Lake Garda and the Brenta

Friday 30th May 2008, Bardolino, Lake Garda
This evening we find ourselves beside one of Italy’s prettiest lakes where the temperature has hovered throughout the day at a blissful 22 degrees - 21 degrees cooler than we were experiencing in Igoumenitsa a couple of days ago. We have even been blessed with some rain! Greece was a wonderful experience but nothing can compare with the pleasure of breathing in deep gulps of damp cool air after the dry, exhausting and unrelenting heat and blazing sunshine of the past few days.

We woke this morning on board the ferry to discover we were passing the Lido and approaching Venice. With a comfortable breeze we stood high on the 8th deck watching as our huge ship passed the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Square. Around us on the water bobbed minuscule gondolas and along the banks of Giudecca the citizens of Venice were jogging before setting off for work. We saw churches and piazzas that only a year ago we had wandered around, but this time it was early in the morning and the tourists had not yet arrived. Venice really is a magical place and its Renaissance splendours struck us all the more forcibly after the low level, rather unattractive, utilitarian towns of modern Greece. There was so much colour to the city. The sea was blue, reflecting silver in the early morning sunshine. The buildings were washed with warm colours faded by the sun and the potted plants and open spaces with their dark green shrubs and pink oleanders added splashes of brightness. We were sorely tempted to change our plans and spend a couple of days in this most beautiful of cities. All the photos below are taken from the deck of the ship.

Approaching Venice

The Arsenal, approaching Venice

Vaporetti along the quayside, Venice

"Street" scene in Venice

St. Mark's Square with the Doge's Palace and the Cathedral of St. Mark with its campanile, Venice

Canal in the Giudecca area of Venice

Another canal in the Giudecca area of Venice

Showing how the Greek ferries tower over the city! Venice

Once we disembarked however, and found ourselves on the causeway across the lagoon, we realised how difficult it would be struggling through the morning traffic to find our old campsite. So we stuck with the motorway and were swept clear of the city along with hundreds of heavy lorries. Driving in Northern Italy along the motorway is mercifully a completely different affair than using the ordinary roads further down the peninsula. And after the broken surfaces of Greek roads it was a joy to drive at a reasonable speed without fear of breaking an axle in a sudden pothole or driving over a dead cat that had been knocked down and left where it fell to fester for days. Soon we had swept past Padua, Vicenza and Verona, all places we visited last year, and had turned off along the eastern shore of Lake Garda.

At Lazise we parked outside the ancient city walls and wandered through to find ourselves in the heart of a beautiful, picturesque lakeside town. Contrast lends enchantment and Italy is so very different from the towns of northern Greece with their strong Balkan and Turkish influence. Italy has had a continuity of architecture that transcends time. The buildings are a living link with the country’s historic past in a way they can never be in Greece where so little survives and modern architecture is designed to withstand earth tremors rather than to be aesthetically pleasing. In Lazise we wandered the narrow side streets, alive with cafes, restaurants, bakeries and food shops selling wines, cheeses, hams and pastas. A pretty stuccoed church on the water’s edge had faded frescoes, a central altar painting and familiar statues of Catholic saints. Potted aspidistras and white lilies added touches of bright colour to the simple interior.

City gateway, Lazise

City walls, Lazice

There was a tiny lakeside harbour where boats left for tours of the lake and tourists strolled leisurely along the shore, watching the ducks with their broods of young fledglings as they took to the water. With shady trees, green lawns and flowering oleanders it was everything one could want from a summer holiday resort without any of the usual brashness.

Harbour, Lazice

A little further along the lake we found a campsite where we left Modestine and strolled along beside the water to discover two more of the lakeside towns – Bardolino and Garda. Similar to Lazise, each had their own charm, both were perfection. Bardolino is famed for its wine, produced on the slopes above the town. Tomorrow there is a special wine festival and stalls were being set up in preparation. We purchased a bottle in advance and have been sampling it this evening as we sat outside between light showers of rain. Garda is perhaps rather more chic with several smart hotels, but either would be a delightful location for a holiday. We sorely miss our bikes here. Cycling beside the lake is flat and easy with charming views of the water and aquatic birds, with the mountains that enclose the northern end of the lake showing grey in the distance. With so many exquisite little towns to visit we could easily spend a few days here just cycling around the lake.

