Alongside the attractions of the city itself, one of Bologna’s best assets is its location relative to some other beautiful places in Italy: the famous Tuscan cities of Florence, Pisa and Siena are no more than two hours away; in an hour and a half you can reach the stunning principality of San Marino, near the Eastern coast and not far too from Venice; and, as I found out a few weeks ago, a train and two buses can transport you not just from grand urban architecture to the breathtaking natural landscapes of the Northern Lakes, but also from the bustle of modern city life to a simpler scene from the past – or, at least, from my romantic, escapist imagination that, I think, tends to be enhanced whenever I move from the trees and fields of Warwickshire into a new city. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the journey to Lake Garda from Bologna takes you past the town of Mantua, the birthplace of the poet Virgil in 70 BC, who, in his Eclogues, carried the dream of a ‘Golden Age’ defined by nature, simplicity and happiness into a Roman society plighted by political instability and war – though, I’ll admit, my relief was more from the hectic first few weeks of my placement than from the bigger worries of natural disaster and nuclear war in the world right now.
It was thanks to my girlfriend, Jess, that we really saw the full extent of the tranquility that Lake Garda has to offer: the south of the lake, though still beautiful (especially Peschiera del Garda, a little port filled with colourful houses, small fishing boats, Vespas and Fiat 500s), has a big tourism trade, and it was pleasing to leave the theme-parks behind us, replaced by the string of small hamlets dotted along the eastern coast, in one of which Jess had booked a charming Airbnb.
The apartment, in fact, wasn’t on the coast but a 5-minute walk up the mountain, which gave us some lovely views over the lake, even if it meant having to make a painful climb every time we needed to go out: our ‘village’, Castello, was made up only of a church, a pizzeria and houses like ours. It might have been nice to have had a car – but, then again, such a modern commodity wouldn’t have been fitting in our Arcadia. It’s hard to write about such a perfect place without giving a minute-by-minute account of each small thing that we did, from sitting on a jetty watching the boats rock as the sun went down to gliding over the lake with the wind in our hair on the ferry home, but, I think, two things did stand out.
Our evenings eating out were, simply, special: on our first night, we ate at ‘La Trattoria del Captiano’ in Porta di Brenzone, which sits on a pier so that you really do feel as though you are in the lake as you eat. Typically of the area, it is family-run: the mother cooks, the father and sons wait on the tables and the uncle goes out at 5am every morning to catch fish from the lake. We ordered too much food: I’m still not sure whether the portion sizes were too big or whether we shouldn’t have ordered pasta in between our starter and main course… but the fact that we had to roll out of the restaurant didn’t mar the incredible setting and warm atmosphere of the night.
Having thought that this would be hard to top, however, our second night was, perhaps, even more special. This time we took a peaceful 20-minute walk down the gentler slope of the hill to the village of Brenzone and, thanks to the fact that our first choice restaurant was full, we found ‘Ristorante al Vapor’ – right next to the lake and, this time, outside. We both had an incredible set menu of mixed fish carpaccio, salmon pasta, gurnard with caper sauce and chocolate mousse, made all the better by friendly waiters, free aperitivi at the beginning and free limoncello at the end. Safe to say the walk home went quicker than we had feared before we came out.
The second thing that stood out was the town of Malcesine. The town itself is a maze of cobbled streets, gelaterie and tiny squares bordered by locally-supplied restaurants, but it is the castle that steals the show. By some stroke of luck, the weather cleared just as we entered its walls, meaning that, as we climbed the steps first onto a pretty terrace and then to the top of the main tower, we were greeted with views of the lake, the mountains and the rooftops of Malcesine that really did make our mouths drop.
Thankfully for you, I caught most of the trip on video; as hard as I have tried, I’m not sure I’ve done justice to the tranquility and beauty that we experienced on this holiday with my words. I feel almost torn sharing it with you, to be honest, as though I’m giving away our secret hiding place (though I am aware that Lake Garda isn’t exactly a remote island in the Pacific) – but it would be selfish not to give you the opportunity to see for yourself why we fell so much in love not only with the view from the terrace at Malcesine, but also with the whole modus vivendi in this secret paradise in the north of Italy. Between the warmth of the locals, the silence of the single-track roads, the serenity of the lake and the grandeur of the mountains, we found ourselves lost in time and place with no will to find a map nor to call for help, but, now that we’re out, the least we can do is to direct you there too.