A long strip of land, bathed by the water on either side, comes to a head at Sirmione, “flower of peninsulas and islands” wrote Catullus. The “Grottoes of Catullus”, though named after the poet, are the ruins of a Roman villa that was never visited by the poet, due to the fact that they date from at least the end of the first century BC, but Catullus died in 54 BC. However, Sirmione has given host to many other noteworthy figures, including Maria Callas at Villa Meneghini and Ezra Pound, who wrote to James Joyce encouraging him to visit. Indeed, it has been reputed as a place for “very important people”.
Feel free to choose; leave on the shore a motorboat and then be lulled by the waves, or tour along the shore to admire the Roman ruins, the buildings of the baths and beaches inaccessible from land. Sirmione seen from the lake has a special charm. The castle and drawbridge behind you will make the perfect setting for a selfie, to post immediately.
It is a privilege to walk around Sirmione and its squares, narrow streets and late-opening boutiques. Choose a setting for a toast, after docking. With a flute of Lugana Doc, it goes without saying.
A great place to dine. Do you prefer haute-cuisine or traditional tavern fare, a waterfront location or a local hidden trattoria in the streets of the centre? Ask the advice of the Consortium of Hoteliers and Restaurateurs of Sirmione for the place that suits you to a tee. Enjoy!
A few miles round the lake and you reach Desenzano. A few steps from the square of Piazza Malvezzi, there is the Park Hotel. Its veranda overlooking the lake, the garden and the swimming pool on the panoramic roof of the hotel are just as we like it. And so too is the elegant but décontracté atmosphere, which even in the comfort of a high-end hotel makes you quite at home.
Up from Desenzano towards the north end of Lake Garda. Here water is, and even more so in the past, power, drive and life. The dense network of streams and rivers were allies of man for centuries. Up from Toscolano Maderno, a scenic walk, but not too demanding, will take you to discover the Valle delle Cartiere, or Valley of the Paper Mills, one of the most original settings in the Alto Garda Park. Once a place where they produced paper, today it is full of history and charm. But don’t forget your swimsuit as the bends of the river form many natural jacuzzis.
Fondazione Valle delle Cartiere - Via Valle delle Cartiere - 25088 Toscolano Maderno (BS) - www.valledellecartiere.it
Walk along the Bassa Via del Garda coastal path, that from Limone passes through Toscolano (where you are) and leads on to Salò. An ancient roadway, it dominates the lake from heights of 100-1,000 metres and is featured in many maps and guides. You will find yourself among beech and olive trees, palms and agaves, and will smell, depending on the season, the scent of gentians, violets and crocuses. Make your way along and when you are tired find refreshment in a typical trattoria.
After lunch, stop and read a few pages before resuming your journey. The Nobel prize winner for German literature in 1910, Paul Heyse, stayed in this area and lived for ten years at Villa Annina in Gardone Riviera. Here he wrote “Novellen Vom Gardasee”; did you remember to pack it?
Return to the hotel in Desenzano for dinner at PHilò, the restaurant of the Park Hotel, reopened in February with total restyling. Books, vintage items and photographs that recall the history of the hotel decorate spaces with strong personalities played out in soft tones of blue and green, in perfect harmony with the landscape outside. The two young chefs add brio to the à la carte menu, divided into courses entitled “Anteprima”, “Buona la prima...” and “Secondo me”, which is a pun on appetizers, first and second courses, alternatively translating to “Preview” , “Great first take” and “In my opinion..”. All dishes are made with absolutely fresh, zero km and organic Italian food products from small producers.
Jimmy Spithill, skipper and helmsman of the Australian Team Oracle, said in an interview for Condé Nast Traveller that Gargnano is his favourite place in Italy. He is at home here, having competed in the ‘Centomiglia’, the largest freshwater sailing competition in Europe, which is held here in September and attracts sailors from all around the world.
If you want to emulate him, prepare a change of shoes and hop over to the ‘Circolo Vela Gargnano’ sailing club, where you can take lessons and rent out a ‘Dolphin’ sailboat, perfect to kick off your career as a skipper. Two basic concepts to not show yourself up: the “Pelèr” is the wind that blows in the morning, a steady 13-15 metres per second, at noon arrives the “Ora” and in the afternoon the wind is lighter still. This translated into plain English, means you get to sleep in.
Circolo Vela Gargnano - Via Alessandro Bettoni, 23 - Gargnano (Brescia) - www.centomiglia.it
Ask the locals. Villa Gargnano is one of the most romantic and secluded spots in Garda. Cool even on the hottest of days, just take refuge under the pergola, the perfect setting to enjoy a snack and relax. In the little harbour, the boats gently sway to and fro, and on the micro-beach and the harbour-side you can sunbathe, refreshed by light splashes from the waves. Very cool.
Foreigner visitors tend to just love the lake, and surely Sabine Frank fell head over heels, enough to open her very own art gallery, ‘Studio Pane’, right in the small village of Villa di Gargnano. Take a look at the works inspired by the lake. And continue your walk along the edge of the beaches to photograph some of the fishermen's nets. DH Lawrence lived here for a short time, a moment which proved very fruitful indeed; he finished “Sons and Lovers” here and started “The Lost Girl” and his first collection of poems.