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

By Lucy Hughes-hallett

Published: 12:56 EDT, 20 July 2012 | Updated: 15:04 EDT, 22 July 2012





Bridesmaids were teetering over the cobbles in Malcesine wearing spike heels, their long satin frocks bouncing off the pine needle-green water of Lake Garda.

Above the town, another couple were marrying on the topmost platform of the castle built by the Scaligeri, the 13th century lords of Verona. The newly-weds' mothers' outfits - tangerine and lime green, scarlet and turquoise - competed in vividness with the bougainvillea and geraniums.

Speeches done, guests snatched up bottles of prosecco and piled into a boat for a ride across to Limone, on the lake's opposite shore. Someone had brought a guitar. There are few situations in which the sound of tipsy singing seems romantic, but this was one.


Towering attraction: Malsecine dominates the skyline on Lake Garda

Malcesine is a lovely place for a wedding, but it is only one of a number of strikingly pretty towns bordering Lake Garda, several of which featured in Quantum of Solace, the James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig, and Olga Kurylenko.

The ferries that potter up and down the lake allow visitors to move easily from place to place.

Olga Kurylenko

Bond effect: Lake Garda featured heavily in the film Quantum of Solace with Olga Kurylenko and Daniel Craig

Don't bother hiring a car. From an open deck you can watch hump-backed mountains rear up behind each other like great grey ghosts, smell the scent of lime-blossom drifting off the promenades, see churches perched on dizzying crags, and watch sailing dinghies swoop between the brightly painted, wooden boats in which fishermen sit for hours. Sightseeing is best done by water, too.

The Renaissance Villa Guarienti isn't open to the public. The neo-gothic palace on the Isola di Garda is sometimes, but only to pre-booked guided tours. But both exquisite buildings turn their best facades to the water, with their sloping lawns and attendant rows of cypresses, their fountains and rose-gardens.

Even Sirmione's tremendous Roman ruins at are at their most imposing viewed from the top of a ferry. I spent an afternoon scrambling around their massive arches. But it was only when I saw them again from a southbound ferry that I realised how grandly they loom, like the work of lake-dwelling titans, between tumbled rock and mirror-smooth water.

In Sirmione I stayed at the Hotel Catullo and dined at Bounty, in the Piazza Castello, so picturesque it looks like the set for a ballet, complete with swans in the moat. At weekends the beaches fill up with children doing doggy-paddle among groups of mallard keen to join in the numerous family picnics.

And if you don't like your water cold and fresh, you can have it hot and smelling of sulphur instead. In Sirmione's Terme, elderly gentlemen and immaculately made-up young women lower themselves into the open-air pool to lie on submerged reclining chairs, soaking themselves in water piped up from hot springs on the lake's bed.

Hard to say which is more constant, the bubbling of the water spouts, or the babble of gossip. Catullus wrote a poem about Sirmione in which he calls the place a 'jewel'.

And across the lake at Gardone is the last home of another poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio. D'Annunzio has many claims to fame - his love-life (his numerous mistresses included the great actress Eleanora Duse), his exquisite lyrics and his more questionable political career as the man from whom the Fascists borrowed their stiff-armed salute.

From 1921 until his death in 1938, d'Annunzio devoted most of his energies to transforming a mediaeval farmhouse on a hill above Gardone into a labyrinthine piece of installation art.


Artists' escape: Gardone is the last home of poet Gabriele d'Annunzio

Outside, the garden ornaments include shell casings and boulders lugged here from the battlegrounds of WWI's Italian front and - most bizarrely - half a battleship. A present to d'Annunzio from Mussolini, it is cantilevered out from the side of the hill as though about to embark in to mid-air.

D'Annunzio's hired string quartet used to play on its deck. As an antidote to all this, you can stay at its next-door neighbour, the Dimora Bolsone. Here, Raffaele Buonaspetti, one-time hunter, now conservationist and gardener, has created an eclectic Eden around a 15th-century farmhouse.

Buonaspetti does English style as only Italians can, with his spaniels, courtly manners, and amiable dottiness. He travelled literally from pole to pole shooting and hawking before conceiving a passion for English romantic garden design.

Raffaele's efforts on the terraced flank of an Italian mountain, have produced a delightful hybrid where olive groves are bordered by shrub roses, and meadow-flowers, including rare orchids, bloom beneath the pomegranate trees.

Lake Garda's history is full of strife, but its legacy to modern tourists is pure pleasure.

Travel Facts

Easyjet ( has daily flights from Gatwick to Verona, half an hour's drive from Sirmione. Hotel Catullo. (+39 030 9905811, has doubles B&B from £50

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