Italian Lakes – Lake Garda

INEFFABLE as to its blue colouring, which is more profound than the darkest sapphire and yet tinged with a recollection of the forget-me-not, stretching in a solid expanse seemingly without shallows or weak spots, broad and majestic, serious and earnest,—this is Lake Garda as it returns to the memory after many days! It is no mere pond of great size to catch the alpine rainfall, but an inland sea with a coast-line, with sea-gulls, with islands, and with real sailing-vessels. Its very storms are of the sea, rough and boisterous, and its length of wave calls for seamanship. It is indeed a far cry from quiet Lake Orta, reposing in its pretty cup of vernal green on the western extremity of the Italian lakes, to this grand body of water on the eastern end, raising open questions and dealing in large ideas, set off by long-drawn mountain ranges and remote back-grounds.

In travelling from west to east, from the mountains to the sea, Lake Garda acts as a preparation for the Adriatic. Whatever theory or theories may be held to account for the origin of the other Italian lakes, Lake Garda itself gives many topographical tokens of being a remnant sea, separated from the parent branches east and west. Its affinities lie with Genoa and Venice rather than with the lesser alpine lakes. It has moments that recall even the Bay of Naples, or the Gulf of Levantine Smyrna.

At the southern end, by Desenzano, the shores of Lake Garda are flat, and there the lake gives the appearance of advancing into the Italian plain, but its upper end, at Riva, is enclosed in great masses of frowning and rugged heights. Therefore, looking the length of the lake from the shore-front of the northern end, toward Desenzano, the water is seen to reach to the very horizon line and seems even to dip a little over the edge. From there one involuntarily exclaims, the sea, the sea 1 It is as though one were scanning a limitless, trackless expanse of colour, as rich and vivid as the waters of the West Indian Ocean.

Indeed, Lake Garda is the most imposing of the Italian lakes. When, after passing in review the special virtues of wide Maggiore, of sinuous and smiling Como, of Lugano with its emerald recesses, and of the others, we reach Lake Garda, the impression is that we have found the father of them all. Measurements show Lake Maggiore to be a little longer than Lake Garda, thirty-seven miles as against thirty-four and one-half miles, but Lake Maggiore’s full extent cannot be as readily measured with the eye as can Lake Garda’s, and the impression of superior size remains with the latter. Lake Garda expands to a breadth of eleven miles, and its bottom reaches a maximum depth of 281 feet below the level of the sea. These two big Italian lakes have this in common, however, that their upper reaches are both in the hands of strangers. As on Maggiore the Swiss hold Locarno, so on Garda the Austrians rule over Riva. Hence both lakes also have imposing Italian flotillas, manned by the customs department and designed to cope with smuggling over the artificial border.

As contrasted with the lakes north of the Alps, Lake Garda has a smaller surface area than the lakes of Geneva and Constance. It is fed principally by the Sarca River, which enters at the northern end between Riva and Torbole, where it is an Austrian stream, and issues at Peschiera with the name of the Mincio and under Italian rule. The time of low water is in winter, before the melting of the snow, as is the case with most of the alpine and subalpine lakes. Fish of excel-lent quality are found in Lake Garda, and are sold in considerable quantities outside of Italy, in Austria and even in France. Trout and salmon are still caught in its waters, principally at the entrance of the Sarca River. The right to fish is said to be free and unrestricted during the regular fishing season. At one time the lake was actually united at Peschiera with the Adige and the Po by canals, and thus placed in communication with the Adriatic, but this connection was severed by the Venetians in order to cut off the trade of Mantua, and has never been restored. The lake is mentioned by Pliny the Elder, as well as by Strabo and Ptolemy. The Roman name was Benacus.

Lake Garda has all along shared with Lake Como in the attentions of the poets. Virgil was born not far from its shores, at a little place called Andes, which has been identified as the modern village of Pietole near Mantua. He seems to have set the fashion for other poets by giving Lake Garda a line or two, though expressing his preference for Lake Como at the same time. In his Georgics, Book II., in a passage wherein he is singing the praises of Italy and enumerating its charms, the following lines occur, as translated by the poet Dryden :

” Our spacious lakes ; thee, Larius, first ; and next Benacus, with tempest’ous billows vexed.”

