Lago di Garda is the biggest and in my opinion the most interesting large lake in Italy and perhaps in the whole of western Europe. The other very scenic lakes that run it close are Como and Maggiore in Italy, Lake Annecy in France and Lac Leman and Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. At one time or another I’ve cycled around large parts of all of the others except Lake Lucerne but I spent 6 months in Lucerne 47 years ago so I got to know that lake very well.
Lago di Garda certainly doesn’t have the same endless mountain views as the Swiss lakes but it has a greater variety of everything, especially fascinating waterfront towns and villages as well as the most northern olive oil and lemons in the world, courtesy of its generally benign Mediterranean climate. And despite my fondness for Lake Michigan, particularly the areas around Door County and Sleeping Bear Dunes, none of the Great Lakes of North America can hold a candle to Lago di Garda. This stunningly beautiful lake really should be high up on everyone's list of places to visit in Italy.
The attractions of Lago di Garda have been well known since wealthy Romans built villas here and Rome's greatest poet, Virgil, was the first of many literary giants to grace these shores, being a son of nearby Mantua. Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence spent time here among many others and Alfred Lord Tennyson was inspired enough to wrote a poem. So there’s nothing that can realistically be described as undiscovered or hidden about Lago di Garda in the same way as in the Maremma for example.
The fact also that it's just a short drive from Germany and conveniently located for all the Italian cities in the Po valley, being equidistant from Milan and Venice, means that most places along its 100 mile circumference get very crowded in the peak summer weeks.
We’ve been almost everywhere around the lake both in late June and at the very end of August and though we avoided the worst congestion, I would describe these periods as only just manageable for people like us who dislike crowds of tourists.
I was going to use the phrase ‘road trip’ to describe this tour around Lago di Garda but in fact the best way to see some of the towns is to take the ferry because most of the perimeter roads, especially on the eastern side, can sometimes be quite slow and snarled up with traffic. Which reminds me, the eastern half is in Veneto and the western half in Lombardy with the northern tip being in Trentino so the lake is actually divided among three Italian regions.
Riva del Garda, Trento
Starting right at the top with the town of Riva del Garda, this is the home of Parallel 46 olive oil and wine that we wrote about previously and a visit to the Agraria store in town should be an essential part of any visit to Riva. It’s also the most windy town along the lake because this is where water meets the high mountains so it’s a mecca for sailors and windsurfers and also cyclists because there are longer stretches of open road in the northern part of the lake than further south.
Riva is a good area for walking as well as for serious hiking. Two manageable walks that can easily be fitted into a short visit are the uphill walk to the Santa Barbara chapel and the lakefront walk to Torbole.
(1) For Santa Barbara chapel, go west out of town uphill to the Bastion and continue on a rough path through the woods where on arrival at the chapel you will be rewarded with magnificent views down the lake from 1,800 feet. It’s less than 3 miles and even with the steep slope it shouldn’t take much more than one hour, but it requires a fine day so the views can be enjoyed.
(2) A much easier and completely flat walk is to head east along the lake a couple of miles to Torbole Whereas Riva is tucked into the north west corner, the lake opens up much more as you walk east. The path to Torbole goes alongside the road but is separated from it and it’s a shared cycling/walking path which I never like much when I’m either walking or cycling myself but I understand the compromise.
A longer hike is the Strada del Ponale which connects Riva del Garda and the Valle di Ledro. Originally built in the second half of the 19th century, it was replaced by a modern tunnel only 20 years ago and since 2004 it has been closed to traffic and is now limited to hikers and mountain bikers. Its route along the lake for much of the way makes it one of the most beautiful and panoramic paths in Europe though there are some reported problems with overly fast and aggressive mountain bikers taking more than their fair share of the limited space available.
Nevertheless, there's a lot of interesting First World War history in many of the tunnels and it's worth remembering that after lunch the path is entirely in the shade. It starts in the middle of Riva and you can turn around and come back whenever you want as the full round trip is quite long at about 12 miles.