Lakeside villa, Bardolino

Street in Bardolino

Beside the lake, Bardolino

Square in Garda

Another contrast with Greece, where everything is so relaxed and easy going, is the incredible amount of bureaucracy that exists in Italy. It is easy enough to get into the country. Our passports have never been asked for once by immigration or customs since we left England. The only time we have needed to show them has been to book in at a campsite and to use the internet in Italy. They are completely anal about rules and regulations! There are signs up everywhere informing you what you are not allowed to do. The most commonly used work is “vietato”. Our camping card was considered insufficient evidence of our identity at the campsite and our passport details were copied in triplicate into ledgers. We were then given identity cards to carry at all times and a four page document of the regulations we must adhere to or run the following risks …
1.Violation of the public security law
2.Violation of the residence law 614cp
3.Violation of the trespassing law 633cp
4.Violation of the larceny law 624cp
5.Fraud conviction
The document was headed “Proposals for a friendly and happy holiday”! We are only staying one night and are in great fear that we might fall foul of the noise abatement law with our snoring!

Sunday 1st June 2008, Terlago, near Trento
Yesterday morning we left the campsite on the shores of Lake Garda and followed along its eastern bank right the way to Riva del Garda at its northern tip. We stopped off at several of the stunningly pretty little walled towns on the way – anywhere we could find somewhere to park in fact. The roads were busy as this weekend is a long one in Italy, Monday being their National day, so those who live in the cities were seizing the opportunity of a few days to relax on the lake, stay in nice hotels, drink wine and coffee on the water's edge and take little paddle steamers to various other destinations on the further shore. There were very few camping cars around and the reason soon became clear. They are actively discouraged as they clog up the roads and car parks. All parking areas have a barrier to prevent them from entering. Unfortunately for us Modestine is tarred with the same brush and we are unable to use any of the car parks despite her fitting into any normal sized parking space and being basically the same vehicle as a Citroen Berlingo, which is allowed. Even worse is that the car parks are signed as being down narrow side roads without mention being made to height restrictions. We find out too late and need to reverse out or turn while following vehicles wait impatiently for us to fiddle. So yet another reason to dislike driving in Italy.

However, we did have one particular joy. There is a small headland, San Vigilio Point, which is open to the public at the discretion of the owner. He provides free parking and free access to the grounds. If you wish, you can pay to use the private beach, the restaurant and the hotel. The path down to the villa is lined with tall, dark-green cypresses, citrus orchards, olive trees planted in the 14th century, fig trees and oleander bushes. The owner's personal villa, Villa Guarienti di Brenzone, and its immediate garden is not open to view but the glimpse we had through the wrought iron gates showed it to be everything a lavish coffee table book would display of a typical renaissance palace with stuccoed walls and dark green shutters, set overlooking the lake and surrounded by lawns, flowers and shrubs. One of the most beautiful personal homes we have ever seen.

Villa Guarienti di Brenzone, San Vigilio Point

There is a small harbour on the lake where tiny boats are available for guests. The original 16th century buildings here have been made into a picturesque hotel. On the jetty there are shady umbrellas where guests can enjoy coffees and cold drinks, served by a smart waiter, as they dangle their toes into the clear water of the lake while ducks sleep peacefully beside them. The views across the lake in all directions are delightful. Nothing jars, there is perfect peace, accompanied by the cheerful sound of birdsong. When we eventually left we felt mentally refreshed, overjoyed with the experience.

Harbour, San Vigilio Point

Hotel on the harbour, San Vigilio Point. Here the German atomic physicist Otto Hahn spent his honeymoon

Our next stop was at Torri del Benaco, a pretty town inside strong defensive walls. It has a 14th century castle beside the lake built by the Scaligeri family. Around the harbour were several stunning palaces, used now as hotels and restaurants. Their walls were stuccoed and painted in colours that exactly reflected the artistic trays of Italian ice creams so abundantly displayed in the nearby cafes and gelateria - orange, peach, cinnamon, lemon, strawberry, pistachio, deep plum and bright peppermint blue. Shady awnings, purple bougainvillea against the walls and huge jardinières of aspidistras and geraniums completed this so perfect scene.