Catullus wrote of the headland of Sermione. Claudian, too, the so-called ” last of the Roman poets,” sang of Lake Garda as well as of Lake Como.

Then came the mighty Dante, who opened his description of Lake Garda with a line which after many intervening years still sings musically sweet:

This descriptive passage appears as follows in the English prose translation of Rev. H. F. Tozier, M. A.: ” On earth in fair Italy, at the foot of the Alpine chain which is the boundary of Germany above Tirol, there lies a lake by name Benaco. By a thousand fountains and more, I ween, between Garda and Val Camonica the Pennine Alps are moistened with the water which stagnates in the above-named lake. Midway in that region there is a spot where the shepherd of Trent, and he of Brescia, and he of Verona might each give his blessing, if he were passing by that way. Peschiera, that fortress fair and strong to defy the men of Brescia and Bergamo, lies where the surrounding shore sinks to its lowest level. There must all the water descend which Benaco cannot contain within its bosom, and forming a river, it flows down through green pastures. So soon as it starts on its course, it is no longer called Benaco but Mencio, as far as Governo, where it falls into the Po.”

Dante’s reference to the Pennine Alps as situated near Lake Garda was due doubtless to the uncertain alpine nomenclature of his day. The Pennine Alps are much farther west and are crossed by the great St. Bernard Pass. The use of the word ” stagnates ” in connection with the water of Lake Garda strikes one as most inappropriate. The meeting-point of the three shepherds was probably Campione on the western side of the lake.

Moreover, as though the names of Virgil, Claudian, and Dante were not enough, Lake Garda, coming down to modern times, must needs engage the attention of Goethe also, — but of him more anon.

The usual approaches to Lake Garda are at Desenzano and Riva. Desenzano is a station on the main line from Milan to Verona, and Riva is reached by a narrow-gauge road branching off from the station of Mori on the great Brenner route. It is possible to reach the lake at Peschiera, another station on the main line from Milan to Verona, or at Salo by steam-tram from Brescia.

The special advantage of crossing from Mori to Riva is that one obtains on the way one of those sudden views of extraordinary brilliancy which remain closely enshrined in memory and are cherished in after years. The train mounts from Mori in the wide valley of the Adige to the desolate green lake of Loppio, and thence, after further climbing, reaches without warning of any kind a position at Nago far above Lake Garda. There is a point and a moment when the vast lake bursts into view upon the unprepared sight. It lies stretched out to its full extent below, mile upon mile of powerful indigo and tender sky-blue mixed in equal quantities, producing sparkling marine values that recall the Mediterranean. The houses of Torbole lie at our feet, and off there the great rock and castle of Arco. The eye ranges from the lake to the stupendous rock formation of Southern Tyrol, to that debatable land of romance, where Latin and Teuton have touched elbows for many centuries, overlapping now and again, swaying this way and that according to the power and push of nationality and language in each age.

But let us suppose that the exigencies of our travel itinerary demand a southern approach to Lake Garda. Then some bright morning the bell in the bow of the steamboat will call us to the quay and pier of Desenzano. An expectant air moves over the great lake, inviting contemplation of good things to come, and making amends for the unkempt and shiftless water-front of Desenzano. It is hard to compliment Desenzano upon anything but its inspiring view. Apparently little attempt has been made to beautify its low-lying banks. There is, how-ever, what may be described as a sandy beach, which is in truth a rarity upon the Italian lakes. At Desenzano one seems to be in an out-of-the-way fishing village on the coast of Calabria. The men playing bowls near the landing-place shout at the slightest provocation. Day and night there seems to be so much to talk about in Desenzano, and so little to say, that the eyes turn instinctively to the little dike and lighthouse which mark the lake outlet, in order to search the distant mountains for peace. And this is not saying that Desenzano is not an admirable starting-point for the lake trip.

