Italy’s largest lake is famed for its scenery and its gardens. Lorenza Bacino visits some of her favourite horticultural spaces, and finds a cookery course and a wedding venue…
Stay in the Grand Hotel Gardone
If an air of relaxed fin-de-siècle elegance is what you’re seeking, then this beautiful 19th-century villa and hotel in Gardone Riviera on the western bank is for you.
The Grand Hotel Gardone began welcoming guests in 1884, and by the beginning of the 20th century a steady stream of European nobles and intellectuals were regularly passing through. It’s an imposing, yet charming villa with a perfect lakeside position from where you can sit, enjoy a glass of prosecco and take in the views across the water, all the while imagining waiters in white tails serving the likes of Churchill, Nabokov or Somerset Maugham in its heyday. There’s a piano bar and live music in the evenings. A new heated outdoor pool, private beach and jetty give it a modern twist.
The town of Gardone itself is quaint, with cobbled streets and frescoed façades. Elegant, ornate villas swathed in fragrant wisteria adorn the hills, pale yellow and pinkish turrets poke through the flowers, and the gardens bloom with English roses and Mediterranean palm trees.
Visit D’Annunzio’s house and gardens
Walk the short distance up the hill behind the Grand Hotel Gardone to the Vittoriale degli Italiani. This was the home and gardens of the celebrated and flamboyant Italian poet, soldier, ultra-nationalist and womaniser Gabriele D’Annunzio, who lived here like a decadent prince, receiving politicians, artists and lovers as his varied guests.
D’Annunzio (1863-1938) was a self-confessed ‘animale di lusso’ (animal of luxury) and his residence – La Prioria (Priory) – and its gardens are a lavish ode to aesthetics, eccentricity and the man’s extensive military exploits during WWI. What you see here, in lacquered and gilded rooms crammed with statues, ornaments, instruments and other vintage memorabilia, is an eclectic and altogether staggering collection of some 10,000 bizarre objects that reflect the character of this extraordinary man.
This was the home and gardens of the celebrated and flamboyant Italian poet, soldier, ultra-nationalist and womaniser Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Suspended from the ceiling in the indoor cinema is the plane that D’Annunzio himself flew during WWI! The gardens even contain a warship, the Puglia, somehow ensconced in the hillside, which you can board and explore. There is also an outdoor, Pompeii-inspired theatre big enough to accommodate 1,000 spectators which is used in the summer months for performances and concerts.
Book ahead here www.vittoriale.it to visit the house itself. There is no need to book if you only wish to visit the gardens.
Stroll around the Heller Gardens
Trace your steps back down from the Vittoriale towards the Lake and you will come to the Heller Gardens. After the thunderous displays in the Vittoriale, these gardens are an altogether more gentle experience; the twinkly sound of trickling water is your only companion as you stroll around this oasis of tranquillity.
The gardens originally belonged to Arthur Hruska (1880-1971), a world renowned dentist and doctor from Czechoslovakia. He loved the climate on the Lake and began planning and planting between 1912- 14. André Heller, a Viennese multi- media artist, bought the gardens in 1988 and opened them to the public in 1989, after transforming them in line with his own esoteric vision. He has combined the more than 3,000 plants, streams, ponds, waterfalls and man-made cliffs with artistic installations.
Each twist and turn offers a different perspective on the details, with dozens of statues and little people popping up unexpectedly in the rockeries. The climate on the Lake means oriental plants like bamboo grow alongside European tulips and alpine flowers. In spring the colours of the flowers in bloom are fantastic. Keep a look out for works of art by Keith Haring or Roy Lichtenstein.
Heller juxtaposes beauty with great ugliness, statues of the Buddha with gargoyle heads squirting water angrily at each other, and a gaping mouth exhaling fumes. It’s playful, yet the message is clear: we have a complex relationship with our environment and we need to take care of it.
