Italy's enchanting Lake Garda

Clever navigation to avoid the crowds is required.

Lake Garda, Italy 311 (photo credit: LEORA EREN FRUCHT)
Lake Garda, Italy 311
(photo credit: LEORA EREN FRUCHT)
LAKE GARDA, Italy – Leaning on the railing of the ferryboat, bobbing along the clear blue water past towering mountains and medieval castles, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the charms of Lake Garda.
With its dazzling scenery, panoply of children’s theme parks and abundance of pizzerias and gelaterias, this northern Italian region has not surprisingly become a mecca for vacationing families.
That, alas, is also its most jarring flaw.
While visiting during peak season in August, we encountered hundreds of other families lining up at the same scenic spots, making some of our outings feel more like an episode of Survivor than a relaxing retreat.
Part of the coastline is so geared to tourists there is barely a kilometer untouched, with signs or hotels forming an almost unbroken chain encircling the lake.
The challenge of a summer vacation in Lake Garda is, like the ubiquitous ferry boats that plow the lake, one of navigation – specifically, navigating between the alluring attractions that you (and thousands of other tourists) just have to visit, and the more obscure ones that enable you to escape from the maddening crowd just long enough to recover and plunge back into the merry mayhem.
Fortunately, it is possible to do both, making a trip to this beautiful, if somewhat congested, region enjoyable even in high season.
First a few words about the area. At 51 kilometers long and 17 kilometers wide, Lago di Gardo is Italy’s largest and most popular lake. Located about half-way between Venice and Milan it is easily accessible by car or train from both those cities as well as from Verona, a mere 30 kilometers away.
The landscape near the shore has the feel of the Mediterranean with groves of lemon and olive trees flourishing in the mild climate. In the narrower north, the mountains rise dramatically from the water forming the gateway to the Dolomites, the southern edge of the Alps.
The entire lake is dotted with picturesque villages and towns, many with cobblestone streets and medieval castles, though some are, as mentioned, saturated with hotels and hordes of tourists. Most of the major tourist attractions, including an endless array of theme parks, are packed into the southeastern and southern rim of the lake, stretching from the town of Garda to Desenzano.
The big attractions This is where you’ll find GardaLand (, Italy’s version of Disney World. The sprawling amusement park at Castelnuovo has some 60 rides, including six roller coasters. It’s huge, crowded, but charmingly done along themes (the Wild West, ancient Egypt, outer space) and undeniable fun. (Survival tip: consider treating yourself to an express ticket, at an additional cost; it enables you to go on a select list of rides without waiting in line.) While here, you can also visit the adjacent Sea Life Aquarium (
Just a short drive away in the town of Lazise sul Garda is Caneva World ( which consists of three theme parks: Aquaparadise (www.parcoacquaticocavour.
it) with its series of pools and suicidal slides; Movieland Studio, where TV and movie addicts have the chance to be the Terminator and zap everything in sight, enter the “Tomb Raider machine,” or watch a Rambo stunt show, among other offerings; and Medieval Times ( where visitors indulge in a dinner banquet of chicken, chips and all you can drink while watching knights on horseback engage in a duel (more on this later).
At Bussolengo, there is Parco Natura Viva, (www.parconaturaviva.
it), a drive-through safari park and a zoo which, in addition to the usual assortment of giraffes and jaguars, has a petting zoo with farm animals and an impressive display of life-size, realistic dinosaurs in various poses, along with explanations.
For extreme challenges, there is the Jungle Adventure Park ( at Saint Zeno di Mont, a marathon of omegas (zip lines) and rope bridges set in a lush forest that offers, as the park suggests, “a chance to be Tarzan.” (Not suitable for toddlers.) Historic Sirmione on the tip of the southern peninsula is probably the most visited town in this region and is in some ways almost a theme park in itself. Hundreds of hotels and souvenir shops have sprouted around its undeniable attractions: Thermal springs dating to Roman times; impressive Roman ruins; and a 13th-century castle, the Rocca Scaligera, complete with moat, ramparts and a glorious view of the lake. You can climb up to the top, a particular treat for children. Or enjoy a a panoramic walk or bike ride (a few stores rent bicycles) along the path of the shady lakeside park, stopping for a dip in the water at various points along the way.
There are endless other attractions (see or for some), but the true challenge in Lake Garda is locating places that provide a small dose of tranquility or a more authentic view of the land and people of Italy.
Off the beaten track Here are a few of the coveted spots that fit the bill for us. Parco Sigurta Giardino: Enter this botanical garden ( and you feel as though you have stepped into the backdrop of an Italian Renaissance painting – the kind that ironically served as the setting for many classical renditions of the Holy Land.
From the edge of the park, looking beyond, one can see gentle, rolling hills, a placid river, turreted castle and a distant village that looks almost the same as it might have looked centuries ago. The whole scene unfolds in a subdued sepia – a striking contrast from the multicolored buzz of signs elsewhere in the region.
Best of all, there are no crowds; we saw hardly anyone during our mid-afternoon visit. The park is located in the small town of Valeggio sul Mincio (next to the tranquil Mincio River), a short drive from the bustling theme parks. The largest botanical garden in Italy, Sigurta comprises 600,000 square meters of grounds, the equivalent of 112 football fields.
