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Mountain or lake? It’s a northern Italian dilemma. It’s also something of a personality marker. In Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, the weekend getaway is as often a casa di montagna as a casa al lago. So you’re either a skier or a swimmer, a high-pasture, wild-boar hunting, après-ski-in-furs type, or more of the lakeside passeggiata-and-aperitivo persuasion.
About an hour’s drive east of Milan is Brescia, Lombardy’s second-largest city and a centre of industry and agriculture. Like his Milanese cousins, my Brescia-born husband, Giuliano, has seen his share of mountains and lakes. Between the craggy alpine peaks to the north and the hazy stretches of the fertile Po river valley to the south, the Lombards have spectacular lakes to play by. The big lakes include Maggiore and Lugano, Orta and Iseo, and Como, of course, plus the less celebrated Garda – Italy’s largest.
About halfway between Milan and Venice, Lake Garda tapers 50 kilometres northwards from its wider base, fringed by picture-book castles and the odd Roman ruin. It may not have Como’s celebrity glamour, but it has plenty going on.
“Lake Garda is like a huge, lush garden,” says restaurateur Giancarlo Camanini who, with his chef brother Riccardo, runs Lido 84, a starred eatery on the lake’s western shores. “Wherever you look, you see beauty. I think that’s why everyone who comes here, even just for a holiday, is dazzled by this place and ends up falling in love with it, as we did.”
Our own infatuation with Garda developed eight years ago on a regular family visit. The western side of the lake is part of Brescia province. Brescian friends had lent us their place outside the sailing village of Bogliaco, comprising a handful of ochre buildings perched over pale, pebbled shallows, halfway along the western shore. As the waters deepen, the stiff grey curtains of the Dolomites rise from the opposite bank. The mountains are never far away.
At the faintly boho Bar Osteria al Porto in the neighbouring hamlet of Villa, by a pocket-sized marina, we drank the fresh local white, Lugana, and glasses of Pirlo, Brescia’s punchier version of the Spritz, made with white wine, Campari and a splash of soda. A few steps down a jetty or a hop across the pebbles, and we’d slip into the ripples for a dip. Dry off on the warm concrete, maybe another Pirlo, and repeat.
On other days, we’d thread our way skywards through perilously narrow road tunnels – the surrounding mountainsides are punctured by these daunting gallerie. We’d visit the meadows of the High Garda Park and stop at the Alpe del Garda cheese factory to buy formagella di Tremosine, gently bitey local soft paste cheese, and fresh morning milk from the help-yourself dispenser, one euro a bottle. Then, twisting down slopes thatched with grey-green olive groves, we’d drive past ancient stone-pillared terraces cut into the lower slopes. These limonaia, or lemon houses, their pillars designed to hold up protective winter roofs, were built to grow lemons (and later limes, bergamots and chinotto oranges) after Franciscan monks first introduced the citrus to the area in the 13th century.
“This part of northern Italy, where the mountains meet the lake, gives us a marvellous range of ingredients to work with,” says Camanini, reeling off a list of lake produce. “Raw mountain milk for fior di latte gelato, bagòss [a pungent, aged, semi-cooked cow’s milk cheese – Brescia’s answer to parmesan] for tortellini, stracchino and lake sardines for https://www.gourmettraveller.com.au/recipes/recipe-collections/risotto-recipes-14880, eels and olive oil, lemons and wisteria flowers for dessert.”
By late summer last year, we’re back on the lake among the grand hotels and villas of Gardone Riviera – also known as the Riviera dei Limoni, the Lemon Shore. One evening we settle into the luxe glasshouse setting of Lido 84 with a bottle of Franciacorta, Italy’s foremost metodo classico, or Champagne-method sparkling wine, also from the Brescia area. Like the restaurant décor, a mix of retro and contemporary, Riccardo Camanini’s cooking applies a modern overlay to tradition. His warm fusilloni with almond, capers and lemon come as creamy, oversized pasta spirals on fine tableware by Richard Ginori, Italy’s answer to Wedgwood. A tartare of lake perch under a gnarly dried fig leaf is fine-fleshed and delicately floral.
And that risotto his brother mentioned? Topped with freshwater sardines toasted to a crumble over olive branches, it has the elasticity and tang of stracchino and the sweet-sourness of diced candied lemon. A high point is the dessert spread, presented on exuberantly floral Ginori ceramics: warm zabaglione in a copper pot, sticky shavings of nougat, fluffy torta di rose (a brioche-like regional specialty) and a “king size” cannoli-like cannoncino filled with crème pâtissière and apricot.
On this visit, we’re house-hunting. Giuliano’s mother – our main reason for an annual visit – has sadly left us. Faced with the realisation that we no longer have a focus to draw us here, we decide perhaps we should create one – for us and for our daughters. After all, this is their heritage, too. And rather than in the city of Brescia, 35 minutes’ drive away, why not on its beautiful lake?
Despite its northern location, Garda lies in a natural greenhouse: an Ice Age valley trapped between 2,000-metre-high mountains in the north and the Po river lowlands in the south. You’d expect cold-climate produce here, but Garda’s olive trees, caper bushes and lemon groves are surprisingly Mediterranean.
