Lake Garda was not a destination on my radar until fairly recently but after seeing photos of the crystal clear turquoise lake and charming little Italian villages on a friend’s Facebook page, it became a must-see for me. So when we noticed the August bank holiday fast approaching, Alex saw no other option but to book some flights!
After a grim early morning flight, we arrived in Verona after just 2 hours and went to pick up our hire car at Buchbinder. If you plan to travel around the lake during your trip to Lake Garda, there are a number of alternative transport options including ferries to and from most of the main towns but as the nearest airport (Verona) is an hour’s drive away we thought we’d hire a car for ease and to give us the opportunity to visit some of the more remote towns on the lake. The drive from the airport to Torbole was interesting as soon as we merged on to the main highway. To enter the highway you had to first approach a toll booth and take a ticket from a machine. Keep hold of this ticket as you will need it to be able to exit the highway! It was around an hour’s drive to Torbole, the north end of the Lake and it cost us €4.00 in toll charges which we thought was pretty reasonable considering the majority of the journey was on the highway. As we entered Torbole from uphill, the view of the lake was spectacular. The water glistened the most brilliant blue colour and you could just make out the outlines of the windsurfers bobbing up and down on its surface. We stayed at the Hotel Residence Torbole, situated right on the lake and with free on site parking which is a rarity apparently. We paid a little extra for a lake view room which I would highly recommend. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time in the hotel, the times we were there were spent sitting by the window, watching the windsurfers and fisherman. The hotel was more like an apartment as it had a bedroom, bathroom, seating area and kitchen complete with a fridge and hob. We didn’t use the hob while we were there (instead choosing to eat our body weight in pasta at the traditional Italian restaurants scattered along the harbour) but it was a good space that gave you the option to have lunch in the room. The little town of Torbole is not huge but has everything you need if you’re just looking to chill out. Around five restaurants line the pretty little harbour, all serving a menu of pizza, pasta and the freshest sea food around, sourced straight from the lake.
Top of our list of things to do while we were in Lake Garda was to visit Monte Baldo, a mountain range known for its great hiking trails and beautiful views over the lake. If you’re not feeling too adventurous (and haven’t got a full day spare to climb it!), you can get a cable car to the top that starts in either Malescine or San Michele. San Michele is at a higher altitude and so it only requires one cable car to the top but Malescine is by far easier to reach by car and provides ample parking. We started our day fairly early and got to Malecine just before 9am, parking our car in the multi-story car park located just below the entrance to the cable car. It cost us 5.50 euros to park there for 4 hours but it increases by a euro for each hour you spend there. The timings of the cable car are every 30 mins from 8am at Malescine and every 30 mins from 8:15am at San Michele depending on the season but more information on this can be found here – http://funiviedelbaldo.it/en/timetable-rates. I can’t stress enough just how important it is to catch an early cable car (ideally before 9:30am). One reason being that if you purchase a cable car ticket before 9am and use it before 9:30am, the price of the ticket is significantly reduced. But most importantly, you must beat the crowds!! We ended up catching the 9:30am cable car from Malescine and the 9:45am car from San Michele. There was no wait and we were straight on. However, when we came back down the mountain at around 11:30am, the queue for both cable car stations were out the door and when we asked a member of staff they told us the wait was now approximately 3 hours! The cable car from Malescine holds 45 people and the second one from San Michele holds 80 people. The cable car from San Michele is world famous as it has been engineered to rotate 360 degrees to enable a magnificent view of the ascent up the mountain. All in all, the ascent takes 20 minutes (not including the interchange at San Michele). Once at the top there are a couple of cafes and giftshops, all serving decent but rather expensive meals and snacks. Also at the top are opportunities to paraglide and visit the alpaca enclosure where you can pay to take them for walks! Needless to say, we didn’t partake in either of these activities but we saw a lot of people that did! The view of Malescine and the surrounding lake is incredible and so we made sure to get lots of photos. Alex even managed to fly his drone over the edge which provided us with some amazing footage and a different perspective from above. One tip is to make sure to wear sensible shoes, i.e trainers or walking boots. It sounds like common sense but we saw so many people in sandals and flip flops, struggling to walk on the uneven terrain. We found out at the top that in the winter, Monte Baldo is a lively ski resort with excellent beginner and intermediate runs. The ski season starts in late December and finishes at the end of March if you fancy it, even if it’s just for the cool views après-ski!
During our time in Lake Garda we visited a number of towns, all charming for various reasons. One of our favourites was Salo which has the largest promenade on the lake, stretching a whopping 2km! Salo is home to charming little cafes and boutiques that sit on the promenade, making it an ideal place to venture out for dinner in the evening. Parallel to the promenade is also a maze of shops selling a variety of things from women’s fashion to souvenirs to the best Limoncello around (make sure to visit the town of Limone while in Italy, where the delicacy originates!).
