A Rough Guide to Lake Garda in Italy : Things to Do in Desenzano
With a population of around 25,000, Desenzano del Garda is the biggest town on Lake Garda in Northern Italy. It is therefore regarded by many locals as the unofficial capital of the lake.
You'll find it on the southern shore along the main road and rail links. Its certainly worth a day visit if you are in the area.
I myself found the town an impressive place to visit and it seemed a lively, bustling lakeside resort especially at the weekends. But avoid going there on a Monday as you will find almost everything closed down as that is the rest day.
Otherwise it's an active community of cafe culture, shopping and night-life as well as relaxing on the beach by the lake. There are certainly lots of things to do in Desenzano.
The layout of the town
The town has many interesting streets, historic in appearance and which wind around the old area between the lakefront and the castle on the hill above.
On the lake is the attractive Cesare Battisti promenade and a large marina which is shielded by a harbour wall. At the end of the wall is the small lighthouse which is a local landmark of the lakefront.
But there is also a large grass area at the front with trees and it is pleasant to sit on a bench and people watch or gaze out over the lake.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO AND PLACES TO VISIT IN DESENZANO
1. Enjoy the vibrant club culture including a popular gay scene.
2. Relax on the Desenzanino beach and enjoy the summer sun.
3. Walk up the hill to the castle and take in the view over the bay.
4. Visit the local museum and also the Roman archaelogical site.
5. Go shopping for fun and fashion at the excellent retail outlets.
There is a beach at the lakeside called the Desenzanino which is a pebble beach with a nearby restaurant offering reasonable prices. An ideal place for sun-worshippers in the hot summers on the lake.
The actual the name of the town has been ascribed to two different origins. One states that it is named after the owner of a 4th century farm and villa called 'Decentius' in Latin. The ruins of the building still exist today.
The other derivation comes from local folk history. Apparently it refers to the Italian word 'discesa' meaning downhill and relates to the downward slope of the town towards the lake.
Luckily I had no need to ascend any slopes as I had cycled the very short distance from the nearby San Francesco campsite with flat terrain all the way.
I had forgotten to bring the padlock and chain for the bike so I left it lying against a fence next to a tiny harbour full of boats and ringed by restaurants. This was the 'Porto Vecchio' or 'Old Harbour' area.
A beautiful spot to leave an unsecured bicycle and all the more fitting to leave it outside the 'Guardia Finanza' building with what looked like police-cars outside. "They guard the finances" I thought, "How strong are they on clapped-out bikes made in China?"
But after consulting my indispensable dictionary I worked out that it was the Italian equivalent of the Customs and Excise Department.
The fashion parade
Of course, Desenzano had the ritual beauty pageant and fashion parade of lovelies gathered in the Piazza Malvezzi and the Piazza Mattesta.
The latter dominated by the impressive Hotel Mayer.
Lots of beautiful girls strolling along the streets, wandering around the shops looking effortlessly gorgeous and sitting in the restaurants and cafes that seemed to be everywhere.
The town is a mecca for the well off and the chic a trendy location for night-clubbers and lounge lizards. Many locals and those from further afield in the area descend on Desenzano for shopping during the day or to engage in an evening 'passegiatta' along the shore.
It is a busy town and can be bustling with people but it has been remarked that it is a 'real town' and not just a holiday resort. I would agree with that notion as it does seem to strike a nice balance between the two poles.
I went on my usual wander exploring the ins and outs and ups and downs of the town then I had an ice-cream bought from a surly man at a little takeway.
Places to visit in Desenzano
No matter as he didn't sour the ice-cream which was a wonderful mint and yoghurt doubler.
This I deliberately ate in the shade to slow down the melting process.
Meanwhile I watched the lovely girls licking their ice-creams in the hot sunshine as it melted down their hands.
It was a hot afternoon so it was, although we were all slightly cooled down by the propellers of a miniature remote-controlled flying Chinook helicopter that a man was operating for some kids.
I've seen a couple of the real things flying overhead above Peschiera. What an almighty racket they make shattering the peace and tranquility.
Near to this street-side scene was a huge satellite map of Lake Garda laid out on a platform on the ground on which people could walk over like mythical giants stomping the land crushing inhabitants beneath their feet.
You could see people obviously pointing to the towns where they came from and waving at their mums. This was outside a building with a small exhibition which was nevertheless interesting as it displayed more overhead and satellite photos showing the growth of the town and region in the past 50 years.
Art and culture
It was remarkable to see how small it had been in the post-war era and how much farmland there must have been then.
Staying on the cultural theme there were two marvellous sculptures, quite large and dramatic which were positioned near the lakeside.
One was a tribute to aviators which had a disembodied woman's head at the front with the sculpture flowing back like the jet-stream of an aeroplane.
It's sweeping and stylish design seemed very dynamic to my eyes. It is dedicated to the high-speed airforce division.
The other was a tribute to the anti-fascist movement with two male figures back-to-back pinioned by thick metal bars.
One looks down at the ground in sorrow and the other to the sky as if in defiance.
A quite moving monument to the pain and suffering of that scourge of society I felt as it towered over me. It was sculpted by Brescian artist Mario Gatti.
