Apartment living near Italy's Lake Garda

This article appears on page 38 of the March 2008 issue.
Outdoor cafés and shops surround the edge of the square in front of the moated Rocca Saligera castle, a popular tourist stop in Sirmione, Lake Garda.

by Alan Wolstencroft, Dunnellon, FL

While browsing the Internet for somewhere to stay during my planned early spring 2007 visit on the shores of Lake Garda, northern Italy, I spotted the Residence Bella Vista, located in Manerba del Garda.

On closer inspection, I thought the prices for its apartments sounded about right, and the photos, it turned out, painted a pretty accurate picture of its amenities.

A quick check found that an apartment was available for the three weeks that my sister-in-law, Kathleen, and I wished to be there. A deposit for half the cost sealed the deal and I was ready to begin work on the rest of the arrangements.


Switching to www.orbitz.com, I found a round-trip flight from Manchester, England (her home), to Milan that suited our sluggish morning schedules.

Kathleen poses beside the Residence run-about car in the parking area alongside the pool.

Since we wanted to do some touring of the lake area, I felt that a car would be necessary. I learned that because of my age (late 70s), a rental car was not easily available. Instead, I used the Peugeot Buy Back plan that I found on the Internet, and it worked well. (For more information, call Auto Europe at 888/223-5555 or visit www.autoeurope.com.) A brand-new Executive 307 with automatic steering and air conditioning was soon my means of transportation.

The program required that I keep the car for 17 or more days and purchase their insurance. I chose to keep the car for 21 days at a total cost of €1,519 ($1,736).

Gasoline prices in Italy were high and changed constantly. It took around €100 ($146) to fill the tank, which was almost empty when I picked up the car. Thankfully, the car was very economical on mileage.

When we got to Manchester airport we discovered that our original flight had been canceled and we were rebooked on a flight departing 2½ hours later. This threw off our timing, and by the time we picked up the car in Milan (a very simple signature process) it was getting dark. My maps and driving directions were useless — who can see signs in the dark? — and we got hopelessly lost.

I asked a very helpful young man for directions by means of “sign language” and pointing to my maps, and he and his friend signaled us to follow them. After winding through various areas, we arrived in front of the hotel I had chosen for the night. Despite my best efforts, the two men refused to accept my offer to pay them for their gas or to reward them for their kindness — a first taste of the wonderful people of Italy that we would soon meet and their kindness to total strangers.

Apartment living

After a relaxing overnight stay at Hotel da Mariuccia (Via Don L. Pozzi, 43 — €90, or $132) and a fantastic evening meal, we set off for Lake Garda. My maps and driving directions worked perfectly in the daylight, and we arrived in Manerba early Saturday afternoon to meet the Alboraletti family (a mother and her two sons), who owned the Residence.

What had been a hotel was gutted in 2000 and rebuilt into seven apartments on two floors above the main ground floor. Our apartment could sleep up to four people and consisted of a large living room with a sofa bed, a full kitchen and a large bedroom with a queen-sized bed plus a good-size bathroom with a walk-in shower.

The lakeside promenade and sidewalk cafés at Garda, on the east side of the lake.

We had the largest balcony, which overlooked part of the Residence’s grounds as well as a beautiful Italian landscape and an extensive bay with misty mountains in the background.

Directly below our apartment was the outdoor section of the on-site restaurant under a canopy of vines. To the right was the swimming pool (not heated) and the pool bar, which was very popular with the young local friends of Daniele, the older son, and Marco, the bartender.

Off to the right was a free parking area with spots reserved for each of the apartments plus more room for any locals using the pool/bar. Though this was not a guarded parking area, it really did not seem to need protection.

On the street side of the Residence was a small bar plus a number of outdoor tables where “Mama” served the local population as well as guests. Right next door was a laundry, which I made use of for bigger pieces of clothing (€3 per item); the small items we did in the sink and hung to dry on lines on the balcony.

