The Brescia side of this Italian idyll offers waterfront views, quirky charm and world-class rosé wines. Beverley Watts explores Gardone Riviera on Garda’s western shore.
The first time I visited Lake Garda was as a teenager on a camping trip to Bardolino. The thin, crispy, perfectly seasoned pizza was a gastronomic revelation and during that family holiday, Italy grasped my heart and has held it ever since.
On the edge of the Dolomites, Garda is the country’s largest lake and the mountainous south-western bank, in the province of Brescia, is a beautiful area I’d never seen. Once a little neglected, the shoreline has now regained its elegance.
Travelling solo I arrive at the Hotel Villa Sofia in Gardone Riviera – listed as one of Italy’s prettiest villages – and get a really friendly greeting. Tucked away in the trees, a few minutes’ walk from the lake, the pretty terrace is a peaceful spot to eat a light lunch.
I’m keen to see the Vittoriale Degli Italiani, a hillside estate where eccentric and libidinous Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio lived until 1938. A celebrated WWI veteran, these days he’d make a fascinating case history for the TV show Hoarders. He stockpiled a massive collection of art, books, jewellery and clothes – with 200 pairs of shoes, including leather slippers decorated with phalluses.
Outside the densely furnished and slightly creepy interior, the extensive grounds of D’Annunzio’s museum home are intricately landscaped. He had his own amphitheatre and the orchard is modelled on a Renaissance garden.
The most extraordinary sight, in the bright sunlight, is the bow of warship Puglia, jutting out amongst the pencil cypresses. (It was hauled up the hill to make a unique terrace.)
I do a little shopping in town for marmellata, marmalade made from local lemons and oranges, and it’s suddenly aperitivo hour. Time for a Campari and soda or, perhaps, an Aperol spritz with delicious stuzzichini.
These free early evening bar snacks can be olives and nuts or quite a canapé feast with salami, mozzarella, bread and dips. It’s easy to fill yourself up but I leave room for dinner at pizzeria Ai Pines which has a great view over the water.
Next day I explore André Heller Botanical Garden, a joy for flower enthusiasts. The Austrian artist took over this plot in 1988 and has gathered plants from around the world to create a Garden of Eden.
Criss-crossed by charming pathways, the beds are dotted with bold sculptures and I love the two huge amethyst boulders from South America, which were dropped in by helicopter.
The lake beckons and on a speedboat tour, I head south to the peninsula of Sirmione, a narrow spur of land. Garda is known for its thermal water, high in minerals, and we see sulphuric bubbles from geothermal springs gurgling up to the surface.
Dominating Sirmione is the 13th-century Scaligero Castle and we duck down to sail into the Old Town under the drawbridge of these looming fortifications, topped by swallowtail castellations.
Lake Garda’s towns have wonderful historical buildings and they make fantastic venues. At nearby Moniga Del Garda, the hilltop castle is the site of the annual Italia In Rosa summer festival, celebrating Italian rosé wines.
On my visit, 160 vineyards are represented and 36 of those are from Lake Garda. where the dry and pale pink Il Chiaretto is a classic, made here since the 1500s. As you buy your entrance ticket, you’re given a stemmed glass, plus a handy pouch to carry it. Then you can taste as many rosé varieties as you like, guided by expert sommeliers. Easy goes! (Entry is €15, 12-14 June 2020.)
Steady yourself at Moniga’s watersideTrattoria Al Porto and dine on black truffle tagliolini (a ribbon pasta thinner than tagliatelle). Gourmands should also take a stroll in Salò, a mini Venice, which has wonderful restaurants along the longest promenade on Lake Garda. At family-run Locanda Del Benaco, try chef Gianni Briarava’s linguine with lake sardines, or the duck ragu pasta, then lemon tart. Exquisite.
The quality of ingredients that Italian chefs use to cook makes all the difference and before I leave this enchanting area, I learn how Extra Virgin Olive Oil is made at Avanzi Wine Cellar And Olive Oil Mill in Manerba.
Garda’s ‘heavenly’ microclimate helps olives to thrive and once harvested, they must be pressed immediately. Avanzi produces a light variety and a stronger, spicier type. Tasting is carried out in blue glasses so that colour doesn’t influence the perception of flavour. Once you sip and savour to appreciate the subtleties, you’ll never use economy bottles of olive oil again…
Tell me more about Lake Garda and Gardone Riviera
To plan your trip, visit Brescia Tourism
Where to stay
I was based at the 4* Hotel Villa Sofia with a swimming pool and spa in Gardone Riviera. Rooms from £96 for a double/twin room per night, with breakfast.
The nearest airport is Verona.