Another of our favourite places was Sirmione. Sirmione is a picturesque town that juts out on the lake, famous for the Scaliger Castle, thermal baths and the ruins of Grotte di Catullo. We parked in a large car park called Viale Guglielmo Marconi 42, just on the right before the drawbridge that you have to cross to enter the town. It cost around 20 euros to park there all day. Sirmione itself is virtually traffic free as you are only allowed to cross the drawbridge in a vehicle if you are staying at one of the hotels. We had every intention of having a look inside the Scaliger Castle but as we approached the entrance, a sign read that last admission was 2pm on a Sunday. We checked our watches and it was 2:10pm…on a SUNDAY! We were a bit gutted but soon got over it when we found a huge ice cream parlour serving 50 different flavours! I’m not an ice cream lover but even I couldn’t resist a scoop of italian gelato in the burning 30c heat. Next on our list in Sirmione was a walk up to Grotte di Catullo, ruins of a Roman villa built in 1st century AD! We were interested to take a look seeing as it topped all of the lists we had seen for things to do in Sirmione but we had also heard that the panoramic views of the lake were worth it alone. It was quite a walk from the centre and we were beginning to get a bit hot and bothered by the time we found it! We paid 6 euros each for a ticket which included access to the ruins as well as a museum showing artefacts discovered throughout the years. It is certainly worth a look as it doesn’t cost a fortune to get in but I wouldn’t say it was the highlight of Sirmione. While we were there and admiring the views over the lake, Alex thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try and get some drone footage. There were no signs to say it wasn’t allowed (as we had seen previously around the lake) but we were soon collared and told to bring the drone down IMMEDIATELY(!) by staff working in the museum! We begrudgingly put it away and left the sight of the ruins. By this point it was mid afternoon and the sun was burning down on us. The walk back to the centre (and where we had parked the car) was a good 20 mins and we had run out of water and so we were beginning to get a bit melodramatic until we spotted a little train that would take you back to the centre for 1 euro. We hopped on and even found a water fountain to fill up our bottles – happiness restored!
Feeling slightly adventurous, we decided to book an excursion not far from our base in Torbole – an activity they call canyoning – with a company called SKYClimber. Alex had researched it and said it sounded like a lot of fun and so I was up for it. The way Alex had explained it, I thought he was playing it up to be a lot more adventurous than it actually was going to be – boy was I wrong! We were picked up in a mini bus from a car park in Limone and immediately started to ascend up one of the mountains until we were travelling up a road with sickeningly steep drops on either side. After a hair-raising ride, we pulled over and were instructed to change into wetsuits that the company had provided. We squeezed into them excitedly, and started the hike to the top of the Gumpenfever waterfall. When our guide discussed a ‘hike’ in the car journey up the mountain, I kidded myself into thinking that he didn’t know the correct words to use in English and it would be a nice little stroll, admiring the views over Lake Garda. 30 minutes later, pouring with sweat and with my thighs feeling as if they were going to explode, we arrived at the top of the waterfall and were given a few minutes to catch our breaths before a safety briefing. The safety briefing included words such as ‘death’ and ‘serious injury’ and so this was the point in which I started to panic slightly! It was an adrenaline-filled hour of jumping off rocks into rivers, abseiling down cliffs and sliding done sheer rock faces(!). By the end of the afternoon, I was absolutely exhausted, bruised, battered and even rather embarrassed after a slight misjudgment when jumping from a rock which resulted in the most unladylike belly flop (which unfortunately for me, was all caught on camera) but it was great! Our guide was brilliant and made the experience even more enjoyable. We undertook one of the easier excursions so I dread to think how difficult the more challenging ones are. You can find details of prices and the different itineraries they do on their website – http://www.skyclimber.it.
After exploring a few of the other little towns, we discovered that Lake Garda was halfway between Venice and Milan. We tossed a coin and it was decided that we would plan a day trip to Venice. We left early and were on the road at 8am and our sat nav said it would take us 2 hours to the port where we would pick up the ferry to Venice. Unfortunately, we got stuck in horrendous traffic due to an accident and so it took us over 3 hours! Still, we were at the Terminal Fusina port just before 11am and caught the 11am ferry. It cost us 10 euros to park for the day (which is reduced to 5 euros if booked online in advance) and 13 euros each for a return ferry with boats every 30 mins until 10:30pm, ideal for spending a day in the city. We arrived in the city at 11:20am and using the map we got free with our ferry tickets, headed straight to St Mark’s Square to start our day which was a 15 min walk. When we emerged into the square, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people around. Hordes of people surrounded St Mark’s Basilica and a queue to enter snaked right back to the river! A feeling of annoyance swept over me, this is not how I imagined it would be! Nevertheless we started to queue to enter the Campanile for the best view over the city and while we were queuing, bought our fast track pass for the Basilica using my iPhone. The fast track passes were 2 euros each which I would pay 20 times over to skip the 3 hour plus queue that snaked from the entrance and all you have to do is google fast pass to St Mark’s Basilica and it comes straight up! The view over Venice from the top of the Campanile was brilliant but again, it was so busy at the top that we were fighting with people for access to the edge to take the pictures. We got there in the end and took a few, including a 360 photo using our newest gadget – the Samsung 360 Gear. Arguably, one of the best cameras we have! We then headed in to the Basilica and it was beautiful but I feel that after seeing the Vatican in Rome and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it was one of my least favourite churches I have seen. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city and went to see the famous viewpoint over the Grand Canal. Again, this experience was stressful. It was swarming with tourists all fighting for the best spot and it completely ruined it for me. We decided that the only thing to do was to hunt down the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner and drinks. This was the highlight of our visit! We contemplated taking a gondola ride as the sun was just beginning to set when we left the Hard Rock but after being quoted over 100 euros by a couple of people for a 30 minute ride, we decided against it and headed back to the ferry. We couldn’t help but be really disappointed by our day in Venice. I had such high hopes and have always dreamed of spending time in such an amazing city but the number of people at every tourist spot was just too much for me. It could possibly be the time of year that we visited – mid summer – but even so, it has put us off ever going back which is such a shame. We got some great pictures (cleverly cropping out all the other tourists!) and saw all the main sights so in that respect it was a successful trip.
Overall, Lake Garda is a place you MUST visit. From the adventurous to the foodie to the sun-worshipper, there is something to do for everyone. Stop whatever you’re doing, get yourself on SkyScanner and book yourself a flight – you won’t regret it!