Melissa Shales found a world filled with real dictators, fictional spies and operatic arias when she and her partner set off on a driving tour through the dramatic mountain landscape around Italy’s Lake Garda.
“We’re doing a driving tour of the Italian Lakes, starting in Venice,” I announced. There was a pause. “Won’t we need a boat?” came back a marmalade-filled voice.
Skip forward a couple of months and we were indeed on a boat from Limone sul Garda (Lemonabove- Garda) to Malcesine, cutting straight across the middle of Lake Garda. The town was named after the banks of citrus trees carefully cultivated on its vertical terraces. And when I say vertical I mean vertical. We’d spent the night before in a village called Pieve di Tremosine above Limone. It’s on the seafront, just several thousand feet straight up! My partner, Mark, loves mountains but even he was shaken by that road, a single lane of hairpins winding in and out of tunnels up the cliff with Italian drivers roaring up and
down it in both directions at high speed and drops of several thousand feet between the tunnels.
‘We’ll come back the long way,’ he said, ‘see something different.’ We did. That took us along the Gardesana Occidentale, a spectacular dual carriageway that flashes in and out of twisting tunnels along the lakeshore. It’s a road that even managed to outwit a stunt driver on Quantum of Solace who ended up dumping James Bond’s precious Aston Martin DBS in the lake.
Distances aren’t long – it’s only a couple of hours’ drive from Venice airport to the north end of the lake on the main roads, but driving takes a long time here if you want to stay alive. You need to have your wits about you and some patience – parking is nightmarish – but car touring is around the Italian lakes is magical. It gives you a chance to pootle, to meander off-track, explore hidden by-ways, and look for the unexpected. There are thousands of treats on offer from ancient petroglyphs to museums of mountaineering, fabulous scenery to extraordinary houses such as the bizarre Il Vittoriale at Gardone Riviera created by Italian war hero, ego-maniac and supreme fantastist, Gabriele D’Annunzio.
But after several days winding our way along the western shore, I think Mark was quite glad of a welldeserved break on the car ferry. He was standing at the prow doffing his panama to passing windsurfers in hopes they would wave back and fall off. No such luck, these were serious pros, zipping between the boats at high speed and impossible angles.
Across the water, a matchbox-sized Castle Scaligero hove into view. The sight so enthralled German writer Goethe in 1756 that he whipped out his sketchbook and promptly got arrested as a spy! The Scaligeri family were big in medieval times and littered the lakeshore with fortifications and palaces. We met them all over the place. Mind you everyone else from the Goths to Napoleon and the Nazis has also left their mark as they tramped through. This was the main invasion route through the Alps into Italy.
Above the castle loomed the towering bulk of the gloriously named Monte Baldo. Once ashore, we queued – and queued for the car park, then queued – and queued for the chair lift, swinging our way up to a stunning 1760m (5,774ft).
From our giddy perch, we could see for miles across Italy’s inland sea, the largest lake in the country with a shoreline 90 miles long and 28 miles of beaches. Goethe wasn’t the only one to fall in love with it. Since the Roman lyric poet Catullus came to Sirmione to hang out and write poems to his lost love, Lesbia, 2,000 years ago, people from Maria Callas to Mussolini have been holing up here. The latest to fall for its charms are Brangelina who’ve bought a villa in nearby Valpolicella, home to some of Italy’s finest and mellowest red wine. I was waxing lyrical and taking photos of paragliders and mountainbikers hurling themselves over the edge when I noticed that as usual, I was talking to thin air (quite literally at this altitude). Mark had made a new friend. The waiter, much taken with his panama, had rushed inside to get his own – which had a much bigger brim. There was now a testosterone-laden ‘my hat is bigger than yours’ competition going on, with much arm-waving, broken English and Itanglish spoken VERY LOUDLY with, for some reason, a Yorkshire accent.
I removed Mark and we headed down the mountain and for the town of Bardolino home to some of the area’s finest wines and olive oils (and really fascinating museums dedicated to both) – it seemed a good place to find food and bid farewell to the lake.
That night, in nearby Verona, we sat in a Roman amphitheatre filled with the light of many thousands of candles and listened to Verdi’s Aida echoing across the centuries. In it, if you listened carefully to its triumphant tones you could perhaps hear the echo of marching feet, of Napoleon’s troops at the Battle of Solferino, just down the road, of the World War One battle front along the Adige Valley in the northern part of the lake. It was a grand end to a grand adventure.