Italian Lakes (2013)

INSIGHT: LAKE GARDA ON THE WATER

With its surreal blue waters and dramatic cliffs, there is something other-worldly about Lake Garda, and out on the water the magic is all the more intense.

Ferries

There is no one “must do” tour of this huge lake – even on the high speed catamaran, getting from Riva del Garda in the north to Desenzano in the south takes over three hours. Instead, Garda boat tours are a splendid pick and mix from amongst the dozens of ferries and pleasure boats that criss-cross the water every day, linking towns along both shores, crossing the lake at key points and, in the south, converging like a spider’s web on Sirmione.

Choose between standard ferries, historic paddle steamers, high-speed catamarans or hydrofoils (and pay a small premium for the privilege). Most of the boats carry passengers only, but there are some car ferries, from Riva to Desenzano, Limone to Malcesine and Maderno to Torri del Benaco. The number of services drops dramatically in winter (Oct–Mar).

Tickets are available by the journey, but if you want the freedom to roam, consider buying a day pass. These come in three versions – one covering the whole lake, one for the Upper Lake (Riva down to Bogliaco, just beyond Gargnano) and one for the Lower Lake (Desenzano, Peschiera up to Gargnano). There are adult and child fares available and ticket sales offices by all the quays. For more information, contact Navigazione Lago di Garda, tel: 030-914 9511 or 800-551 801 (free­phone), www.navlaghi.it .

Taking a boat out

Rent a boat for an hour, an afternoon or a day and sail or motor where you like. There are boat-hire yards in most of the resort towns. Prices vary wildly and can be steep, so do your homework before setting out. Most of the boats have a ladder, making it easy to swim off the back, so you can take fins and snorkels, or a fishing rod, or simply take a picnic and some sunblock. Just remember what your home harbour looks like, so you can find it again.

Dinghies

The northern part of the lake in particular, around Torbole, is known as perfect sailing territory, and the ferries have to thread their way through flotillas of training dinghies while windsurfers zip precariously under the bows. There are plenty of places to hire equipment and schools where you can have lessons in safety if you’d like to have a go.

Breezes to storms

While blessed with warm summers and mild winters, Garda is also known for winds and even savage storms. The gardesana is a pleasant cooling breeze on hot summer days – perfect for cooling down. The vent de sora is benign, blowing from the north in the early mornings in fine weather, ideal for windsurfers, while the vesentina blows in off the Bardolino hills. The spisoca whips up a stronger wind in the gulf. The ora is a hot, rising wind blowing in off the southern plain. Both give sailors a run for their money, but it is the leva , blasting down from Trieste, that can cause most damage onshore.

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Sailing off Bogliaco.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Early Boats

Garda has had ferries for as long as it has had people living on its shores, but it got its first steam ferry, the Arciduca Ranieri , in 1827. More and more ships were added to the fleet, possibly the most interesting of them the Amico a Prora , known as “The Handlebar”, which was powered by eight horses yoked to handlebars on deck, turning the paddle wheels, which sailed for 10 years until 1830. By World War I, around 30,000 visitors a year were travelling on the ferries. In the period between the wars, a new fleet of ships was carrying up to 400,000 a year, numbers not reached again until the 1980s. These days well over a million people a year take to Garda’s waters.