The pilgrim’s trail
The pilgrim’s trail is a classic for this region: old roads and lanes used to link the towns of Garda, Torri del Benaco, Albisano and Crero, and then go up the Olive tree Riviera, passing through ancient boroughs overlooking the lake, to the picturesque town of Malcesine. The pilgrims arriving from northern Europe would follow this trail to reach the road leading to Verona, and from there go to Venice where they would set sail for the Holy Land. There are a few, rather steep climbs along the way, so you need to be fairly fit: the hard work is rewarded by the breath-taking views one enjoys while cycling in a unique natural environment, where the Mediterranean shrubland cohabits with pre-alpine flora.
The starting point is in Garda: the trail leads to Punta San Vigilio along a long, north-bound road. Just before the beach starts, near the harbours, there is a splendid mansion, Villa Albertini (1). The road continues to run alongside the beach and after the majestic Villa Canossa (2), a narrow lane starts, leading up to the main road. Still north bound, the route leads to yet another road, this one heading towards Castei, a town with a marvellous view of San Vigilio and the Bay of the Sirens (Baia delle Sirene) (3).
The trail continues, winding through the woods, to end up on a lovely scenic bike trail overlooking the lake which leads to Torri del Benaco (4) and its castle. From here, it continues up towards Albisano, but before long, there is one of the most difficult parts of this itinerary, i.e. the lane leading to Crero. It is a steep climb, and the ground surface is full of loose pebbles and stones, which make it very slippery. It is therefore necessary to push the bike up for about 150 metres. The following stretch of path makes the effort worthwhile: gently unfolding over the tree-lined hills, the road runs through the woods that here and there open up to reveal glimpses of deep blue waters. Crero is a village perched on a hill, from where you can admire most of Lake Garda. Worth mentioning is also its 18th-century church of Saint Syrus, beside which starts another path leading rapidly down to the shores of the lake. After approximately 200 metres along the main road, the trail continues uphill towards Pai di Sopra, another picturesque village from which there is a stunning view. Once again, a path running up and down the hills leads the cyclists to the discovery of charming medieval villages, such as Ca’ Tronconi and Campo (5), considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. After Campo, there is a gentle, downhill slope, followed by another hilly stretch, crossing the hamlets of Castello, Burago and Sommavilla, and leading to Cassone (6), a town overlooking the island of Trimelone (7). The trail continues along the edge of the lake, on an excellent bike track leading to the centre of Malcesine (8).
There are buses heading back to Garda, but it is preferable to go by boat, to better enjoy the colours and atmosphere of the lake.
(1) The Becelli family, who owned the stretch of coastland between Garda and San Virgilio, commissioned the construction of Villa Albertini. It owes its name to the Degli Albertini, the earls who purchased it in the 1700s and renovated it in the Nineteenth century, drawing inspirations from Medieval castles. The villa is surrounded by a splendid park created in the mid 1800s, full of towers, temples, fountains and waterfalls.
(2) Villa Canossa was built in the 16th-century, but has because it was redesigned, enlarged and renovated in the Nineteenth century, it has the typical look of that time. The large park surrounding it is extremely interesting, as are the works of art inside the villa.
(3) Punta San Vigilio, a small peninsula jutting into the lake, is one of the most charming and romantic spots in the area. It is surrounded by cypresses and dominated by the beautiful 16th-century Renaissance villa said to have been built by Sanmicheli. In the village at the end of the promontory there is a small harbour enclosed by walls and houses and an lovely old lemon grove. Many famous people have sojourned here throughout the centuries, including Goethe, who was utterly bewitched by the beauty of the lake. Soon after the war, Winston Churchill retired and spent many happy hours painting on the edge of Lake Garda.
(4) Torri del Benaco is a very ancient town, and the first settlements seem to date back to 2000 b.C. Throughout the centuries it has been inhabited by various populations: the remains of prehistoric stilt houses have been found in the area, and the town has a typical ancient Roman configuration. When the Roman legions occupied the eastern shores of the lake, in the 1st century b.C., they immediately set out to fortify all positions of strategic importance, including Torri, located half-way between Peschiera and Riva del Garda. Torri presumably became a castrum, i.e. a military encampment, which was linked to the inland by a road going over the hill of Albisano. In the 10th century, Berengar I, King of Italy, reinforced it so as to protect it from the Magyars, who at that time were raiding and devastating the Po plain. The castle was renovated by Antonio della Scala, the last Scaliger lord of Verona, in 1383.
(5) Campo still looks like it presumably did in the late 1800s, when its population started to decrease. The stone houses are all amassed against each other, beneath the town castle, an ancient building with a small bell-gable that is now devoid of bells. These ruins are in the heart of a now semi-abandoned town. You can see the whole of Lake Garda from Campo, from the peninsula of Sirmione, down south, to the breezy shores of Rive del Garda, up north. The breath-taking view however is not the only attraction. Campo is deep in the midst of a forest of holm oaks and beech trees. Its appearance betrays its past as a fortified country village, the economy of which was chiefly based on olive trees and oil. Though some houses are now in ruin, others have been recently renovated and are used as holiday homes.
(6) This charming town overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Garda is extremely picturesque and definitively deserves a visit. Cassone also offers a spectacular view of the environs. It is crossed by the Aril, a stream that is only 175 m long: it is the shortest in Italy, and one of the shortest in the world. From the bridge crossing over it, you can see the Aril gushing into the lake with great force and momentum. Cassone is not a popular tourist resort, and therefore one can still savour its typical atmosphere of old fishing village. The small ‘Lake Museum’ is worth visiting: it contains a collection of old instruments used for fishing and navigating as well as items linked to the history and traditions of this lakeside town. Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), the famous Austrian artist, is said to have been deeply impressed by this delightful town, and painted his “Church in Cassone” (Kirche in Cassone am Gardasee) here.
(7) The island of Trimelone, fortified in the Tenth century, is opposite Assenza di Brenzone. For many decades, there was a depot there for storing ammunition dating back to World War I and II. Over one hundred thousand granades, bombs, bullets and shells were subsequently detonated in the quarries of Torri and Caprino. Nowadays the military buildings, magazine and fort have been closed down, the old port has been demolished and the island has become the kingdom of seagulls and cormorants.
(8) Malcesine is one of the most popular tourist resorts around Lake Garda. The town is extremely old, and its centre is a maze of narrow, stone-paved streets. Malcesine castle was built by the Lombards, but was then used by the Scaligers, who ruled the region until 1387. There is a ski lift departing from the town, which carries holiday-makers to the peak of Mount Baldo.