Travel: All quiet on the waterfront

Great views, fine wines and unspoilt villages are just part of the charm of Lake Garda.
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The Independent Culture
So you are sure there is a view of the lake from the bedroom window?" "Yes, madam." "And I will be able to see the water?" "Yes, madam, you will." I had already taken the precaution of choosing a hotel called Miramar - roughly translated, the name means Seaview - so I had a pretty good chance of being within sight of the water. But I was booking a hotel room over the phone, and I wanted a room with a view.

I should have realised that if you stay in Sirmione, the little town on the southern end of Lake Garda, it would be almost impossible not to be able to see the lake. There is a single road that leads along a peninsula to the old part of the town, and it is lined on both sides with hotels. So you are faced with a choice: your room can face east, or it can face west. But you cannot avoid the water.

Lake Garda is the largest of the Italian lakes; it is 10 miles wide, and stretches just over 30 miles from north to south. The landscape changes as you head northwards, from the flat agricultural land of the Veneto at the bottom, to the more rugged Dolomites at the top.

Most regions of Italy would probably claim to be in the heart of the wine country. Lake Garda is no exception, and though it would be difficult to convince anyone that any of Italy's finest wines have come out of the area, there are certainly several drinkable wines. The eastern shore of the lake marks the western boundary of the Veneto, which produces Soave, Valpolicella, Bianco di Custoza and Bardolino.

There are various places to try a bit of comparative tasting. I went to the wine museum in Bardolino; it has a pretty dull selection of exhibits, but I cheered up when I got to the tasting area. You can try unlimited amounts of the four different wines produced there, all of which are sold by the bottle or by the case.

Luckily for anyone who over-indulges, this is one area of Europe where you do not benefit from having a car. This summer, BA began scheduled flights into Verona airport; from there, a bus service runs three times an hour into the main station. The quickest and most relaxing way to get to the western shore is to wait for a lake steamer to turn up and take you to the other side.

An all-day cruise starts at Desenzano in the south, calls in at most of the villages on the west side and stops for an hour and a half at the resort town of Riva. From the deck you can see which are the traditional, unspoilt villages, and which are the resorts crammed full of people. For all its peace and quiet, Lake Garda could not be described as remote: both sides are easily accessible to the citizens of Milan and Venice trying to escape from the city heat. But once the weekend crowds go back home, the villages seem deserted, even in August. Moderno, Gargnano, Desenzano - all have a maze of chaotic streets and a tiny harbour.

Sal has a cathedral that is out of all proportion to the size of the village, reflecting its history as the old Venetian regional capital. Of all the places on the lake, Malcesine is the one I liked best. From the edge of the village you can take a cable car that goes up more than 5,000 feet into the Dolomites. At the top there are cafes where you can sit and look at the spectacular view. Or you can do some mountain hiking, before getting back into the cable car in time for an aperitif down by the water.

But the focus of activity is on the water. As the lake steamers plough up and down, sailing boats and windsurfers have to dodge in and out, trying to avoid them. Swans glide around, reminding swimmers that the lake is a long way from the sea.

It is possible to enjoy the lake without being in or on it. It is pleasant to do nothing but sit on a balcony admiring the view. But only if you managed to book a room overlooking the water.

Fact File

Getting there: Cathy Packe travelled on a scheduled British Airways flight from Gatwick to Verona using Air Miles, and rented a car through Avis also using Air Miles. She paid 85,000 lire (pounds 30) per night for a single room with bathroom (and breakfast) at the Hotel Miramar, 20-24 via XXV Aprile, Sirmione (00 39 030 916 239). Lake Garda is also easily accessible on the new low-cost flights from Stansted to Milan on Go (0845 60 54321) for pounds 100 return.

Getting information: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254; brochure request line 0891 600280).