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Lovely Lago di Garda
Lake Garda (Italy)
Member Name: Stephiej
Lake Garda (Italy)
Advantages: Gorgeous scenery, variety, good for couples, families and older groups
Disadvantages: As with most of mainland Italy, it can be expensive if you're not careful
I have previously visited many parts of Italy, but Lake Garda had never really appealed to me in the past. I had preconceptions of it being overrun with coach trips and tours full of elderly people (not a problem in itself, but I doubted I would have many common interests), and very touristy (something that I usually try to avoid). I finally visited Lake Garda with my Mother and Grandfather. My grandfather had his 80th birthday, and my mother and I, wanting to get something special to mark the occasion, pooled our funds to take him on holiday as a birthday gift. I volunteered to research a suitable location, and make the arrangements. After many weeks of researching various destinations, and before my laptop exploded through overuse, we finally settled on Lake Garda as a destination that appeared to have something to offer to three generations.
Although all three of us live in the West of the UK (West Midlands and Wales), we chose to fly from Gatwick, because the times of the British Airways flights from there suited us better than flights from local airports. The two Italian airports primarily used to access Lake Garda are Verona Catullo, to the south east of the lake, and Brescia, to the south west of the lake. Although we were staying in the town of Salo on the western shore of Lake Garda, we flew into Verona because we had planned to spend the last day of our holiday in Verona before returning home. From Verona Catullo airport it was about an hour by car to the town of Salo.
Salo is one of the larger towns on Lake Garda, and sits within its' own bay on the western shore of the lake. It is a very affluent town, and although it appears to have fewer tourists than some of the lakeside towns and villages it is very popular with the yacht set. Possibly partly due to the main boatyard being owned and run by Alberto Arcangeli, son of Giuliano Arcangeli, who designed and built the famous, and now rare, Arcangelis. But also certainly due to the great boating facilities in the marina and the natural calm harbour offered by the bay of Salo, as the main body of the lake can get choppy in rough weather. Salo doesn't have the major tourist attractions that many of the other towns have like castles, cable cars or ancient ruins, but we found it to be the perfect base from which to visit other towns during our holiday. One of the most compelling things Salo does have to offer the visitor is the longest promenade on Lake Garda. We found it a very enjoyable experience to stroll along the promenade with an ice cream after our evening meal, or to sit at one of the many lakefront bars/cafes and sip an after dinner drink whilst watching the visitors and locals stroll past in their best attire. It is a fantastic place for people-watching, and everyone really does make an effort to dress up for their evening promenade.
There are some really good restaurants in Salo , and also some pretty poor ones! We found the worst to be found in the main tourist area (no surprise there!), and the best were Papillon Pizerria, at the north end of the promenade which has tables outside on the edge of the lake and was frequented by locals as well as visitors, Lungolago Pizerria, again at the north end of the promenade, near the Duomo (Cathedral), which offered fantastic organic pizzas, and Osteria Di Mezzo, a small and very atmospheric restaurant in a tiny back lane in the middle of Salo, offering a limited by very good quality menu including lake fish and local desserts. The best Gelateria in Lake Garda (in my opinion) can be found in Salo, in the Piazza Duomo, where you can choose from a fabulous range of flavours of ice creams and sorbets, costing 1 Euro per scoop, a great way to indulge in Italian cuisine whilst keeping costs down.
Salo has a pebble beach at the south end of the promenade, with a row of Cypress trees behind, where you can hire chairs or loungers, or have a drink at the small beach bar. From this beach you have a great view of Salo, looking across the bay to the Duomo, and watching the ferries and yachts go by. It is very tempting to go for a dip in the lake on a hot day, but from experience I can warn you that no matter how hot the day, the lake is always freezing - be prepared!
