There aren’t too many holiday destinstions in Europe that are so enticing as to leave you aching to return. Lake Garda in northern Italy is one, a place of breathtaking natural loveliness enhanced by the richness of both its ancient and modern built environment.
Italy’s largest lake is often overshadowed by Lake Como. More’s the pity because, in many ways, it has so much more to offer.
The north of Italy has an embarrassment of riches: ancient monuments, daring and audactious archicture, art both ancient and modern; music to live for and fashion to die for.
It bears comparison with the south of this elongated country - the same but different.
The same ancient walled towns and villages, the same sturdy castles and keeps, the same sense of a place born a long time ago, with a foot in ancient times but in rhyme with modernity.
But different, too, with Germanic touches, spotless streets and alleys, sedate, gentle, often shy, inhabitants. You will not have to endure the endless caphophony of car horns tooting or youngeters screeching like you find in Rome and in places south.
There is a quiet deliberation about the locals who exhibit a sense of pride in being northerners.
If Sicily is the severed big toe of Italy and Rome its beating heart, its soul must lie in the Verona region, home to Lake Garda. It has been a place of secular pilgimage for centuries, traveresed by lovelorn poets, soul searchers and thrillseekers. The Roman poet Catullo extolled its virtues and beauty, building a villa there at the far end of the peninsula of Sirmione. Its ruins are still visible, known as the Grotte di Catullo.
Almost 2,000 later it was still a place of wonder for poets, among them Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who made his first trip to Italy in 1786, unleashing an avalanche of German tourists ever since. Writers, artists and musicians followed, among them Tennyson, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Maria Callas, each drawn to the lake by its clear blue water, mild climate, rare fish and vineyards.
Enticing, too, are the beautiful villas graced with fig and olive trees and adorned by Bouganvilla cascading from balconies while tall, slender cyprus trees stand sentinel like guardians of the valley.
This is no arid landscape. It is as green and rich as Ireland – all 40 shades of it, providing a verdant backdrop to Lake Garda. That is due to the occasional hailstorm when the clouds burst and a ferocious fusillade of ice pellets the size of tic-tacs rain down over the lake and its surroundings.
It is a place of history and mystery, with unsurpassed natural beauty and towns built in ancient times that sit in the landscape as if mother nature herself had constructed them. Even the modern structures seem hewn from the surrounding hills and mountains.
The lake is huge and bountiful, framed by little towns and villages, among them Melcesine, an ancient town filled with lush Mediterranean foliage and olive groves, as well as an alpine landscape at its uppermost end and – its crowning glory – the Medieval Scaligero Castle.
It was the perfect destination and base for my son and myself to spend a week to explore this beautiful region, as well enjoying its varied cuisine, famous Bardolino wine and the comforts of the Majestic Palace hotel which lies a few minutes walk uphill from the town.
We were not put off by the experience of the aforementioned Goethe who nearly came a cropper on his visit to the town when he decided to draw a sketch of the castle. It led to his brief detention because at that time Malcesine, which constituted the northern border of the Republic of Venice, was at war with Austria. Goethe was accused of being an Austrian spy studying military installations, and it took a lot of explaning to convince the locals of his peaceful intentions.
We had a full agenda planned, including trips to Verona and Venice, a cable-car ride to the Dolomites, an hour of paragliding over the lake and a morning canyoning. Paragliding was fully booked for the week so our very attentive Topflight representative contacted a sports outfit called Canyon Adventures. Their brochure offered climbing (no thanks; too stenuous), kayaking (been there, done that), bellyaking (sounds painful) and canyoning.
I had never heard of ‘canyoning’ and figured it would be a bit like pot-holing or meandering through a mountain. My son, Adrian, had done it before but he wisely kept his knowledge to himself as we headed off past Lake Garda towards Torbole on the northern tip of Lake Garda. We were among a group of six, all at least a generation younger than me.
I should have known that this particular adventure might prove too much for this old fogey when we were all instructed to don safety helmets, harnesses and a wet suit with enough rubber to make a fetish artist swoon.
