Lake Garda is definitely one of my most favourite places in Italy.
It is beautiful, rich in history and the little towns which surround it like the gems of a precious necklace never end to surprise me and to offer a new discovery in terms of Roman heritage, medieval castles or a new flavour of Italian gelato. Honestly, if you are planning to come to Italy and then spend all of your time visiting just the big cities and the usual tourist traps, you don’t know what you have missed by not coming all the way up North to the shores of the bel paese’s biggest lake.
The only issue with lake Garda is that, well, quite a few people know about it and actually make the effort to come all the way up to the verdant Italian North to spend a day or more exploring everything it has to offer. So, you need to carefully time your arrival to avoid the huge crowds jostling for air and car parking spaces.
As such August is out of question, September is good, October is great, November is beautiful, calm and relaxing with still lots of sunlight and sun warmth to make you wonder why you brought a heavy jacket with you. But, the secret is (and now that is out, make sure you make good use of it) to come to lake Garda in December and have one of the best Christmas experiences you can hope for.
December is the month when the crowds of tourists besieging lake Garda are all but gone, when the tourist-orientated restaurants and eateries have closed their shutters until the next season, when the little towns along the lake’s shores have quietened down to the state of a relaxed contemplation and when walking along the wide promenades offers gorgeous inspiring vistas without the need to overcome a veritable sea of bodies first in order to get to see them.
Best of all, December is the month when cute Christmas markets pop up all along the shores of lake Garda, so that you can start upping your Christmas spirit with generous helpings of thick Italian hot chocolate, golden pandoro from Verona, posh nougat from Cologna Veneta and salty Tyrolean pretzels while shopping for handmade presents, visiting the adjacent churches to see their Nativity scenes and having a go at the ice-skating rinks set up right by the lake’s crystal clear waters.
It is a relaxed, happy time. Just my favourite time of the year to pay a visit to lake Garda.
So, a few days ago, we piled in our little red car and headed there leaving behind us an uninspiring (for once!) fog-engulfed Vicenza. In just over an hour we pulled into Garda Town. Curiously enough this is the town which has given the vast lake its name.
Coming from the Germanic word ‘warda’ it means ‘place of guard’ or ‘place of observation’. And, yes, Garda Town, as we found for ourselves, was the perfect spot to look out at lake Garda, take in all of its beauty and admire its picturesque mountainous shores ruggedly jutting out of the water up towards the sky.
It was our first visit to Garda Town. We headed straight to its historical centre and we found it charming. Narrow curving streets lined up by tall stone houses and 14th-century palazzi pointed to the waterfront.
A cute art cafe had arranged its tables and chairs on a tiny square under two smiling frogs in love.
Tiny shops and boutiques made us stop with their artfully arranged displays. And an eco-minded Nativity scene had been laid out in front of one of them.
Just then the rousing rhythm of a marching band made us stop in our tracks and we hurried through the streets trying to get a glimpse of what was going on. Soon we caught up with a small parade seemingly organised by the local branch of the National Alpini Organisation (ANA).
The Alpini is the mountain branch of the Italian army and the oldest active mountain infantry in the world. ANA represents the former members of the Alpini corps. Called the ‘Veci’ (The Old Ones) they are actively involved in local life through various events. They wear a distinctive hat with a black raven feather which I have been admiring from afar for quite some time now.
We followed the parade for a little bit through the maze of streets until a look to the left gave us a glimpse of the blue lake waters. We quickly rerouted and a couple of minutes after that found ourselves at the waterfront admiring the gaggle of boats moored in the marina.
It was the right moment for us to have our wishful thinking chat, traditional for every visit to lake Garda we have taken over the last two years of our Italian life. We looked at the boats, admired their elegant outlines and discussed our favourite fantasy of buying a boat and then spending the hot months ferrying tourists up and down the coast of the lake and the cold months drinking hot chocolate and enjoying the solitude.
A pipe dream through and through, but a very nice one at that!
Looking closely into the water we realised that it was teeming with life. Millions of tiny fish were swimming around and underneath the boats filling the whole marina with the silvery flashes of their tiny scales every time a ray of sun would reach them through the hazy sky.
Nearby a little train, all dressed in Christmas paraphernalia, was offering rides through a festive wonderland to all that felt young at heart. Obviously, we were dragged straight to it by our little one, so I squished myself in the tiny carriage along with the many other parents and off we went. The train rattled and accelerated, leaving me to hang for dear life onto my child and the safety bars. We all screamed and laughed with every jittery movement. My husband, safe on firm ground, joined the thick throngs of other parents who, smartphones and cameras in hand, were busy committing to digital memory our little train trip.
Then we were off to the Christmas market – a steady line of stalls following the picturesque promenade and offering the usual yet always so exciting assortment of local and Tyrolean goods – from cheeses matured for 50 months, through dry cured sausages made of donkey, goat and horse meat (don’t ask!) to jewellery, slippers and pottery.
