Italian Lakes (2013)

NORTHERN LAKE GARDA AND TRENTINO

The culture of Lake Garda changes yet again as you reach the far north. Now part of the province of Trentino, this area remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire right up until 1918.

Main Attractions

Riva del Garda

Grotta Cascata Varone, Riva del Garda

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento

Castel Avio

MUSE – Museo delle Scienze di Trento

MART, Rovereto

Parco Naturale Adamello-Brenta

Trentino is a mountainous land where eagles soar in summer and skiers swoop down gleaming pistes in winter. It may be Italian-speaking, but its Germanic roots remain strong, with beer and sacher torte , sausage and sauerkraut on the menus, while the architecture is influenced by the Austrian court and by the steep rooflines necessitated by the winter snows.

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Riva del Garda.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

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View of Mount Cevedale, Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio.

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People were living in the area by 12,000 BC – this was the home of the Neanderthals and Oetzi the Iceman (for more information, click here ). It was largely ignored by the Romans, although officially part of the empire. Christianity arrived in the 4th and 5th centuries, followed by Goths, Longobards and Franks. In 1027, the region, by now part of the Holy Roman Empire, was given to the local bishop as a principality. In 1363, a deal brokered between the dukes of Austria and the prince-bishop left him as a virtual figurehead, while the dukes got on with running the country.

In 1545–63, faced with the growing threat of Protestantism north of the Alps, the Council of Trent convened to shake up the Roman Church, but it failed to agree on anything much other than a willingness to stamp out any sign of heresy.

Napoleon came and went before the Holy Roman Empire crumbled. In his wake, the Austrians got their lands back, but the prince-bishops of Trento didn’t, and Italian-speakers suddenly found themselves being directly ruled by a northern, German regime. Long before World War I, there was a move towards joining the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. In that war, thousands died in bitter fighting on the Trentino front. When it was over, on 4 November 1918, Italian forces moved into Trento.

Meanwhile, throughout the more peaceful periods of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the northern part of Lake Garda was considered a sanatorium for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of Mitteleuropa . Today, local thermal spas are being reborn as “well-being spas”, led by Levico Terme. For the healthy, the mountains provide challenges aplenty, from mountain biking to hiking, paragliding to birdwatching, and if you are very, very lucky, you may just catch a glimpse of one of the brown bears recently released into the wilds of the Parco Naturale Adamello-Brenta (for more information, click here ).

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Riva del Garda waterfront.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The Lake

Riva del Garda 1 [map] , a 19th-century Lido, is still the main resort in the north, its broad waterfront with its porticoed medieval Piazza III Novembre perfectly designed for strolling in the evening sun. The rest of the town is crammed into the small amount of available space before the massive cliffs of Monte Rocchetta at 1,575 metres (5167ft) soar skywards. The German influence is clear – in the solidly northern architecture, in the menus, in the sheer volume of German tourists who flock here. The 12th-century Rocca (Castle, Piazza C. Battisti 3; tel: 0464-573 869; mid-Mar–May, Oct Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, June–Sept daily 10am–6pm) at one end of the waterfront has the town’s museum and art gallery, while a footpath leads up to the Bastione , a Venetian fortress (built 1508) that looms over the lake. In the cliffs behind the town, the Grotta Cascate Varone (tel: 0464-521 421; Mar, Oct 9am–5pm, Apr, Sept 9am–6pm, May–Aug 9am–7pm, remaining months Sun and public holidays only 10am–5pm; www.cascata-varone.com ) is a dramatic waterfall that cascades through a narrow canyon, showering the rocks with opalescent spray.

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Playing on Torbole beach.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Further east on the lakeshore, Torbole 2 [map] is one of the lake’s prettiest resorts, chiefly known for the winds which make it an ideal base for huge flotillas of windsurfers and dinghy sailors. You can see the full length of the lake on a clear day – though these are few and far between. A slight haze is the norm even in full sunlight. Goethe was most admiring when he stayed here in 1786, a visit commemorated by a statue in the main square.

A few kilometres inland, Arco 3 [map] was the Austrian imperial resort and the most prestigious of the 19th-century spa resorts, a kurpavilon , a sanatorium with a spa, medicinal inhalations and therapeutic baths. Treatments centred on the curative properties of the Sarca river water, which was vaporised to produce steam scented with pine resin. These days, it is best-known for the dramatic medieval Castello di Arco , which clings to a rock on the outskirts of town (tel: 0464-510 156; Apr–Sept 10am–7pm, Mar, Oct 10am–5pm, Nov–Feb 10am–4pm, Jan Sat–Sun only).

