When hitherto fiercely independent travellers decide to embark on a first ever escorted holiday one must ask if this is a ‘senior’ moment or a mature decision? Based on the success of the holiday – definitely the latter – seven glorious days in Northern Italy without having to drive, devoid of arguments over map – reading failures, or taking the wrong exit at spaghetti junctions.
In charge of the bus was Mario, a careful driver with a sense of humour who was fast learning to appreciate the Irish sense of humour. Small wonder, as he escorts Irish people all year around and that very week had driven for his 50th Irish wedding of the year!! No way was this a ‘today it’s Tuesday so it must be Venice’ coach tour. You stay in one place and may opt in or out of the organised excursions.
Riva Del Garda, the delightful town where we were based, is tucked under the high mountains of the Alps and the Dolomites on the northernmost shore of Lake Garda. We stayed in Hotel Liberty, an elegant 19th Century building with airy high-ceilinged rooms, spacious public rooms, outdoor terraces for lounge and restaurant overlooking an outdoor pool in a pleasant garden. Mind you, in late autumn most of us opted for the indoor pool in the hotel’s elegant spa and leisure centre. The powerful massage jets were great for un-knotting muscles tired after a hard day’s sightseeing.
And sightsee we did – day trips to Venice and Verona, a memorable trip round hair-pin bends into the towering Dolomites (with stops in tiny medieval hamlets) and a tour around the shore of Lake Garda where the scenery is stunning. We had stops in the town of Garda (itself a disappointment – tourist shops and little else). What it would be like in summer beggars belief. But Sirmione, on the other hand, set on a peninsula at the southern end of the lake where we stopped for around 3 hours turned out to be the whole point of the excursion. It’s packed full interesting things to explore including the formidable Scaligero Castle and town walls, several churches featuring many beautiful frescoes, and the 19th Century hot springs with a chemical composition that is reputed to be a cure for deafness!
But it was the two-thousand year-old Roman villa (known as the ‘Grottoes’) that caught my imagination. Even my husband, a man wont to groan at the thought of examining what he calls ‘another pile of old stones’, was captivated by the extent of the villa. At 20,345 square metres it’s the largest in Italy. Walk through the ruins and the Roman way of life comes alive.
All the excursions were greatly enhanced by Renate Teilman, our expert guide. Patient and amusing, she was truly a guide, mentor, translator and educator rolled into one ball of energy – an asset on a trip where some journeys were quite long. Time flew as Renate delivered lightly and fluently delivered crash courses in the history, geography, politics, humour, agriculture, food and drink of the landscapes we were passing through. Once we’d arrived at our destination she’d bring us on a short walking tour to help orientate ourselves, escort us around to a few sights, suggest others we might like to see, point out good places to eat (and to shop) and then we’d have about 3 – 4 hours on the loose to spend as we pleased.
In Venice we had just about enough time to visit main sites, explore the delightful back canals, the city’s fruit and vegetable market, a few churches and be stunned by the square of La Fenice (the opera house). In reality you would need about a week in Venice. Verona could do with three days; there are many places to see: the back streets virtually unchanged since the middle ages, churches containing pictures by masters who appear in art history books, museums and art galleries and, of course, the Roman theatre and the arena where operas are staged throughout the summer (these are accessible by bus from Riva).
We rather fell for our home town of Riva. Others on the trip, many on repeat visits to Garda, agreed it’s the best place to stay on the lake. It’s a laid – back, spotlessly clean, genuine working town as well as a well – developed tourist resort. It has real shops, restaurants at every level from fine dining to artisanal geleteria. Looking for somewhere to lunch (dinner was included in our package) we chanced upon the Michelin recommended, Ancora Ristorante and Pizzeria. Crucially, it was full of locals of all ages who devoured authentic local food at very fair prices with excellent cooking and service. We returned several times and enjoyed wild mushrooms from the forest, mixed baby fish from the lake, and local wines.
Long lunches have to be walked off. The Bastione, a medieval Austrian border defence against Venetian incursions is perched 300 metres above the town; it is a tough walk turning back on itself every 100 metres but worth the effort for the view. Even higher is the tiny church built by the men who engineered the town’s hydroelectric water supply which comes from a high altitude lake. A gentler possibility is the Lido a five kilometre traffic-free footpath along the lakeside to the next village of Torbole. The adventurous can hire mountain bikes and explore extensive marked trails in the mountains directly behind the town. The trails can also be walked since many start in villages served by local buses. In season activities include sailing, wind-surfing, or just watching the world go by on the many ferry boats that ply their way between lakeside towns like Malcesine, where you can also take the cable car to the top of Monte Baldo.
Within easy reach of Riva by bus or car there is so much to see and do, far more than you could ever fit in on one visit. I like to leave a place like that – it gives me an excuse to return. The verdict? A most enjoyable holiday, superbly organised and great value for money.