continue to Padenghe sul Garda, calling in at the traditional Zuliani estate (Via Tito Speri 28; tel: 030-990 7026; www.vinizuliani.it ), tucked into a fortress-like interior and run by the indomitable Eleonora. Chiaretto, made with Groppello, Barbera, Marzemino and Sangiovese, is a rosé that suits light, uncomplicated dishes. Bianco Donna Eleonora, named in the owner’s honour, is a classic Chardonnay.

Olive oil tasting

Heading south to Desenzano, visit the charming olive oil estate of Frantoio Montecroce (Montecroce, Viale Andreis, Desenzano; tel: 030-991 1504; www.frantoiomontecroce.it ). This award-winning olive oil producer gives the best presentation of how extra-virgin olive oil is made, using a traditional olive press. The artisan-style oils have no additives and, like the best Garda oil, tend to be delicate and fruity, or medium-fruity.

Inland at Lonato , take the time to stroll by the castle ruins, which now house the ornithological museum and the Casa del Podesta, a library of over 50,000 ancient volumes. In town you can also climb the 16th-century Torre Civica for panoramic views of the city, before returning via Padenghe for a fish-inspired late lunch in the AquaRiva restaurant at West Garda marina.

Towards Salò in Puegnago , Comincioli (Via Roma 10; tel: 0365-651 141; www.comincioli.it ) is both the oldest and the most innovative wine producer in the area, where the Comincioli family have been making wine since 1552. The family firm only produces wines made with native grapes, such as Gropello and Erbamat, which is threatened by extinction. The firm also produces award-winning olive oil. After a wine-tasting in their attractive wine estate, head south via the walled medieval town of Polpenazze .

Polpenazze is famous for its wine festival held every May and for the remains of a Bronze Age village which is part of the Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps Unesco World Heritage site. From Polpenazze, it’s more vineyards before returning to Salò.

Coastal wilderness

The coastal route then sweeps into Tignale ¡ [map] in a series of tunnels, revealing occasional flashes of lake and a tangle of olive groves and lemon trees. Tignale disentangles itself in a series of views that are more an introduction to the Upper Lake Garda Park than to the villages themselves. Olives and lemon groves give way to chestnut and pine groves on the higher slopes.

Rather like Tignale, the name Tremosine ™ [map] is a notional one for 18 disparate hamlets, including the coastal village of Campione, set in an amphitheatre of cliffs. Tremosine, too, is less a specific place than a necklace of lakeside terraces, deep-wooded valleys and forgotten hamlets. The road up from Campione is truly terrifying to all but those with nerves of steel, so you would do better to continue on through Limone and follow the Upper Lake Drive and enjoy lunch perched above the cliffs, as the best way to appreciate this wilderness.

Limone

Beyond lies quaint, lemon-scented Limone sul Garda # [map] . Even though the old fishing port beloved by Goethe, Ibsen and D.H. Lawrence has plenty of tourists, the place has charm enough. Bright southern light, a tiny port and pastel facades hide the pizza parlours. The steep, cobbled streets are self-consciously quaint, as is the inner harbour and the bustling promenade. Limone is as charming and sickly sweet as a Limoncello liqueur.

Still, visiting the authentic “lemon house” at the top of the hill restores a sense of what Limone once was. The Limonaia del Castel (Via Orti; tel: 0365-954 008; daily mid-Mar–mid-May, mid-Sept–Oct 10am–6pm, mid-May–mid-Sept until 10pm) reveals the secrets of lemon production, a crop that has flourished around the lake since the 13th century. The lemons were introduced by Franciscan monks and, by the mid-19th century, there were over 400 limonaie (lemon houses), which produced the most northerly lemons and citrons in Europe.

These evocative lemon terraces, which can be seen from the lake, are complex structures, with stone pilasters topped by wooden latticework which was covered in winter to protect the fruit from frost. Growing lemons was a major undertaking, necessitating the creation of water channels and even the transportation of richer soil from the south of the lake. Yet the challenge clearly paid off: the local citizens enjoy incredible longevity, which some attribute to the healthy Mediterranean diet of lake fish, lake oil and fresh lemons. The more scientific view is that the presence of a “wonder gene” and cholesterol-beating protein (Apolipoprotein A1-Milan) in the gene pool has protected the locals against heart disease and other ills.

A drive around Upper Lake Garda

Stretching high above Limone and Gargnano is the wilderness area of the Parco Alto Garda Bresciano ¢ [map] , a regional park including a clutch of hamlets and challenging hiking trails. The beauty of the park is in the desolate weight of the wilderness, ranging from deep pine forests to silvery olives, with oleander and bougainvillea on the lower slopes. Compared to eastern Lake Garda, the west commands the dramatic views, but with the mountains dropping direct into the lake and the lake road plunging into tunnels, the views are best seen on two mountain drives – a route from Limone to Gargnano that coils through the soaring wilderness of the park, and the much longer Four Lakes Drive, from Riva, also ending in Gargnano.

Begin in the main car park at Limone sul Garda and head for the coastal road south. Known as the Gardesana Occidentale , this exhilarating lakeside road is riven with tunnels and daredevil bends but rewards drivers with heady, partially glimpsed views of the lake. The switchback roads cut through Forra, a gorge en route to the Tremosine hamlets, centred on Pieve di Tremosine ∞ [map] . Hotel Paradiso (Viale Europa 19; tel: 0365-953 012; www.terrazzadelbrivido.it ) makes a good lunch or coffee stop, with its dizzying views from the vast terrace over cliffs down to the lake. Equally dramatic, but with a cosier terrace, is Miralago (Piazza Cozzaglio; tel: 0365-953 001; www.miralago.it ).

At the hamlet of Vesio , go straight over the junction before crossing the river, Torrente Campione, deep in the wilderness above Lake Garda. A side turning leads to Santuario di Monte Castello § [map] , a Romanesque church with the finest views in the reserve. After retracing your steps to the main route at Vesio, head for Gardola, where the road meets the lakeshore.

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Riva del Garda.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The Four Lakes Drive

Rejoin the Gardesana Occidentale, the main coastal road heading north to Riva del Garda, gateway to Trentino and the Four Lakes Drive , one of the most adventurous driving routes from Lake Garda and a good way to loop back down to Gargnano. Dramatic twists and turns take in three Alpine lakes and the medieval village of Bagolino, before returning to Lake Garda via the rugged heights of the Parco Alto Garda Bresciano.

Tip

The Italian medical profession insists that the lake climate is beneficial for “the stressed and neurotic, the arthritic and the asthmatic, the elderly and young children”. As a result, the spas in the region are highly valued, especially those in Sirmione.

Begin at Riva del Garda (for more information, click here ) and climb Val Ledro, turning off to the south onto the SS45bis and then right (onto the SS240) for rural Lago di Ledro ¶ [map] , with its Bronze Age pile-dwellings, museum explaining the 4,000-year-old community, and the resort of Pieve di Ledro. At Storo, turn left onto the SS237, towards the deep-blue fjord-like Lago d’Idro • [map] , framed by woody crags and famous for its trout-fishing, making a detour right to atmospheric Bagolino ª [map] . Retrace your steps to Lake Idro, the highest lake in Lombardy at 368 metres (1,207ft), pausing to swim at Anfo’s beaches (in August only). Then wander down from Pieve Vecchia and Zumie via the forked tarn of Lago di Valvestino q [map] , which is actually a dam, back to Gargnano.