Lake Garda, an Italian paradise… with ice cream!

Cycling through picturesque Bardolino's old town.

I'm in Bardolino on the eastern side of Lake Garda, with my wife and friends. We are here to explore Italy’s largest lake, talk about our grandchildren and boast about how many pills we take!

No scenic clichés do the lake justice. Its stunning beauty has been an inspiration to some of history’s most famous literary figures. Tennyson, Byron, Dante, have all had their say about the lake and DH Lawrence, who lived and wrote here for a while, described Lake Garda as a “lake as beautiful as the beginning of creation”. However there is much more to Lake Garda than just soaking up the sun in this paradise with ice cream!

There are plenty of places to walk around the lake.

The first place we explored is Bardolino, our base for the week. We are staying in the unpretentious but sophisticated 4 star Nettuno hotel located just metres from the lakeside promenade and just five minutes walk into town.

Gathered around a tiny harbour, and located just 25 kilometres north of Verona, Bardolino is an elegant tourist town, that has managed to retain its distinctively Italian character. It is vibrant; flat and easy to walk around with excellent stylish shopping; a mile long market by the lakeside on a Thursday; a huge choice of reasonably priced restaurants and quite literally a 'gelataria’ on every street corner.

With a small population of just 7,000 people and buildings that date back to the 9th century, Bardolino is now driven by tourism and wine. More than 70 vineyards operate around the hills that surround Bardolino's shores, and particularly well known is the full bodied red that shares its name. Of course, in the interests of journalistic research I had to sample a glass of ‘Bardolino Classico’. The verdict? Good enough to decide I should sample it most nights!

One of the advantages of Bardolino is its location in the middle of the eastern side of the lake and by far the most congruent way to get around is by boat. Just a gentle 10 minutes stroll from our hotel is the ferry stop and from here it is possible to experience a cruise in the sunshine to check out several resorts. Here are a couple I recommend.

The easiest way to get around is by taking the Lake Garda ferry.

About an hour north lies Malcesine. The ‘must do’ here is the Malcesine Monte Baldo cable car, which reaches an altitude of 1760 meters. The glass enclosed cabin carrying up to 45 people slowly rotates offering a 360° view and the sensation of flying.

Despite my dislike of heights, I braved this attraction, even occasionally opening my eyes! On a clear day, for people who have their eyes fully open the whole time, I am told you can see Riva in the North, to Peschiera del Garda in the south... a breathtaking panorama.

Another boat trip, this time to the South of the lake is to the very popular resort of Sirmione. The historical centre of Sirmione is pedestrianised, with its narrow winding lanes busy with tourists most of whom are again tucking into creatively flavoured ice creams.

The town is dominated by a thirteenth-century castle, the Rocca Scaligera. The ruined Roman Villa Romana, at the end of the headland is large and impressive. The poet Catullus had a family home in the Sirmione area, so historically this site has been associated with him, and known as the Grotte di Catullo ('Caves of Catullus').

So what else is there to see and do at Lake Garda if you really want to get physical? The two most popular activities are walking and cycling, and there are miles of safe pathways around this part of the lake. Renting a bike is easy and cheap... just €4 for a half day from my hotel.

I decided to take on and conquer the picturesque lakeside cycle route from Bardolino to Garda. At around six miles there and back, this was short enough for me to cope with, yet long enough to fool myself into believing I was getting some real exercise.

There is the old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike, but I obviously had! It is around 25 years since I had sat in the saddle for any length of time and it showed.

My wobbly first 100 yards gave me several close encounters with hedges, trees, and several small children who were far more proficient on their bikes than I was. However, once I got my balance and nerve back, I was off like an Olympic cyclist.

Riding in the warm sunshine at the side of the turquoise lake with the heady aroma of honeysuckle in the air was simply bliss. A wonderful experience and I even stopped for a dip in the lake.

Another great advantage of staying in Bardolino is its easy access to the historic and fascinating city of Verona, just 35 minutes away by public bus. Apart from the tacky and crowded ‘Juliet’s balcony’ attraction, Verona is also the site of many important historical landmarks and tours of the city are available.

For music lovers, Verona is also home of course to the famous Verona opera in the massive amphitheatre and this season’s repertoire includes Carmen and Aida. Whatever you see this is a marathon musical experience that you will always remember, if only for the backache! An important tip here, if you are sitting in the famous stone steps, make sure you take advantage of the cushion hire facility.

To get the most out of Lake Garda you also need somewhere to relax in comfort, so it was great that our hotel was perfect for re-charging our batteries. The very welcoming 63 room hotel Nettuno was simply idyllic. The food and service was fantastic and the highly efficient and very entertaining Maitre d’ was always willing to get the chef to prepare special meals for those with special dietary requirements.

Sadly, our week at Lake Garda, had gone much too quickly. We had run out of grandchildren photos and it was time to come home, but not before a final ice cream, and an attempt to try to capture the perfect sunset picture. Lake Garda is definitely one of those places you can return to and always find something different to do… and another flavour of ice cream!

TRAVEL FACTS

Ian Cooper flew easyJet from London Gatwick to Verona – flight time just 1hour 45 mins, costing £228 for two people return with one hold bag: www.easyjet.com

Jet 2 also offers flights to Verona from both Manchester and Leeds – www.jet2.com

A twin / double bedded room bed and breakfast at the Nettuno Hotel in Bardolino costs from approx £170 in what they call a Comfort Room. Rooms are of a high standard and have air conditioning, in room kettle / a safe / mini bar. For further information: www.hotelnettunobardolino.com/en

For further information about this season’s Verona Opera programme visit: www.arena.it/arena/en

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