Aside from the fabulous olive oil and all these sporting activities, Riva del Garda has a nice atmosphere and is one of the major destinations on the lake for the ferry service so can easily be visited for a full day while staying somewhere else that’s more central.
Limone sul Garda, Brescia
Moving south into the province of Brescia (Lombardy) down the western side of the lake the next highlight is the town of Limone sul Garda. As can be seen from the photograph above taken when arriving by boat, there’s a sheer wall of mountains behind the town that cut off easy access by land until the early 1930s when the road was tunneled through to reach it.
The famous German literary figure Goethe mentioned the lemon houses of Limone in his published work ‘Italian Journey’ based on his visit here in September 1786 which gave the town some publicity and a wider audience.
Limone’s three principal endeavors involved lemons, olives and lake fish and it was the concentration of these items in the local diet reinforced by the town’s lack of easy access to the outside world that resulted in the amazing longevity of its inhabitants. A bit of a boring diet perhaps but when supplemented by homemade bread and pasta and I’m sure tomatoes and a few other easily grown items in the Mediterranean climate here, there’s a wide variety of dishes that you could create.
Limone sul Garda’s own website throws doubt on the widely assumed origin of the name and suggests that it was in fact derived from limen, the ancient word for border, and that the subsequent cultivation of lemons was a coincidence.
Limone today unfortunately can be a bit of a tourist trap because it’s very famous and very small which can be a hazardous combination in Italy. We went there on the ferry from Malcesine and walked around for a few hours with unfortunately too many other people on the same ferry with the same idea. It’s still worthwhile if only for the ferry ride because being out on a boat in the middle of Lago di Garda is always pleasant but on the other hand perhaps the town is nicer in the evening if you’re staying there when all the day-trippers have left, but that may also depend on the time of year. If you plan to go there just for lunch it’s best to book somewhere beforehand.
For a better understanding of the history of the lemon cultivation here you can visit the Limonaia del Castèl located a short walk towards the back of town. It was bought by the local council in 1995 and completely restored over almost 10 years. It was then planted with 100 new plants of various types of citrus.
The limonaie were mostly built in the first half of the 18th century and these structures allowed for windows to be added in the winter to provide protection against the occasional hard frost. The stretch of western shoreline from Limone to Gargnano was the best suited to lemons because they have the longest sun exposure. Two events dealt a death blow to the commercial production of lemons here. One was competition from the south of Italy after unification in 1861 and the second, even more profound, was the start of the industrial production of citric acid in the early 20th century.
The best thing about Limone sul Garda these days may be the dramatic new walking and cycling path that opened just three years ago. It must be one of Europe's most spectacular paths and certainly the easiest to reach and use. It is suspended 150 feet above the lake and cleverly attached to the side of the cliffs by steel cantilevers that penetrate 20 feet into the rock wall to support the 8 feet width of the path.
For much of the route when the road goes through tunnels you remain outside all alone on the cliffside with nothing but the best views of the whole lake. There are wire nets above to catch any falling rocks, it is illuminated at night for continual use and with no elevation changes this is a path that everyone can enjoy.
Though it's technically a path for both walkers and cyclists, it's not wide enough for both groups in the summer and because it's very popular and not yet very long it is completely dominated by people walking so best to do likewise and treat it as a walk because it's never any fun trying to thread your way through masses of people on a bike.
This section of the path is part of a much larger scheme carried out in a joint effort by the governments of Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino to construct a 140 km bike path along the circumference of Lago di Garda and it is now nearing completion. The following 2.5 minute video shows just how spectacular this new Limone path can be on a clear day:
Next stop, Malcesine, on the opposite side of the lake in the province of Verona in Veneto. The approach to Malcesine from the water is even more impressive than the approach to Limone because the mountains on the eastern side are higher and more dramatic and not just a sheer wall of rock. Malcesine itself is also more interesting then Limone with more to do and it’s certainly less claustrophobic because there’s more physical space for the town below the mountains.
