A Rough Guide to Lake Garda in Italy : Things to Do in Malcesine
Preserved forever in ink and oil
History is recorded by the stars of yesteryear who wrote in ink and depicted in oil what they saw around them.
The masters have gazed from these gentle North Italian shores of Malcesine across the waves of Lake Garda to an attainable beyond of outstanding beauty and spectacle.
The pens of such luminaries as Goethe and Kafka have inscribed now yellowed sheets of literary prose while the brush of Klimt has swept joyously across the canvas.
All were enraptured and inspired by the majesty of the grand panorama, the changing moods and the variegated colours exploding from natures caprice.
Good to be bad in the name of rock
The name of the Malcesine itself took many centuries to be formed, long after Etruscans settlers made it their home. Much like the rocks on which this once strategic outcrop was carefully built.
Nowadays a warm welcome should be assured so don't be dissuaded by the origin of the name. In Italian, expressions such as "pietra ostile" and "cattiva pietra" were used.
These translate as "hostile rocks" and "bad rocks" which are wonderful anachronisms today but back in more turbulent times of old they were appropriate warnings reminding unwanted intruders to keep away.
THE TOP 5 THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN MALCESINE
1. Visit the Scaligeri Castle, fascinating museums and historic churches.
2. Enjoy sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and swimming on Lake Garda.
3. Try skiing, snowboarding or even paragliding down Monte Baldo.
4. Go hill-walking, cycling, rock-climbing or a simple stroll along the shore.
5. Taste classic Italian cuisine and fine local wines in the restaurants.
How to get there the hard way
Malcesine sits on the shoreline rock of the North-East side of Lake Garda. It was never meant to be easily reached.
In 1439 the Venetians actually hauled six galleys and twenty-five ships overland to do battle with the ruling Visconti family on the normally calm waters.
Today it's not so strenuous or hazardous a destination to reach, even on a budget holiday. But it still has its inaccessible moments.
Verona airport is the most commonly-used fly-in and is situated around 42 km away to the east as the crow flies. Unfortunately the crows have all the luck, whereas on terra firma the flightless humans need to use local connection points.
From the airport you can take a bus into Verona itself and then take another bus for Riva del Garda which will drop you off in Malcesine.
There is also a train link available from Verona but there is no station at Malcesine nor even a railway line along the eastern shores of the lake. Locally, the nearest train station is at Peschiera del Garda at the south-eastern base which still leaves a 45 km trip north to Malcesine.
The nearest airport is actually the 'Gabriele D’Annunzio', also known as 'Montichiari' which is near Brescia. But it's not well served for tourist flights.
Driving from the west you take the A4/E70 Milan-Venice autostrada and turn off at Peschiera del Garda. From there you have to go by the grandly named 'Gardesane Occidental' road which really oversells the route.
It's just a bog-standard country thoroughfare to get you from A to B. Nevertheless there are regular, cheap bus services available which normally take around 50 minutes. But avoid arriving at the weekend or on public holidays.
Otherwise the narrow route can be engorged by the traffic jams caused by day-trippers and holidaymakers. Perhaps that's a reason why motorbikes and scooters are so popular to get around the perimeter of Lake Garda.
Driving in from the north on the A22/E45 autostrada you get off at Rovereto then head over the mountains for Torbole which is on the lake. From there you're on the last leg down to Malcesine. You can also travel by rail as far as Rovereto then take a bus from there.
Alternatively but much more expensively you can cruise on a ferry from Peschiera. The longer trip is compensated by leisurely sightseeing from the deck as you marvel at the scenery which slowly evolves into the mountainous north.
A hydrofoil service runs and is much quicker, but still allows a couple of hours for the journey. The southern part of the lake is flat and relatively featureless so it certainly becomes more interesting the further up you travel.
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Communal camping and luxury living
Once you arrive your accommodation can range from a night under canvas or sleeping luxuriously under the 4-stars of a top Italian hotel.
