Everyone loves the Mediterranean in summer. It truly is Europe’s playground – with all the buzz and chaos that comes with that glamour. But there’s something very special about retreating north to the Italian lakes at this time of year, something discrete and calm that encompasses a history and culture spanning everything from the ancient Romans to memorable figures of more recent times. Lago di Garda, Lago di Como, Lago d’Orta have all had their champions in royalty (of blood, or of Hollywood), dictators and divas, industrialists and composers. Churchill, Vivien Leigh, Mussolini, Verdi have all spent their down time here. It is the less obvious choice but has its own particular charm.
Lago di Garda is enormous. It feels like a harbour and the water is a brilliant turquoise. You can rent a Riva and take a picnic, anchor off ancient garden islands and swim surrounded by Moorish or Gothic villas that make you wonder at the madness of their creators. We stayed in a wonderful hotel called Locanda San Vigilio, right on the lake. It’s been there since the 16th century and the upkeep has kept it comfortable without erasing any of its history or charm, crumbling but delicious. There’s something so magical about stepping back in time, where the pace is slow and the manners of the staff so wonderfully old-fashioned, that even the more Fawlty Towers-esque moments become part of the appeal.
Having grown up by the sea, swimming and sailing and windsurfing on the Pacific ocean and Sydney’s harbour, it’s quite extraordinary to have this summer water experience without the salt and sand and surf. There’s something quite delicate, gentle about days spent this way. On a physical level, perhaps its the lack of salt – no itchy skin, no crunchy t-shirt after swimming, no manic post-swim hair – it’s all so very civilized. But then again, the best bit about all this is that by the time I return to Sydney, I’ll be able to experience that very visceral southern hemisphere summer all over again.