Ambleside & District

2013 Lake Garda, Italy

U3A trip to Lake Garda, Italy

On Sunday, 5th May, in the small hours of a dark, damp night seventeen members left Manchester airport en route for Verona, and thence to Lake Garda and the small Hotel Antonella, our home for the next week. Beautifully situated, snug under snow-topped Helvellyn-high hills it is within easy walking distance of the little lakeside town of Malcesine and its harbour where lake traffic calls on its trips around Lake Garda.

Monday was ‘free’ in order to recover from our journey and to familiarise ourselves with the area and its many opportunities for local excursions.

Showers accompanied us on our visit to Verona, its splendid amphitheatre evidence of its ancient origins, and its massive, fortified Castello eloquent of the turbulent history of the northern Italian states. Its older northern quarter is a fascinating mixture of ancient and modern, where the most chic (and expensive!) boutiques run cheek by jowl with ancient residences in narrow alleyways overhung by tall ochre, umber and distressed, rose-tinted terra cotta walls with luxuriantly vegetated balconies. Re balconies, that attributed by the ‘authorities’, because of its pride of age and sculptured masonry, to the unhappy Juliet proved to be particularly popular.

In Venice Venice was blessed with blue skies and brilliant light, not only irradiating its legendary architecture, but also stimulating the huge crowds which milled, ant-like, about St Mark’s Square and waterfront contrasting with the warrens of small alleyways with their sense of cherished privacy behind all those firmly shut dark wooden doors. There was scant “quality of mercy” about the Rialto, losing that “pound of flesh” in the non-stop abrasive rub and thrust of the crowds, flesh regained, alas, among the varied temptations offered by outrageously expensive restaurants. Some took gondolas, the gondoliers in traditionally striped jerseys but no straw hats; enviable water skills, but no singing! Others just lingered along the brilliant waterfront, simply absorbing the ancient sunlight on time-honoured stones, remembering, perhaps, some of those restless spirits who have made this city come alive for us in so many different ways – from Titian to Turner, the wretched Shylock to poor, pure Desdemona – the spirit of the past always powerful in the present.

Our free days were spent either waterfront sauntering, gathering sunshine and calories in equal amounts, exploring old Melcasine or enjoying boat trips to assorted destinations. Some visited waterfalls, others took the cable car to snowy heights from which paragliders soared slowly like outsized eagles, but not of our party! The really serious stuff, of course, was shopping – bags and bling and blouses, bits and baubles of the infinitely variable Murano glass – each to their own, shown round, duly admired, perhaps even celebrated with yet another glass of wine!

Our hopes for clear air and sparkling sunshine for our Dolomite day were, alas, not to be fulfilled. Turning off the main Brenner route (anciently a transalpine silk road used by both Romans and Venetians) we headed for the historically troubled, Austrian-looking region of ‘Old Tirol’ where the Fasse and Fiemma valleys, lush and green against the gloom of the surrounding mountains, were rich in orchards and vast vineyards. Then up to the two high passes – the Pordoi (2239m, 7345’) and the Sella (2244m), where, among great slabs of snow and winter-flattened alpine grassland we saw two iconic alpine species – the plump Alpine Marmot and a restless flock of yellow-billed Alpine Choughs. The mountains, however, remained “cloud-capped towers” dark among the shifting mists and, on the highest peak, the Marmolada (3343m, 10,967’), huge snowfields frowned over by remote rock spires dwindling up to misty nothingness seemed like the setting for some ancient myth.

Appreciation and many thanks are due to Caroline, our onsite cartographer, mentor and guide. Also to Joan and Reg for their part in organising the trip, which, sadly, at the very last moment, they were unable to join. Particularly to Dorothy, who unexpectedly found herself shouldering the responsibility for the group and the holiday, a watchful task achieved with good humour, patience and complete efficiency. Finally to all our fellow-travellers, whose eccentric combination ensured an interesting and happy time together.

Colin Whittle