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Hidden Garda

Lake Garda, the largest of the Italian lakes, can also be the most crowded. Chris Allsop travelled to
its western, Brescian, side in search of quieter spots, and discovered a rich vein of history…

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Approaching Gargnano on
Lake Garda’s western shore

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Perhaps she sneaks off to quiet Gargnano for a

breather. Positioned about halfway up the eastern
coast, the pretty town stretches out luxuriously along
the lakeside. A jostle of bright buildings greets me
as I disembark, and I sneak a swift espresso macchiato
at a seat with a view of the far coastline, the gently
sloping mountains turning vivid green as the ashen
blues of the overcast morning are burnt off by the
strong sun. My reverie is interrupted by a dousing of
cold water upon my legs – the wake from a passing
boat has slid beneath the pier. Time to go.
Despite its relative remoteness, Gargnano isn’t
sleepy when it comes to history. The grand Villa
Feltrinelli – now a super-plush resort with a two-
Michelin-starred restaurant – used to be Benito
Mussolini’s home during the brief few years when he
declared this area the Republic of Salò (more on that
later). Less Fascist and more fruity is Gargnano’s role
as a preserver of Garda’s sweet-scented past as northern
Europe’s main lemon producer, something that was
enabled by the unique climate (lemon trees are rare at
this latitude). And any local B&B worth its salt will
have somewhere in their brochure details about D.H.
Lawrence and his then lover, and later wife, Frieda
Von Richthofen, who chose Gargnano as a place to live

for several months (a plaque marks the house where
f all the Italian lakes, it’s Garda – with they stayed). Arriving at the start of the 20th century,
its enviably temperate climate – that Lawrence wrote about the area’s “exquisite scent of
really pulls in the punters. At the lemon flowers”, at a time when some 400 lemonaries
northern end (‘Alto Garda’), the blue (limonaie) still produced fruit on Garda’s steep hillsides.
waters spear into rugged Trentino and In Gargnano today, there’s only one working
the pine-scented foothills of the Dolomites. Travelling example that remains, Limonaia Malora. The renovated
south, the lake widens out to 18 kilometres and the 16th-century structure, clambering up a series of stone
cafés and restaurants dotted amid the promenades and terraces, is a living museum run by Fabio Gandossi
marinas have a distinctly Mediterranean style. and his family. Led by my tour guide, Maria Pasotti,
A miniature Med on their doorsteps is hardly going of enogastronomic tour company Good Food, Good
to be ignored by the shivering masses of northern Mood, I enter through a cloud of lilac bougainvillea,
Europe. Interest in Garda has also been stoked by last marvelling at the deep green leaves of the century-
year’s Oscar-winning film Call Me by Your Name, which
used the famous Grottoes of Catullus as a location.
But Garda, with its busy ferries and 150 kilometres of
shoreline, does make it easy to flee the summertime
crowds and find an entirely new (both literally and
figuratively) side to the lake. It’s something I discovered
on a short visit to the side of the lake that falls within
Brescia, a part that felt breezy and untroubled by the
deluge of tourism that has the Venetians and Ligurians,
in particular, pushing back. And it was centred around
two beautiful destinations with intriguing histories.

If you’re seeking a refuge from the crowds, then come
to Gargnano. I arrived by tour boat, having just bobbed
near the palatial Venetian-style villa on Isola del Garda –
the only inhabited island of the lake’s five – wondering
how Lady Charlotte Cavazza, who apparently lives
Images by Chris Allsop

permanently on this manicured islet with her seven

children and their families, has managed to do
so without burning the entire place to the ground.
(If you fancy a closer look yourself, guided tours of
the island are available.)

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Via Rimembranza, 20 – Gargnano
% + 39 0365 71022
This sophisticated four-star offers excellent
waterfront value. Owned by the Bombardelli
Garda, with its busy ferries and 150 family, Villa Giulia’s offer modern style and

kilometres of shoreline, does make it romantic rustic vibe. There’s an indoor pool
and spa, and lovely gardens arrayed with
easy to flee the summertime crowds and climbing roses. The epic lakeside terrace –
served by a Michelin-starred restaurant – is
find an entirely new side to the lake torchlit at night.
Via XXIV Maggio, 5 – Gargnano
% +39 0365 71251
Sited close to the town’s main square –
and a popular spot for a romantic night
out – Michelin-starred La Tortuga has
a seasonal menu paired with a legendary
wine list. Expect dishes such as ‘seared
scallops served with a cream of borlotti
beans and rosemary oil’ and be sure to
book to beat those hungry lovers to a table.
Via Pietro da Salò, 11 – Salò
% +39 0365 520410
A dusky blue building fronting onto a
marina, Hotel Bellerive is a comfortable
four-star with an arty streak. The 100km
Restaurant is the jewel in its hospitality
crown, drawing on the natural resources of
the local area – and the hotel’s herb garden
– to put together vivid combos such as the
crème brûlée with lemongrass. The staff are
sparky and friendly, while the palm-shaded
pool area has a nice aperitif vibe.
Clockwise from top Via di Mezzo, 10 – Salò
left: Lake Garda is
% +39 0365 290966
justly famed for its
lemons; the view
A sophisticated yet homey osteria tucked
from the limonaia
northwards up away in a cellar between the high street
the lake; Fabio’s and the promenade, Osteria Di Mezzo
fabulous limoncello serves a procession of precise, flavourful
verde; the original dishes, but it’s their interpretation of
frames of the tiramisù that’ll blow your mind. A bowl-like
limonaia; Lady chocolate filter drips hot coffee onto the
Charlotte Cavazza’s dessert sponge before melting inwards.
villa on Isola del