Many of the hotels are located around the harbour area with others stretched along the shore of the lake.
This is because the cramped confines of the medieval centre of town are not conducive to expansive hotel development.
There are several quality campsites in the vicinity which are all sociable and amenable to both fun-lovers and families. Camping Alpino and Camping Claudia being among the most popular.
An international clientele can introduce the children to a babble of tongues from all over the European continent. Usually you'll find that the Dutch, the Germans and the British normally occupy pole positions in the visitor numbers.
Winter sports and summer sails
Malcesine is also a haven for those who love adventure sports with plenty of thrills and spills. The town serves as a well-equipped base camp for Monte Baldo, the mountain whose rocks, ridges and ski-slopes loom above.
The modern cable-cars, some of which are capable of carrying 80 people at a time, will carry you up to an elevated world stretching over the Dolomite mountain tops. It is a two-stage route with smaller cars up to 45 people carrying you to a half-way station called San Michele where you'll find a restaurant.
On the 2nd stage the larger cars also slowly rotate offering a panoramic twirl to take in all the view as you ascend up to 1,800 metres in just a few minutes. Skiing and snowboarding on the mountain are popular in the winter while hill-walking and rock-climbing attracts the fair-weather outdoor lovers in the summer.
The ski resort offers 40 km of slopes serviced by 7 lifts. There are red and black slopes for professionals or experienced amateurs as well as beginner and nursery slopes for those not so steady on their feet.
It's also cooler up there away from the hot weather down below and paragliders take advantage of the mountain currents. For beginners a tandem paraglide offers a breathtaking airborne tour of the incredible scenery. The word 'awesome', which has suffered from modern hyperbole, has never been put to better use in describing the thrill.
However if you prefer a rapid plummet with a deep soak then Malcesine is the venue for you as it hosts spectacular cliff-diving events. The international Red Bull World Series has taken place here which is slightly ironic given their famous advertising slogan.
Not so much to "give you wings" as they wouldn't be very aerodynamic as you plunge towards the waters.
On any given day there are also yachts and motorboats negotiating their way over the lake. Windsurfing is more recommended further north where the local winds bulge out the sails for those who want to ride the waves. But it's also popular at Malcesine along with kite-surfing, canoeing, kayaking and even stand-up paddleboarding if that floats your boat.
If you would rather just laze around soaking up the ultra-violet then unfortunately there are no long stretches of fine sandy beaches. Instead you can still relax in comfort on waterside lawns, on tiny pebble beaches or maybe even the flat, cool flagstones around the little harbour.
Buon appetito and a taste of the vine
Of course, this wouldn't be Italy without some fantastic food and drink to enjoy. Quality fare simply made and served without being smothered in sauce and also sold at reasonable prices.
There's no need to disguise the local dishes because the taste is never lacking and the food can be appreciated on its own merits with no need for culinary elaboration.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, your hotel may not be very close. But you shouldn't need an excuse to walk through this charming town. Perhaps even dressing in your best threads and joining the evening stroll of the 'passeggiata' so beloved of the Italians.
The main gathering points for the dry tongues and rumbling tummies are Piazza Cavour, Piazza Turazza and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Here there are plenty of places in which to sample the best of Italian.
The delicious meals should be washed down with fine wines from the region. The names of the red Bardolino and Valpollicella will forever be on your lips. Once tasted never forgotten or forsaken.
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Alternatively, if you decide on a white wine then you will be easily tempted by a bright and breezy Custoza or a full-bodied Lugana.
For those willing to compromise then a Chiaretto Rose wine will certainly fit the bill.
Such is the reverence for this wine that the nearby town of Bardolino holds a Spring festival solely devoted to the mellow liquid with the pink tinge.
In the summer months you'll also find live music and even Karaoke evenings for the gifted cantante to soothe the soul, or the not so gifted dillettante to torture the eardrums.
