As tourist resorts go, Gardone Riviera must be one of the most dignified, characterful and unexpectedly cultured in Italy. It’s not only the epitome of Lake Garda-lounging, it’s also a famous Italian poet’s playground, drawing hundreds of thousands from all over Europe each year.
Here, you get the pick of a great bunch of gelaterias and pizzerias, while luxuriating in the calm, laid-back tranquility that emanates from the shores of the majestic, freshwater lake and the proud Cyprus trees, which tower amid the lush green countryside. The evening buzz is as soothing as a cicada’s love song and your memories will be just as enduring.
It’s not overrun by screaming children or pushy salespeople, nor is it too snoozy: those that do roam the streets are perfectly content with their lakeside lot. Famed for Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, the Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio’s hillside estate, this tops the list of reasons to visit. But that would be missing the point. The Gardone Riviera is not a hit-and-run kind of place. You’ll be back before you can say ‘But wasn’t he Mussolini’s mate?’.
Meander along the shoreline or up the hill through the village and there is not a single modern or unsightly building to complain of, just street upon hidden alleyway of beautiful terracotta roofs and mustard yellow or salmon pink-washed buildings, complete with faded murals. Whether by boat, bike or on foot, Gardone Riviera is the best base for discovering Garda in all its glory.
Where to Stay in Gardone Riviera
For top-of-the-range villas, Villa Eden is dream-worthy. Made up of nine individual villas, designed by international architects including David Chipperfield, Richard Meier and Matteo Thun, this park-like property set high on the wooded cliffs of the southwestern coast of Lake Garda is a work of modern art as much as it is an ideal holiday destination.
Alternatively, book one of The Clubhouse’s nine suites, which each feature a private balcony and a full-length glass frontage from which you can admire glimpses of Garda in peace. Combining the amenities and at-hand service of a hotel stay with the freedom of having your own place to spread out is Villa Eden’s specialty. Whether you choose the main hotel or a villa for your stay, you’ll be granted the much-wished-for balance of attentive care and autonomy at every turn.
Where to Eat in Gardone Riviera
If you want to ramp up the romance, and edge a little closer to Garda and the hub of activity that hugs the lake from dawn ’til dusk, book a table at Ristorante Casinò. It’s indulgent, it’s authentic and it’s also – apologetically so – a little soppy (not literally, don’t worry, you eat at a terrace a few metres from the water. Just close enough to hear the relaxing sound of it lapping inches from your toes). The atmosphere here is second to none.
Dining at La Terazza Segreta at Villa Eden is an experience not to be missed. In Italy they are notoriously generous at feeding time and Peter Oberrauch, the award-winning head chef, takes this almost too far, with a whole loaf of homemade bread plus crostini to nibble(!) on, followed by several antipasti before you even hit the first course you actually ordered. From octopus to tuna carpaccio, risotto to gnocchi, the ideas may be classic, but the results are impressive.
For a simpler affair (and the possibility of a shot of home-brewed limoncello on the house) grab a cheap and cheerful pizza at Sans Souci. With tables occupying a side street just a few steps from the lake, you’ll get cosy to your neighbours and might even gain a few friends as well as a full stomach.
If you still have room for a gelato after that (we dare you), La Casa del Dolce beats Gelateria Pinguino Giallo.
What to See in Gardone Riviera
Don’t underestimate little old Gardone Riviera. There is far more to it than meets the eye, particularly since Gabriele d’Annunzio, a famous Italian poet, journalist and playwright, chose it to be his home and, later, resting place. Referred to as a ‘monumental citadel’ or otherwise a ‘fascist lunapark’, the grand estate, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, may be politically dubious but it’s undeniably a mind-blowing feat of imagination that only a writer of d’Annunzio’s esteem could conjure into reality.
With a naval warship jutting from the cliff, man-made and natural waterways of epic proportions, a grand mausoleum and an ampitheatre overlooking the lake, it’s a rabbit warren of surprises. Each sight has a suitably literary name, such as the ‘Pond of Dances’, and the overall effect is all a bit much in 30 degree heat. You do get some of the best views of the lake from within the estate though, so it is worth the disorientating walk for the vista at the top.
Remember to check out The Priory as well as the park, where you can go inside D’Annuzio’s home and probe deeper into his creative genius. But do so at your peril. Note that there are two waiting rooms; one for welcome guests and one for unwelcome ones. Whichever category you fall into, you can spend a whole day here, no sweat.
What to Buy in Gardone Riviera
Spirito del Garda
Though some scholarly sticklers believe that Sicily was the first Italian region to grow lemons, citrus fruits were brought from the Liguria Riviera to Lake Garda during the 13th century by monks, where they grew in world-famous lemon houses with high walls to intensify the effects of the microclimate in the region. And all that history lesson teaches us is that limoncello should be on your shopping list. Walk west along the promenade from Gardone Riviera to Salò and visit Spirito del Garda to get yourself a bottle. The family make the liquors themselves!
What to Do in Gardone Riviera
With its own speedboat, Villa Eden can take you out into the lake to see the bigger picture – including the other nearby villages of Lombardy – from afar. With the wind in your hair you’ll be able to truly appreciate the picture-perfect contrast of the warm terracotta roofs against the reliably brilliant blue sky.
If you don’t have the sea legs for it, hit the decks bikini-clad instead and strike out in the cool (okay, extremely cool) waters of Garda. There are a number of private beaches (part of hotel complexes or otherwise) where you can pay a small fee for a picnic spot or lounger. For free, head to Spiaggia Casinò (just to the left of the restaurant) and rock up on the pebbled strand for a paddle.
How to Get There
The closest airport is in Verona (less than an hour and a half from Gardone Riviera) which means that a trip here could – and should – incorporate a stopover to explore the fictional setting of Romeo and Juliet; the city of love itself. EasyJet and British Airways both fly from London Gatwick once a day. In less than three hours you’ll find yourself in paradise.
Double rooms at Villa Eden start from €300 in low season (price for two people, including a glorious breakfast buffet – try the truffle scrambled egg). In high season, doubles are from €500.