We chose to visit Italy for all the obvious reasons--the art, the history, the romance. My husband and I fully expected to be inspired by the wonders of Florence, Venice and Rome.
But what we didn’t expect was the enchantment we found along the shores of Lake Garda.
Seldom visited by American tourists, this northern Italian lake--studded with medieval towns along its rocky shores--overwhelms with a combination of spectacular scenery and the history and romance of its communities.
Our three-hour drive south from Munich through the Brenner Pass was spectacular enough, but we weren’t really prepared for our first glimpse of Lake Garda.
We rounded a bend in the road and experienced one of those moments in travel when a splendid vista makes an indelible impression.
About 1,500 meters below lay a lake of the deepest blue, surrounded by jagged, snowcapped peaks as far as we could see. Red-tiled roofs made crooked patterns along the hillsides and in clusters at the edge of the lake.
Driving along the rugged shoreline through one tunnel after another, we were dazzled by the fiord-like beauty of the northern tip of the lake. Craggy cliffs met blue water, and there was just the smallest space for the tunnels, which made up most of the transportation route down this coastline for 20 miles.
There are groves of lemons and oranges as well as tall palms along this route. Despite its proximity to the Alps, the Lake Garda region enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate that supports the growth of vegetation usually found in regions farther south. Bougainvillea, oleander, hibiscus and even yucca plants and cacti make the area a flowering paradise.
Private homes displaying the sign camere to indicate bed and breakfast accommodations abound along this road, as do pensions and albergos-- Italy’s small quaint hotels. Rooms are available on the shore or tucked romantically away in the tiered olive groves.
We chose a lakeside room at the charming Casa Feltrinelli in Malcesine. It was run by the delightfully pleasant Signora Feltrinelli, whose family has operated fishing vessels on the lake for centuries. A spotless room with bath and balcony cost us $30 U.S. a night. Address: Via Retelino 13, Malcesine, Italy 37018.
Malcesine was the first of a series of picturesque fishing villages we discovered along the shore of Lake Garda. We set out to stroll along tiny cobblestone walkways that led us past crooked medieval buildings that house specialty shops, pizzerias and tiny bars serving espresso and gelato . All paths lead to the piazza.
Malcesine’s square offers a variety of settings. The open-air market or mercato gave us a great opportunity to buy a variety of items at nominal cost--provided one can master the fluid art of bargaining in Italy.
Freshwater pearls, coral, leather goods, brass, porcelain and crystal artifacts are some of the rewards the market’s crammed booths might hold for the persistent shopper.
Looming above this delightful village is imposing Scaligeri Castle, built in the 13th Century by the powerful family of that name. It is a reminder of the rich history of this region. Most of the towns surrounding Lake Garda have their origins in the first century BC.
The best example of Roman influence on Lake Garda is the ruins of Sirmione 30 miles south of Malcesine. Sirmione is on a strip that juts 2 1/2 miles into the lake at its most southern point. Historians agree that the peninsula was inhabited from the most remote ages.
The most famous and impressive of its ruins are the Grotte di Catullo, dominating the tip of the peninsula. The grottoes are open from 9 a.m. till an hour before sunset; closed Mondays.
We were told that the Roman poet Catullus was so charmed by the beauty of Lake Garda that he made his residence in Sirmione--his “apple of islands"--six months of the year. He wrote sensitive poems describing the area. Standing next to the extensive ruins of his home, we imagined what the view might have been out of the window of his study and understood from what source he took inspiration.
In addition to the well-preserved ruins of Catullus’ villa, Sirmione is sprinkled with the foundations of Roman buildings--tombstones, trunks of columns and other relics that testify to the city’s ancient importance.
But impressive Scaligeri Castle steals the show. An incredible site against the lake’s deep blue waters, this imposing fortress stands sentrylike at the entrance to the walled city.
It has been host to many famous personages throughout the centuries, such as German poet and dramatist Goethe, who started his voyage through Italy from Lake Garda in 1786.
According to legend he was so taken aback by the castle’s beauty that he drew a sketch of it, arousing the suspicion of town fathers, who thought he was a spy. He had a tough time proving his identity, but the incident resulted in a lovely bust of the poet that graces the piazza. Castle hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.; closed Mondays.
Though it’s a bit more expensive than a pension or albergo ($50 and up), the Hotel Broglia offers excellent accommodations for health enthusiasts, with spas and thermal treatments available. Public hot springs are adjacent to the hotel.
Sirmione, like many of the villages and cities we visited on our sojourn around Lake Garda, is most enchanting during the evening. As soon as the warm sun fell behind the mountains, Sirmione was transformed in the glow of gas lamps.
The clang of silverware and a waft of some garlic and herb concoction reminded us that 8 p.m. is the peak of the Italian dinner hour.
Restaurant prices along Lake Garda are generally less than in the larger cities of Italy. We often packed our own lunches, which gave us the opportunity to sample the local cheeses, fruits and cold cuts. Often we chose a homey trattoria for lunch.
As we drove carefree along Lake Garda’s shores we stopped at villages whenever we spied a medieval wall or fortress. We combed the streets of Bardolino at the foot of hills covered with orchards, olive groves and the vineyards that produce the wine of the same name.
Even the wine has an impressive history. The Bardolino wine was celebrated by Cato and was first choice on the tables of Caesar. Prehistoric remains found in Bardolino seem to confirm the theory that the people of this region knew the art of wine making well before Romans discovered the pleasures of the grape.
Our itinerary allowed us only four days on Lake Garda, and it was like taking one sip of rich Bardolino wine--we knew what delight awaited us if we took the time to really savor it.
We went on to discover Venice, Florence and Rome, as planned, but somehow those experiences, delightful as they were, would not overshadow the glow of our sojourn to Lake Garda. We vowed we’d return someday to savor the treasures again. We thought of Catullus’ descriptive lines, written half a century before Christ, of the home he loved so much:
My Sirmio, with a woman’s loveliness,
Gladly echoing Garda’s rippling lake-laughter.
Lake Garda lies in Italy’s most northern region and is therefore most easily accessible from the Alpine rim countries. Driving time from Munich is about 4 1/2 hours; from Innsbruck, Austria, three hours, and from Milan 2 1/2 hours. The city of Verona, which boasts a sporting arena rivaling Rome’s Colosseum in detail, is 30 minutes from the southern end of the lake. Car rentals are less expensive in West Germany or Austria than in Italy.
For more information on the Lake Garda region, contact the Italian Government Tourist Office, 360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108; phone (415) 392-6206.