Up on the restaurant terrace at Hotel Paradiso.
Whenever anybody asks me—and this is, unsurprisingly, a frequent occurrence—what my favorite trip was, the odds are high that I’ll say last place I visited. I’m sure my friends were all sick of my misty-eyed ramblings about Lausanne’s vineyards, Myanmar’s unspoiled beaches, Bologna’s old-school trattorias, and Ibiza’s glammed-out, over-the-top everything.
So take what I say next with a grain of salt: this was The. Best. Trip. Ever.
Boats and afternoon mist in Riva del Garda.
Well, maybe not exactly, but it’s way up on the list. One of my favorite things about Munich is that it’s right across the border from Italy. Müncheners are fond of calling it by its Italian moniker, Monaco di Baviera, and reminding people that they’re practically a northern Italian city. While it’s a sentiment that Italians do not seem to share, it’s hard to deny that the two have some cultural overlap and, as one prominent local reminded me, you can hop across the border to grab a pizza for lunch and be home in time for dinner.
Considering the amount of time I spend in Munich, it seems a bit outrageous that I’ve never done just that. Days before I flew to Thailand for a couple months, I said a temporary goodbye to Europe by joining my favorite travel partner-in-crime for a road trip south. Most visitors pick one area of Lake Garda and camp out there, but we took another approach. The whole lake can be circumnavigated by car in a few hours, or, if you prefer, three days. We took the long way around, stopping to pick up peaches at a farmstand, sip thimble-sized espressos the color and consistency of volcanic mud, and drink much too much prosecco on a piazza and watch the world go by for an evening.
Seriously: the best.
It's summer time and Gargnano is abloom.
The North: Riva del Garda, Limone, Gargnano and Gardone Riviera
Sometimes nicknamed “Little Germany,” the northern half of Lake Garda (or “Gardasee,” as the Deutsch say) hosts half the population of Munich in the summer. Hotel and restaurant staff were often more comfortable speaking German than English—or putting up with my admittedly rusty Italian. There’s a reason for all the tourists though and their presence shouldn’t dissuade you from coming: this area is awesomely beautiful. Dramatic limestone cliffs jut from the water’s surface. The narrow, winding road up through rough-hewn tunnels along the side of the lake makes for tricky driving, but offers surreal scenery and passes through jewel-box Italian towns dotted. Riva del Garda is on the busy side, but both Limone and Gargnano were achingly picturesque spots dotted with pastel houses dripping with bougainvillea.
Yes, we drove up this, lunatics that we are.
One of my favorite parts of this leg of the journey was a pitstop at Hotel Paradiso near Limone. Though the hotel itself is on the dinky side, it sports one hell of a view. To reach it, you’ll have to scale a series of switchbacks that definitely ought to be one-way only while daredevil motorcyclists whiz up and down the curves. At the top, the restaurant serves fairly standard fare and decent pizzas on a terrace jutting out into open air above the lake. In the nearby town of Gargnano, I loved checking out Limonaia la Malora, an ancient lemon grove brought back to life by tradition-loving family.
Oh, did I mention the limonaia is gorgeous?
Where to stay: It’s a bit of a splurge, but Hotel BellaRiva near Gardone Riviera is worth it. This 23-room villa was originally built in 1904 to accommodate Europe’s reigning 1-percent. While it still retains much of its old Neoclassical detailing, rooms have all been completely redone with modern amenities and Klimt-inspired artwork. We stayed in the smallest studio (the place was more or less booked out for the entire month, which says something) and still loved it. The hotel is directly on the lakeshore, breakfast on the terrace is lovely, and the staff are terrific. For dinner, splash out on the bistecca alla Fiorentina, a hulking slab of blood-rare beef from a nearby farm served de-boned with flaky sea salt. For internet junkies (or travel journos perpetually shackled to their email), the Wi-Fi is on the sluggish side, but that’s all the more incentive to switch the smartphone off and go drink another Aperol Spritz.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and aperitivi all come with this view.
The South: Sirmione
The castle in Sirmione.
As you head south, the terrain flattens out and the Cliffs of Insanity look gives way to a breezier, Mediterranean vibe. The shallow parts of the water here are teal-tinted and clear enough to see straight to the pebbled bottom. Temperatures are often a degree or two warmer and afternoons lack that hazy quality. Towns are still touristy, but populated more by traveling Italians than northern Europeans. Located at the very tip of a peninsula and surrounded on both sides the lake, Sirmione is as pretty as they come. Parts of the town verge on kitsch—an “authentic, local experience” this ain’t—but it’s all rather lovely just the same. To get away from the crowds, climb the small hill not far from the public lido to the site of an ancient Roman villa. Some of the olive trees lining the grounds are centuries old.
The Beach, Italian-style.
Back in town, there’s a small castle to see, but it isn’t terribly impressive. For high culture and art, head to Rome, Florence, Venice or any of the other dozens of Italian cities packed with history. This neighborhood is all about chilling out and taking in la dolce vita at a languid pace.
This is not Photoshop. This really happened.