Not wanting to cook when on holiday, we chose the half-pension instead of doing for ourselves. Michele, the younger son, was an excellent cook for the evening restaurant meals, and everyone pitched in for the morning breakfasts (served from 6:30 to 11, which we sluggards loved).

Daniele and his girlfriend, Sylvia, took care of the sandwiches, snacks and other goodies for the pool-bar crowd, and he also kept the grounds and pool shipshape. Michele was the linguist of the family, speaking excellent English, and he dealt with bookings for the apartments and requests for travel information.

Getting around

Driving in Italy was not too bad as long as I kept my wits about me. They drive on the same side of the road as in the States, and signs were okay. I had used www.mapquest.com a lot before I left home to plot routes and recognize names of places, exits, etc.

Italian drivers may have a bad name, but we generally found them more than courteous and patient when I goofed up and needed to back up and turn around.

The outdoor section of the Residence Bella Vista's restaurant, under the canopy of growing vines.

Some of the villages we drove to had incredibly narrow streets and I was always afraid of knocking off the side mirrors. Fortunately, I was lucky and never met a car coming in the other direction.

We spent a lot of time on Lake Garda, using the ferry services and rapid boats. We tried three different ferry stops, including Salo, close to Manerba, before we settled on the tiny village of Portese as it was closest to us, had few cars on the roads and offered easy parking. In fact, we got quite chummy with the ticket lady and she helped us a lot with the ferry schedules, such as that for the Malcesine route, which we took for a ride on the Mount Baldo cable car.

At other times we drove to the closer lakeside villages to give us time to explore them, have lunch, eat huge gelato cones and shop. The bigger spots, such as Gardone Riviera, had a mixture of elegant boutiques (with gorgeous Italian knits), fancy restaurants, and shops geared to the needs of the local residents.

We never did meet any American tourists. Mostly, we saw lots of Germans and the start of the preseason English coach tours. Being there for three weeks allowed us to join the local residents at the outdoor cafés, the many churches, the ladies’ and gents’ hairdressers, the shops and supermarkets and the weekly markets.

It took a little while to adjust to the lengthy afternoon siesta closings, but at least the roads were almost deserted during those times, making driving around easier.

Every Friday, the one and only main street in front of the Residence was closed from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. whilst the market took up the entire length and width of it. It took us two tries to cover the full extent of the market, checking out every stall. Almost everything one could want or need was available: food (including huge slabs of lovely, smelly cheese), clothing, household items, plants and flowers, and even a few souvenirs. In the summer, this also happens on Tuesday evenings.

Back to Milan

Waterfront hotels surround the ferry dock at Riva del Garda, at the northern tip of the lake.

Since we had an early-morning flight back home, for our last night in Italy Michele kindly made a reservation for us at the First Hotel Malpensa (Via Baracca, 34; phone +39 0331 717045, www.firsthotel.it), our room with twin beds plus breakfast costing €125 ($183).

We casually drove toward the airport, about 110 kilometers away, that afternoon after the market had cleared out. The traffic on the motorway around Milan was stop and go for many miles.

The hotel was equally as good as our first, and we again had a marvelous evening meal.

After a short shuttle ride to the airport, we were soon checked in and ready for our flight back to England.

A worthwhile experience

Was it worth staying in a single location for the majority of our time in Italy? Yes, indeed! Perhaps not too many travelers want to stay in one place for so long, but it suited our leisurely style. In our late 70s, though quite fit, we are past the frantic comings and goings of shorter holidays for the ultra-active. At least the weather was great — lots of sun and only one day of rain — so we were able to sit on our balcony most late afternoons for cocktails before a late dinner.

Apartment rates at Residence Bella Vista (fax +39 0365 551805, www.residencebellavista.com) are €55 ($81) per day in the low season and €95 ($140) during high season. Adding breakfast costs €7 per person, and half-pension is €17 per person, both per day. Wine with dinner is extra, and there is a charge for any linen changes you may need.

For more info, please feel free to e-mail or write me c/o ITN.