Visit Isola del Garda
Most people don’t realise that there is an island on the lake, but there is, Isola del Garda, just off the pretty town of Salò. It’s a short ride over from San Felice del Benaco and impossibly romantic as the boat pulls into a tiny cove of turquoise water. This is the private island of the Cavazza family, who have Russian and English heritage. Three of the Contessa’s descendants still live here with their families. This speck of land is only 1,100m long and 60m at the widest point.
You’ll need to book ahead for the guided tour as the boat only goes a couple of times a week. Alberta, one of the great great grand-daughters shows you round with great warmth and affection for her island home. The gardens are her pride and joy, reflecting her mixed heritage – English roses and hedgerows sit alongside palm trees, with orange, lemon and olive trees adding their colour and perfume throughout.
Experience a cooking lesson at Le Gemme di Artemisia
On the east side of the lake, at Albisano di Torri del Benaco, I visited Andrea and Lara at their beautiful restaurant and cooking school, Le Gemme di Artemisia, Atelier del Gusto (www.legemmediartemisia.it) Andrea is a well-travelled and experienced chef, and he’s around between March and the beginning of November for cooking lessons on the Lake. I spent a fun morning learning how to make pizza dough, ravioli, and even proper egg pasta which we cut into spaghetti and various other shapes, although I’m sure I was quite the clumsiest student he’s ever had.
The location is utterly charming with sweeping lake views, (quite distracting when you’re trying to learn about pasta!) and Andrea and Lara are also utterly charming. They can tailor cooking lessons based on your needs and ability, from very basic to very advanced, from just one morning to a few days. You get a recipe folder and a certificate at the end of it and a CD of photos as a memento of your successes (or failings as in my case!).
If you’d like to stay nearby, Lara’s parents have a bed and breakfast a 10-minute walk away. It’s only for two people at the most, so just ask Lara at email@example.com for more information.
Enjoy Lemony Limone
I took a leisurely boat ride up the shoreline to Limone, a lovely way to enjoy the scenery on the Lake as the boat stops off at several other little harbour towns along the way.
As the boat approaches, you can make out the iconic wooden lemon terraces on the hillsides. Limone is all about citrus fruit production, a commercial activity dating back to the 13th century. In the early part of the 19th century, Limone became rich from exporting vast amounts of citrus fruits to Germany, Poland and Russia. Now it’s more of historical than commercial interest and there’s a museum in the Castle up the hill, La Limonaia del Castel.
It’s well worth the climb up to the lemon terraces to enjoy the sweeping views across the water and maybe indulge in a little limoncello on the way.
Limone sits towards the north of the west bank, where the lake thins out and you crane your neck upwards to the towering cliffs behind. The scent up in the lemon groves is divine, as rosemary and jasmine mingle with the fruity citrus aroma emanating from the terraces.
It doesn’t have to be just a dream. You really can get married in a fairytale castle on a lake. In the picturesque town of Malcesine , you can hire the Castello Scaligero, a declared National Monument dating back to the 1st century AD.
You can ski in Malcesine in the winter, go walking and paragliding, or take the Monte Baldo cable car ride that connects medieval Malcesine to the top of the mount. It’s got a rotating cabin, and you fly above and over olive groves, and views of the dark blue satiny lake, to reach the flora and fauna in the Garden of Europe at the top. At a height of 1,800m, you can relax on the terrace overlooking the lake – and plan your wedding!
It doesn’t have to be just a dream. You really can get married in a fairytale castle on a lake. Sarah and Anna are on hand to talk you through everything
Italian Lakes Weddings is a small, personal wedding planning business offering beautiful weddings in many locations around the Lake, and with offices in the UK and Italy, it couldn’t be easier. Sarah and Anna are on hand to talk you through and organise everything on your special day. From the ceremony, to music, refreshments, or boat cruises, anything is possible.
Sarah begins the planning in the UK and Anna takes over upon arrival in Italy. Anna stays with you on the day to make sure everything runs smoothly.