Italy’s Lago di Garda has been admired for its grandeur and beauty since it was immortalised in verses by classicists like Dante, Goethe, and Tennyson. But the largest lake in Italy is also a popular European hub for adventure activities. By Somdutta Sarkar.
Italy’s Lake District in the northern part of the country offers as many charms and escapades as the beaches in the south. Set against breathtaking Alpine backgrounds and dotted with picturesque towns, these Italian lakes have inspired both literary eulogies and celebrity summer homes. While the latter has been in no small way responsible for the fame of the exquisite Lake Como, it was the enormous Lake Garda that DH Lawrence had declared “as beautiful as the beginning of creation.” The largest lake in Italy is also among Europe’s favourite adventure hotspots—for sailing, windsurfing, and hiking in the nearby mountainous terrain. Hikers from the DACH region often use Garda as their home base when they go trekking through the Alps, and a few years ago, the Garda Trek was launched with three circular trails at different heights to make it possible all year round for hikers with different skills to explore the Garda Trentino region.
I had already heard stories of Lake Garda from my friend in Italy by the time I arrived in Milan last summer. We had planned to spend a day on the lake, and he was going to rent us a boat. The lake is a popular summer destination among both Italians and foreign tourists, and you can expect to shell out about €200 (INR 15,800) for six hours for a small speedboat that can fit two to four people. Rates can go up to €900 (INR 71,105) for an entire day, depending on the size and type of boat.
Located between Venice and Milan, around 150 kilometres from the latter, Lake Garda can easily be reached by car or train. Trenitalia has regional and intercity trains running every half hour from Milan Central towards Verona, stopping at Desenzano del Garda- Sirmione or Peschiera del Garda. We took the train to Brescia, my friend’s hometown, and drove the rest of the way from there to Sirmione, a picture-postcard peninsular commune on the southern shore of the lake. Apart from serving as a marina, Sirmione is home to the imposing archaeological site of Grotte di Catullo. Said to have been the family residence of the senator and poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, the Roman villa’s scattered ruins occupy two hectares of the isthmus of Sirmoine, surrounded by olive groves and limestone cliffs that overlook the lake.
The climate of Lake Garda exhibits a unique balance between Alpine and Mediterranean environments, milder and more temperate than that of other lakes, with dependable thermal winds that are favourable for sailing and wind sports. It was early afternoon when we set sail across the expansive waters in our sleek white boat, helped along by the afternoon southerly breeze known as the Ora. (The morning wind is called the Pelér.) The lake stretched out in front of us like a sea—with no end in sight. The fact that we were zipping ahead at about 15 knots seemed to have little bearing on this. Lake Garda covers an area of 370 square kilometres, which is about 16 times the size of Kashmir’s Dal Lake.
Despite clement weather, we encountered some noticeable summer winds and rapid waves as we ventured further into the lake. They came roiling towards the boat and broke against its hull, tossing us over with the impact. Some of the waves were bigger as they broke, and the water came splashing over our heads, drenching us and pooling at our feet. I was reminded of the times I had been on a WetBike for chaperoned rides into the
sea, which follow a fixed route and are over before you know it—you come back dripping and slightly sore. Out on Lake Garda, life seemed slightly more dangerous.
We slowed down as we neared a giant cliff that might have been a small island, and my friend showed me how to drop anchor. It seemed like the perfect spot of shade to have a picnic on the boat and take a dip in the water. I reached for my suntan lotion, but the coast guards were upon us before I could unscrew the cap. They exchanged some words in fast Italian, faster than I could keep up with, and gestured at the floating buoy we had used to tether our anchor. There were a few more of these red buoys in the water, going around the cliff. It was a cordon, and we were clearly on the wrong side!
As we revved up the boat once again and sailed away hastily, it became evident that the area immediately surrounding the cliff was protected, likely for environmental reasons. This, I discovered later, was the rock of Manerba on the Isola di San Biagio, the Island of Rabbits. The lake is also home to the critically endangered fish known as carpione, endemic to the waterbody but diminishing in numbers due to overfishing and loss of habitat.
Lake Garda is home to a number of small islands and five larger ones, which can be found in tourist guidebooks. We headed towards the biggest of them, Isola del Garda, also known as Borghese Island. The Venetian villa dominating the island was visible from some distance, nestled amid verdant luxury like a sunburst on a Christmas tree. Built in the 19th century, Neo-Gothic style, it is the private estate of the Cavazza family of Bologna, but is open to visitors from March to October. The villa was surrounded by gardens and forests and an open natural park, with groves of pine and cypress towering over the island like ancient sentinels.
We could see tourists milling around on the terraces and garden slopes from where we had dropped anchor. There were swans drifting idly by the boat. The water was just cool enough to warrant a swim; the deck was just warm enough for stretching out in the Italian sun. Time and distance seemed faraway concepts, but soon, it would be time to head back, time for an aperitif under the lemon trees somewhere, to raise our glasses and say saluti to the good times and the adventures.
Getting There & Around
Fly to Milan with Oman Air (omanair.com), Emirates (emirates.com), or Etihad Airways (etihad.com) from any of the Indian metro cities. From Milan, there are regional and inter city trains towards Verona, with stops at Desenzano del Garda- Sirmione or Peschiera del Garda on the south of the lake. It is also possible to take a train from Verona to arrive at Lake Garda.
The best way to get around is by car. Various rental agencies like Europcar (europcar.com) and Hertz (hertz.com) have outlets near the train stations. You need an International Driving Permit to drive in Italy. There are also local taxi services like Seven Car and Sirmiotaxi (sirmiotaxi.com). Ferries run between towns like Sirmione, Salò, Manerba del Garda, and Riva del Garda in the summer.
Stay in Milan or Verona, and make a day trip to Lake Garda. Or stay at one of these places close to the lake:
Villa Cortine Palace Hotel is close to Sirmione’s historical centre and Grotte di Catullo. This 19th-century Neoclassical villa offers the same views across Lake Garda that were
once enjoyed by Italian nobility. From INR 24,000; palacehotelvillacortine.com.
Hotel Lido Palace is a five-star boutique hotel in Riva del Garda on the north bank of Lake Garda. It was once a resort for European royalty and has been restored to its Art Nouveau glory. From INR 26,400; lido-palace.it.