Where to stay: Given the narrow, cobblestone streets, it’s understandable that most hotels insist that guests leave their cars in the public parking lot outside the old city walls. There are a few exceptions though, including the well-managed Hotel Eden. This four-star boasts a prime location, with one side situated directly on the water and the other on the city’s most atmospheric piazza, as well as recently renovated rooms. It’s not particularly plush, but the pared-down style is a welcome change from the surrounding tacky beach resorts and the staff were helpful to a fault. Be warned though: the drive in through a pedestrian zone and medieval gates that were definitely not built for automobiles is rather harrowing.
Note: This blog is a small, noncommercial showcase for my thoughts and personal opinions. I visited all hotels as a guest and did not receive sponsorship or compensation of any sort.
In the olive grove.
The gorgeous, green Walchensee as viewed from above.
After quickie trips to Bologna and Amsterdam, I’m back in one of the best places to visit this time of year: Munich. While Berliners are busy cycling between open air raves and outdoor concerts, locals in this part of the country flock to the banks of the Isar River, sipping a Maß in one of the 180-plus Biergarten, or, best of all, heading out to the countryside. For as lovely as the city itself is (I’ve written about it here and here), one of the best things about the Bavarian capital is its proximity to dozens of glacial lakes. Yes, Wannsee and some of the lakes surrounding the Hauptstadt are also lovely, but it’s hard to compete the clear waters framed by distant, pastel-hued mountains in the background. (For more information and travel details about some of my other personal favorite lakes in the region, check out my article for The Guardian here).
As much as I’ve loved water skiing (well, attempting to do so) on Ammersee, strolling along Starnberger See, and foraging by Schliersee, the twin lakes of Kochelsee and Walchensee, roughly an hour’s drive from downtown Munich, might be some of my favorites. Why? The pair have a rustic, easy-going charm in comparison to, say, Tegernsee, as well as far fewer tourists. Natural minerals lend a gorgeous, glassy, green hue to Walchensee, while Kochelsee sports more understated coloring. This spot was so striking that it was said to have inspired the Der Blaue Reiter, an Expressionist movement launched by artists living in the area. Finally, it’s possible to hike up Herzogstand, a mountain in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, and snag a heart-stopping panorama of the two from the top.
Last weekend, I rose early and joined two fellow urbanites to do just that. Though I grew up camping and hiking in national parks across the United States, it’s not something my current location allows me to do as often as I might like—and a sunny Saturday in July was just too good of an opportunity to miss.
Stopping in an alpine meadow for a quick snapshot of Kochelsee.
The easy way and the hard way
The long and winding road.
Full confession: the last time this particular trio scaled this peak, we weaseled out of the hard work. Honestly, with a fast, easy funicular going all the way up, could you really blame us? The Herzogstandbahn offers the view, sans all the huffing and puffing. As much as we enjoyed lolling around at the top last time, it did feel a bit like cheating somehow.
So this time we resolved to skip the shortcuts. By the time we rolled up to one of the trailheads at Kochelsee, street parking was already in short supply—especially on weekends, it pays to get here as early as possible—but there were still a few slots left for €5. An aging gentleman with a thick Bavarian accent warned us that it was a touch steep at points, but that with any luck we should be at the top in two and a half hours.
While the trails may be well-groomed and paved, he wasn’t kidding about the altitude climb. The first half of the trails ascends at an alarming angle, occasionally passing through a clearing to allow for a glimpse of one of the lakes. Wildflowers in a dreamy range of pinks, violets and yellows carpet the clearings. We chattered along at first, then slowly fell into silence. Though hardly a strenuous trek for experienced hikers, after an hour or so of soldiering uphill, I was a sweating, panting mess and acutely aware of all those muscles quietly atrophying as I sit at my laptop most days.
As if to mock our feeble exertions, mountain bikers would rush past us peddling uphill like lunatics, their faces flushed and dripping. Several actually mustered up the strength to grin or mutter a friendly “Grüß Gott!”
A contemplative cow nibbling on the wildflowers that will later flavor Bergkäse (mountain cheese).
Where to refuel
No offense, NYC, but I'll take this sugar-dusted slice over the Big Apple version any day.
After burning that many calories, my first thought is usually how quickly I can get them back. There’s a rather touristy restaurant at the top, which is absolutely worth it for the backdrop, if not for the food. Last weekend, a couple was getting married and the place was packed with locals decked out in their finest dirndls and lederhosen. I’ve mentioned before that dirndls are one of the most flattering female garments I know, and it’s really true. A number of the guests were rocking full tattoo sleeves, crew cuts, multiple piercings, and stylish, contemporary Trachten.
Portions of Schweinebraten, Käsespätzle and Kaiserschmarrn here are large enough to feed a family of four—and shock even an American. If you’re starving after the hike, it’ll do, but you’re better off saving the big meal for one of the better restaurants back in Kochel am See. In particular, I always go out of my way to swing by the Grauer Bär for a giant slab of Käsekuchen. Not to be confused with New York’s dense, ultra-rich confection, German cheesecake is made with quark, a creamy dairy product somewhat similar to yogurt, and sports a lighter, almost fluffy texture. This one is particular decadent and, when served on a lakeside terrace, makes for a sweet finish to the day.
The view from Grauer Bär's lakeside terrace.