It includes sprawling brilliant green lawns, some 40,000 sculpted plants, 10,000 roses in every hue, tulips, irises and asters, numerous woodsy areas where squirrels and chipmunks roam, and a sublime pond of water lilies with a zen-like ambience.
The numerous trails and paths can be explored by walking, cycling or riding a golf cart. The bicycles and carts (the latter seat four and come with GPS and a self-guided audio tour) can be rented on site. You can stop for a picnic under an oak tree, sit on a bench alongside the pond gazing at the reflection of the cypresses and water lilies or visit the animals at the small educational farm.
Although the park was officially opened in 1978, its history dates back to the 17th century when it constituted the sprawling grounds of a Venetian villa which, in 1859, became the headquarters of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and later on, the home of Napoleon III.
In 1941, Dr. Carlo Sigurta stumbled upon the area while shopping for a cart, and decided to buy a farm there.
Using the water from the Mincio River he irrigated the arid hills and covered them in a carpet of lush vegetation that has been painstakingly maintained ever since.
The afternoon we spent roaming this verdant paradise was our most tranquil day in Italy.
Parco Terma del Garda Another historic villa, at Cola di Lazise, is the site of a very different style of escape.
In 1989, while drilling for an aquifer that could help irrigate the 13 hectares (130,000 square meters) of landscaped grounds at the Cedar Park Villa (La Villa Dei Cedri) – an impressive mansion built two centuries ago by the Napoleonic architect Luigi Canonica – engineers stumbled upon a cache of thermal springs.
At a depth of 200 meters, these springs form the basis of what is today a vast outdoor spa, nestled in an 18thcentury garden flanked by ancient cedar, oak and sequoia trees.
At the heart of Parco Termale del Garda (www.parcotermaledelgarda.
it) are two 37º thermal ponds or lakes, the largest, about 5,000 square meters. They are filled with jets and waterfalls, thanks to six kilometers of pipes and 1,400 injectors which make this a sort of humongous natural Jacuzzi.
Visitors can also soak in a water-filled grotto, entering through one opening and leaving through another while enjoying a hydro massage inside.
There are charming wooden bridges leading from one side of the lake to the other, picnic areas in the shade and lounge chairs scattered all over the expansive grounds.
Parts of the lakes are shallow enough for young children to frolic; other areas are large and deep enough to swim laps. The place is filled with Italian families spending an entire day and sometimes night here (in summer the park is open until after midnight.) There were hardly any foreign tourists when we visited, perhaps because the site is not advertised in English; even the employees did not speak anything but Italian.
While this is no place for solitude, the grounds are spacious enough to accommodate the many visitors.
And while you are soaking and sighing in the soothing waters you hardly notice the hundreds of other hedonists doing the same.
Pondering the site’s more recent history can momentarily shake that sense of bliss: In September 1943 the Cedar Villa became the German headquarters in northern Italy, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Rocca di Manerba Nature Park A hike through a nature reserve is another sure way to flee the crowds. There are quite a few stretches of beautiful hiking terrain in the region, particularly as one moves inland away from the congested coast, on both the east and west sides. We visited an easily accessible reserve in the small town of Manerba del Garda, situated on a bay on the southwest side of the lake.
The 90-hectare Rocca di Manerba Nature Park (, a promontory visible from most points along the bay, includes a small museum and two trails. One trail leads through a botanical garden in an evergreen wood that boasts 21 species of orchid. The other scales a 200-meter cliff to a summit overlooking the lake where one can explore the ruins of a medieval castle or enjoy a spectacular view of the entire bay.
The museum at the base houses prehistoric, Roman and medieval artifacts found around the castle ruins.
Other nature parks worth visiting on the eastern side of the lake are Lessinia, which contains Europe’s largest natural bridge; Molinia, full of waterfalls, caves and ravines; and on the west, Gargnano, which has numerous hiking trails. (See for a full list.) A bit of both worlds There are a few places we visited which I would call “hybrid” sites: While they are a mecca for tourists, they also enabled us to have a more authentic encounter with the land or people of Italy.
Mount Baldo One such spot is the cable car ride at Mount Baldo ( located on the mountainous northeast coast of the lake in the picturesque town of Malcesine.
If you get there early enough in the morning you will only have to wait in line an hour and a half, in a stairway with no air-conditioning, crammed with several hundred other tourists, some lugging bicycles, others cranky children.
Just when you are sure the whole idea was a huge mistake you enter the cable car, which transports you from this hot, sticky, crowded hell to a cool alpine summit 1,650 meters up. There are actually two stops – one halfway up, in the hamlet of San Michele, and the other at the top at Mount Baldo. During the second half of the ride the cable car rotates throughout, providing 360- degree views.
The peak (1,800 meters above sea level) affords spectacular views of the adjacent charcoal- gray mountains that are particularly dramatic with their jagged edges.
Add to that the castles below, the smooth glass lake, the pure blue sky and the scene looks like the setting of a fairy tale. But don’t just buy a drink and take the cable car back down as many do.