Fact

While British writers were waxing lyrical about Como and Maggiore, the Germans eulogised northern Garda – amongst them Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Rilke, Nietzsche, Kafka and Goethe, who described the lake as a Wunderwerk der Natur ” (a wonder of nature).

Trento

Beyond Arco, a regiment of other villages with castles, including Drò, Drena and Castel Toblino , proceed up the Sarca Valley to the regional capital of Trento 4 [map] , a startlingly beautiful walled city surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Dolomites.

Start in the Piazza Duomo A [map] , which was founded on the site of the old Christian cemetery just outside the Roman Porta Veronese , a twin arch that controlled the road along the Adige Valley. These days the city has wrapped itself around the cathedral, with 15th–16th century arcades on three sides of the piazza and the beautiful Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain; 1767–9) by Francesco Antonio Giongo at the centre. Of the many painted houses in the city, two of the finest are in front of you – the Casa Balduini , probably the work of Francesco Verla from Vicenza (1510), and Casa Cazuffi , painted by Marcello Fogolino (1527–49) from San Vito in the Friuli region.

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The Basilica Duomo di San Vigilio B [map] (Piazza Duomo; tel: 0461-980 132; daily 6.30am–noon, 2–6pm) was designed by sculptor-architect Adamo d’Arogno during the rule of Prince-Bishop Vanga (1207–18), although much was destroyed in adding the great galleried dome. Unusually, the side facing the piazza is more elaborate than the west front, which faces a small street.

Beneath the cathedral are the remnants of the early 6th-century Basilica Paleocristiana di San Vigilio (Palaeochristian Basilica of St Vigilio; Piazza Duomo 18; tel: 0461-234 419; Mon–Sat 10am–noon, 2.30–5.30pm), built over the tombs of Trentino’s first evangelists, the martyrs Sisinio, Martirio and Alessandro and Bishop Vigilio (AD 400).

A few blocks away, in the Spazio Archeologico Sotterraneo SASS C [map] (Subterranean Archeological Area; Piazza Cesare Battisti; tel: 0461-230 171; Tue–Sun June–Sept 9.30am–1pm, 2–6pm, Oct–May 9am–1pm, 2–5.30pm), a timeline of the town is traced back 2,000 years from Roman buildings to a medieval quarter, a Renaissance palace, a 19th-century theatre and the modern day.

Drink

In the northern part of Lake Garda, a legacy of Austro-Hungarian times is the bizarre grape cure known as the traubenkur , an autumn ritual involving the imbibing of large quantities of grape juice. Originally thought to cleanse one’s body of toxins after the excesses of summer, the contemporary “cure” is more of an excuse to drink a fine range of regional wines and grappas.

Back in the Piazza Duomo, the foundations of the Torre Civica D [map] (tel: 0461-234 419) rest on the former Roman gateway. Built in the 10th century, with many additions over the years, this was the keep of Palazzo Pretorio, used as a prison for a time. The Renga bell announced public meetings and executions.

The palace

The 13th-century Palazzo Pretorio E [map] (Piazza Duomo 18; tel: 0461-234 419; June–Sept Mon, Wed–Fri 9.30am–12.30pm, 2.30–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–1pm, 2–6pm, Oct–May Wed–Sat 9.30am–12.30pm, 2–5.30pm, Sun 10am–1pm, 2–6pm; www.museodiocesanotridentino.it ) holds the Museo Diocesano del Trento (Diocesan Museum of Trento), with the lavish collection of treasures, vestments, tapestries and art amassed by the prince-bishops over the centuries. On the other side of the Palazzo Pretorio is the austere Castelletto dei Vescovi (tel: 0461-234 419; visit to be arranged with the Diocesan Museum of Trento). The basement contains the chapel of San Giovanni, the next floor the chapel of San Biagio, now used as the cathedral sacristy, while the impregnable top floor, fortified by Bishop Vanga in the 13th century, was the prince-bishops’ home.

