This trip was one of our specialties “Let’s book something week before we fly”. Italian lakes have been on the ol’ shortlist many times, but as they are so accessible (lots and lots of cheap flights with less than 2hr flight time) we always kept saving them for a rainy day when we can’t find a good deal. So week before flying and at the start of the school holidays we cashed in our saved trip. Good news is that it’s so heart achingly beautiful I would go to this area many more times over especially as there is so much to see and do so it’s still actually in the bank!
Day 1 Monza and Bergamo– We flew to Milan Malpensa airport quite late so after getting the car rental sorted we had decided to stay the night near the airport at Grand Hotel Milano and head off east fairly early in the morning. Our original plan for day 1 was to drive to Verona and spend the day there. We set off at 9am and decided to avoid toll roads thinking we’d see some of that wonderful Italian countryside on our way. This didn’t quite work out.. Traffic around Milan was just so bad and sitting on the motorway staring at break lights we decided to abandon Verona, come off the motorway and wing it. Isn’t that they beauty of having wheels under you?! Turns out it was a great plan.
We ended up in a town called Monza – famous for hosting F1 Grand Prix. We headed to a big green space on the sat nav and ended up in Parc di Monza that is actually one of the largest enclosed parks in Europe. Jackpot! We saw some city bikes and hoped to rent them and do a little cycle tour, but it seemed you needed a pass that had to be bought in advance from a location in town. We then opted to have a walk around part of the park instead and headed towards Giardini (garden) part and around.
This was an awesome way to stretch our legs and leave the motorway behind! Really lovely surroundings and would have also been a great way to spend the day especially visiting the house and renting bikes. Our bad luck continued and the house was closed on the day we visited, so at this point it seemed nothing was going our way. 🙂 After a stroll we headed off and made another pit stop for some coffee and ice creams in Bergamo. We parked underneath Piazza della Libertà. Bergamo did not disappoint – lovely old architecture, street musicians and very chilled atmosphere.
Time was ticking on and we hopped in the Panda again towards the lakes again, but this time on toll road. We bombed it straight down in 90 mins and got off at Peschiera del Garda. We then snaked up to our accommodation in a farmhouse near Bardolino. After checking in we went out for evening meal just beyond Bardolino in Cisano. There is a lovely little stretch of restaurants and shops right by the lake and the lake front essentially just carries on from Cisano through Bardolino to Garda town. They also have a really good place to park, something you can’t really say about Bardolino that can be a little more difficult. This parking spot is just off Via Peschiera and to top it off it’s free with plenty spaces including some natural shady spots too. This is a major selling point for us as in the heat of Italian July the car is boiling after a day in the sun matched with a steering wheel that’s too hot to handle! We had a fantastic evening meal overlooking the lake and enjoying some fish and wine in the sunset.
Day 2 Biking around Lake Garda – We actually returned the next day to same spot in Cisano and and rented bikes from the newspaper shop. What a cute and genuine Italian fare this was – it clearly is a sideline business renting bikes, the main business was selling newspapers to locals and the owner seemed to know everyone by name. If you are planning to don lots of lycra and do some heavy duty cycling then this shop is not for you, though there are plenty of those around. The selection here is decidedly grandma style city bikes perfect for easy cycling along the lake. We set off on the water front where there was a small market as it was a Tuesday. Having gotten past the market and buying a top (ahem) it’s then 7 km of easy cycling along the waterfront.
Gosh the views! There is also plenty cafes, restaurants, shops and seats to stop and get something along the way.
We got to Garda town and just carried on past. The waterfront road then becomes pebble road, but still easy enough to manage by bike. We picked a quiet spot, spread our towels and parked our bums on that pebble beach. We had a little swim and the water was fresh and lovely, aaah!
We then cycled back to Garda and looked around the old town and had some late lunch in one of the restaurants. We then cycled back without stopping, which was really lucky as when we reached the car the heavens opened with a great crack of thunder! We drove back to our farmhouse, opened the windows and watched the water fall on the endless neat rows of vines.
Day 3 Sirmione – We took to the car and we drove to Sirmione. Parking is very limited so it’s advisable to park before you get to the actual headland part. There are transfer buses available to take you up to the old town, but it’s also an easy walk in too. Sirmione is just beautiful, but it’s charms were little hampered by the fact that it was really crowded, so I would totally advise to get up and come early to avoid sharing the experience with too many people..
We walked around admiring the old architecture and vibe of the place. There is also a beach, which was not good so can’t say I would recommend. It had a smell of sulfur I guess from all the spas. In plain English it smelled like rotten eggs.. Best part of Sirmione is its’ beautiful scenery being a funny bit of land jutting into the lake and the old architecture.
Unfortunately it felt quite touristy., though I still would say it’s worth it. Fun fact – Theresa May was on holiday in Sirmione exactly at the same time and I was so hoping she would sit next to us at a restaurant for lunch as I would have not been short on conversation with her!
