Why we fell in love with Lake Garda

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

First week in Italy: the Food, the Bad and the Beauty

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Even though I’ve only been out here for just over a week, I feel that I shouldn’t have left it this long to write my first post – so much has happened, so many feelings have come and gone and so many new impressions have hit me that I’ll never be able to do it all justice in one post, nor remember each amazing and frustrating thing about my first week in Bologna to recount later. I’ll give it a go – hopefully as the year goes on I’ll get better at putting this surreal experience into words.

I’ll start with the bad stuff, for two reasons: firstly, it’s very easy for people to travel the world and selectively show their friends and family back at home the exotic and novel, whilst leaving out that which might upset their family or, to be cynical, devalue their investment of time and money in a life-changing gamble in the eyes of their friends. This blog is as much about giving as accurate a representation as possible of starting a life in a scary new country for those considering doing the same as it is about letting those I love know that I’m having an amazing time – after all, it’s the 21st century and I have a phone. Secondly, you’ll know that the great parts have even more value than they would have if my whole experience were an insta-feed of pizza, beaches and parties.

Leaving home was hard – I didn’t feel prepared, though I’m starting to think that perhaps you’re never really fully prepared for bigs steps like this. Safe to say I am lucky to have such a supportive family and a girlfriend who had done the same thing two months previously to help me have some faith in my future.

No – I have a strict weight allowance, you can’t come along 😦

Hard too was the fact that I only had a place to stay for a week when I got out there. I’d read online that it was important to look for permanent accommodation in person so as to avoid paying money to someone I’d never met for a place I’d never seen – but while I reduced the risk of being scammed, I greatly increased my stress levels over the seven days it took me to find somewhere to live, each day getting closer to thinking that I’d have nowhere to stay on Saturday night. Maybe the best solution would’ve been to visit the city earlier in the summer to search then, and if you future exchange students have the money for extra return flights I would definitely advise that – I didn’t really want to spend the money, so in hindsight this was a dilemma that I couldn’t really have been avoided; I’m just glad finally to have a place (and a nice one at that) to call home until July!

So, I won’t deny that there were overtones – sometimes overriding – of homesickness and accommodation stress during my first week away – but then it’s probably a good thing that my first post wasn’t written at that time, or I might not have done justice to the amazing experiences that did occur every day. I am conscious that my negatives were very generalised and could have been written from any city – so, let me show you a selection of my initial highlights of Bologna:

1) The beauty of the city – people talked so much about spaghetti bolognese (or just ragù, as they call it here) before I came that the stunning porticos, iconic red roofs and (worryingly) leaning towers really were a welcome surprise when I first ventured into the city on Sunday morning.

Porticos – arches that cover most of the pavements in the centro storico. Taxes only used to be paid on the square footage of the ground floor of a building, so the Bolognesi just built over the pavements!

From the top of la torre asinelli

The smaller of ‘le due torri’, la garisenda, leans at 4.3 degrees – more than the leaning tower of Pisa.

2) Food – I’m actually yet to have spaghetti bolognese in Bologna (shock), but that’s because a) I prefer pizza, and b) there exists something called ‘aperitivo’ (or ‘apericena’) – you buy a large drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, for between 5-8€ (depending on the place), and then have access to an all-you-can-eat buffet full of meat, pasta, pizza and potatoes (not as many varieties as in Durham, granted) – the perfect and authentic way to line your stomach cheaply for the night to come.

3) Friends – okay, the concept isn’t exactly specific to Bologna, but the individuals certainly are in a sense – even though they come from all over the world. I’m certain that the best decision I’ve made since being out here was to go on an Erasmusland walking tour the day after I arrived; I was very nervous and it would have been very easy to ‘allow’ myself a few days to settle in before beginning to socialise, but on that tour I found some great people who have not only been fun, kind and crazy, but who are also in exactly the same situation as I am: at least the accommodation struggle was a shared one. And that group of friends expands more quickly by the day – the Erasmusland society has been great for organising parties and trips through which you meet so many friendly people. The only negative is the envy I feel at the incredible levels of English – and many other second languages – spoken by every Erasmus student; if there’s one strong opinion that this post is going to give, it’s that we, as a country, are seriously behind in our foreign language proficiency to a point where it’s almost embarrassing, and you wonder what we are actually learning at school if every foreign student has just as much knowledge and intelligence, if not more, as we do in the UK, yet can speak a second, third or fourth language to such a high level. And no, the fact that they speak English doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with other languages – I think that’s something that one half will agree with instantly, and something that the other half will never understand.

Aperitivo after a day on the beach

I think I’ll leave it there for now. Sorry for the length – then again, apologising itself is only making it longer. I just think it’s important not to give a polarised view of what has been such a hectic week, and to do that demands a bit more writing than I intend to do for my next posts. I hope you’ve found it at least informative, if not interesting – so, until next time, arrivederci!

Oh, and sorry for the awful title…