Among the quiet hubbub of the market, we were delighted to come across something rather unique – a underwater Nativity scene. Right there, submerged in lake Garda, stood Mary and Joseph, the three Wise Kings and a whole assortment of shepherds and their charges. A central spot had been reserved for Gesu Bambino (as Baby Jesus in known in Italian) for the actual day of his birth.
Stuffed to the brim with pretzels, it was time for us to leave Garda Town behind and head to the next stop on our little pre-Christmas day trip. I made a mental note for us to return to this charming town in spring to see it in all of its verdant glory.
A short drive down the road and we ended on the outskirts of Bardolino – another one of the little gems dotted around lake Garda. And here is where our plan hit a snag as we couldn’t find a parking space close enough to the town’s centre. With one of us suffering from a recent nasty bout of bad back, we didn’t dare attempt the long stretch from the parking lot just above the marina along the promenade to the centrally located Christmas market.
Luckily though, last year and in better shape then, we had done that same walk right before Christmas 2015. So, let me show you some pictures taken then so that you can get an idea of Bardolino’s festive atmosphere.
Bardolino is a cute little town with its own gaggle of moored boats gently rocking in the waters of the lake. Houses with faded painted facades line up its narrow curving streets. The wooden chalets of its annual Christmas market stand up along the promenade and an ice-rink with cute penguin sliders helping you to remain on your feet attracts both little ones and grown-ups.
Boats adorned with Christmas trees are positioned on the high street and a centuries-old fresco of a nursing Madonna is protected by an intricate ironwork.
I especially liked visiting Bardolino’s cathedral. Inside its big tall building it was quiet and peaceful. The Nativity scene had already been set up and Gesu Bambino’s empty manger had been placed by the altar waiting for the Christmas Eve’s midnight mass.
The large stained glass windows of the cathedral seemed so full of colour and life.
So, yes, Bardolino is definitely worth of a visit. A great idea is to park your car there and, after sampling the delights its Christmas market has to offer, walk along the shores of lake Garda all the way down to the next nearest town – the elegant Lazise. It is a great pre-Christmas exercise with gorgeous views of the lake which fills you up with that exhilarating feeling that only walking through a beautiful nature landscape can produce in us.
Well, back problems made us skip on this walk this particular time. Instead, we drove quickly down to Lazise and parked our little red car in the shadow of the town’s impressive medieval defensive wall. Well, being Italy and all, it is nice to know that even our little red car can enjoy some splendid historical views during its downtime.
Lazise was the very first town on the shores of Lake Garda we ever visited. Heck, it was our very first day trip after moving to Italy about two and one quarter years ago.
I love Lazise! As soon as you step in through the gate in its medieval wall, you are in for a treat.
Tangerine trees line its wide promenade.
Swans and ducks gracefully swim up to you.
Houses, walls and even pavements are decorated with stone bas-reliefs, pietra dura mosaics and whimsical architectural elements.
The Scaligeri castle tempts you to spend a long time trying to get the best shot of its crenelated towers. That’s it until your significant other decides to give your picture their own inimitable touch just as you are pressing the shutter button down.
A lovely Christmas market starts from the promenade, follows the curve of the marina and then spreads out all over Lazise’s central square.
We had a good look around, noting the truffles from the nearby Monte Baldo, buying a solar powered dancing flower for our little one (which I tried to pretend was naff, but it has actually grown on me) and admiring the colourful pottery being sold. Then we stopped at one of the many wooden chalets to sample some nougat. The hard white bars made of honey, sugar and beaten egg white were stuffed with whole blanched almonds and hazelnuts. Nougat is a traditional Italian Christmas treat and the most famous producer is a little town nearby called Cologna Veneta.
To our delight we discovered another variety of nougat which turned out to be quite sublime. Made in the town of Lonigo in the province of Vicenza, it is soft and very easy to take a bite off, unlike the Cologna Veneta variety which needs brute force to be broken into small pieces to suck on. More importantly though, as we found out, the nougat from Lonigo comes in different flavours. We sampled the orange one at the stall and loved it.
So, we got ourselves a bag with a mixture of lemon-, orange-, vanilla-, dark chocolate- and coffee-flavoured nougat chunks and shared it on a bench looking out at the lake.
The overcast foggy sky had shrouded the lake in a mystic bright white light. Both sky and water seemed to have fused in one.
We shared the nougat and then headed back to the car park ready for the hour-long drive back to Vicenza.
Fingers crossed, next December we will be back yet again for yet another relaxed and inspiring pre-Christmas day trip spent along the shores of lake Garda.
Have you been to lake Garda before? What’s your favourite memory of this beautiful place? Also, let me know where about in Europe or beyond is your favourite Christmas market.
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