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Monte Baldo Is A Great Belvedere
Monte Baldo is a great belvedere

Getting to know Italy's glorious Lake Garda through its history

Although this article is about the delights of the wonderful walking possibilities in the guidebook Walking Lake Garda and Iseo, Cicerone author Gillian Price can be forgiven for bringing in a curious bit of history, especially when it is closely related to Venice, the unique watery city she calls home.

An epic Venetian boat trip (no gondolas, though)

Lake Garda is a fairly calm lake; its surface furrowed by the local ferries and ruffled by stiff breezes that delight windsurfers and yachtsmen. But it wasn't always like that. Once-upon-a-time it was the stage for naval battles.

In the 15th century, the famed Serenissima Republic of Venice, to the east of the lake, was under threat from the Turks in the southern reaches of the Adriatic Sea. The city's governors resolved to carry out a series of strategic moves to expand their power base onto the mainland, and wasted no time engulfing settlements and territories, bringing them into the fold as devoted allies. A tad beyond Verona lies Lake Garda, its vast expanse fiercely contested by the mighty north Italian Duchy of Milan, which was governed by the powerful Visconti family at the time. Venice had control of Lake Garda's western shores at the start of the 15th century but in the seesawing wars that ensued, Milan managed to shoulder its way in again and reconquer territory. Not to be outdone, the Venetians came up with a brilliant plan that saw them draw on their wealth of experience as a seafaring republic. Devised by expert military engineers with the help of a Greek sailor, and under the command of Captain Piero Zen, the extraordinary Galeas per montes campaign was the Venetian answer to Milanese aggression. At the astronomical cost of 15,000 ducats, it assembled a fleet of 33 longboats, galleys and frigates for a mammoth journey of 200km.

In January 1439 the expedition set sail from Chioggia (in the southern lagoon) where they picked up the River Adige, which they followed west all the way to the loyal city of Verona. There, a series of locks enabled the journey to continue north, but as it was against the current the boats needed to be towed – hundreds of sailors were put to work. An added complication was the unusually low water level. Nonplussed, the ingenious Venetians adapted their boats with floating rafts to keep them buoyant. Once they reached the village of Mori, not far before Rovereto, the real fun and games started as a rather high hill needed to be negotiated before the lake could be reached – still 25km away overland. A veritable army of labourers cleared a passage, levelled land and felled trees to use as rollers.

Some 2000 oxen were put to work in pairs to haul the craft uphill. En route was the minor lake Lago di Loppio, which enabled them to cover two relaxing kilometres on water once more. From Passo di San Giovanni, at 287 metres above sea level, a purpose-made system of sturdy pulleys, winches and cables guaranteed the boats a slow but safe passage down to the lakeside where they could finally enter the water at Torbole on the northeast shore of Lake Garda. Alas, the unusual activity had not gone unnoticed and the Milanese defeated the invaders in the ensuing battle, although the Venetians won back the lake shortly afterwards.

Word quickly spread of the scale of the audacious enterprise and it became understandably famous across Europe. Nowadays, a bronze plaque depicting the action can be admired in the streets of Torbole.

Moreover, visitors to the Doge's Palace in Venice can admire a ceiling canvas by an artist hardly anyone has heard of – Francesco Montemezzano – who was commissioned in 1590 to paint the transport of the fleet across the hills. Alongside is the magnificent canvas by the great 16th century artist Jacopo Tintoretto, starring larger-than-life victorious Venetian soldiers taking Riva del Garda from the Milanese in 1440.

What on earth do glaciers and wildflowers have in common?

Immediately south of Torbole looms the celebrated elongated massif of Monte Baldo (bald mountain), which peaks at a dizzy 2218 metres above sea level. Stretching out north–south for an impressive 40km between the lake's eastern shore and the Adige river valley, the magnificent limestone barrier is a paradise for hang gliders and walkers in the warm summer months. It is justifiably a renowned belvedere, with breathtaking views up and down the lake.

It also happens to be a great place for understanding how Lake Garda came to be created.

Transport yourself back in time several million years to the last ice age, which saw the Alps covered in frozen layers that were kilometres thick in places. Over the centuries the ice moved ever so slowly southwards, finally descending in altitude, gouging out a deep trough (later occupied by the lake), before spreading out and thinning at the edge of the mountains where the northern Italian plain begins. However, not everything was completely submerged by the frozen mass – for example, the elevated ridges of Monte Baldo meant it kept its head above the ice, as an island high and dry. A surprising number of flowering plants have lived to tell the tale and 20 species have been identified as Monte Baldo-specific; unsurprisingly, the mountain has been dubbed the Hortus Europea (Botanical Garden of Europe). Moreover, the vicinity of the lake with its balmy conditions spells further encouragement for plants. And what better way to admire the flowers than go on a walk? Five routes on Monte Baldo (Walks 11 to 15) are described in Walking Lake Garda and Iseo. Walkers who go exploring during the spring and early summer months will be dazzled by gorgeous vermilion peonies, endemic anemones, dozens of different orchids, gentians yellow and blue, and brilliant orange lilies, just for starters.

There's even more good news as Monte Baldo can easily be accessed thanks to the spectacular cable-car, with revolving cabins, which starts at Malcesine.

Old roads and medieval paper mills

From Monte Baldo you look due west across the water to the spectacular shores south of Riva del Garda, where land is at a premium due to dramatic cliffs that plunge directly into the lake, forcing the road through long rock tunnels. But luckily for walkers and cyclists, the earlier way, the old Strada del Ponale, cuts across the vertical flanks with long stretches overlooking the lake. This exciting route (Walk 7 in the book), a remarkable feat of civil engineering, never fails to impress as it burrows through sheer rock faces and hangs off the edge in many spots. Simply spectacular.

A relaxing ferry trip below Riva is pretty and photogenic Limone, renowned for its lemon orchards. A mild micro-climate makes this possible as citrus is not generally found so far north. On the shore a veritable forest of stone columns and trellises on terracing for cultivating the fruit stand out.

A series of rivers and streams flow into this side of the lake through the gorges and valleys they have shaped over time. Campione is an amazing spot, a tiny settlement that occupies a fluvial fan. The gushing Torrente di San Michele flows through a narrow gorge and was harnessed as early as medieval times to power cotton mills and metalworking. All the activity has since been relegated to industrial archaeology and the buildings have been converted into a sailing village. But the great news for walkers are the marked pathways that explore the chasm via old walkways and bridges as well as a short tunnel (Walks 3 and 4).

All effort expended to reach the cliff top is amply rewarded by great photographic opportunities.

A surprising number of paper mills – reportedly 60 in all – once flourished in the valley, created by Torrente Toscolano, as explained at the Museo della Carta (paper museum).

It is visited on an intriguing walk through a lovely valley where the industry dates back to the 14th century and the last mill was active until 1962. Walk 1 in the guidebook entails a leisurely wander past overgrown stone ruins, where multilingual info boards explain the salient points of the history of papermaking: one important customer between the 15th and 16th centuries was none other than the Venetian Republic.