Salo has a good range of shops and boutiques selling clothing, shoes, homewares, books, perfumes jewellery and lifestyle stores, some designer and all upmarket, you won't find any tourist shops with gaudy plastic mementos here! Most of the shops are along one road which runs parallel to the lake front promenade. The more basic everyday retail necessities, like supermarkets, are located away from the lake front area in the suburbs. There is a market which travels around the towns of Lake Garda, and is in Salo every Saturday morning; it is large with a variety of stalls selling everything from food to clothing. We found a super cheese stall, where the owner encouraged us to sample lots of the cheeses, many of which were locally produced and unfamiliar to us.
Salo has a small tourist train (Il Trenino), which only runs on Saturdays, and for 2 Euros will take passengers around the roads and lanes of Salo. Although this wouldn't normally appeal to me, on this occasion it was very useful as my grandfather had found the pace of the holiday to be quite demanding, and he welcomed the opportunity to see the sights whilst sitting in comfort for an hour. The train runs around the whole of the old town of Salo, taking in both town gates, much of the lakefront promenade, the Duomo, the marina and the main Piazzas. It was nice, on a hot day, to feel the warm breeze blowing through the open carriage as we saw the sights. There is no commentary or guide, so to get the most out of the Trenino ride you do need to have an idea of what you are seeing, or a good guide book on your lap!
The Piazza del Vittoria is the square where the lake ferries stop at Salo, and the town hall encompasses one side of the square, offering a public access Internet terminal 24 hours per day. In the evenings there is often entertainment in this square, during our 10 day stay there were events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Once a food fair, with locally specialities of food and drink available to sample and buy, on another night a dance show, with a local dance school producing a show of ballet and modern dance, another night was family entertainment with a magician and a comedian, another night had a couple of bands playing. This is not the place to go if you are looking for bouncing nightlife, there are two discobars the outlying areas of Salo, although I can't comment on these because I didn't go, but evening entertainment in the town focuses largely on the lakefront bars and organised entertainment in the Piazzas.
I thoroughly enjoyed staying in Salo, and although it was great to see other towns and villages around the lake I was always glad that we had chosen Salo as our base. It is less lively than many of the other lake towns, and is more expensive than most, but it was very clean, with friendly and welcoming residents (I guess they don't suffer from tourist-fatigue to the same degree as residents of towns and villages more dependent on tourism) a lovely promenade, regular connections to all other destinations on the lake by the lake ferries, and a comfortable, relaxed feel. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for somewhere chilled out to stay; it is probably more suitable for families and older couples or groups than for young people looking for lively nightlife. We rented an apartment with a fantastic lake view, overlooking the promenade, which was perfect for us, but self-catering accommodation is hard to come by in Salo. There are several large 4 and 5 star hotels, and a few smaller hotels in the town, as well as a couple of Agriturismo (farms offering B&B) in the mountains surrounding the town.
From the ferry stop at the Piazza del Vittoria in Salo we were able to catch the lake ferries to visit other towns and villages around the lake. These ferries are all run by one company and details of the timetables and fares can be found on their website www.navigazionelaghi.it There are two options for ferry travel, either rapid or standard ferries. We found that although the rapid ferries were a little more expensive, they worked out better for us most of the time, allowing us to spend more time at our destination. The slow ferries include a paddle steamer, we travelled on this once, and it has wonderful fittings and furnishings inside, a fleet of slow boats which offer cafeteria/bar services and often accept bikes, and a car ferry which runs across the width of the lake. The fast ferries include catamarans and hydrofoils. Dogs are allowed on all ferries except hydrofoils, for an additional charge of 1 Euro 50 Cents, and there are generous reductions on ferry ticket prices for passengers over the age of 65, this delighted my grandfather who loves a bargain even if he's not paying! There is also the option to purchase an open ticket for unlimited travel around either the south or north parts of the lake for a day. Tickets for the ferries are bought from the small ticket offices (usually wooden boxes in most towns) by the ferry dock, they can also be purchased aboard the ferry, but this incurs an additional charge.
