Of all the great lakes of northern Italy, Lake Garda is the greatest. Being of regular shape, a sort of slender triangle, it is one of the shortest to drive around. The touring coaches do it in the day with two or three stops. The passengers keep askng the name of some place briefly glimpsed, with a view to going there for their holidays next year. Comparisons between lakes renowned for their beauty don’t make much sense but many people consider Garda the most attractive. Goethe did. He stayed at Torbole and declared the bright blue Garda ‘the greatest marvel of creation’ – and the German poet was not given to extravagant expression. He was among the first of the German tourists who now arrive by the hundred thousand, by far the most numerous of foreign visitors. From Frankfurt and Munich you can get day trips to this oasis of Mediterranean light and colour.
We suggest a straightforward circuit of the lake: allow two days to see the best places to visit. Access to the southern shore is from the A4 autostrada which passes within metres of Desenzano, Sirmione and Peschiera. Slip roads go to all three. Or you can come in from the Brescia junction, arriving at Salò on what they call the Brescian Riviera (a preponderance of cars with BR number-plates tells you why). From Rovereto or Trento on the A22 Brenner autostrada you can reach Lake Garda’s narrow northern tip.
Going clockwise from the south, Desenzano to Salò is inland and almost suburban. Salò to Gargnano follows a coastline which grows ever more rugged, precipitous and clothed in greenery. From Gargnano to Riva is an incredible road: around 70 tunnels in 40 km. Cliff-framed windows give almost subliminal bursts of sun, lake and fantastic opposite shore until you are dazzled with the stroboscopic flicker. The road is narrow. Clumps of rock thrust themselves in your path. There is rarely a parking bay or passing place and local traffic has developed an unofficial one-way system – southbound mornings, northbound afternoons as we write, but check before leaving Gargnano or Riva.
The eastern or Venetian shore from Torbole to Bardolino is embroidered with forts, villas and resorts. Sixty years ago there was no road, but now you move quite smoothly. The adjacent motorway has creamed off much commercial traffic. The lake’s south-east corner is dull – if your eventual destination is Verona, you might as well cut off at Lazise. In that case, see Sirmione before you start the circuit.
Airport: Verona (international charters in summer).
The Milan-Venice main railway passes close to the southern shore with stations at Desenzano and Peschiera.
All communities on and near Lake Garda are served by local buses. The principal bus stations are at Desenzano, Salò, Riva and Peschiera. To and from Verona, Brescia and Rovereto there are frequent bus services and excursions to different parts of the lake. A regular service to and from Milan is operated by Autostradale (see www.autostradale.it).
Boat services on the lake are comprehensive, some would say too much so. A fleet of 80 vessels operates hourly services between Riva, Torbole, Limone, Sirmione, Desenzano, Peschiera, Malcesine, Brenzone, Gargnano, Salò, Garda and Bardolino. A hydrofoil links Peschiera with Sirmione. The car-ferry between Maderno and Torri del Benaco takes 30 mins. The main operator is Navigazione Laghi – www.navigazionelaghi.it.