Garda’s history is also intriguing. The Romans were here well before those citrus-tending monks. And Goethe swooned over Garda’s beauty in his Letters from Italy. “I might have been in Verona this evening,” he enthused. “But a magnificent natural phenomenon was in my vicinity – Lake Garda, a splendid spectacle, which I did not want to miss.” Of the stretch around Gardone, he wrote, “No words can express the beauty of this richly inhabited spot.”
At the turn of the 19th century, inspired perhaps by the great bard, Goethe’s fellow Germans flocked to the grand hotels on the Gardone shore, beginning a holiday pilgrimage that continues today. In 1943, right here on the lake, Adolf Hitler installed Benito Mussolini as the puppet head of the Republic of Salò, named for the adjacent town, for what would be his last stand. The German army took up residence in Gardone and its surrounds, as did Mussolini and his family (and mistress). Dug into the hillsides, the road tunnels commissioned by Mussolini remain as his legacy.
Mussolini’s forerunner, the proto-fascist World War I soldier-poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, left his own mark above Gardone Riviera with an eccentric extravaganza of buildings, which include his home and mausoleum. The sprawling Vittoriale degli Italiani comprises his treasure-stuffed home, an amphitheatre, gigantic kennels, fountains and follies, as well as his World War I plane and two naval vessels. It’s an afternoon’s entertainment, particularly with a good guide.
At aperitivo hour, after a first round of appointments with real-estate agents, we collapse into cushioned chairs at the open-air La Terrazza bar at the Grand Hotel Fasano, built in the late 19th century on the lakefront at Gardone Riviera. Negronis arrive with a pretty selection of spuntini, the obligatory snacks that have sparked the modern Italian ritual known as apericena – loosely translated as “dinner when you’re not having dinner”. Metres away, the lake slowly changes from deepest navy to a shimmering moonlit silver. Ferraris and Porsches gleam in the adjacent car park.
Inside, in the hotel’s gin bar, there are excellent cocktails and fading photos – American tourists of the 1920s, German occupiers from the Republic days. And in Il Fagiano, the hotel’s fine diner, there’s pike, pigeon and seasonal porcini. “I know this land so well,” says Matteo Felter, Il Fagiano’s chef and a local boy. “The lake is an endless source of visual and sensory inspiration for my cooking. I love the variety of produce and the small producers you link up with here.”
Felter’s cooking is elegant but strong in flavour and technique, a showcase for all that the lake has to offer. He lists the names of its fish – often underappreciated, he says. To illustrate the point, he pairs charcoal-grilled eel with local cheeses or Garda limes, and cooks lake trout at low temperature, perfuming it with wild herbs. His chocolate-coloured, burnt-flour tortelli are stuffed with melting bagòss and rest on a bright pea purée. Dessert has the distinctly Mediterranean notes of lemon soufflé and limoncello sorbet, made with Garda lemons.
As our real-estate forays continue, so does our hunting and gathering. Climbing the steep stone road to Fasano, just above Gardone where we’re renting a place, we toy briefly with the idea of renovating an old hillside house – little more than a pile of stones, but with 270-degree lake views. It’s here we find Trattoria Riolet, a convivial eatery with views through olive trees to the cypress-lined shore below. We start with smoked lake trout and zucchini antipasto; inside, the chef grills eggplant and lake fish over coals. On Sundays, we’re told, they do the regional specialty of spiedo Bresciano, skewers of mixed meats slow-roasted over fire. We return for Sunday lunch a few weeks later.
We also find pizza in the hills. At Trattoria Marietta, above the show-off villas of the Gardone slopes, baker and pizzaiolo Pietro Freddi makes slow-fermented dough with unprocessed flours and a sourdough starter, with seasonal toppings such as local wild radicchio or mozzarella fresh from the nearby Trompia valley.
We discover one of the area’s many olive presses at Bornico, on the edge of the Gardone municipality. The Frantoio del Bornico was built in the 19th century to harness the force of a rushing mountain stream, and the powerful rivulet still helps propel the stone presses. The olives come from about 20 groves across western Garda, the owner tells me, but the blend retains its distinct local fruitiness. I return almost weekly for refills.
Just along the Bornico road at Grasselli vini, a corner wine shop, the affable proprietor lets his patrons try before they buy. Rosé, barbera and a light sparkling white are poured into cleanskin bottles from spouts in the wall behind his counter. There’s almost always a gang of jovial drinkers around the bar tables, whiling away the day as we pass and wave.
We swim from Gardone’s little stony beaches or from the jetty at the lido for which the restaurant Lido 84 is named, and shop at the weekly market in the town of Toscolano-Maderno. At its Thursday market in the sprawling Piazza Caduti di Nassiriya, we get to know the Calabrian wood-fired bread man, the farmer selling his fresh Garda goat’s cheese, and work out which is the best stall for mushrooms. The Alpe del Garda co-operative also has a stand, for our formagella fix.
