A tiny town nestled on the banks of majestic Lake Garda, and one of the continent's most romantic cities make for a stunning northern Italian odyssey ripe for the booking, complete with ripasso by the bucketload, sensational food, and aeons of history.
We all share a similar dream of Italy's lakes. Sun glistening off waters so blue you want to wade in, whether it’s appropriate or not. Elegant eateries offering passing trade local delicacies and a chance to cool off under a parasol, Aperol Spritz in hand. Tumbledown villas definitive of rustic. Refined, mature clientele donning their finest summer wares.
Pulling up in the charming village of Limone, on the north west shoreline of Garda, and for all intents and purposes things look exactly as they should. Taking its name from the lemons the area is renowned for (this is the place for limoncello fans), you're hemmed in by domineering hills, many cascading directly into the water itself, with just one road winding around the lake's circumference, pitted with enough tunnels to make even the most avid mathematician loose count (Bond eluded villains here at high speed during Quantum of Solace).
A pervading sense of drama; Earth’s own stage, showing off rugged power and serenity in equal spades. That may sound stomach churning in its Romanticism, pompous even. Nevertheless, the notion fits given the town occupies a natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding rock face. Cue the smell of fresh pasta, and the scene is well and truly set.
With the best time to arrive from September onwards, now is the time to make plans. Visitors here mainly come in two forms; a good proportion are loyal regulars- holidaymakers from elsewhere in the country and abroad, who have made this a base for decades. A few are stopping by for the first time, mostly on day trips, although given the tranquil air around Piazza Garibaldi it’s easy to see how a few hours could turn into a spontaneous overnight or two. Or indeed three. After all, walking by restaurants vying for trade and out onto a tiny jetty-harbour sporting myriad small sail boats bobbing in tides created by passing local ferries is a true delight.
This is where you’ll find Le Palma, a hotel and eatery with a view to die for. Tables practically straddle the lake, meaning my fellow diners include a group of noisy ducks waiting for morsels to drop into the water below. Finding it impossible to pass up carpaccio of beef with rocket and parmesan; a mains of macaroni, Garda sardines, capers, pine nuts and parsley follows, and takes even less time to devour, aided by a 2012 ripasso from nearby Valpolicella, a claret renowned for its high alcohol level and complexity, it’s safe to say I’m not moving for the remainder of the evening.
Thanks to its position in northern Italy, Garda offers access to destinations ranging from tiny hilltop hamlets to major cities such as Milan, Bologna and Venice. If the somewhat intimidating journey times the first and last of those big-hitters demand don’t suit (early risers only, please) there are plenty of other distractions to choose from too. The Grigoletti winery is a case in point.
Roughly one hour by car from Limone, this family run establishment comes with serious salesmanship, surreal interior design, and mouthwatering tipples. Venturing into the belly of the clan’s deceptively large house, Willy Wonka’s vino factory becomes a reality. Visitors walk through stone-lined cellar corridors from one area to the next, each offering a unique personality. The ‘Pink Temple’, for example, isn’t just a clever name. Laden with pink marble, it celebrates the women of the business, and was built in response to the more formal ‘Basilica’ next door, where faces of their male counterparts adorn the walls.
There’s even a bank vault, where the most valuable bottles ever produced are stacked like gold bars, stretching as far back as the eye can see. Clearly proud of their bloodline, the final tasting explains plenty. Faced with several varieties, hard Italian cheese and prosciutto, hosted by mother and one of her school-age sprogs, despite the enterprise’s obvious commercial aims it’s impossible not to feel yourself growing emotionally attached to this menage. Or maybe that’s the wine talking, with the delicious Antica Vigna winning out for both taste (a gorgeous, deep merlot) and terrifying all-day drinking potential.
Foreigners heading to Garda usually land at Verona, and the city is a fantastic destination in its own right- even if that’s just for a few pre-boarding call hours. As the fourth most-visited town in Italy there’s far more to its narrow streets than Romeo & Juliet. That said, the real-life Capulet family home- now transformed into a museum that welcomes almost 250,000 each year- is worth a look for the amorous graffiti scrawled over the entrance, and to see young love birds walk out onto the famous balcony for a kiss in front of onlooking crowds. Just don’t ask anyone where said terrace, installed after the release of George Cukor’s 1936 take on Shakespeare’s classic, really came from.
Elsewhere, the iconic Piazza Erbe offers more reality. Formerly the forum, enveloped by buildings some of which boast historic exterior frescos that once lent this place the nickname ‘painted city’, it has long been home to a market, and the ‘Tiny Temple’ in the middle still sports measurement markings used by traders centuries ago. The sight of tourist after tourist mistaking a wrought iron fascina for a manacle is pretty amusing. Their eyes full of macabre fantasies, imagining what pre-modern torture methods it facilitated, when in actual fact this was used to ensure bundles of market produce were all of a standardised girth.
I could easily go on, such is the wealth of fascinating corners ripe for exploration, adding that this is one town where a tour guide counts for much. The tombs of the Scaliger family, for example, need in-depth explanation to understand their significance. And Piazza di Signori, home to the oldest address of the lot, Dante’s statue, and some cute cafes, could be missed in a heartbeat if you didn’t take the right turn.
In contrast, Verona’s amphitheatre, constructed in the 1st Century AD and the eighth largest in the world, needs few background details to comprehend. A stunning structure currently used for operas, rock concerts and theatre performances- capable of holding 22,000- it may not quite match Rome’s Colosseum, but remains jaw-dropping nonetheless. And it’s here our brief odyssey must end, in the Nastro Azzuro restaurant; no relation to the beer, albeit Italy’s most-famous lager is on the menu.
Located on Vicolo Listone, a cobbled backstreet running away from that awesome Roman ruin, the wonderful setting is complemented by great food. Sitting out in the warmth of the day to enjoy roast veal in tuna sauce (no, seriously) isn’t a bad way to wait for a flight. The bizarre-sounding combination would make many run a mile, but it works, testament to the fresh produce and innovative mind manning the grill. Topped off with a simple tomato and mozzarella ravioli (the starter was rather rich), washed down with a just-about-OK-to-fly quantity of yet more ripasso, and the 15-minute taxi ride to departures ends with seriously slow movement, and the sense that a return trip to this region can’t be too far away.
Thomson Lakes & Mountains offers a week all-inclusive at the 4* Hotel Leonardo da Vinci in Limone, Lake Garda from £653 per person including flights, with departures available from Manchester Airport (non-London supplement applies starting from £20). Optional excursions include Grigoletti winery and Verona city tour.