The Lure Of The Lake: Nowhere Does Romance And Style Like Italy's Lake Garda

The best thing about Lake Garda is that nobody goes there anymore. Well, clearly some people do, but not the madding crowds that plague Tuscany and Umbria.

And that's one of its virtues: come here and there is only a fettuccine-slim chance that you will bump into some New Labour think-tank on summer manoeuvres.

To the chattering classes Garda may be unfashionable, but I can live with that.

In fact, I'm grateful that Garda has become strangely excluded from that slightly sick-making state of adoration that many people have for All Things Italian.

This is not the place to go to if you wish to strut around noisily shouting 'bellissima' as you search for the ultimate bottle of balsamic vinegar.

But you will find good value, simple hotels, terrific food and jaw-dropping scenery.

Of the three or four Italian lakes that form those inviting blue splodges on the map of the Lombardy Plain, Garda is the largest and the cleanest.

Como and Maggiore are both beautiful, but they can be stuffy and uptight. Garda, meanwhile, is much more geared to families.

It is set amid the vivid colours and the varied geography of Lombardy, which has splendid, slightly decaying villas in soft pinks, lush greenery and beautiful lake-front towns, all placed against the backdrop of the Dolomites.

Parts of the lake enjoy a benign micro-climate which has resulted in beautiful gardens in the villas around its fringes: many of the towns are surrounded by lemon groves. One, Limone, takes its name from them.

The huge summer influx of German tourists helps to explain why many of the locals in the Lakes tend to address tourists in German.

'Guten Tag,' was the greeting when I walked into a cafe in Gardone Riviera for my morning cappuccino. I'm sure that Japanese, Chinese and Peruvian visitors find this even more baffling than we do.

It is difficult to make this point diplomatically, but it is clear that the Germans have annexed most of northern Italy - and Lake Garda is no exception.

After all, Garda is just a short BMW-drive down the autobahn from Munich. A car, however, isn't really necessary in these parts.

The efficient ferry system helps to engender a real sense of relaxation, one which comes from the knowledge that once on board you can lie back, enjoy a Campari and forget about the shocking standards of Italian motoring.

If you do decide to rely on the ferries, bear in mind that longer journeys, from the top to the bottom of the lake, can work out to be expensive, perhaps as much as £30 return for a family of four. There are no weekly passes.

While many of the hotels surrounding the lake have a long-established clientele, their peeling paintwork is testament to the fact that since the war, Garda has been out of fashion.

We enjoyed the beaches; our children floating about safely in a small rubber dinghy and snorkelling.

In the summer, the water is warm and clean. The lake is generally safe, but all the resorts around it are prone to storms - last July restaurants in the centre of Sirmione were wrecked by falling trees.

The beaches are stony and small: if you are seeking a bucket-and-spade family holiday, you will probably do better in southern Spain or those rare Italian resorts where the beaches are not rented out to umbrella-hirers by the metre.

For two summers we have spent the best part of a fortnight messing about on beaches in resorts such as Manerba and Salo.

When we weren't doing that, we would search out superlative food or nose around the best of lakeside towns such as Sirmione and Torri del Benaco.

One morning was spent at Il Vittoriale, the extraordinary home of the fascist poet Gabriele D'Annunzio at Gardone Riviera.

This sprawling folly, presented to the deluded nationalist by Mussolini has since been given the full National-Trust-of-Italy treatment.

It is a fascinating spot, a fittingly pompous testament to the overwhelming ego and thwarted ambition of a loose cannon on the deck of Italian nationalism.

Visitors are given headsets with tape-recorded commentary and can wander around the poet's former home.

Mussolini also lived on the lake, at Salo, after he was deposed in 1943 and installed by the Nazis as head of the Italian puppet republic.

On your first visit to this area, it pays to consider the options carefully. Garda is a huge lake, 60-70 miles in length, with numerous resorts.

Pick the wrong one and you'll regret it; pick the right one and you'll never forget it.

Do your best to avoid staying in the untidy string of small towns on the eastern side of the lake, close to Gardaland, Italy's largest theme park.

Opt instead for some of the lower-key resorts on the south-western shores. In the north, Limone and Riva, both in the shadow of the Dolomites, attract windsurfers from all over Europe but non-surfing families might find it just a bit too windy.

The walled town of Sirmione is a must, with its thermal baths, winding lanes and commanding views of the lake.

Its attractions are even more apparent in early evening, when the day trippers are heading home.

But if a day is all you have, you can still make the most of Sirmione by walking along the peninsula to some beautiful beaches.

Here, even in high summer, the lake-front is empty, the water invitingly azure blue. You can walk across gleaming rocks, polished over decades by the lapping waters.

Do not be tempted, as we were, to rent a speedboat and drive it up to the beach. The authorities on the lake are frankly reckless about whom such boats are rented to - no licence is required - and there is a rule which states that no vessel should come within 200 metres of the beach.

But this being Italy, rules such as this are often ignored.

Torri del Benaco is another prime spot on the lake, though much quieter and with less to offer families than Sirmione.

You can, however, eat fantastic (and inexpensive) Italian food at one of the restaurants that have terraces built onto platforms built in the lake.

The pizzeria and bar near the jetty both sum up the essence of bucket-and-spade Italy: good, simple food cooked with quality ingredients, robust local red wine and great coffee.

In spite of the regular toing and froing of the ferry, this is as peaceful a spot as you'll find, with a small beach and splendid views.

It is a theme which plays widely across Lake Garda: you won't find fake tans, expensive jewellery or flash cars, but there are interesting restaurants: risottos, wild mushrooms and game are a speciality.

Other towns on the eastern side of the lake are drabber than Torri - apartment-style blocks and warehouse shops abound.

Further south, however, Salo has retained its identity: here you can find butchers, bakers, hardware stores and fruit shops alongside the familiar tourist trappings.

A range of bars and pizzerias overlook the lake but the locals favour an old-fashioned pasticceria (pastry shop) in the town centre, which serves exquisite cakes on a terrace shaded from the heat by cool walls.

At no time does Salo ever feel overwhelmed by tourists: the locals outnumber them easily.

Most accommodation is in privately-owned hotels. Ours was charming and comfortable, if a little chaotic. They tend to offer good value for money: but do watch the extras. I'm still recovering from our £400 bar bill.

If you're considering a low-key family holiday, Garda might be for you. Just don't expect click-your-fingers service.

And don't expect to get a haircut in Salo. The barber shuts for two months every summer to take his holidays.

Travel facts

Ryanair flies to Brescia and Bergamo, near Milan, (www.ryanair.com tel: 0870 156 9569).

BA (tel: 0845 7733377) flies to Milan and Verona. There are good connections from both to the Lakes by bus and train.

Crystal Holidays (www.crystalholidays.co.uk tel: 0870 160 6040) offers seven, ten, 11 or 14-night holidays to 13 resorts on Lake Garda. Gardone Riviera: prices from £479 at the three-and-a-half-star Hotel Ville Montefiori.

Sirmione: prices from £395 in the three-star Hotel Miramar with private beach.

Torri del Benaco: prices from £329 at the Hotel Romeo. All including charter flights from Gatwick to Verona, transfers and seven nights half-board accommodation.

Salo: prices from £349 in the three-star Hotel Vigna including charter flights from Gatwick to Verona, transfers and seven nights B&B.

Source : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/holidaytypeshub/article-590147/Forgotten-Italy.html