As the steamboat moves off, a heavy haze confirms our impression of the lake’s resemblance to the sea. The humidity gives a special shimmer to the air. The slopes of the western shore gleam as with a fall of fresh spring snow in an atmosphere shot through and through with the rays of the southern sun. Presently the marine effect is further heightened by the sight of sailboats with two masts and sails to match, brown and yellow by turns, as of Venice, and looking as though they had come overland from the great lagoon city. Indeed the sailboats of Lake Garda are no mere rowboat make-shifts as on Maggiore or Como, essaying a temporary hoist of sail in a fair wind, — they are actual two-masted vessels. Their tinted sails and archaic models carry one back in thought to old pictures of mediæval naval expeditions. The fishing-boats, too, are quaint craft not unlike our own sharp-pointed canoes.

Catullus and the Peninsula of Sermione

The remarkable peninsula of Sermione gives out bravely into the lake not far from Desenzano, and our first stop is at a fishing village of the same name, provided with drawbridge and mediæval gate. An ancient castle of the Scaligeri catches our attention, with its battlements and square crenelated towers. There is a castle quadrangle and a special port for the castle. The tip of the headland of Sermione is covered with olive-trees, casting grateful shade upon the grass beneath, and inviting a summer residence.

Indeed the Roman poet Catullus, a native of near-by Verona, addressed some charming lines to the headland of Sermione upon his return from Bithynia in Asia Minor. Thomas Moore has translated these lines for us, and they are to be found in his ” Poems” under a heading, “Translation from Catullus.” A few of these lines are presented here:

Sweet Sirmio! thou, the very eye Of all peninsulas and isles That in our lakes of silver lie, Or sleep, enwreathed by Neptune’s smiles, —

Shine out, my beautiful, my own Sweet Sirmio ! greet thy master back.

And thou, fair lake, whose water quaffs The light of heaven like Lydia’s sea, Rejoice, rejoice, — let all that laughs Abroad, at home, laugh out for me.”

Catullus spent some time on Sermione. The ruins of what are described as his villa, his bath, and grotto are shown to travellers, but their connection with Catullus himself cannot be said to have been established, although the ruins are doubtless of Roman origin. There are subterranean passages, substructions, some brick flooring, and massive arched masonry. Catullus’s thought must have turned at times to the contrasts before him as he looked up the lake. Here the open water, there the narrows made by the profiles of the mountains drawing nearer; here the olive and the lemon and the noon-day ease, there the mountain forests and pastures and the alpine struggle for existence.

The steamboat rounds a rocky headland rising abruptly from the water’s edge, the Rocca di Manerba. Some children can be seen on top herding their goats. For an instant one might be travelling in some Norwegian fjord, but the next moment the eye rests upon an island of the summer seas, such as the Italian lakes alone can produce. It is the Isola di Garda or Isola Lecchi, with a château of the ducal family De Ferrari. In its general appearance this island recalls Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore, though much simpler and less genial. A garden has been constructed upon vaulted terraces, and there are reported to be underground grottoes as well. There is, however, no pretence made of such elaborate terracing and gardening as on the more famous island, and Isola di Garda looks as though a portion of it at least was allowed to grow wild.


The steamboat now approaches a town of considerable size and high colouring. Salo literally runs riot in colour. As the steamboat passes the waterfront to reach the landing-stage, the tourist, accustomed to the soberer north, believes himself to be looking into one of those kaleidoscopic toys which give one a mixture of all the colours under the sun in return for a pull of the string. There are many gay water-fronts on the Italian lakes, but that of Salo, I veritably believe, is the gaudiest of them all. The local colour has run the gamut of possibilities and is put on thick besides. Here is a house painted to look like wallpaper in patterns; there is one decorated with a landscape painting. There are pink houses, pale green, yellow, and salmon coloured houses, some bespangled with wide awnings, others fringed with the family washing in many colours, and set off by flowered terraces and green arbours. In the little harbour yellow and brown sails are flapping in the breeze.