In the 'IV Novembre' park area there was also a steam locomotive which would be of obvious interest for those fascinated by machines and engineering.
For those more inclined towards fine art then a visit to the Santa Maria Maddelena Cathedral would be recommended. It's in the Piazza del Duomo unsurprisingly enough since the Italian word' Doumo' simply mean 'Cathedral' in English.
It contains artworks by Andrea Celesti, Gian Battista Tiepolo, Zenon Veronese, Palma il Giovane, Andrea Bertanza and Pietro Calcinardi. It also has an impressive marble altar.
Desenzano Cathedral dates from the late 16th century having been built between 1586 and 1611. It was designed by Brescian architect Giulio Todeschini but who died before its completion.
There is also the Santa Maria de Senioribus Church which houses the Tomb of Atilia Urbica which was created in the 3rd Century by her sons.
In the Santa Maria Senioribus cloister you will find the 'Giovanni Rambotti' which is the Museum of Desenzano and was opened in 1990 to display specimens unearthed in nearby land.
The Polada peat bog gave up it's hidden secrets of weapons, including flint arrowheads, ceramics and utelsils. You will also find a large plough made of oak dating from the Bronze Age which was around 2,000 B.C. as well as other prehistoric findings
Along to the western side of the town is the Roman Villa discovered in 1921 and is considered an important archaelogical area. It dates from the 1st century A.D. but it was 300 years before it was finally completed. It contains mosaics depicting scnes of hunting, fishing and farming.
There is a small museum attached to the site which contans artefacts such as necklaces, brooches, sculptures and oil lamps.
Restaurants in Desenzano
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Shopping in Desenzano
The cafes, bars and restaurants were doing great business this afternoon.
There was a lively but relaxed atmosphere in the main areas of the town.
An added advantage is that the main part of the town is largely pedestrianised.
However the road along the promenade can be very busy although I'm told that it is closed to traffic after 9pm in the evening.
The restaurants in Desenzano serve up excellent dishes, including fish of course and famous wines such as Lugana, Tocai and Rosso Riviera. Some of the restaurants are of 5-star quality although if that's too pricey I went to a couple of nice kebab shops in town.
There is also an open-air market down by the lake on the Cesare Battisti promenade held every Tuesday and which has existed since the 15th century.
It does tend to overwhelm the lakefront so if markets are not your thing then I would avoid Tuesdays. I've been a few times to the town and can confirm that the place seems completely different when it is full of stalls. I lost my bearings and had trouble working which street I was looking for.
The shops vary in price and quality from credit-card busting stores selling the likes of Versace, Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana to more mid-priced premises like Benetton. At the bottom end of the market there is a tiny 'One Euro' shop tucked away in a small corner near the tourist office.
I was in an even smaller shop run by an Indian man selling cheap souvenirs and Asian artefacts. I picked up a pair of sunglasses for only €5 which was a bargain. Also a necessity given my track record of lost and broken glasses on my trails.
At the rear of Desenzano and the surrounding area you can also pay a visit to a modern shopping mall.
This is called 'Le Vele' and offers all that you would expect from a medium-sized centre with bargains available.
It contains a huge shoe store, a two-floor sports shop, electrical goods, household, fashion stores and a supermarket.
There are also two supermarkets near to Rivoltella, Simply Supermarket and Penny Market which have low priced selections.
But even a wander around the shops is pleasant as there are attractive arcades and lanes. There is also a lot of shade away from the sunshine and of course many cafés, gelaterie and bars in which to enjoy a break and a refreshment
But after that it was lunchtime for me and I sat down by the promenade to eat my sandwiches watching the waves and feeling the cool breeze in my face.
Many people were walking past including two young guys with arms around each others' waists. It seems that Desenzano is a very liberal town as I also began to notice several female couples together.
It's encouraging that we live in such enlightened times I considered to myself. Apparently Desenzano is popular with the gay community and people will drive from all around the area to party at the Art Club discotheque on the outskirts of town.
Unfortunately of course not everyone is so open-minded in society as I noticed on a line of billboards.
There were elections upcoming soon and there were lots of posters campaigning for the various political parties and candidates.
In the true spirit of democratic representation this included exhortations from 'La Lega Nord' or 'The Northern League' in English, a political party contesting the elections.
Their logo was some sort of ancient knight sporting a protective shield and holding a sword aloft.
Yes! my friends, you're building the picture I'm sure. This is not a Socialist Movement of a Worker's Alliance or even The Green Party campaigning for the protection of ducks or campsite spiders.
No! La Lega Nord are your usual dyed-in-the-wool, right-wing, fascist bampots attempting to inflict revenge on the human race for their difficult childhood and strict toilet-training.
Their anti-immigration posters were blatantly racist to my eyes and certainly not the type of campaign material that would be allowed back home. But like the South of France and other affluent locations, Lake Garda does have a significant Fascist element.
The Desenzano nutchuckers
After my sandwiches, I thought I'd treat myself to a coffee from one of the cafes down at the harbour and read a newspaper I had just bought.
I sat innocently reading in 'The Knave' Cafe when I came under a light bombardment of nuts. My assailants were small birds above my head.
