Lake Garda: A pocket guide
Blocked from the cold northern winds by the Dolomites, Lake Garda has a positively Mediterranean climate—the largest of the Italian lakes, it is also the warmest. If Como was beloved by the Plinys, Garda’s greatest admirers were Catullus and Gabriele d’Annunzio, the twentieth-century poet, firebrand, war hero, and political hot potato. Tennyson, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Andre Gide, Laurence Olivier, Maria Callas, and Churchill were also big fans.
According to olive-oil connoisseurs, the best olive oil in the world comes from Garda, albeit in small quantities. Garda is considered less chic than Como—though not by Italians—and attracts families, as well as artists and beach bums (the water is clean and there are plenty of beaches). Sailors and windsurfers testing the winds that were first mentioned by Virgil.
The west coast is the most prestigious, home to the oldest and most luxurious villas and the grandest hotels. Here you’ll find Salo, Garda’s administrative capital and a beautiful little town, as well as Isola di Garda, the lake’s only island, where Saint Francis built a monastery. When the monastery fell into ruins the Borghese family built the most extraordinary neo-Venetian Gothic castle; it is still privately owned, though passing boats always stop and stare.
The north shore is better for sailing and surfing. Though it has some of the lake’s most stunning landscape and some little villages, the north shore has been taken over by mainly German campsites and caravans, a holdover from its past as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The east shore traditionally belonged to Verona and is chiefly visited for the delightful town of Garda; the Siren rocks, site of a gorgeous Renaissance villa; and the town of Bardolino, known for its red wine.
Sirmione, the main town to the south of the lake, is enchanting. It has cobbled streets, a thirteenth-century castle, and, above all, a ruined Roman villa lying at the tip of the promontory: the Grotte di Catullo. In fact, there is no a grotto; the name was bestowed by Venetian explorers who came upon what they thought were natural caves in the thick undergrowth, not realizing they had stumbled on a vast treasure, the most important Roman site in northern Italy. The town gets crowded in summer, but spring and autumn are peaceful. A short walk from the town center takes you away from crowds, even in summer. Desenzano, the largest of the lakeside towns, just a short boat ride from Sirmione, has a beautiful old quarter with lively cafés, good restaurants, a twelfth-century castle above the port, and the ruin of a fine Roman villa with mosaic floors.
The most famous sight of all—and not to be missed—is the quite incredible and legendary house of Gabriele d’Annunzio. The rambling house with private museum gives the word eccentric new meaning. It’s filled with d’Annunzio’s bizarre collections: Crammed into the rooms are some 10,000 objects—paintings, statues, stained glass, antiques, books, musical instruments, vintage cars—many of them souvenirs of d’Annunzio’s many lovers. The propeller of his seaplane hangs from a ceiling. One room is an Arabian tent with gold and black damask walls. His spare bedroom contains a coffin where he used to lie and think great thoughts. He built the entrance to the house deliberately low so that visitors would have to bow their heads, and in his delightfully mad Art Deco dining room there is a bronze tortoise which he had embalmed after it died of indigestion while participating at his dinner parties.
Lake Garda is easily reachable from Milan, Verona and Brescia.