I would recommend anyone visiting Lake Garda tries to see as many of the towns and villages around the lake as they can. It is so easy to do using the ferries and in my experience they are all very different, and most have something unique to offer. During our recent holiday we were able to visit:
Gardone Riviera - a small town on the western shore, just above Salo. The village is separated into two parts, the lower town by the lake, with beautiful flowers and rows of bitter orange trees on the lakefront, and plenty of cafes and bars with lake views on the short promenade. The upper town has several places of interest worth visiting, including Vittoriale degli Italiani, an interesting house and gardens built by an eccentric poet, it houses half a ship in the gardens as well as an open air amphitheatre which has a great view over the lake and has concerts throughout the summer. The Hruska botanical gardens; which has an array of unusual sculptures, as well as plants. The upper town is a very steep walk uphill from the lake, however, Gardone also has a small tourist train, which leaves from the ferry dock, and takes passengers to the main places of interest in the upper town. The train does a round trip, so you can spend as long as you like, and catch the next train back to the lakefront, never more than a 20 minute wait.
Limone - again on the western shore, above Gardone Riviera. Limone is impressively built on a small area of land by the lake and is surrounded on the other three sides by imposing mountains. Because of its' dramatic location, space is pretty limited in Limone, and the streets are all narrow and steep with real character, I found it very pleasant to wander around the town looking at the buildings, and when we visited in June, like Gardone, it was full of flowers. I was surprised to learn that the town is named not from the lemons that are grown here on steep terraces up the mountainsides, but from the days of ancient Rome, when it was considered a frontier town (Limen is Latin for frontier). In spite of this the town of Limone is now synonymous with lemons, and when we went we visited The Lemon House; a museum of citrus fruit production in the area throughout the ages, and a set of terraced citrus groves to explore. I found it impossible to leave without buying a couple of bottles of Limoncello, a powerful locally produced lemon liqueur, as gifts.
Riva - located at the far north west of the lake, Riva is the watersports capital of Lake Garda. There are many sailing and windsurfing schools here, and throughout the day the lake around Riva is dotted with colourful sails. Riva has a distinctly Alpine feel, and was once part of Austria. We found the town to be over-run with tourists, mainly German and British, and there are several lidos and shingle beaches as you walk east along the lake front, towards the village of Torbole, all very busy when we visited. A couple of kms north of Riva is an impressive waterfall, Cascata Varone, we visited this by catching a bus for just a couple of Euros, from the Cascata Varone there is a breathtaking view down to Riva and the lake. In Riva itself there is a large pedestrian Piazza by the ferry dock, lined with cafes and bars, which also has a clock tower you can climb for 1 Euro, to give a good view over the town and lake, the stairs are very steep, and tall people need to mind their heads as they near the top!
Malcesine - This town is on the north east shore of the lake, and its' backdrop is the highest mountain in Lake Garda, Monte Baldo. Although it is possible to walk up Monte Baldo, and there are well-marked trails, we took the more leisurely option of using the cable car (Funivia) which has cars leaving every 30 minutes, and costs 18 Euros per person for a return ticket. Dogs are also allowed in the cable car, for an extra charge, as well as mountain bikes, at certain times of the day. The view from the top of Monte Baldo is breathtaking, and certainly worth the trip. We were fortunate to have a clear day, and we were able to make the most of it by having a picnic lunch on the grassy slopes. We visited an Alpine Chalet-style cafe near the cable car station for a cafe latte macchiato before catching the cable car back down to Malcesine. The cable car station has very clean, spacious toilet facilities, and a cafe inside the station, but although it has large windows looking back down the cableway to the town, it appeared to be more of a cafeteria-style place, without much character. Malcesine also has a 13th Century castle on the lakefront, Castello Scaligera, which houses the Museum of the Lake. We visited this museum and found its interactive exhibits to be very interesting; it's a great place to visit on a rainy day.
