Garda Trentino – Mountains, Lakes, History and Passion:
Last year’s trip to Garda Trentino came with a few surprises for me. Living in the UK, I tend to forget how dramatically the shape of mainland Europe has changed over the centuries. It’s easy enough to remember those changes which have happened within my lifetime, but only when I visit a place and see some of the architectural detail, taste the food and explore both town and countryside do I begin to get an understanding of those changes outside my own lifetime. Garda Trentino, the Northern most part of Lake Garda, was firmly set in my mind as a thoroughbred Italian. After all, it’s only an hour or so from Verona…
It’s also only an hour or so from Austria, Switzerland and Germany…and from 1815 to 1918 the region belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Part of the Tyrol, it was a German-speaking region and regarded as a key part of the defences between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It wasn’t until after the First World War that the territories became part of Italy. Some of the small towns and villages look more Austrian than Italian to this day – whilst others have a clearly hybrid heritage.
Torbole, for example, has a distinctly Venetian feel to it, with brightly coloured houses dominating the shoreline. An important outpost for the Venetians, Torbole became a popular resort for Austrians during the Belle Epoque but never lost its Venetian character.
By contrast, Arco, a few miles north of the lake, has the kind of formal gardens you might find in Vienna. Popular during Austro-Hungarian times for a mild micro-climate, Austrian rule left a real mark on Arco both in the architecture of the houses and in the parks and gardens.
Now best known for rock climbing and mountain biking, it remains an important tourist destination for Austrians and Germans travelling through the Brenner Pass to Italy.
And of course, Riva del Garda itself was a popular holiday destination during Austro-Hungarian times, a destination for the Hapsburg Royal Family and for the upper middle classes. The Lido Palace is a fine example of a Belle Epoque hotel built to meet the requirements of Riva del Garda’s visitors. First opened in 1899, the intention was to create the Kaiser’s own version of the Riviera. During that time, visitors included Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, sister to Tsar Nicholas of Russia. The region became Italian after World War I, and King Vittorio Emanuele and Queen Elena stayed at the Lido Palace in 1921.
For me, though, the impact of Austro-Hungarian rule is most evident than in the hillside fortresses which are scattered throughout the region.
I dined at Al Fortino, looking out over Lake Garda as the sun set. Built in 1861, one of around thirty fortresses in the region, it has remained very much as it would have been when first constructed, although it is now used as a restaurant and has a particular focus on the history of the first world war.
It was a particularly significant time for the region – after Italy entered the War in 1915, the Trentino territory was one of the main fronts between Italy and Austro-Hungary. as a result suffering heavy destruction. And, the people of Trentino were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so enlisted to fight against Russians and Italians. Many died. And, many civilians were forced to move from what was the front-line. Al Fortino provides a fitting tribute to a troubled period in the region.
The food is pretty good too – though you might find yourself eating out of a Billy Can
After the War, the region, now under Italian rule, set about rebuilding. The hydroelectric plant in Riva del Garda was part of that period of regeneration.
Built between 1925 and 1929 by architect Giancarlo Maroni, it is a real feat of engineering – taking water from Lake Ledro at a higher altitude and feeding it through massive turbines to generate enough energy to power the region. It is known as a ‘reservoir’ plant, because it is the force of falling water from Lake Ledro to Lake Garda which is transformed into electricity via the turbines. The plant also has a special multi-stage pump which can push the water back up from Lake Garda to Lake Ledro.
I was lucky enough to have a guided tour of the plant – something I’d recommend to everyone visiting the region. Once inside the striking Palazzo which houses the plant, you can see some of the tunnels up into the mountains, explore the turbine hall, the transformer building and even take a look at the original control room.
And, out on the roof, there’s a fantastic view across the lake.
In contrast to the grandeur and scale of the hydroelectric plant, Molino Pellegrini also uses water to power the mill, producing buckwheat flour and polenta over three generations.
Not only can you buy the artisan products from Alberto Pellegrini’s small shop, but he’ll take you around the mill and show you how the flour and polenta is produced using traditional stone mills, gravity and a lot of care!
Writing this, I’m very conscious how little I know about the region and how much more there is to discover. With its own versions of the artisan crafts and traditions of Tuscany (including Carne Salade, regional artisan olive oil and Vino Santo – the region’s sweet wine) but with a very different heritage, Garda Trentino is definitely worth exploring – and I’ll be returning soon to find out more.
If you are thinking of visiting, why not pin this post for later
I was a guest of Garda Trentino Tourist Board for this trip
I flew to Verona with British Airways. There are direct flights to Verona from London with British Airways and Easy Jet. A transfer to Garda Trentino will take around an hour by car.
I stayed at Hotel Luise in Riva del Garda.