I didn’t realise that canyoning involved scrambling, hands and knees, half way up a mountain. I didn’t know it then meant you had to clutch a rope and edge your way along a rockface like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. You then either waited to be rescued or plunged ten metres into a pool of water that looked no bigger than a soup bowl.
They dived; I ducked, choosing to bump my way back down the mountain and leaving my son and his fellow adventurers to climb, clamber, swim and jump to their heart’s content.
After all that excitement, it was time for something less taxing. A visit to the Church of St Stefan, the patron saint of Malcesine is a must. Visible from the lake in its commanding position above the town, it, in turn, offers majestic views over Lake Garda. Originally thought to be the site of a pagan temple, a religious building has stood in this position for centuries. The baroque building dates from the 18th century and houses the remains of two local saints, St Benigno and St Caro, who were reputed to have lived in a cave at the foot of Monte Baldo, the mountain at the eastern side of Lake Garda.
Monte Baldo beckons, but how to get there.. climbing? No thanks. Cable car? Now you’re talking.
We took a cable car right to the summit where we encountered a different world. A haven for skiers in winter, even at the height of summer there is snow in the clefts and ridges and it is possible to walking along the icy edge with stunning, views of the lake and valley below.
While it is possible to spend a week or more in Melcesine, enjoying the lake and its surroundings, it is so close to the cities of Verona and Venice and it would be a shame not to take at least one trip and enjoy the bus ride, especially if the tour guide is not just informative but fun as well.
We did both and got lucky twice, first en route to Venice, encountering a native New Yorker who had made Lake Garda his home, and then on to Verona in the company of an Indian born but Italian bred guide.
First to Verona, the city famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. A 14th-century residence with a tiny balcony overlooking a courtyard is said be “Juliet’s House”.
Cynics will say the house and its balcony are the inventions of a money-grabbing tourist office but who cares?
The place is gorgeous and has a 2,000 old arena at its centre that hosts major international opera stars during the summer for the city’s annual opera festival.
Juliet had a lot of visitors when we arrived, all anxious to do a ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou..’ speech from her balcony and cavort with her bronze statue in the courtyard. Rubbing her right breast is supposed to bring love and luck. It has been rubbed to a sparkle over the years while star-crossed lovers leave heartfelt letters all around the courtyard.
So how did a 13th-century house in Verona become linked with the famous love story? The clue is in the name. The house belonged to the Dal Capello family, commonly known as the Cappelletti. This was so similar to the name of Juliet’s family, the Capulets that the house became her family home in everyone’s imagination and gave a great boost to Verona’s tourist industry.
Venice does not have a love story but it doesn’t need it, being full of romance from one end of its canals to the other.
It is also something of a miracle.
Convention suggests that any city build in a lagoon will not last long but the Venetians are resourceful and clever and brave and spirited. Defying nature through the centuries, they have employed daring and audacious feats of engineering to construct wonders like St Mark’s Square and dozens of marble palaces.
While places are wonderful, it is the people you encounter that make a trip special. Gaia and Lynsey, the Topflight representatives, worked magic to ensure we had an unforgettable week.
Dan and his son travelled to the stunning resort of Malcesine on Lake Garda, courtesy of Topflight, Ireland’s Italian specialist.
They stayed at the 4* Hotel Majestic Palace. The Hotel Majestic Palace is one of Topflight’s flagship properties and is a real favourite of repeat guests especially couples and families.
Topflight offer holidays to Malcesine, Lake Garda all summer season with flights from Cork, Dublin & Belfast. Flights operate right through the summer season until the end of September.
Prices for the 4* Hotel Majestic Palace start from €899 per person sharing and include return flights from Dublin, return transfers, accommodation for seven nights on a half board basis (breakfast & evening meal included), 20kg baggage allowance, taxes and the services of the Topflight representative in resort.
The Topflight representative will be on hand in resort and can organise a selection of excursions during your stay in Lake Garda to ensure you see the very best of what the area has to offer. The representative is also a great source of local knowledge.
New to Topflight this year is the ability to pre-book excursions, activities and the Verona Opera in advance of travel so guests can plan ahead. The selection of options from wine tasting, canyoning, cycling, operas, Venice etc. can all be viewed on topflight.ie or booked with your travel agent in advance of travel.