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Of Lakes and Lanes In Northern Italy

By Susan Harb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page P01

We did not set off to tour cathedrals and museums, formal gardens and important villas. That had been the agenda, and a marvelous one, on previous visits to Italy.

This trip was different. No restaurant guide in hand, no must-see art galleries, no cities on our itinerary. My husband and I had a road map, a rental car and the urge to amble.

Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake, is dotted with more than two dozen villages, like the picturesque Malcesine. () Johnathan Smith, Cordaiy Photo Library Ltd./corbis)

Our destination was the three largest lakes of northern Italy -- Maggiore, Como and Garda, which lie mainly in Lombardy, at the foot of the Alps and Dolomites. We traveled last fall, after the tourist season and in the midst of the apple harvest. I wanted freedom from train schedules, the option to visit small towns where the train didn't go and, truth be told, trunk room for purchases from the markets I planned to visit throughout the region.

Spending three nights each in three different lake towns, we eschewed the extraordinary for the splendor of the ordinary. The play of afternoon sunlight on the walls of a medieval embattlement became our frescoes, roadside altars on swerving country roads our churches, a peek over a fence into a backyard vegetable patch our manicured gardens.

We ended up hearing a jazz band perform Frank Sinatra tunes on a mountaintop, attending a vintage car show, savoring olive oils at a museum tasting, visiting the Alessi design factory, hanging out at a blacksmith's shop and playing lots of gin rummy and Scrabble when we were socked in by rain (nine days out of 17).

After spending a few days in Venice, we picked up our car in Vicenza, 45 miles west, and kicked off the 10-day driving portion of our trip. We drove 595 miles in all, and learned quickly that motoring down the fast lanes of the autostradas is a two-person job: The navigator has to read road signs at breakneck speeds, alert the driver to the car that's about to eat the bumper, and fumble for the right coins at toll booths. Our side trips on smaller roads were calmer, except for the roundabouts, which we just went roundabout two or three or four times.

We took it slow, saving time for detours and picnics in the northern countryside, with its Roman castles and pastel-colored palaces, vineyards and orchards. The deep blue lakes are surrounded by Mediterranean vegetation -- citrus trees, swooping palms, even stands of bamboo. Velvety pastures for cattle and the region's notable cheese industry give way to rolling foothills that rise into steep, craggy mountains to the north.

Lake Garda

The castle town of Sirmione sticks out like a lizard's tongue at the southern end of Italy's largest lake, Garda, about 55 miles west of Vicenza. Most visitors enter by foot via a bricked-over drawbridge of the 13th-century fortress, Scaligero Castle. (Cars are prohibited on the narrow cobblestone streets unless they carry hotel guests and have prior clearance.) Once you're inside, the town is beach-resort touristy, tossed with a few Roman ruins. Our hotel was at the far end of the peninsula, away from the gelato stands, vendors and day-trippers.

Lavender and balsam scented the air. Chestnuts trees dropped their nuts. Rosemary grew in hedges. Roses and hibiscus still bloomed in October. An opera aria wafted down from the famed Villa Cortine Palace Hotel, on a hill behind our more modest accommodations. We were drawn to the music but locked out at the gate, which opened only for guests. Undeterred, we sat on a bench in a park outside the lavish grounds and listened for free.

Then we went to work. Scouting just the right cafe table from which to view the sunset was a daily task we took seriously.

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