Castle of the Scaligeri family, Torri del Benaco

Harbour, Torri del Benaco

Shady arcade and harbourside hotel, Torri del Benaco

Further along the lake we passed through Malcesine, where Goethe was imprisoned in 1786 for sketching the castle. In those days he was mistaken for a spy!

As we drove towards the head of the lake the landscape changed. Soon the mountains of the Brenta Massif were closing in on either side so we seemed to be driving along the edge of a fjord.

Northern end of Lake Garda

Riva del Garda lies at the head of the lake and is a popular holiday destination for English, Dutch and German tourists. It is larger than the other little towns but lacks some of their charm. There is a hydro electric dam which would have been interesting but is not open to the public and the 12th century castle of Rocca, surrounded by moats. From Riva del Garda ancient paddle steamers carry passengers on pleasure trips or ply between the lakeside towns. As we watched a particularly attractively decorated one dock, it came too close to the quayside and with a horrid splintering sound it ripped off a large piece of its original timber decoration.

Riva del Garda

Riva del Garda

Exterior of hydo-electric station with a 1931 statue representing "The genius of Water", Riva del Garda

Paddle boat, Riva del Garda

Oops! Riva del Garda

Leaving the lake behind, we headed north, turning up to this isolated little campsite high in the mountains of the Brenta. Here the air is fresh and cool even in the bright sunshine. The grass is green, and wet with dew in the morning. Already the unbearable heat of Greece is being forgotten and we have been wallowed in temperatures as low as 18 degrees at night! We have even experienced several showers and there is a permanent gently breeze.

Today we decided to stay put and explore the surrounding mountains on foot. Although still in Italy there is an Austrian feel to the large, mountain buildings with steep, overhanging roofs to throw off the snows of winter. After the grey, arid beauty of the Greek mountains, those of the Brenta, which link to the Dolomites, are a complete contrast. Their rugged peaks rise high above the green, lush mountain pastures and leafy woodlands of their lower flanks. Dolomite limestone is grey, sometimes pink, causing it to glow in the setting sun.

Our eleven kilometre walk today took us through isolated beech and pine forests that gave cool shade from the heat of the day. Beside the footpath we discovered a memorial stone. We think it is to Giovanni Defant and his grandson Pietro who were killed at that spot by the French enemy on 18th September 1703, but our Italian is rather limited. Presumably it relates to some long-forgotten incident during the War of the Spanish Succession.

[?] D S A AD 18 7br 1703 M Gio Defant e Pietro suo figliolo sono stati uccisi dalli inimici Francesi 9vi

Our path emerged beside one of the nearby lakes, Laghi di Lamar 800m (2500 ft), high above Terlago where families were picnicking, strolling and fishing. The water was a deep green reflecting the surrounding mountain peaks. Here we picnicked under the trees beside the water watching a huge fish that would have dangled over the edges of our remoska had we been trying to catch it!

Italians enjoying the weekend, Laghi di Lamar

Flooded footpath, Laghi di Lamar

Laghi di Lamar

Ian had warned me there would be some climbing. There always is when Ian decides our route. Height, not distance is what counts with him. So up we trudged, along the rough, rocky, crumbling, overgrown tracks, slowly climbing higher until I began to wonder whether we were aiming for the summit of Mont Paganella at 2124 metres! Cooler than Greece it may be, and the shady woodland was a delight, but the going was really tough and sticky. At least our hiking gear has been used in earnest today!

View down from the edge of the footpath above Laghi di Lamar

Monte Paganella from our footpath

The long distance footpath signs we saw as we came down stated the path was for experienced walkers. It never mentioned it at the point we'd joined it! So we feel vindicated in falling sound asleep in Modestine for nearly two hours when we got back! In addition the descent brought us down through flowery mountain meadows where long grass fronds swayed in the breeze. We both became so overcome with hay fever we needed anti-histamine in a hurry. They always make us drowsy and the itching and sneezing are exhausting. At least we didn't have that problem in Greece with its lack of grass!

Monte Paganella across a flowery meadow

In a mountain meadow near Laghi di Lamar

Natural rockery near Laghi di Lamar