Notable local bars are the "hip but unpretentious" Castello Sas where the bruschetta is highly recommended, the friendly Tabasko Bar with a lovely terrace overlooking the square of Piazza Cavour or maybe sophisticated cocktails in Bar Oasi by the rippling waters of the Lake.
The castle and tower of Malcesine
On a tour of the city the high point, quite literally, is the old castle, notwithstanding the cold peak of Monte Baldo. The castle, with its 31 metre-high pentagonal tower looks down on the cobbled streets and buildings of Malcesine.
It is particularly beautiful when viewed from the lake so a slow ferry ride is always the best way to arrive. Not exactly a boat ride across the lagoon into St Mark's Square in Venice but a grand enough entrance.
The castle origins are unclear since there was a fortress in Malcesine around 2,000 years ago but the current structure has suffered destruction and enjoyed restoration many times over the centuries.
However it is known as the 'Scaligeri' Castle as revealed by the tell-tale fish tail design along the roof. A distinctive motif of the powerful family who ruled much of Northern Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries and who were responsible for most of the current construction and design.
On entering the castle the first sight you see is the "Casermetta" or the old guard house, then on the ground floor is a Natural History Museum.
This floor is also the splendid location for many romantic civil weddings that can be booked. Perhaps the finishing touch would be a photo-shoot on the balcony with beautiful views over the lake.
There is also a Museum of Local History and the 'Goethe Room' which houses a collection dedicated to the great penmanship of the German scribe who visited in 1876 and who described the lake as a "magnificent natural phenomenon".
However an innocent sketch of the castle brought him an accusation of spying for the Weimar Republic. Fortunately he was quickly released and in fact nowadays there is a bust honouring him that sits in the grounds.
Another main attraction high up on the billing in Malcesine, if not the star attraction, is the 'Palazzo dei Capitano' which sits on the shore-line.
It was completed in the 14th century and remodelled in the Venetian Gothic style after many changes by the Scaligeri. It also has an attractive lakeside garden that you can stroll through. A faded wall painting of the Lion of St Mark reminds visitors of the old rulers from Venice.
For those steeped in ecclesiastical curiosity there are also the 'Pieve di San Stefano' and the 'Church of Santa Maria di Navene'. the former is a baroque church dating from the 18th century although there was an original building on the site in the 9th century.
It is thought there was an ancient pagan temple on the site. It has a wonderfully decorated interior including a ceiling covered by frescoes.
The latter building dates from the 17th century but again a religious site on this spot is mentioned from the 11th century. It has a baroque altar and many interesting paintings and marble décor within.
You can even use the town as a base from which to visit other places by road or by boat. Beautiful Riva del Garda to the North, historic Sirmione to the South, the glamour of Desenzano or the promenade walks of Salo.
Nearby to Malcesine the small village of Cassone is popular and can be reached by tourist bus in 20 mins or an hour and a half walk along the lake. It has a small fishing museum, two nice churches and also boasts the worlds shortest river. Presumably it also claims the joint award for truncated river banks.
Light up the sky
If you are lucky to be on Lake Garda in summer you'll be surrounded by lots of festivals. Large or small they explode all around the lake with firework displays marking the spot during the late nights of the weekends.
Nature joins in the festivities on a regular basis with huge thunder and lightning spectaculars cause by the warm valley heat rising up to clash with cold mountain air. You can almost set your clock around 11pm at night when things are ready to rumble for a skyline extravaganza.
On a more moderate level strong winds can suddenly flow down from the mountains with local showers or even hailstones to knock you out of your complacency.
However, in the summer time it's mostly endless sunny days, gorgeous scenery, delicious food and the constant elegance of the Italian style in fashion, flash cars and historic architecture.
Malcesine offers everything on the holiday menu to almost everybody, from the serious traveller to the fun-loving party-goer.
It's often said that you should never visit the same place twice but with Lake Garda the rule is more honoured in the breach than the observance.
There are always more things to do in Malcesine, although you could simply retrace your old steps in the warm nostalgia of happy memories.