This space also allows room for a very relaxing and scenic path along the lake, appropriately called Via Lungolago, and for most of its length it’s well away from the road and hugs the lake closely going south. This path is more or less exclusively for walking and there's even a small beach and easy access everywhere to the water. After about a mile and a half the path turns inland away from the lake and then ends abruptly at the main road.
There’s a very picturesque harbor in Malcesine and the town itself is almost too pretty for its own good in that it’s on everyone’s Lago di Garda ‘must see’ list.
There is a well preserved 14th century Castello di Scaligero dominating the centro storico, one of many castles in the province of Verona bearing the name Scaligero because they were constructed during the time when several generations of the della Scala family were lords of Verona.
They held power for over a century until 1387, a period of almost constant wars with neighboring cities. There will be more about the della Scala family in the upcoming article on Verona.
Malcesine, like the rest of the province of Verona, was a first hand witness to much of the key periods of Italian history passing from Venetian ownership to the French then the Austrians and finally after Italian unification back to Venice again as part of the region of Veneto. Much of this history is on display at the castle and there is also a room dedicated to Goethe where some of his sketches are displayed.
Malcesine has an attractive centro storico with the normal rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleyways that typify a medieval town. It's full of shops and restaurants but not all of them are good quality and there is definitely some risk of this town succumbing to the siren call of overtourism. It hasn't happened yet but the town is very popular so give high season a miss here with a healthy margin either side.
Aside from the town itself there is another reason for coming here. Above Malcesine, rising up to 7,300 feet is the majestic Monte Baldo whose summit can be reached by cable car but there’s also a path for serious hikers and some people choose to go up in the cable car and descend on foot. We took the cable car both ways because the walk requires planning and a big time commitment.
However, Monte Baldo has many different paths of varying lengths and levels of difficulty because the mountain has become a destination all by itself with 4 different climatic zones supporting all sorts of activities including skiing in the winter and hang gliding, mountain biking and hiking almost all year.
My theory of outdoor activity in Italy is that if you find yourself in a place where olive trees grow then there's no excuse for not spending time outside year-round during daylight hours and there are plenty of olive trees on the lower elevations around Lago di Garda. On our visit to the summit we watched hang gliders launching themselves into the air by simply jumping over the edge. Exhilarating I’m sure but not our cup of tea at all.
My regular morning walk from Malcesine was to head up to the meadows on Via Faigolo (confusingly shown as Via dei Prai on google maps) near the first cable car stop. There’s an old mule track that you can take after leaving Malcesine on Via Monti and walking towards Paier, or you can simply follow the appropriately named Via Panoramica.
It’s not a long walk, about 3.5 miles for the round trip, and the route stays in the foothills reaching no higher than about 1,800 feet. There are great morning views of the rising sun hitting the sheer rock walls on the western side of the lake (above photo) and the walk is just about strenuous enough to give you a good excuse to hit the pastries hard at breakfast.
The photo below was taken at the start of the walk looking north towards Malcesine from above the lakefront path just before taking the alternative Via Puri up to Via Panoramica. The light changes quickly on the lake because of the mountains either side so it's worth getting up early for a different perspective.
Malcesine is an ideal spot to base yourself for a few days and use the ferry to see the northern part of the lake including the towns mentioned above, and probably down as far as Gargnano. But for the southern towns it would be much better to move somewhere closer because the ferries are not exactly quick and it can take a couple of hours from Malcesine to get down even to Bardolino. Timetables for ferry services for all the big three Italian lakes can be found at www.navigazione.it
There is one more excursion and/or hike to mention before leaving the Monte Baldo area. Just above the Adige river on the south-east side of Monte Baldo there is an old pilgrim's path (Sentiero del Pellegrino) up to the precarious looking Madonna della Corona church. It's marked as trail #73 and if you walk the old route up from Brentino Belluno it's less than 2 miles but with 2,000 feet of elevation gain and 1,500 steps there's some effort involved.