Once again, the Italian lakes aren’t exactly an off the beaten track, hipster tourist destination. They are well-travelled, world-famous and with good reason. Garda is the biggest of the lakes at about 50km long, and consequently there are a lot of places to stay and things to do around its beautiful shores. Here’s how we did it.
The thing with the Italian lakes is that public transport isn’t exactly stellar. If you are reliant on buses, trains and ferries, your options are quite limited. We had a hire car and drove to Garda from Cannes (it was a pretty mammoth trek). If you don’t fancy a cross-Europe jaunt, Garda is handily situated near to airports in Verona and Brescia, and only 80km from Bergamo (Milan’s cheap airport which Ryaniar fly into).
Once again, the hire car was our friend, although it is certainly not the only option. The ferries on Garda are frequent and take you to most of the larger villages right around the lake, so they are great for a day tour. The problem with them, as with a lot of the Italian lakes, is that they cost a bloody fortune. The plus side of the ferry though, aside from the lovely views, is that it frees you from the stress of the car. You can visit some of the villages, drink wine and Prosecco to your heart’s content and look over the beautiful lake before heading home without a care in the world.
You can’t do that in a car. Aside from this, my big problems with driving around Garda, in no particular order, were as follows:
- Is this racist? I don’t know. But nobody should ever have let the Italians in on the invention of the car. They are scary, impatient and honestly downright dangerous drivers. They tailgate, they never signal, they talk on their phones all the time, they have an itchy trigger finger with their horns and they will overtake in a gap that simply does not exist. If you don’t fancy driving with a gesticulating Italian man glued to your rear bumper, it probably isn’t for you.
- The roads are pretty nuts. Yes, they are gorgeous and the views are stunning. But they wind, wind, wind, and wind some more. They are narrow, have lots of tunnels, seem to have varying speed limits and coupled with the aforementioned locals it makes for quite a stressful experience. If you get travel sickness, make sure you take something beforehand to control your nausea (non-drowsy if you are driving!), or you going to lose the deposit in your hire car pretty damn quick – vomit smells don’t shift easy.
- The tourists. Bit rich coming from me, I appreciate. But around the bigger towns, Riva Del Garda in particular, there are endless coaches on roads which simply aren’t big enough to take them. Locals are of course impatient with said coaches and overtake them, risking everyone’s life in the process.
- Parking in Italian lakeside villages was never going to be easy. There are barely any spaces anywhere and they are mostly designed for Fiat 500s (for the not so car-literate among you, a 500 is tiny). They also have quite a confusing system where in some places you can park with a permit for a few hours, in some you have to pay, in some you can stay for free and in some you just take your chances. One rule that seemed to be consistent was that blue parking spaces are for permit holders only, and if the bays are painted white they are either free or available for pay and display. Just don’t expect any help, or any patience whilst you try and squeeze in and out of a space.
All of this isn’t to paint a ridiculously negative picture of the place, just to prepare you for the facts of life on the roads here. I was still glad to have the car and we all came through unscathed, so it can’t have been that bad!
Given the popularity of Garda it is not surprising that there are a myriad of options for places to stay. We used Airbnb for the first time and stayed just outside the small town of Gargnano. We stayed with a lovely couple called Flavia and Enrico, and it was absolutely perfect. They provided us with homemade olive oil and marmalade on arrival, they fed us on our second night with homemade bread, home grown tomatoes, local charcuterie and bottles of Prosecco, the view from the room was simply out of this world… I can’t praise them or their place highly enough. And it cost something like £22 per night each. It did however need a hire car to get there, or legs of steel to walk up the hill to their place.
Gargnano itself was a lovely little village with a small port, a few beaches and a few restaurants. It did lack a supermarket though, the nearest of which is in Toscolano Maderno about 15 minutes’ drive down the lake shore.
A list of things to do around Lake Garda could (and probably should) be massive. Unfortunately, we only had a few days, but this is what I’d recommend:
Go to the beach – I love a lakeside beach. You get all the pros of a seaside beach without any of the drawbacks. The beach we chose was called Fontanelle just north of Gargnano town centre. It doesn’t look much at first glance but if you can get a spot (sunbeds are about 5€) you have one of the most ideal sunbathing spots in the world, and the lake itself is a dream to swim in.
Take a boat ride – Mentioned already but worth mentioning again. Get a day ticket, set off early, and pick some villages to see and jump on a ferry. Eat the local food, drink the local wine. Can you think of a better way to spend a day? One village on the East shore we visited was called Malcesine and it was almost ridiculously picturesque.
Windsurfing – Apparently Garda is one of the best spots in the world to jump on a board and be blasted about by the wind. So much so that there is quite a surf scene, especially in the northern parts of the Lake.
Hiking – If you have the time or energy, there are countless trails around the lakes, each as stunning as the next.
Sadly we didn’t have the opportunity to test them out, but a few options can be found on: http://www.visitgarda.com/en/Trekking-and-nordic-walking-lake-garda/.
Food & Drink
Given that this is Italy, I almost feel like eating should be under “things to do.” The Italians are as good at cooking as they are bad at driving. Around Garda there are literally thousands of restaurants. In Gargnano we had amazing pizza at Pizzeria al Lago, literally on the shore and really reasonable. A bit pricier but worth it was Ristorante al Miralago, where you won’t find pizza on the menu but you won’t be disappointed.