It has taken me nearly a month since our return to sort out photographs and such but at last I am ready to give you a quick tour of our wonderful holiday to Lake Garda in northern Italy.
Lake Garda is the largest of the Italian lakes that stretch up through the pre-alps towards the Alps. It is the most wonderful spot, combining an almost Mediterranean climate with spectacular mountain scenery. Whilst certainly a busy and popular place even in August it was not unbearably so, though it was rather hot, but being tied to school holiday dates we were unable to go out of season. It has much to recommend it as a destination for all ages. We were a party of four including two middle aged adults, one OAP and a 4 year old, and we all loved it. For teenagers there are an array of water sports, theme-parks and such like but those activities don't impinge if you are not into them.
The Italians were wonderfully friendly, the food was great, the driving was fine (we see much worse, and much, much more aggressive, driving in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District). As you might remember I was inspired to take this holiday after reading Farewell to Arms and Stamboul Train (neither of which mention Lake Garda as it happens, but you can read my tangential thinking here.) So we set off, from the Yorkshire Dales by train: Dales to Leeds, Leeds to Kings Cross, walk across road to St Pancras, St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar, cross Paris by taxi (toddler, OAP, 6 pieces of luggage equals couldn't face metro) to Gare du Bercy, sleeper train to Verona (24 hours travelling so far!), car hire to the tiny village of Raffa on the west side of the lake just south of Salo. Fantastic journey, if a bit tiring. Everything went like clockwork: all trains on time till right at the end when we were about quarter of an hour late into Verona. Not bad on a 24 hour journey. Couchette travel was fine: we went to sleep in Dijon and woke up as we went through Milan. The 4 year old was beside herself with excitement and couldn't sleep which drove us crackers, but otherwise the compartment was quite comfy, and I can hardly blame the train company for my daughter's insomnia. The best thing was watching three very different sorts of countryside go past your window: England, France and then lovely Italy which looked just as we imagined it when we rolled up the blinds, with olive groves, vineyards and spiky Lombardy poplars.
If anyone fancies avoiding airports or flying then I can highly recommend the Man in Seat 61 which helps you plan overland journeys to just about anywhere. Leeds to Reykjavik? Paris to Calcutta? What ever you want!
As to Lake Garda itself, it is just breathtakingly beautiful and is a lovely place to swim and relax. It has touristy towns such as Limone and Garda (though nowhere near as tacky as some of England's tourist places), and it has elegant resort towns such as Salo and Gardone Riviera, full of eighteenth century and art nouveau elegance.
It also has history in bucketfuls from medieval churches aplenty to lovely Sirmione, at the end of the peninsula you can see sticking up into the lake from the south, with its castle and ruined Roman villa, which may or may not have belonged to the poet Catullus, but regardless is the most spectacular spot.
A final thought on our accommodation. Our apartment was so unquestionably good that I can't help but give it a plug. The village was lovely, very Italian with no discernible tourist activity, and the four bed apartment was at the top of the highest placed domestic building in the village. The views from all the windows were good but the living room and kitchen windows looked out onto the most perfect Italian scene: small fields all different textures with general crops quilted against the stripes of olive groves and vineyards in tiny exquisite squares. In the middle ground the lake, perfectly turquoise, and in the distance Monte Baldo. Flanking the image on the left were the dramatic peaks of the pre-alps, and on the right the distinctive shape of Rocca de Manerba. If you were planning an eighteenth century painting then this was the view for you!
The apartment is worth it for the views alone. However it also wins the prize for being the pleasantest, most spacious, and best equipped self-catering accommodation in which we have had stayed, and you can see it here. Self-catering properties always claim to be home from home, full of comforts and well equipped, but often are lacking. This one was wonderful. Despite cooking quite elaborate meals I never went to look for a single piece of kitchen equipment to find it wasn't there. More importantly it had a really superb selection of holiday reading: thrillers, crime, classics, books on Italy, fiction set in Italy, guide books, modern literary fiction, bit of chick lit, in short everything except children's. The apartment was supported by a lovely Anglo-Italian family at the village restaurant and B&B, Il Nido, which had both fantastic service and superb food. I will put the accommodation links alongside the Man in Seat 61 in the More to Life than Books links in the side bar, in case anyone is looking for them on a later occasion.
From the south end of the lake at Desanzano you can get the train to either Venice (which we did) or Milan (which we wanted to but didn't have time for in our two weeks as there was so much to do by the lake!). Venice was, well, Venice. It was breathtaking, of course, and almost unbearably hot. A four year old is not the recommend guest on such a trip, so we walked about (amazing how empty venice is away from St Mark's Square) and ate rather than going into St Mark's which husband and I would have done had we been on our own. But daughter enjoyed it and was fascinated by the watery streets, and at least we can say we've been now. Hope to go back one day.
Verona was my favourite however. A beautiful city with its nearly completely extant amphitheatre in which the famous opera season is played out. My daughter was enchanted by the Egyptian stage set that was lolling in the piazza behind a bit of railing. She also managed to climb to the top of the steps of the ampitheatre and was very pleased with the whole experience. Castelvecchio was also a fascinating visit, and to be honest, we could have managed a week in Verona alone, but it was our last day, and a wonderful one. Eating an Italian salad at a pavement cafe in the piazza whilst the sun set on the rose pink stone of the Roman Arena is an experience I will not forget soon. Then it was 9.30pm and time to be on the sleeper train home.
Books: always the important bit of a holiday. I read most of the available guides to both Italy and to the Lake Garda area: the AA, Lonely Planet, Cadogan, Berlitz, Dorling Kindersley, Rough Guide and several others. The Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes knocked spots off the rest. You don't need the Rough Guide to Italy as well by the way, as all the general Italian travel info is included in the introduction to the Italian Lakes version. To give an example of the usefulness of this guide we had a small 3 hour window between boat trips to 'do' Sirminone: we managed to go over the castle, to visit Catullus's villa, to have a little tourist train ride, to do some present shopping, to eat a picnic lunch, and to sit an have an ice cream at a cafe, all in three hours because the tiny entry on Sirminone in the Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes was so compact, detailed and accurate that we didn't waste a second between one thing and the next. We used the edition here but there is a new edition due out in March 2009 which you can see here.