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.