Love Letter to Lake Garda


“The shores of this lake with its contrasts between beautiful forests and
quiet waters maybe create the most beautiful landscape in the world.”  

— Marie-Henri Stendahl, 19th century French writer


I recently returned from a three-week tour of Italy with my husband, celebrating our wedding anniversary. When the Wine Media Conference (WMC) announced in 2021 that the 2022 version was to be held in Lake Garda, Italy, we jumped at the chance to both celebrate the longevity of our union and to visit the land of 1000+ wine grapes. 
And we both fell madly in love with Lake Garda! For many reasons …

Fish, Castles, Cheese, and Small White Boats

Lake Garda, in the north of Italy in the province of Lombardy, is Italy’s largest lake, formed from an ancient glacier. The Hotel Aquaviva del Garda, which hosted the WMC and where we stayed for five nights, is located in the town of Desenzano del Gardo, on Lake Garda’s southernmost shore. Waking up each morning to the view above was a treat (Italians love their sailing), and the hotel’s facilities were top notch, with a generous and delicious breakfast buffet as well as reasonably priced spa services in the well-appointed basement-level spa. (I had a facial, my husband a massage.)

Outside the hotel, a well-maintained walkway circles the southern shore of Lake Garda, allowing strollers to stop at a café for a coffee or glass of the ubiquitous Lugana wines (more on these to come), stop and enjoy the view, and to walk into the village of Desenzano, a couple miles to the west. We did all of these things, enjoying our views of the beautiful lake-front homes and hotels, as well as the lake itself, with lots of birds and sea life actively going about their business. And oh, the people watching is so good, and you can hear many languages, particularly German.

Desenzano is a cobble-stoned and lovely village, with a castle, a museum, and other historic buildings, making for a worthwhile stroll. With tourism the main attraction these days, the town can be bustling, which it was on this late September day, with cafes and gelateria (Nocciola is to die for!) doing a robust business, as well as a plethora of touristy shops. The dollar was doing well against the Euro, so I did a bit of shopping!

From top left: strolling along Lake Garda; a glass of Lugana white; Descenzano del Garda scene; (second row, from left) Castle of Descenzano at night; Castle Scaligero in Sermione; Grotto di Cattulus; (third row, from left) Grotto di Cattulus, mosaic from Grotto; town of Sermione

A couple miles east of the hotel is the town of Sermione del Garda, which is on a peninsula that juts into Lake Garda. As part of one of our winery excursions, and to give us a break from an overabundance of food and wine (never!), we did a tour here. The entrance to the peninsula has an intact and imposing Castle, called Scaligero, which dates to the thirteenth century and is almost completely surrounded by water. After strolling through this colorful and charming (and very touristy) town, we ended at the tip of the peninsula at the spectacular Grotto di Catullo, which is the well-preserved ruins of a first century BC Roman Villa. Catullus was a Latin poet from Verona, and if there is a word to describe these ruins and this site it’s “poetic.” In my opinion, this tour and the ruins themselves, rivaled any tour we subsequently took in Rome. I hate to overuse this word, but this was spectacular, and stunningly beautiful! We had a terrific tour guide, Katerina, an archeologist with expansive knowledge of the ancient roman villa, now in ruins. Who knew they had heated indoor pools in the the first century AD?! 

There are about 30 different varieties of fish in Lake Garda, and with 90 miles of shoreline, fishing is a major activity, and commercial fisheries supply local restaurants and trattoria. Farm-to-table and sustainability were prevalent philosophies at many of the meals we had, both at wineries and at  restaurants.
Grana Padano cheese and logo; Isabelle Perego of Ar.Pe.Pe; souvenir book of Lake Garda

Additionally, there’s lots of cheese in Lake Garda, specifically Grana Padano. A WMC session featured a tasting of three different ‘vintages’ of Grana Padana cheese at the Rambotti Civic Archaeological Museum. Grana Padano has its own D.O.P., or Protected Designation of Origin, assuring that only cheese made to its standards from cow’s milk produced in the Po Valley can be labeled as such. The youngest is aged between 9 and 16 months, and is softer and creamer than the other two. The older cheeses, aged 16+ months and 20+ months, are harder, nuttier, and more suitable for grating. The oldest cheese can be individually tested for quality and marked with a fire-brand of “Reserva.” 

A Side Trip

My husband and I had an unscheduled trip via rental car through the Alps, returning to Desenzano from the village of Sandrio in Valtellina, a valley area situated in the mountainous area north of Lake Garda, almost at the Swiss border. Valtellina is renowned for its Nebbiola-based wines (they call the grape Chiavennasca here), and I was particularly thrilled to meet Isabella Perego of Ar.Pe.Pe. This was a post-conference excursion set up by the WMC, but alas our trip was cut short due to illness, hence the drive back to Lake Garda over the Alps, which happened before I could visit her winery. (I will be linking to my colleagues’ posts on Valtellina in the near future.)

(From top left) Aprica, high in the Alps; Medieval town on banks of Lake Iseo; (second row) snow-capped peaks in early October; downtown Aprica; (third row) mountains and forest everywhere; view of Lake Iseo

But making lemonade out of lemons, we chose to enjoy the car ride and took in the stunning (that word again!) views high up in the Alps. The drive took us along the eastern shore of Lake Iseo, Italy’s fourth largest lake. The views here were breathtaking, as you can see from the above. The lake boasts several medieval towns on its banks, one more picturesque than the next. And speaking of lemons, I was surprised to learn that they are a staple here in Northern Italy, which, because of the lake effect from Garda and the other lakes, is the most northern area of Italy to experience Mediterranean climate. Lemon trees, olive trees, and agave are ubiquitous here.
To remember Lake Garda, I will always treasure the book, pictured above, which was a gift to all who attended the conference, full of beauty shots around the lake and recipes for the typical foods served from the bounty of the lake and its environs. 
If you’re planning a trip to northern Italy, Lake Garda is a must see. It’s a two hour train ride from Milan and the trains run smoothly and are comfortable. The wonders of Lake Garda are worth exploring, and the wines, which I will delve into in my next posts, are unique, well made, and delicious.
Until next time,
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