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Lovely Garda will banish the blues

TravelBy Alan Kelly
Italy’s biggest lake is protected by the imposing Garda mountain range
Italy’s biggest lake is protected by the imposing Garda mountain range
The stunning mountain views around Lake Garda
The stunning mountain views around Lake Garda

In Twilight in Italy, DH Lawrence movingly described his first impressions of Lake Garda: “Everything was clear and sun-coloured up there, clear-grey rocks partaking of the sky, tawny grass and scrub, browny-green spires of cypresses, and then the mist of grey-green olives fuming down to the lake-side.”

My own first impressions and the great jagged mountains encircling the town are far more prosaic and along the lines of: “Wow, talk about feckin’ gorgeous!”

It’s little wonder the lake has been so popular with writers down the years, with those craggy summits changing colour by the hour almost - purple greys punctuated with flashes of gunmetal blue and tipped with mellow cerise.

We are lodged in the splendid Savoy Palace Hotel from where every morning a majestic view of the dizzying peaks imparts a sense of spiritual healing almost.

Fortunately, the hotel is also just a short stroll from the lakeside, and the lure of total relaxation and unhurried days of lolling about or strolling along the pebbly shore.

A hearty breakfast from a superbly stocked warm buffet is always a welcome aid to laid-back exertions, and nobody does it better than hotel proprietor, Mr Tonelli, and his welcoming staff.

And what a welcome you get here - there’s a host of extras to make you smile, including a ‘benvenuto’ drink on arrival, complimentary afternoon tea/coffee, wine and water with dinner, a weekly gala dinner, complimentary bicycle hire and honeymoon/anniversary surprises. Guests can also avail of a complimentary yoga class and a complimentary trekking excursion during their holiday. 

One could imagine checking in here and never wanting to venture any further. But we, of course, did. Fueled-up on breakfast and ready for the off, we made for the exciting beach culture of the Great Lake.

One way of making the most out of Lake Garda is to select a good hotel and use it as a vacation HQ. With a sweeping 50-mile-long shoreline festooned with jewel-like destinations and ancient stone piazzas, you may well require a day or two to do some exploring.

Town-hopping and sightseeing from an open deck taxi boat is by far the best way, and a more enjoyable experience (and cheaper) than sweating profusely in a hired car. The cost of pottering over to lovely Limone by boat, for instance, is just €5 a head. Faster hydrofoils do cost a bit more, but it’s definitely worth it for the thrill of criss-crossing of the lake at speed.

The costs are also worth it for the relaxing character of the journey, before dawdling along through haunting medieval streets that look like scenes from a romantic 1950s Italian movie. And isn’t that partly why we love to come here, to discover or rediscover our mojo and leave our troubles and concerns back at home, at least for a week or so in the summer?

July is also the start of the high season, when the entire lake area is engulfed with snow-white tourists, just like ourselves, desperate for a bit of sun.

The heat can be oppressive though for the uninitiated - 36°C is the kind of setting you might prove bread in and not a level of warmth I normally associate with personal comfort.

But it’s then that I discover another wonderful attraction of Lake Garda - almost every day, great north-south winds called The Ora and The  Pelèr swirl in and across the surface of the lake.

They not only act like gigantic outdoor air-conditioning fans, but also attract thousands of windsurfers, kiters, and sporty outdoorsy types who like thrills by the bucket-load.

Our man Alan Kelly on the stunning shores of Lake Garda

May, June and September are advised as the best times to visit Lake Garda, when the temperatures are just the right side of balmy Mediterranean perfection. But it’s a hospitable destination for a break at any time of the year as the temperatures are always pleasant, thanks to the lake doing its job as a super-sized solar panel, and the mountains acting as insulators, keeping the heat in the area.

It quickly becomes deliciously cool and a delight for everybody, with the exquisite aftereffects often lasting into the evening. And it’s in the evening when the light begins to leave the sky that people wander and explore again, only this time it’s food they’re after.

And boy is Riva an excellent port of call for food lovers. Crammed with a smorgasbord of trattorias, cafés, pizzerias and gelaterias, the town will suit every pocket and every budget. 

Each street brings a culinary discovery. On Via Fiume, we find jam-packed Leon d’Oro, a restaurant since 1929 and in the same family since 1939. Loud and chattery, it’s full of long tables groaning with noisy Italian families enjoying unimpeachable ingredients cooked with traditional skill and generosity. 

Leon d’Oro serves up great food AND genuine Italian hospitality to its own community, as well as to hungry tourists. I especially its version of Strangolapreti (priest stranglers), a local Trentino gnocchi specialty made from spinach and stale bread rather than potatoes.

Everything is a pleasure here including the wine - we try a local Bardolino from just down the road. It is delicious and an absolute steal at €18 a bottle.

Although borderline-cheesy in the décor department, nearby Al Volt serves out-of-this-world homemade spaghetti with Castelmagno cheese and black truffle shavings.

I never understood the truffle hype. Now I do - and now I am a believer. In fact, I’d call it an unforgettable pasta experience. And while €13 might sound expensive for spaghetti, it isn’t, not when you taste this amazing dish.

Accompanied by a magnificent syrah at a mere €23, I can not recommend it highly enough.

Because The Boss and I try nearly everything on the menu and do our best to scoff the lot, most evenings a dessert is a course too far.

A postprandial stretch of the legs is required, and there’s nowhere better for that than along the azure-blue waters of the lake. The crowds have dwindled to rambling arm-in-arm couples taking in the evening air before sipping a well-earned nightcap or chancing a gravity-defying Fancy-Dan ice-cream.

And when it comes to Fancy-Dan ice-cream, Flora’s Gelateria on Viale Rovereto is where it’s at. To accompany any of their delightful concoctions, we sample a delicious glass of white wine at €2 and an equally delicious Prosecco at €2.80 – truly amazing value with equally amazing quaffability.

While touching on the subject of value, it is worth noting some cost differences between Riva and big city Verona. Following a comfortable two-hour coach ride to Verona (€48 each) we thoroughly enjoy checking-out the sights, especially the Roman Arena, before retreating to the clusters of café tables in the ancient Piazza Erbe.

We adore Italian coffee (especially Omkaffee) but are blown away by the cost difference between Verona (€3.50), and Garda (€1.50), for the exact same cup. If nothing else, it is pleasing to realise that Dublin isn’t quite the rip-off coffee capital I once thought it was.

Anyhow, back to wonderful Riva. There are some people out there who take the view that holidays are all about getting involved, being super-active, and seeing every possible sight within a hundred mile radius.

I take the view that if a holiday location is already a haven of tranquility with lorry-loads of dazzling scenery interspersed with restaurants to die for, then there’s no reason whatsoever to go traipsing around exhausting yourself.

For us, what makes Garda and Riva in particular so attractive is how absurdly laid-back it all is. A local proverb pretty much says it all: Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto. Which means: eat well, laugh often, love much.

Listen-up and you won’t go too far wrong around Lake Garda. 

GETTING THERE: Alan travelled to Lake Garda with Topflight, Ireland’s Italian Specialist, staying at the highly sought after 4* Hotel Savoy Palace in the resort of Riva, Lake Garda. Topflight offer holidays to Lake Garda all summer season with a choice of flights from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. 
Stay 7 nights half-board at the 4* Hotel Savoy from €969pp sharing (travelling in September). Price includes return flights from Dublin, 20kg baggage, taxes and services of the Topflight rep in resort who can organise of excursions during your stay to ensure you see the very best of what the region has to offer.  Visit www.topflight.ie (or call 01 240 1700), to see the range of holidays Topflight offers, from self-catering to 5* luxury.