On the way back to Bardolino we noticed a leather outlet sign and decided to check it out. I am very glad we did! Pelleteria Al Futuro had really good prices and quite a big selection of jackets, gloves, shoes, bags, wallets and belts. I ended up falling in love with some fun sandals and thought they were a good price at 34.50€. They are so comfortable and very well made. Mr Harlow also bought a card holder for only 9€! The leather is really good quality and all items made in Italy.
Day 4 Malcese and Limone – For the fourth day we headed off towards north of the lake. We took aim to go to small town called Malcese. We decided to test the little Panda’s climbing skills and took a mountain road. So glad we did! We stopped at the top for some great views! Panda performed well though the road was little hairy in places and especially coming down and I may have sat there with a twisty belly and white knuckles! Malcese is another beautiful and classic Italian town and well worth a visit.
A few gelatos and spot of shopping later we went to the marina area to get a ferry across to Limone across the lake. There are public ferries and private boats that do the same job for the same price. We had juuust missed the public ferry so ended up taking a private boat instead. The boat takes around 30 mins and you get to enjoy the fresh wind on the lake in your hair.
Limone is a small village between rock and
hard place sea. If you want to see another lovely village, then here is one. It’s location makes it a hilly place to walk around. Limone is quite small and compact and can be seen in couple of hours.
We stopped to have some lunch in Pasticceria Piva and had some Italian cold cuts and cheese for lunch washed down with wine and lemon spritzer – hey it’s Limone after all!
After the boat ride it was time to get in the lake. Back in Malcese we headed for the beach near where our car was parked. This time – this time the water was too
cold fresh for me! I guess the northern side of the lakes gets more wind and it seems to be very popular spot for windsurfing. Mr Harlow braved the water, but judging by the high count of goose pumps and his face it wasn’t the most relaxing experience.. Lesson – swim in south.
On the way back via the waterfront route we made one more pit stop at Zeni winery. They have a wine museum where you can see old ways of making wine. Sadly most descriptions are in Italian only and must admit that it didn’t open to me much. Or maybe I was looking forward too much for the tasting part! You get a glass and an help yourself to a dozen or so of the wines they make and also sell on premises.
For dinner we went close by to Ristorante Antica Osteria and the meal there was exquisite! Definitely the best meal we had on whole trip and also worth travelling for too!
Day 5 Ponte Tresa, Lugano and Lake Ghirla – Having endured the traffic around Milan on the way in we were determined to beat it this time. We made the drive on toll road to the Swiss border town Ponte Tresa. As per our car rental agreement we were not allowed to take the car across so we parked near the border bridge and crossed it by walking. Only about 100m from the border you can catch a little Smiler train to beautiful city of Lugano.
The train takes around half an hr and is very regular. The views are pretty good when the train gets closer to Lugano as it snakes on the mountainside and gives you great sweeping views of the sparkling lake Lugano. The train pulls in at main train station where they have a tourist info. Here you can get more info on city and also a free map for the town. We made our way to downtown. You can either walk it down or grab a new and modern funicular.
Once in downtown we walked around admiring the beautiful buildings and then headed towards to lake shores. There is also a really nice park which contains a sandy beach and wide boardwalk surrounding it. The water on lake Lugano was really warm and i cursed for not bringing our swimming costumes with us!
Be aware that your pockets in Switzerland need to be deeper for everything there is dearer. This is also a reason why we chose to have our hotel in the Italian side as we felt it offered a lot better value for money. And boy am I glad we did! We stayed in an incredible Villa by Lake Ghirla about an hour drive from Ponte Tresa.
The owners of La Villa del Lago were the nicest people and our stay there was perfect! Not having had a dip in the lake in Lugano I was itching to hop in Ghirla and we had refreshing swim as the sun was setting completing our tour of the Italian Lakes.
Practicalities and money matters
Parking Parc di Monza – 2€ /hr
Parking Bergamo – Car park Piazza della Liberta 4.40€ for 90mins
Toll Road – From Bergamo to Peschiera de Garda took about 90 mins on average traffic and cost 6.80€
Bike hire – Newsagents on Via Perchiera, 10€/day/bike
Sirmione car parking – Before headland 1€/hr and transfer bus single ticket 1.50€/person
Leather outlet – Pelleteria Al Futuro, Lugana di Sirmione (Brescia), Via Chiodi 12
Malcese car parking in Centro 3 1.20€/hr
From Malcese to Limone by boat– Public ferries/private boats both return ticket 9€/person. Public boat schedule here
Lunch in Limone Sur Garda – Pasticceria Piva, Via Cortili 12, 25010 Limone sul Garda (BS) shared plate 12€.
Winery – Museo del Vino Zeni, Via Costabella 9, 37011 Bardolino. Website here
Dinner– Ristorante Antica Osteria, Via A. Consolini 80, 37010 Albaré di Costermano. Pasta dishes 9€ – 13€ and ¼ caraf wine only 3€
Train to Lugano – Try to sit on the right side of the train as it leaves Ponte Tresa for better views. Single ticket 6.60€/person. Timetables can be found here
Funicular in Lugano – Head to lower ground floor at the train station. Single ticket 1.30€/person
Hotel Lake Ghirla – La Villa del Lago, Via G. Isella 8, Ghirla, 21030 Varese. Website here