Toscolano-Maderno is part apartment-and-resort sprawl and part historic village. Its back streets reveal a bakery called Panetteria Perolini, where the specialty is torta Maderno, a crumbly sponge with a thick golden thread of baked cream inside, powdered with a stencil that leaves the image of Maderno’s church tower in thick white icing sugar.
Toscolano-Maderno becomes our shopping stop. To grasp the variety of lake fish, we head to Lagomar – a spectacular fishmonger and rosticceria. Corregone, pesce persico, luccio, salmerino and other freshwater fish are laid out in iced rows with prawns, clams and other sea creatures from the Italian coast and beyond. The take-home dishes are great: fried fish, antipasti and seafood salads.
And then there’s Salò. For some the name still carries a faint stigma – from the Nazi puppet state of the 1940s or even, perhaps, the work of the provocative film director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, who set his 1975 version of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom here, ostensibly during the Hitler-Mussolini era.
And yet Salò is the most benign, indeed elegant of the west Garda towns. It sits in the curve of a small cove, with a manicured promenade running the full length, hemmed in by Monte San Bartolomeo and there’s a pebble beach just beyond the town limits. Salò is where locals get their Italian luxury labels and tourists buy smartly packaged Garda souvenirs. Spirito del Garda is an attractive shop full of top-drawer olive oils, jam made from local fruit, sweet-smelling Garda lemon soaps and my favourite: powdered capers from an organic producer, perfect with barbecued or roasted fish.
Salò’s apartments are smaller, pricier and often cunningly designed. We inspect one, snappy with striped walls and glazed ceilings, in a converted factory near the Gothic cathedral and its handkerchief-sized square. The prospect of living just minutes from the Casa del Dolce artisan gelateria is tempting; its pomegranate and prickly-pear flavour has just the right balance of fruit and texture. The most popular on a warm afternoon is uva fragola, made from sweet fragolino, the strawberry grape.
Set in a former granary on a narrow paved street, Osteria di Mezzo becomes our Salò eatery of choice, a small contemporary-meets-classic dining room where bookings are required days out. Owner Mauro Vanni knows his wines, his lake fish and his extra-virgin, cold-pressed Garda olive oil. The rabbit dish (his uncle’s recipe, he says) is a revelation, buttery and juicy with tomatoes, almost like osso buco. A wooden board of local cheeses and mustard fruits is a perfect “expression of territorio”, as they say around here.
Whether it’s a budget antipasti buffet lunch along the boardwalk at Ristorante Canottieri, at the Salò sailing club, or prosciutto, panini, local salami and a glass of Franciacorta on a stool at the tiny Banco Salumi on the main piazza, we could get very used to life by the lake in gorgeous Salò.
And yet we find ourselves drawn back to the sleepy waterside hamlets of Bogliaco and Villa. They’re part of the Gargnano municipality, a pretty town serving the central lake area and a number of villages along the often vertiginous donkey-track roads spiralling up to the High Garda. Trekking and mountain biking is quite the thing here. Even the quietest and least ambitious hike can occasionally be interrupted by a pack of panting enthusiasts with race numbers plastered on their chests.
We decide our favourite bar is the slightly down-at-heel Osteria al Porto on the marina at Villa, the one we fell in love with all those years ago. Justa few hundred metres away is the Bignotti deli, one of the lake’s best local food showcases. It’s stuffed with cheeses, salumi, oils, fresh pasta and antipasti to go, with a butchery section as well.
When Mussolini holed up on Lake Garda in the 1940s, he chose to requisition a grand 1890s villa, built in the ornate Italian Liberty style, over the water at Gargnano. Along the squeeziest of lake-edge lanes, the building lives on as the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, with a two-starred restaurant and kitchen garden.
We, on the other hand, find a modest two-bedroom attic apartment in the area, just 70 metres from the shore. From a little loft beneath exposed beams, we can peer over brick-red rooftops to the ever-changing vista of the lake, framed by the imposing peak of Monte Baldo. With the title deeds safely signed, we have our own little piece of lake, and mountain, to play in.
How to get to Lake Garda
The town of Desenzano, a central launch pad for Lake Garda exploration on the southern shore, is on the train line between Milan and Venice. The lake towns of Salò, Gardone, Toscolano-Maderno and Gargnano are all within 90 minutes’ drive of the international airports at Verona and Bergamo, and about two hours’ drive from the airports at Venice and Milan.
Where to stay
Grand Hotel Fasano This classic 19th-century hotel has history and atmosphere in spades. Also in the grounds is the historic Villa Principe, a hunting lodge once used by the Austrian emperors. Corso Zanardelli, 190, Gardone Riviera, ghf.it
B&B Villa Vittoria This boutique lakefront property has a pool and eight elegant guestrooms. Corso Zanardelli, 176, Gardone Riviera, bnbvv.it
Villa Sostaga A few kilometres up the hill from Gargnano, this 19th-century villa has 19 guestrooms and welcoming hosts. Via Sostaga, 19, Gargnano, villasostaga.com