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Travel

Taking it easy on the shores of Lake Garda

Clive Nicholls discovers picture-postcard towns, wonderful cuisine and memories that will last a lifetime

My ice cream dribbles down the side of the cone and over the back of my hand. My tongue comes to the rescue.

It's a tricky business eating soft ice cream in the hot sun, but when it's the finest Italian ice cream and I've had my pick of 96 flavours and I'm eating it on the shored of Lake Garda in Northern Italy, I'm not going to let a small thing like a sticky hand spoil my enjoyment. I may not be he most elegant ice cream eater, but sometimes etiquette foes out of the window and it's all about pure indulgence.

And in many ways indulgence is what Lake Garda is all about; stunning scenery, fascinating history, amazing weather, great food, local wines and, of course, the ice cream.

My base is the medieval town of lazise on the southeast shore of Lake Garda, just south of Bardolino. It's perfect for access to the lake yet just 15 miles from Verona. The wonderful little harbour is real picture postcard material with the fishing boats bobbing gently and the waterside cafes providing an idyllic setting for tourists and locals alike.

Lake Garda (the largest lake in Italy) is a shade over 30 miles long and more than ten miles wide, but the great thing is that ferries criss-cross the lake so visiting other lakeside towns is easy, just make sure you don't miss the last ferry back.

My first excursion is to Sirmione on a little peninsula on the south shore. History oozes out of every street corner: from the ruins of the Roman Villa, the Scaligera Fortress, the wonderful churches (the interior of the 15th century Church of Saint Maria Maggiore had such a wonderful ambience) to the homes of the rich and famous (Maria Callas lived here) there's plenty to see or you can just take it easy with a glass of wine and watch the world go by. Either was Sirmione is a reassure, and to to be missed.

The waterfront at Lake Garda is perfect for walkers, or, if you want to cover a bit more ground, cyclists.

I borrow a bike form my hotel (Hotel Bella Lazise) and plan a route downhill to the harbour at Lazise, and then follow the shoreline north through Cisanom, Bardolino and Garda. It's a wonderful ride, you can't go particularly fast as mostly you're sharing the route with walkers, but it's a real treat.

This is beautiful part of the world and taking your time is the order of the day. Coffee in Bardolina, a glass of Italian red in Garda, plan in an ice cream on the way back- magical!

For me the best bit of warmer climates is the evening time, when the temperature drops a few degrees and you get the balmy, eat outside time, as he sun goes down and the slow change to darkness arrives.

Evening meals outside are truly wondrous. The first night I dines on the terrace of my hotel, a very gentle breeze bathed us with a warm caress, the meal served at a leisurely pace, wines from a vineyard just a few miles down the road. Just perfect, this is what makes holidays so special and creates memories that last a lifetime.

Next day, I'm off to the Spa at Villa dei Cedri. The water in the two outdoor lakes comes from water bearing strata 200m below ground level, it's rich in minerals and beautifully warm at 33 degrees, the smaller lake is a touch cooler at 30 degrees.

The Thermal-Mineral waters are apparently good for all sorts of ailments but for me a soothing dip in sliky warm water worked just fine and set me up for an after lunch snooze on the sunbed.

After such a relaxing day I decide to walk along the waterfront to Bardolino to dine there in the evening.

It's a fairish walk but what better way to work up an appetite than to watch the sun go down over the lake, families of ducks feeding in the margins, yachts making the most of the last minutes of daylight before leading back to port and families sharing the delight of sunset at Lake Garda. The open-air waterfront restaurants are fabulous and as the wine flows it's easy to while away the hours with good food and wine but I have another engagement: my first taste of Italian Opera at the Sala della Disciplina.

Now, I'm a bit out of my depth here but what better way to start than an intimate gathering in a small church.

I didn't know what to expect but when the first singer fired up her lungs and let rip I was blown away. Did I understand a word of it? No. Was I thrilled to be there, experiencing, something new? Most definitely, yes. All this for £18 and you even get a complimentary lass of fizz during the break. Don't miss it. Performances run from May 14 to October 3.

the good thing about a holiday on the lake is that you don;t need a car, nor do you want one, as parking can be tense. The ferried will take you to the lakeside towns, the hotel shuttle can fill a gap, organised excursions come with a coach but walking and cycling beats the lot. I took in the wine and olive oil excursion. The Selva Capozza winery, just a couple of miles south of the lake shore, was the destination. I'd been drinking their wines earlier on my holiday and it was good to hear the story and taste the whole range. My favourite was the Lagana San Vigilio. Described as "delicate, floral ad fruit driven with delicate palate and lingering fresh finish" or another interpretation could be that it slips down nice and easy!

The Turri olive oil plant, just east of Bardolino, takes olive oil appreciation to a different level. You can taste the range and make up your own mind as to which is right for you. As with the winery all the products are on sale, so, if something takes your fancy you can always take something home, or in the case of the wine, drink it on your hotel balcony.

Being so close to Verona, you have to make the trip. It is a vibrant city, dripping in history, with high-end shops, market stalls and, of course, 'Romeo and Juliet's balcony. You can stand on the balcony for £5 or watch others dream of love, from the courtyard below. The cynical might multiply the £5 by 3 million visitors and see this as a money spinner, but we've all got our dreams and maybe sometimes they do come true.

Verona is hustling, bustling, fashionable, historic with a touch of Shakespearean tragedy thrown in. You've got to see it afterwards the calming influence of he shores of Lake Garda seem rather wonderful. Watching the sun go down is always a treat. Watching it set over Lake Garda is very special. Everyone on the waterfront is feeling and thinking something different but as the sun dips down below the horizon we all know that we have a memory that will stay with us for years to come.

It's easy to see why Lake Garda earns a special place in our hearts.

Find out more

Thomson lakes & Mountains, tel: 020 8610 3139, website: www.thomsonlakes.co.uk offers holidays with loads od things to see and do, making the most of the local territory and cultural experiences. Prices are from £752 per person for a week's half board at the four-star Hotel Bella Lazise including flights adrom Gatwick and transfers. Direct flights from most regional available at a supplement starting from £20

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