Instead, choose one of the many trails (you can ask an employee at the top for a map) and spend a few hours, or even a full day, hiking through the vast and diverse natural wonderland.
We took a fairly steep trail that led all the way down the mountain (not for the weak-kneed). It starts in an Alp-like setting where snow-covered peaks are visible on adjacent mountains and where the bright red lily edelweiss grows. Midway down we passed farms built into the side of the mountain, and goats and sheep roaming about pastures.
We made our way through forests of pine and beech trees, and eventually emerged in the Mediterranean scrub at the bottom, having stripped off layers as we descended.
(The climate ranged from a windy 17º at the peak to a muggy 34º at the bottom.) There are rare endemic plants and flowers including several types of orchids along some of the trails. In stark contrast to the ordeal we had to endure to ascend the mountain, we met only a half-dozen other hardy souls during the scenic and tranquil, albeit steep trek down (which took us four hours, or nearly double the time estimated on the official trail map, and left us unable to descend stairs for a day or two).
Medieval Times Back in the touristy hub of the lake, at Caneva World, we spent an evening at Medieval Times, which was the ultimate in hokiness but oddly enough also provided us with one of our more memorable encounters with Italian, umm, culture. In this twohour dinner and show, spectators are divided into four teams, by color, and seated in a section of the arena corresponding to their color.
The entire “red” section of the audience is meant to cheer its team’s hero, a “red” outfitted knight on horseback who duels against the knights of the other three teams in a contest to win, what else, the princess’s hand.
There is fire, fencing, bows and arrows and fancy footwork (some by the knights, some by the horses), all served up with a meal and endless supply of drinks (beer, wine and cola being the most popular choices).
This could have been merely a cheap thrill for tourists, if not for the Italian seated next to us. In the course of the evening, he transformed my children from shy, polite spectators to passionate, table-thumping lunatics who quickly acquired a vocabulary not cited in my phrase books.
He was a striking-looking man, with a shock of dark curly hair and a profile that conjures up images of Roman emperors. Within minutes this dignified looking fellow of about 40 (his wife and three children seated in a row next to him) was alternately standing on his chair and shouting words of encouragement to our knight or banging his metal mug on our shared wooden table with such force that the whole table shook.
My son, alarmed, shot his neighbor a frightened glance, but the Italian man – I’ll call him Mario – was nonplussed, and invited my son (actually insisted that my son) bang his mug too. Soon, both my children followed suit, first hesitantly and then, as they quickly discovered the cathartic release of bashing a cup on a table, did so with the same vigor as their mentor.
This soon gave way to thumbs up and thumbs down gestures, stamping on chairs and ear splitting shouts, in Italian, which cast doubt on the masculinity of our knight’s rivals. (Mario’s children joined in too, though with less fervor than their father.) When our knight was sadly eliminated, Mario quickly transferred what we had mistook for diehard loyalty to another semifinalist, as my bewildered children dutifully followed suit.
Back home in Israel the stunning views of the mountains and lake have faded, but Mario’s presence still lingers. Often when our five-year-old daughter wants to indicate her strong feelings about a particular suggestion, she hunches over, screw up her eyes, and gives a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture, accompanied by a tirade of yays, boos and other less desirable cries, delivered with a passion that would make Mario proud.
■ How to get there: A direct flight from Tel Aviv to Verona, just 30 kilometers from the lake, is the most convenient option. But Venice, 130 kilometers to the east, and Milan, 100 kilometers to the west, are also feasible. You can drive from either city in under 90 minutes along the A4 autostrado which passes just south of the lake. Or you can take a train from either city to Desenzano or Peschiera del Garda, two towns on the southern perimeter.
■ Where to stay: There is a dizzying array of options for accommodation ranging from camp sites to converted farmhouses, simple and not-so-simple hotels, bed and breakfasts, and sprawling resorts with tennis courts, mini golf and several swimming pools.
Camping is surprisingly upscale; several sites boast a swimming pool and private beach that will set you back about 36 euros a night for a family of four in a tent in peak season and at least 100 euros for a mobile home. See for camping options.
In the hundreds of towns and villages, some right on the lake, others a few kilometers away, that offer hotel accommodation, you can expect to pay anywhere from 100 euros-300 euros a night (for a family of four in high season); for about 160 euros a night you should be able to find very comfortable, conveniently located accommodation with two rooms, a kitchenette and either a private beach or swimming pool. See to get an idea of the range of options, and to book.
■ How to get around: There are public buses around the lake, but if you plan to do a lot of traveling renting a car is obviously much more convenient. Unfortunately, the road circling the lake can get quite jammed at times. A pleasant alternative, at times, is traveling by hydrofoil, catamaran or ferryboat; several of the lines also include car transport.
The southern town of Desenzano is a hub for boat travel; from here you can catch a ferry to the northern most point of the lake, Riva del Garda, a four-hour trip, or cruise to much closer destinations.
There are also short rides crossing from east to west (and back), from Torri to Maderno, and from Malcesine to Limone. For the complete boat schedule and price list see