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Trento Duomo.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The castle

Their official seat was in the huge Castello del Buonconsiglio F [map] (Via Bernardo Clesio 5; tel: 0461-233 770; www.buonconsiglio.it ; Tue–Sun May–early Nov 10am–6pm, late-Nov–Apr 9.30am–5pm, also open Mon in Aug). Built on a rocky hill near the 13th-century city walls, over the centuries it has evolved, and today you can visit the 13th-century Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and the luxurious 15th-century Magno Palazzo, built by Prince-Bishop Bernardo Clesio and liberally covered with his own heraldic symbols. Both are museums holding rich collections of archaeology, art and history, furniture and tapestries and musical scores dating back 1,500 years. Housed in the castle carpentry workshops is the Museo Storico del Trentino (Museum of the History of Trentino; tel: 0461-230 482; www.museostorico.tn.it ; closed for restoration).

The Torre dell’Aquila in the castle grounds is one of many along the 13th-century walls at the city limits. Bernardo Clesio (later prince-bishop 1514–39) housed his entourage here, and there are some magnificent 15th-century frescoes of the seasons by a Bohemian master. Several towers still stand, but only a couple can be visited.

Mountain museums

Anyone interested in mountain life should visit the MUSE – Museo delle Scienze di Trento G [map] (MUSE Science Museum; Corso del Lavoro e della Scienza 3; tel: 0461-270 311; Tue–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–7pm; www.muse.it ), formerly the Museo Tridentino di Scienze Naturali and now in a new location in a modern Renzo Piano-designed building next to Palazzo delle Albere. Along with the usual flora and fauna displays, the museum explains the geology of the Dolomites and the prehistoric people of the mountains, including Neanderthals. Its tropical greenhouse showcases 132 African plant species.

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Castello del Buonconsiglio.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Castles in the Front Line

From ruined keeps clad in ivy to luxury chateau hotels, vast fortresses and walled cities –Trentino has a castle for everyone.

The motorway rolls invitingly down the Adige Valley, following the line of the Roman Via Claudia Augusta Altinate which connected the Adriatic Sea to the Danube – a vital trading route and also the obvious choice for any invading force, with a fork down the Sarca Valley to the lake.

Since Ostrogoths tramped south to end the Roman Empire, this region has seen far more than its fair share of armies on the march. Garrison towns and observation posts became dramatically sited, with splendidly crenellated castles, and the building continued even into the 20th century as the Austro-Hungarian forces strung World War I forts across the high ground to defend the borders of their empire. The result is an extraordinarily rich collection of military history spanning over 1,000 years. Some are still private property and not open to the public. Some are open as hotels and restaurants, others as museums.

Museum of Italy at war

Cream of the crop was the seat of the Prince-Bishops, Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento. Rovereto’s 15th-century Venetian castle, Castello di Rovereto, is home to the sombre Museo Storico Italiano della Guerra (via Castelbarco 7, Rovereto; tel: 0464-438 100; www.museodellaguerra.it ; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm), which tells the violent local story of the Risorgimento and two world wars. Built by the Castelbarco family in the 14th century, today it is considered to be one of the best examples of the Venetian-type Alpine fortifications. It is a useful introduction if you wish to visit the plateaux that bore the brunt of the fighting. To do so, head back up north a short distance to Calliano, where the vast Castel Beseno (tel: 0464-834 600; www.buonconsiglio.it ; mid-Mar–early May Sat–Sun 9.30am–5pm, early May–early Nov Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, early-Nov–early-Mar Tue–Sat 9.30am–5pm) encases the whole hilltop in rambling walls. This, together with its smaller twin, Castel Pietra, marks the turn-off to Folgaria. The World War I front was along this area, which still bears the scars with forts, pillboxes, gun emplacements and trenches. The tourist office produces a detailed leaflet with a route map.

Castle of war and love

Castello di Avio (Sabbionara di Avio, 32km/20 miles south of Trento; tel: 0464-684 453; www.fondoambiente.it ; Wed–Sun Mar–Sept 10am–6pm, Oct, Nov and second half of Feb 10am–5pm, also open Tue in Aug, last entry 30 minutes before closing; closed Dec–mid-Feb) stands at the back of Monte Baldo, a huge 12th–13th-century complex of five towers, a palace and a keep commanding the Adige valley. Inside are some vivid 14th-century frescoes – the guardhouse is decorated with scenes of war, celebrating Castelbarco family victories, while the Hall of Love on the fourth floor of the keep is adorned in a more chivalric fashion with paintings on the theme of medieval romance.

The Museo della Societa degli Alpinisti Tridentini H [map] (Museum of the Society of Trentino Alpinists; Via Manci, 57; tel: 0461-981 871; open on booking only; free) is a small museum of old documents, photos and climbing gear housed in the headquarters of the Trentino Alpinists Association, founded in Madonna di Campiglio in 1872.