As though this spectacle were not enough when seen singly, Salo must needs duplicate the whole of itself in water so profoundly blue as to suggest the bluing which women put into their wash-tubs.

No wonder that in a place of such multi-coloured fancifulness an inn should be frankly dedicated ” To Lost Time ” (” Al Tempo Perduto “) .

At Salo we get our first glimpse of that lemon culture which is peculiar to Lake Garda. And since these lemon plantations occur at most villages along the western shore of the lake and at many on the eastern shore as well, a description of the method of culture may here be of interest. The lemons of Lake Garda are said to be of superior quality and to command a higher price than other kinds. On account of the nearness of the Alps some protection must be given the trees during the winter months. For this purpose the gardens are first of all enclosed on the north, east, and west by walls of considerable height, leaving only the southern exposure open. Within these walls terraces are constructed, and upon them are planted the lemon-trees. At regular intervals tall stone pillars rise from among the trees, and these during the winter are covered over with wooden cross-beams and boards, so as to extemporize roofs for the lemon-trees beneath. These gardens are often built directly against the steep mountainsides, thus obviating the necessity of a wall at the back. In the middle of the day the roofs are frequently raised to admit the winter sunshine.

The name of Salo is said to be derived from some layers of salt which were mined there in the early days of the Venetian Republic. It is today a busy town, having an interest in the silk industry, and it is connected with Brescia, the great silk-cocoon market, by a steam-tram.

As elsewhere, the washerwomen of Salo are much in evidence. The sun being hot at the time of the steamboat’s visit, some of them have constructed little tent-like protections for their heads, and as the waves of the steamboat approach, they scatter and jump back from the water with much laugh-ter. In the meantime, out in the open lake, some big barges lie becalmed, their tan-coloured sails set wing and wing.

Writing to her daughter, the Countess of Bute, on Oct. 17, 1749, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu informs her: ” I have been persuaded to go to a palace near Salo, situate on the vast lake of Gardia [sic], and do not repent my pains since my arrival, though I have passed a very bad road to it. It is indeed, take it all together, the first place I ever saw; the King of France has nothing so fine, nor can have in his situation.” Lady Montagu describes the palace and grounds at some length. ” It is seated,” she writes, ” in that part of the lake which forms an amphi-theatre at the foot of a mountain near three miles high [sic] covered with a wood of orange, lemon, citron, and pomegranate trees, which is all cut into walks and divided into terraces, that you may go into a several gar-den from every floor in the house, diversified with fountains, cascades, and statues, and joined by easy marble staircases which lead from one to another. There are many covered walks, where you are secure from the sun in the hottest part of the day, by the shade of the orange-trees, which are so loaded with fruit, you can hardly have any notion of their beauty without seeing them : they are as large as lime-trees in England.” She informs us that the palace was directly upon the water, and ” was built by the great Cosmo, Duke of Florence,” and speaks of Lady Orford as able to give her daughter ” some knowledge of it, having passed the last six months ” in Salo. Writing to her daughter Oct. 25, 1749, she states: ” Three from hence is the little town of Maderna [Maderno], where the last Duke of Mantua built a retreat worthy a sovereign.”

Great changes have taken place hereabouts since the residence of the sprightly letter-writer upon the shores of Lake Garda in the eighteenth century. It might be a matter of some difficulty now to identify the ” pal-ace ” of the Duke of Florence or Tuscany and the ” retreat ” of the Duke of Mantua, for the devastating days of the French Revolution succeeded Lady Montagu’s visit, and a destroying whirlwind passed that way.