Bardolino - continuing south on the east coast is Bardolino, a town famous for producing Bardolino wine. The land around Bardolino is much flatter than further north, and there are many vineyards and wineries in the surrounding area. We visited Zeni vineyard, a 20-30 minute walk out of Bardolino, where they have a small museum, wine tasting, and a shop. The museum and wine tasting were free; obviously their hope is that visitors will make purchases in the shop before leaving. From Zeni vineyard we continued walking, to walk off the wine we had tasted!, to the suburb of Cisano, to visit the Olive Oil museum, again there was a small museum with free entry, and a shop, selling not just olive oil but also food and cosmetics based on olives. We walked back from Cisano to Bardolino along the lakefront path, and although there were some lovely spots along the way, and plenty of benches to take a breather, we found this town less appealing than many others around the lake. We passed several caravan/camping sites along the lake shore which were scruffier than I expected, and the area appeared generally less well cared for than some other towns, it was busy with tourists and seemed to be a very busy, bustling town.
Sirmione - a small village, at the centre of the southern shore of the lake, located on a narrow promontory extending into the lake, often called 'the crocodile'. Sirmione has a very impressive 13th century castle, the Rocca Scaligera, which costs 4 Euros to visit, although my grandfather got free entry (the generous man on the gate said he had already paid enough in his life!). We were able to climb to the top of the tower, giving a magnificent view up the lake, and enabling us to look down on the enclosed castle harbour. The old town of Sirmione is pedestrianised, although just outside the castle walls we found the Tourist Information office and a large coach park. Returning back to the old town, we took a short walk to catch another of the little tourist trains, which cost 1 Euro and took us to the end of the promontory where the Grotte di Catullo is located. These are the ruins of a large first century Roman villa, fascinating and well preserved, in a super location, there is also a small museum displaying some artefacts. It was easy for us to spend half a day wandering the ruins, taking a break in the shade of an olive tree every now and then, and soaking up the beautiful views up the lake. It is worth noting that we found it hot it June, and frequently needed to seek shade, so I imagine for anyone visiting in August it would feel very exposed with the hot sun beating down. There are toilets at the entrance to the Grotte di Catullo, and a cafe just outside, where the tourist train stops. Sirmione has a nice lido and small pebble beaches on the east of the promontory, between the village and the Grotte. It is famous for its thermal spas, although we didn't visit these, there are day tickets available. My overwhelming impression of Sirmione was of a small village totally overwhelmed by the mass of tourists descending on it. The streets were crammed, and apart from those working in the shops and cafes it was a challenge to pick an Italian voice out of the hubbub, as we visited in June, I dread to think what it would be like at the peak of the holiday season. There were a plethora of tourist shops selling gaudy plastic snow globes, key rings and postcards, which looked incongruous in the beautiful medieval walled town. I left on the ferry feeling a little guilty for being a part of the tourist trade that I feel has imposed a scar on what was clearly once a lovely little village.
I feel I owe Lake Garda an apology for my preconceived ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed my holiday here, and I think Lake Garda has something to offer most people, from the more sedate, relaxed holiday we experienced, focusing mainly on sightseeing and regular cafe stops, to the more lively family-oriented theme parks and water parks available in the south, to the more sporty activities on offer in the north. The lake area offers a fabulous Mediterranean climate, breathtaking panoramic views, and ever changing scenery, from the flatter, softer, rolling countryside of the south, to the more Alpine, rugged and mountainous north. Most importantly, my grandfather hasn't stopped talking about his wonderful holiday to anyone who will listen, since we got home!
I would recommend Lake Garda to most people, with the possible exception of young groups looking for a variety of options for lively nightlife. Although the old walled medieval towns around the lake are mostly lovely, I would also recommend taking time to explore outside these areas, in order to get a feel for the 'real' area. I had considered renting a car, but now I'm glad I didn't, the ferries are the ideal way to get around the lake and we enjoyed the experience of using public transport and walking to explore further afield.
I apologise for the length of this review, if you managed to get this far I am very grateful to you, and I hope you have found it to be of some use.
Summary: Well worth a visit