I’m hanging on for dear life with one hand, and frantically waving with my other hand, as the boat that we’re travelling in goes at warp speed over the waters of the 370-square-kilometre Lake Garda. It seems like forever before my travelling companion catches sight of me and slows the boat down, and I am finally able to stand up, looking very cross indeed. Being flung about like a rag doll in the bow of a motor boat, speeding over the placid waters of the largest lake in Italy wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I signed up for a lake trip. So it was with some grumbling, and a certain desire for revenge, that I found myself trading places with my fellow traveller, taking the wheel of the boat, motoring us over to a secluded portion of the lake. There we dropped anchor, and chose to while away our time, surrounded by azure waters as far as one could see. Garda didn’t seem so much like a lake as it seemed like an ocean—an endless stretch of beautiful blue all the way to the horizon.
The decision to rent a boat at Lake Garda had been a spontaneous one. My travelling companion was very keen on bobbing about the waters, and made some rather good arguments in favour of the idea. Certainly, there were several points along the banks of the lake with clear views. And yes, it was all very well to peer at it from Sirmione, the little peninsula that protrudes into Garda. But wouldn’t it be better, he argued, to actually set forth into the waters. After all, there were boats that could be rented without needing a license, and the waterways were open and inviting.
It was thus that we found ourselves at Garda Boat, handing over €100 (approximately Rs8,200), in exchange for the keys to a fairly large motor boat for half a day. The proprietress provided us with a few maps of the lake, and handy pointers to the best spots to island gaze. She then proceeded to mark out portions of the lake to avoid, lest we beach the boat on sandbars or rocks just beneath the surface. With that caveat out of the way, we were off to explore Garda. Approximately 30 minutes of motoring around, and I was beginning to like this very much. Even with a fair number of boats already out on the water, the lake was still peaceful. In fact, it was so vast, that it seemed like no number of boats could possibly overcrowd it. And everyone seemed to want to get out of each other’s way and find a place of peace and quiet all to themselves. We found our little spot to drop anchor—the sun was bright, the day was warm, the water made gentle lapping noises against the hull, an invitation to dive right in. So we did just that. The water was warmer than expected, and allowed for a pleasant swim. Not wanting to drift too far from the boat though, I soon climbed back in, and settled down to an afternoon of daydreaming with ice-cold cherries and watermelon slices that we’d bought from a vendor in Sirmione.
Sirmione, in the province of Brescia, nestled in the waters of Lake Garda, is a curiously constructed island town. The town had palafittes (houses on stilts) as early as the third millennium B.C., and, around the first century B.C. began to play host to the wealthy Italian tourist in search of a resort holiday, a tradition that seems to continue thanks to the thermal baths and resorts on the island. Sirmione, which has since survived many invaders and many changes of power over the years, now welcomes tourists from all over the world. A lot of tourists from all over the world. Far more tourists—I thought as I was jostled out of the way by a man on a bicycle—than I had anticipated. But, armed with the will of the vista-hungry traveller, and a gelato cone each from the most excellent Gelataria Mirkoz, we set off by foot to explore the town. There is a rather quaint movie-set feel to the entire place—a picturesque main street lined with houses that had shocks of violet flowers growing out of their walls, neat little cafés and trattorias, and pretty alleys that led to views of the lake. Whether we were at the walls of the 13th-century Scaligero Castle, or all the way on the other side of town, we couldn’t get away from the lakeview.
Despite the crowds, Sirmione had a lot to offer, from the moat around the castle (a wonder in itself) to three lovely churches, fine restaurants, plenty of little boutiques, and even the Grotte di Catullo (the ruins of an old Roman villa) that offers what is likely the best panoramic view of Lake Garda. But it was the lake itself that was calling out to us.
I concluded that renting a boat, and wandering as we pleased, was one of the best holiday decisions that we’d made. What a stark contrast between Lake Garda and the waterways in Venice. In Venice, even though there were no bothersome car horns and errant Italian drivers to look out for, there were still packed canals, and water that one would hesitate dipping one’s fingers into. But Garda was big, blue, beautiful and inviting. No crowds to navigate, no boats to back away from to avoid grazing hulls, and no fear of leaping head first into the water. It was the ultimate form of relaxation—and a lovely holiday within a holiday. After all, sun, solitude, and the sounds of gently lapping water, when put together, make for a truly perfect summer day.
Lake Garda covers approx 370 sq. km, with various towns dotting its banks. Sirmione is approximately 40km/30min east of Verona, and can be reached by road. Buses between Verona and Sirmione are frequent, costing approximately €3.50/Rs285, and take an hour. Half a day boat rentals cost between €99/Rs8,000 to €150/Rs12,000 depending on the season (www.gardaboat.com).
Vaishali Dinakaran is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. She and her husband have a habit of driving around Europe at the drop of a hat, sometimes for no apparent reason other than that there are roads.