They seemed to be dropping them from a first-floor ledge presumably to crack them open as they would swoop down to feast or carry them away. The 'nut-chuck sparrow' perhaps.
It wasn't too safe on the ground either as the waitress dropped an empty bottle of wine which smashed at my feet. I'm under attack from above and below.
But how very clever those birds are and watching them hop around the ground at my feet I was tempted to invite them up for lunch. "Waitress! A loaf of bread and a big bowl of water please".
Happy hour and the clubs and bars
I headed up the hill and came across an Irish bar called the 'Fiddler of Dooney' in the Via Castello which begins just after the Tourist Office.
The bar was closed in the afternoon but in evenings at the weekend they had live music complete with guitars and fiddles which I thought might be worth a go sometime.
They have television screens available with satellite TV for live football or other sporting events. They also advertised a happy hour beginning at 17.00, but unfortunately the pub didn't open till 17.30. Only the Irish could get away with that kind of philosophical conundrum of time sequencing.
On another day after a cycle to the nearby war musuem at San Martino myself and a friend headed into Desenzano and just made the 'Happy Hour' at the bar.
There was only 10 minutes to spare and we got ourselves a half-litre of Kilkenny each and chatted with the guy behind the bar who may also be the owner. He came from Donegal and was full of the cheeky Irish banter we come to expect:
"I'm from Glasgow" I said,
"Ah yes" he said, "There's big connections between Donegal and Glasgow"
"And I'm from Sussex in the south of England" said my friend,
"Don't worry. I won't hold that against ye"
I suppose it must be difficult to shake of 800 years of colonial history and I guess I was lucky to be born a Celt.
A popular place for drinks and a good time is the 'Sesto Senso' Disco which is apparently the happening place and very popular. It is also a friendly place for tourists to party with the locals. There is also 'Le Ninfee' Disco as well.
Elsewhere, in the Grand Hotel is the 'Piano Bar' with a live pianist and a poolside location and a private beach. Also recommended are the 'Café Fillipinni' and the 'Barracuda' but remember to take plenty of cash with you as I reckon these places will be mightily expensive.
Up to the castle
Further up Via Castello you pass some small shops and restaurants and incidentally there is also an internet cafe in the street. At the top is the fortress of Desenzano built by the Romans originally as a defence against the Barbarians.
It was later rebuilt during the time of the Communes and also reinforced before being converted into military barracks in the 19th century.
Here at the Castello you can sometimes enter inside as they are open to the public on occasion. Also, many events are held in the castle including concerts in the warm summer months. I made my way up to the old castle from where I watched the fantastic view over the town and the bay.
After my illuminating lunch with the nutchuckers, I felt somewhat embarrassed to be throwing scattered remnants of my cheap 'Pan Carré' bread which retails at 39 cents at the local 'Penny Market', to the castle pigeons.
They totally ignored my humble offerings so I guessed they're more used to fresh baking from the finest local restaurants. A few did fly over and I thought they might come down and have a gander but still no takers.
It's also worth a walk up the hill to the castle as after you could have a beer or a glass of wine in the bars nearby.
Because they are a little off the beaten track they are less expensive and frequented by locals rather than Italian fashionistas or tourists. The area is less busy and the atmosphere is more relaxed than at the lakefront.
After the castle I then descended the hill to cycle back to the campsite. It was still busy down in the town and on the lake, lots of people milling around the streets at the front and speedboat engines buzzing as they scythed urgently through the waves.
Occasionally you hear the drone of engines from above as small private planes or motorised para-gliders flew over.
The transport links
If you are restricting yourself to Desenzano then a weekend would be enough to sample all it has to offer.
But you could stay longer as it serves as an excellent base to go further afield and see the sights around the lake and beyond.
An advantage for tourists is that there is a hospital nearby for any medical difficulties.
There is also a tourist doctor in the summer season for general ailments or worries.
The railway station is a kilometre up the steep hill from the centre of the town. It's a ten-minute walk or you can take the local bus service instead. If you arrive by train and are heading to the centre then you just go straight ahead down the hill and it will lead you into the centre of town.
The train services crossing northern Italy stop in Desenzano, heading from Venice across to Milan and Turin. Venice is around one and a half hours by rail on the express service, Milan is less than an hour.
There are also bus services to surrounding towns such as Peschiera and further afield to the likes of Brescia, Mantova and Verona. However it is best to travel to Verona by train as it is only around half an hour compared to over an hour by bus and bearing in mind the lakeside roads can have heavy traffic in high season.
Hotels in Desenzano
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If you have a car then Desenzano is not far from the autostrada.
This connects Milan with Venice and also other places in the hinterland like Verona, Brescia and Bergamo.
If you are staying in the town then it is advisable to sort out parking before you arrive as space can be at a premium and hotels don't always have parking spaces.
Therefore you might have to arrange to pay for a spot in a nearby car park.
On the other hand you could follow my lead and hire a bicyle. When I returned to the Guardia Finanzia building I found mine's was still there safe and sound.
But I would recommend a security lock for your bike just in case any mad Fascists go on the rampage and chuck it into the lake.
Well! You never know.