On the edge of town, the Museo Storico degli Alpini (Museum of Alpine Troops; Doss Trento; tel: 0461-827 248; Tue–Thur 9am–noon, 1.30–4pm, Fri 9am–noon; free) is a national monument commemorating the role of the Alpine Troops in World War I. It is based in an Austrian powder-magazine near a 6th-century church.

There are twenty planes, some dating back to 1910, with various engines and parts as well as photographs and archives, on display at the Museo dell’Aeronautica Gianni Caproni I [map] (Aeronautics Museum; Via Lidorno 3, Trento Aeroporto; tel: 0461-944 888; Tue–Sun 10am–1pm, 2–6pm; www.museocaproni.it ) on the outskirts of town.

The Adige Valley

A few kilometres north of Trento, the Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina 5 [map] (Folklore Museum; Via Mach 2, San Michele all’Adige; tel: 0461-650 314; www.museosanmichele.it ; Tue–Sun 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–6pm) is one of Italy’s finest ethnographic museums, in a former Augustine convent, showing local customs, costume and traditions.

The road branches east into the wild high peaks of the Dolomites for the Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio , the largest park in the Alps, and the Parco Naturale Adamello-Brenta 6 [map] , the last refuge of the brown bear (for more information, click here ). For the Adige Valley castles.

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The Renzo Piano-designed MUSE.

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Tip

Every summer the Sounds of the Dolomites festival brings open-air concerts to the mountains, with international musicians performing in breathtaking settings. For events listings, see www.isuonidelledolomiti.it .

South of Trento

Just south of Trento, on the slopes of Monte Bondone, the spa town of Garniga Terme 7 [map] (tourist information tel: 0461-842586) specialises in hay baths (with curative grasses) said to cure osteoarthritis, rheumatism, muscle spasms and stiff joints.

Fact

On Colle di Miravalle near Rovereto, the “Maria Dolens”, or the Bell of the Fallen, is the largest functioning bell in the world, weighing in at 22,600kg (22.25 tons). It rings daily at sunset in memory of the fallen of all wars. A long-distance Path of Peace also traces the line of the battlefields, leading to the Adamello and Marmolado glaciers.

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The stunning MART atrium.

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Rovereto.

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Rovereto

Further down the valley, the medieval town of Rovereto is full of surprises, first among them a fabulous world-class museum of modern art in a stunning gallery designed by Swiss rationalist architect Mario Botta. The MART(Museo Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Trento Rovereto, Corso Bettini 43; tel: freephone 800-397760; www.mart.trento.it ; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, Fri until 9pm) has a collection which started in 1987 when the artist Fortunato Depero donated around 3,000 of his works to the town. Since then it has grown to include works from around the world, including Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein, and Bruce Naumann.

Rovereto itself reveals an engaging medieval and Renaissance heart, despite unprepossessing modern quarters. In the town centre, the River Leno is lined with silk-workers’ tall houses. Silk-making was introduced in the 16th century and helped make Rovereto the region’s chief industrial centre 200 years later. World War I caused great damage but the centre still has a faded charm, with frescoed facades, loggias and portals adorned with family crests.

Alpine Climbing

The rugged individualists who opened up the Dolomites inevitably passed their baton to the Austrians and Italians, and the Alto Adige (South Tyrol) region now produces some of Italy’s finest climbers, including Reinhold Messner, perhaps the greatest mountaineer of all time. This high-altitude Alpinist had scaled most of the Dolomites peaks by the age of 20, and inspired such climbers as Britain’s Chris Bonington. Messner’s mantra is still: “I am my own home and my handkerchief is my flag,” but his latest mission is to create museums of mountaineering to preserve his legacy. Ironically, the greatest proponent of Alpine-style climbing now declares: “Alpinism is dead, though its spirit still lives on a little in Britain and America.”

The winding Via della Terra is the backbone of the picturesque medieval quarter, linking the church of San Marco with the Gothic civic tower and the Castello which houses the Museo Storico Italiano della Guerra . The castle came into being as a moated military fortress guarding the Adige Valley crossing. The crenellated bastion was remodelled by the Venetians but still follows the rugged contours of the rock. It has served as a poorhouse, a Napoleonic garrison and an Austrian barracks before becoming a war museum.

Until the 18th century, much of the surrounding countryside was given over to mulberry orchards and the silkworm breeding that supplied the local industry. Today, the slopes are covered in vineyards.