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old trees reaching to the roof of the wooden framework. Clockwise from
Capers scramble over the terraces like ivy. During the top left: Bignotti’s
short tour, Fabio shows us the ancient stone channels truffled cheese in
the ageing cellar;
previously used for irrigation (he prudently employs the shop front of the
a sprinkler system today); an original storage house deli; the charming
(particularly rare as most have been converted into streets of Salò; Salò
homes); and the innumerable numbered boards with from the water;
glass panes that he places, over a laborious two-week architectural detail
period, onto the limonaia frame to create a protective in Salò; tastings at
the Bignotti deli; the
greenhouse for the trees between November and March.
shape of the lake
The tour is available to allcomers, but as I’m with pressed into the rind
Maria I have an added extra: an incredible lunch high in of a Bignotti cheese;
the limonaia with immense views across Garda. A bowl tourist menu in Salò
of pappa al pomodoro with rich stracciatella is followed by
a slice of sbrisolona. On the lake, a swirl of sails marks
a regatta. Fabio cracks out his home-made limoncello. A
glass or two later I’m buying a bottle, but later regret
not picking up his unusual Verde as well – a sharp
version using only the green skin of young lemons that
could have been a champion cocktail mixer.
Speaking of mixers, I also pick up a jar of his lemon
jam. An earlier stop on Maria’s foodie tour saw us dive

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into the bounty of Gargnano’s Bignotti deli, with a
tasting of a handful of the twenty or so cheeses the deli
somehow produces in its cramped back cellar. During
aging the cheeses soak up the flavours of the lakeside
environs which, when paired with a dollop of jam made
from zesty Garda lemons, is a true taste of Gargnano
(especially good with the local ricotta).

To the south of Gargnano is Salò. A large lakeside town
of pastels and earthenware warmth, Salò is situated on
a gulf that shares its name. The pace of life is slow, the
marble walkways generous. Locals chat in the shade of
the horse-chestnuts lining the long central square, while
tourists browse the air-conditioned boutiques lining via
Mattia Butturini, searching for antiques or bikinis. The
sun is high, and I’ve left my hat in the hotel room, so
I’m wandering between the shadows of buildings and
cool colonnaded corridors.
I divert down to the rose marble promenade – the
longest on the lake – and encounter a statue of Gasparo air-conditioned museum, check out the impressive
da Salò, the inventor of the violin. Magnolias and palms MUSA (via Brunati, 9) which has a permanent
line the waterfront. Here, small boat traffic is busy, and exhibition on the Republic of Salò with English
the orange of children’s life-jackets in the midday sun descriptions. But if you decide to walk the streets,
is as bright as flares. Other families lounge in the cafés procure a map (in Italian, but clear) at the tourist
beating the stultifying heat with heaped sundaes. information centre showing the location of the 17-odd
It’s almost a shame, then, to dwell on a darker aspect buildings. Be sure to plot in a restorative Aperol spritz
of this gorgeous, family-friendly holiday spot. But, like at Bar Italia, previously Mussolini’s Casa del Fascio, and
the knowledge that this area lies on a seismic zone (the gelati (especially La Casa del Dolce by the cathedral)
last significant quake was in 2004), you would barely for fuel, smug in the knowledge that the queues for ice
believe that this water sports idyll also used to be the cream are definitely shorter on this side of the lake.
HQ of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic (also referred
to as the Republic of Salò) between 1943 and 1945.
The town doesn’t try to hide the fact, instead GETTING THERE
labelling the various buildings with multi-lingual ➤ EasyJet and British Airways fly direct from London Gatwick to
plaques that take you on a tour of some of its impressive the airport of Verona Villafranca, although the transfer time by
buildings, generally gathered near the waterfront or the car from Milan Bergamo can also be roughly the same – about an
hour. There are regular bus and train transfers to the lake.
main areas of town. If you’d rather duck into an

A town of pastels and earthenware

warmth, Salò is situated on a
gulf that shares its name

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