Lake Garda, in northern Italy, is known for its crystal clear water. At the south end, the town of Sirmione is dominated by the Rocca Scaligera, a fortress with harbor views. Lake Garda, Italian Lago di Garda, also called Benaco, the largest (area 143 square miles [370 square km]) of the Italian lakes, bordering Lombardy (southwest and west), Veneto (east and southeast), and Trentino-Alto Adige (north). It is surpassed in area in the Alpine region only by Lakes Geneva and Constance. Lying at an elevation of 213 feet (65 m), the lake is 34 miles (54 km) long and 2–11 miles (3–18 km) wide, with a shoreline of 77.5 miles (125 km) and a maximum depth of 1,135 feet (346 m). Separated from the Adige River valley by the narrow ridge of Mount Baldo, the lake is fed by the Sarca River at its northern end, while the Mincio flows out toward the Po River at the southern end. Narrow at the northern end, between towering cliffs, the lake widens gradually southward into a nearly circular basin, with rich vegetation on the southern and western shores. The predominant winds (which may swell into violent storms) are the sover from the north in the morning and the ora from the south in the afternoon.
The lake was called Lacus Benacus by the classical writers Virgil, Horace, and Catullus; its name was changed when the city of Garda, elevated to a county in the early 9th century by the emperor Charlemagne, acquired dominion over the lake. The northern end belonged to Austria until 1919. The lake is encircled by the magnificent Gardesana scenic route (89 miles), opened in 1931. Well sheltered by the Alps to the north, Lake Garda has a temperate Mediterranean climate, which makes it a popular resort area. Citrus fruits, olives, vines, laurels, oleanders, cypresses, and palms are grown on the southern and western shores, and there is fishing for eels, carp, and trout. Small steamers ply between the principal lakeside towns of Riva, Gargnano, Desenzano del Garda, and Peschiera del Garda.
Lake Garda, with its mild climate and perfect water temperature, seems but a patch of sea set between the Alps and northern Italy’s Pianura Padana (i.e. the Po River Plain). Garda – which touches the three Italian Regions of Lombardy, Trentino Alto Adige and Veneto – is even surrounded by palms oleander, olive trees and vines, in addition to the picturesque villages, beaches and little ports, parks and nature reserves it is known for.
Lake Garda is ideal for a tailor-made vacation, whether for nature lovers, athletes, or history and culture buffs.
Architecture, history and art aficionados cannot help but appreciate the numerous borghi, castles, monasteries, monuments and museums lining the lake’s shores.
History lovers especially can marvel at the evidence of prehistoric settlements in the Valtenesi and on Monte Baldo, or the remains of Roman villas in Desenzano and Toscolano.
Equally-charming are the Medieval castles and Scaliger fortresses, from which the Benaco and Sirmione Towers rise up to dominate the scene.
Sacred art comes to full fruition in the Romanesque Abbey Churches of Maderno, Sirmione and Bardolino, and in the neoclassical Parocchial Churches of Bardolino and Cassone. Then, the Sanctuaries of the Madonna del Frassino, Madonna di Montecastello and Madonna della Corona make for important pilgrimage destinations.
Among the countless palazzi boasting gorgeous gardens with a view, the majestic Vittoriale, former residence of writer Gabriele d’Annunzio, can be found in Gardone Riviera, a gem of a town whose architecture was developed in the Art Nouveau. The André Heller Botanical Garden is also here, with its more than 2,000 plant varieties.
Finally, take this occasion to see Sirmione, thermal spa locale comprising a very characteristic historic center, the Grotte di Catullo archaeological site, and the 13th-Century Scaliger Castle.