The Riviera (Gardone — Gargnano)

At Gardone, though the assortment of colours may not be as lavish and profuse as at Salo, yet the lemon culture is still more pronounced and picturesque. It forms a novel picture which can hardly be likened to any other method of plant or tree cultivation. Tier on tier the white pillars of the lemon plantations rise upon the hillsides at the back, with olive-trees and peach-trees interspersed among them. Some beautiful villas give the place distinction and special attractiveness. Indeed the stretch of shore from Gardone past Fasano and Maderno to Gargnano is specially designated as the Riviera on account of its sheltered sunny aspect and luxuriant fertility. Here are numerous hotels and pensions for those who choose to frequent these places as autumn and winter resorts. The Germans have greatly helped to make this region comfortable and suitable for a longer sojourn. Many cypresses stand guard over this favoured lakeside, like silent sentinels watching over it from rock and water-front; the gardens, too, are rich in myrtle, camellias, magnolias, and palms. There are many shorter and longer walks with excursions in the back country, while the steam-tram on the lake-front brings this Garda Riviera into touch with Brescia and thus with the great world outside.

The name of Maderno would seem to be a corruption of the Latin Maternum, and in truth the shores of Lake Garda furnish many proofs of Roman settlement, judging by the number of inscriptions which have been found at various points. Wealthy Roman families seem to have had their villas especially on this west side. The steamboat passes Toscolano, Cecina, and Bogliaco, and stops at the large village of Gargnano, no-table both for its terraces of lemon plantations and also for the good fishing which brings its inhabitants a tidy sum annually. The mountains at the back contain much marble, and in general their rock formations are of interest to geologists.

The Cliffs of Tremosine

After Gargnano a marked change makes itself felt in the lake scenery. The Riviera stops. There is a drawing together and a stretching up of the mountains. The water deepens in colour at the same time as the heights grow loftier, and the transition from the lowlands at Desenzano to the rugged heights at Riva has begun in good earnest. The steamboat rounds a vast cliff, standing in the water like the side-post of some titanic gate, and the feeling of the Alps is once more upon us. This impression is heightened by the sight of a hawk sailing at ease along the precipices. The lake takes on a prodigious aspect, the shores assume a fierce and ominous nature. We stop at the foot of steep cliffs to take on some passengers who have climbed down from strange villages, perched out of sight upon the highlands at the back. We come to Campione, and then stop again at a house or two which serve as a landing-place for the village of Tremosine, lying far above the lake. A wire stretched from the top of the cliffs to the shore is used to slide down packages and bundles. The passengers who disembark for Tremosine are seen climbing up to the village by a wonderful stair-case path, hardly discernible along the mountain wall. Over against Tremosine, on the eastern shore of the lake, the castle tower of Malcesine shows distinctly. Goethe once tried to sketch it, — but thereby hangs a tale, which shall be told in its proper place.

Thus coasting and skirting the great rocky plateau, streaked in barbaric reds and yellows, we reach Limone situated in a little bay. The prominent lemon plantations of the place would seem to have given it the name Limone, but we are assured on the contrary that the place has given the fruit its name, Limone being the first place in Europe where lemons were grown. Goethe saw the plantations in 1786 and described them accurately, as set forth in the chapter entitled ” Goethe on Lake Garda.” It was at Limone that the French transferred Andreas Hofer to a boat on his way from Bozen to his execution in Mantua.

Lying ensconced in the shadow of the great cliffs, like predatory sharks at sea, or pike in a country pond, the sharp-nosed vessels of the Italian customs navy watch for smugglers. A veritable flotilla lies at anchor in the harbour of Limone, for the Austrian frontier is but a short distance up, the exact spot being marked by a column on the shore. At night these scouts keep their search-lights playing upon the mountain flanks to right and left as though in war-time. Some long buildings at Ustecchio and a fort farther on enhance the warlike appearance of this coast. Presently the imaginary line constituting the frontier is crossed. The entrance to the Ledro Valley, with the handsome Ponale waterfall, is passed. A rock-cut road of tunnels and galleries appears high up along the abrupt cliff crowned by wild towers, and there at the end of the lake, comfortably sheltered in a pleasant corner, lies a substantial little town, unsurpassed upon the Italian lakes for grace and charm, for quiet neatness and homelike beauty, — Riva, situated politically in the Crownland Tyrol, and actually representing Austria’s only remaining urban foothold upon an Italian lake.