IT IS market day in Desenzano on the southern shore of Lake Garda. Along the waterfront, vendors hawk their wares: clothes, jewellery, handbags and pottery beckon to passersby.
Italian football jerseys hang from stalls, looking a bit sad with memories of what might have been in Brazil. Rows of food stalls rumble the stomach with fresh loaves of bread and foccacia stuffed with olives and peppers. Fruit and vegetables shine in the mid-morning sun, olives glisten like emeralds. Tubes of meat and cheese hang like lanterns. An assortment of fresh pasta stirs dreams of lunch.
We are sitting in an outdoor cafe, sipping what surely is perfect coffee, watching the beautiful madness of the market rush and the boats in the harbour. Two old men next to us drink campari, gesticulating with passion as they do so. Small cotton-ball clouds float across a blinding sky of blue.
Some 15 minutes earlier, we were racing across the lake from our holiday village in an outboard water taxi, giving us a morning adrenaline rush of sun, spray and speed before hitting the market. Another postcard-perfect morning on our Italian holiday. This was my plan: after we down our coffee and get my daughter an ice cream, we hit the artisan oil mill on the outskirts of Desenzano, where ancient stone mills crush the olives into liquid gold for us to sip like fine wine.
My daughter, wearing one of those Italian jerseys we got for a tenner in the market, puts down her peach juice in disgust. She’s having none of it. Ok, time to hit the pause button — she’s right. This is supposed to be a week-long, family, fun-in-the-sun package holiday, with something for everyone. We were hesitant about the whole package holiday thing — my wife and I wanted vineyards, olive groves and coffee splashed with grappa at outdoor cafes with the occasional Roman ruin or medieval fresco to marvel at; my seven-year-old daughter wanted fun, fun, fun.
The package option seemed a reasonable compromise and we weren’t disappointed. Lake Garda works its spell on kids and adults alike. We get to taste la dolce vita, they get rollercoasters, swimming, dancing and mountains of gelato.
Garda is the largest of the Italian Lakes, stretching some 370km and straddling the three regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino; glaciers carved it out during the last Ice Age and it seems that holidaymakers, poets, princes, divas, dreamers — and the occasional dictator — have been arriving ever since. Surrounded by the foothills of the Alps in the north, flowing hills and a lush Mediterranean microclimate thick with vineyards and olive groves on its southern shores, Lake Garda can boast it has all of Italy’s rich cultural diversity tied up in a neat little package.
We stayed in the southern part of the lake, outside the tourist-choked, but stunning town of Sirmione. Less than an hour after getting off the plane at Verona’s Valerio Catullo airport and out of the transfer bus, we arrived in the four-star Garda Village holiday resort. I had feared the worst, expecting to find a continental madhouse akin to Eurovision goes camping, instead of a quiet, family-friendly, easy-to navigate, holiday village cradled by Lake Garda and the mountains beyond. We stayed in one of the village’s pink-washed, self-catering comfort bungalows, between the pool and the lake, and the bungalow lived up to its name. It was comfortable, with a double bed for us and a sofa bed for my daughter in the kitchen/living area, but there was a claustrophobic feel to the place (although the air conditioning gave welcome relief from sultry evenings).
However, we had Lake Garda on our doorstep. A few hours poolside and a few sublime dips in the lake — the water was so clear and warm, I expected to taste the salty sting of a tropical sea — washed any misgivings away. Garda Village was immaculate with manicured lawns, a playground, tennis courts, three clean and safe swimming pools, a private beach on the lake, a well-stocked shop and restaurant on site, we were hardly indoors, except for bedtime. And my daughter wasn’t disappointed. The village’s Animation team was on hand to cater for every child’s wish and whim — the after-dinner dancing at the outdoor theatre was a surprise hit and I was exhausted just watching the team of university-aged workers go out of their way to make every child feel special. The onsite restaurant was reasonably priced (we spent no more than €40 on dinner, including wine and other drinks) and the pizza there was better than some of the more well-heeled joints we tried in Sirmione.
SLEEK SPA TOWN
The swanky spa town of Sirmione, which has the deserved reputation of one of the prettiest spots on Lake Garda, oozes charm, class and, during the summer season, tourists — lots of them. Throngs of day-trippers and sight-seers pour through the medieval streets, cameras in one hand, ice cream in the other, jostling for space at sidewalk tables. But, don’t let that put you off. Located on a crooked-finger shaped peninsula and guarded by the impressive Scaligera Castle, Sirmione is a good place to lose yourself for a day, especially with a stroll on the 4km pathway around the old town and a visit to the ruins of the Grotte di Catullo, a 1st century AD Roman villa. And don’t forget your ice cream.
ON A ROLL
There are plenty of high-octane activities to get you going around Lake Garda, from windsurfing to horse riding and abseiling down the limestone cliff-face, but with our visit to the olive oil mill on hold, my daughter was adamant about going to Gardaland, Italy’s largest amusement park, in search of our own family buzz. It took us two buses to get there. The first, a public bus from outside Garda Village to the train station in Pescheria del Garda where Gardaland provided a free bus service to the park (the free bus service from Garda Village only kicked off the week after we left).
It only took an hour door to door, but for even the heartiest — and over-excited, seven-year-old, it was a hot and taxing journey. An icy bottle of peach iced tea revived us outside the gates of Gardaland and like any parent with dark memories of endless amusement park queues and chaos, I steadied my nerves before we entered.
I need not have worried. Gardaland was clean, easy to get around and the queues weren’t soul-destroying (although we did shell out for the express pass option on certain rides). And while most of the hardcore rollercoasters and stomach-churning rides were out of bounds, there was plenty of action for a seven-year-old girl and her not-so-courageous parents. We braved jungle rapids, turned our knuckles white on the Mammut rollercoaster and got spit on by cartoon dinosaurs in the Ice Age 4D movie experience.
We could have easily spent another day at Gardaland, but my daughter didn’t want to miss the kids’ treasure hunt back at Garda Village the next day, or the gymnastics hour, or splashing in the pool with her newfound friend in the nearby bungalow. We also couldn’t miss the after-dinner show and disco.
In between treasure hunts and dances, we did manage to steal a couple of sun-soaked, jaw-dropping hours in the beautiful city of Verona (Romeo and Juliet fell in love there and I can see why), but I never got the chance to put my lips to freshly-pressed olive oil.
Not to worry, my daughter said we’d be going back to Lake Garda next year. I can already taste it.
Topflight is Ireland’s Italy specialist, with direct flights from Cork, Dublin and Belfast.
You can fly direct from Cork Airport, with a Topflight charter to Verona, with easy transfers to the resorts of Lake Garda.
Sirmione is located very close to the amusement, theme and water parks of Lake Garda, including Gardaland — the whole area is excellent for family holidays.
Entrance to Gardaland costs €27.50, but you can go in the evening between 6pm and 9pm for only €16.
For a family of two adults and two children, expect to pay around €2,172 average cost July 26 for a Comfort Bungalow in the four-star Garda Village Complex on Lake Garda, including flights, transfers, accommodation and rep services. Call Topflight on 01-2401700, www.topflight.ie for special offers.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved