Beautiful Bardolino offers blue skies and pink streets for a few heady days in June
Lake Garda is the ideal place to relax and unwind, especially if you stay at a spa hotel, but the temperature turns a hot pink in the middle of the Palio del Chiaretto, says Gail Bell
THE warning was out – Bardolino, on the southern shores of Italy's stunning Lake Garda, was about to be uncorked, sending a river of pink bubbling through its ancient, cobbled streets… and, as luck would have it, we had arrived just in time for the toast.
Early June is the Rosé Wine Festival – Palio del Chiaretto, to give it its proper title – and although purely fortuitous in our case, thousands of oenophile holidaymakers across Europe book their holidays specifically to coincide with the annual celebration.
Not quite a river (although a section of the Riva Cornicello at the waterfront is tinted pink in honour of the occasion), Bardolino's streets become awash with wine – last year, over 22,000 glasses were sold over the three-day event.
As well as the wine tasting, there are high-end food stalls and live music – all contributing to the "rocking" atmosphere, as authentically described by our enthusiastic TUI rep at the Hotel Caesius Thermae and Spa, where my daughter and I had just checked in for the week.
Located across the road from the lake between Bardolino and the pretty village of Cisano, this modern, sprawling complex is a five-star spa resort noted for its rejuvenating ayurvedic treatments and various detoxing programmes in the wellness centre.
I'm not sure if bookings rise following the yearly excesses of the Chiaretto party, but, wine festivals aside, Bardolino remains one of the most popular resorts on Garda.
This is due in part to its highly regarded local wine industry, but also because of its accessible position for exploring the many other charming harbour towns and villages dotted around Italy's largest lake which measures 50 miles long and 11 across at its widest.
Whether it's picturesque Malcesine with its 13th-century Castello Scaligero and cable car ride up the Monte Baldo mountain range, or fragrant Limone, the most northerly place where lemons grow (and where, apparently, people live the longest), everywhere is only a leisurely boat ride away.
Bardolino was up there with the best of them and although not quite as pretty as Riva del Garda in the Trento province in the north, it is, as the Italians would say, rocambolesco – incredible – in its own right.
Only a 45-minute journey from Verona airport, the town, with imposing, medieval churches and 12th century city walls, attractive waterfront and modern eateries and boutiques, is an ideal base for visiting the nearby Dolomite mountains or taking a day-trip to a few of Italy's iconic cities – Verona, Venice and Milan being the closest.
As this was a week's relaxing spa break with my daughter, we couldn't resist a shopping trip to stylish Milan and some sightseeing in the theatrical showpiece that is Venice, but first we needed to savour more of Bardolino, only a 20-minute lakeside stroll from the hotel – the Caesius providing a free shuttle bus service if and when required.
With a smattering of pebble beaches, wooden jetties and glittery blue water on one side and exotic, aromatic greenery on the other, it is an enchanting walk – the promenade is busy and extensive, stretches beyond Bardolino to Garda town, some 50 minutes to the north by foot (less if you hire a bicycle).
On our first walk into town for lunch, we were happily delayed after stumbling across the weekly market; an eye-catching mix of inspired, quality crafts, from one-off jewellery pieces to artisan foodstuffs and exquisitely fashioned Italian leather bags.
And, unlike in Piazza San Marco in Venice where (our guide assured us) you could fork out up to €20 for a single cup of coffee – depending on whether you sat or stood – everything was reasonably priced.
Even at frantic lunchtimes when al fresco dining is at its busiest here, there is a zippy conviviality in the air, a deep sense of relaxation which stretches long into Bardolino evenings and which can be breathed in great gulps at one of the Italian Opera concerts running at the Sala Della Disciplina.
Admittedly, a night at the Bardolino opera was not our first choice, but the famed open-air operas in Verona's magnificent Roman amphitheatre don't begin until the end of June.
Never mind, because although there was no ceiling of stars above nor ancient stone steps beneath us, this scaled-down version in what was once a 14th-century church (and later a bakery), held a charm all of its own.
Quirky and at times unintentionally funny, the concerts suit newbies as much as seasoned opera connoisseurs, due to the mix of arias and duets taken from well-known productions and performed by a talented, endearing and, notably, interchangeable team.
The friendly guy at the front desk who takes your ticket (your surname, handwritten in felt pen on a post-it note, will be stuck on the arm of your seat) will also be on stage as your compere and then later – following a quick change of clothes – as one of the professional singers belting out Nessun Dorma in a spine-tingling finale.
The evening, popular with holidaymakers, was booked directly through the Caesius hotel reception, although pretty much everything else you might want to see or do, from lake cruises, to wine tasting tours and city and mountain day trips, can be booked through a TUI rep when you arrive.
The problem might be, though, prising yourself off one of the comfortable sunbeds scattered around the lush gardens at the Caesius or bordering the five outdoor swimming pools (one with submerged Jacuzzi seats) to actually do anything at all.
It is addictively easy to while away the hours on-site in the sunshine or in the healing waters of the labrinythine indoor spa which boasts a large heated swimming pool and variety of thermal pools, as well as Finnish sauna, aromatherapy showers and spacious relaxation area.
The hotel is also renowned for its fine dining, with the main restaurant on the terrace serving up excellent Italian dishes (the risotto is particularly good) fused with inspired meat and fish dishes from around the world.
This being Bardolino, wine is a vital accompaniment, or course, and Lugana (locally produced full-bodied white) and Chiaretto (light rosé) were firm favourites at dinner tables in the evening.
The weather is less of a firm bet in this region, however, which is well known for its dramatic, summer thunderstorms, but you could hit it lucky like us and have blue skies, heat (the mercury was pushing 30 some days) and sunshine for the duration of your stay.
Unlike other holiday hotspots, if the rain does fall, there is a long list of things to do, with top attractions including the Zeni wine museum, Bardolino olive oil museum, nearby Gardaland theme park and the Movieland Park (close to Lazise), which is Italy's first amusement theme park dedicated to the world of cinema.
Indeed, the choice can be overwhelming whatever the weather: vintage sail boat on the lake, anyone? Hike in the Dolomites or relaxing browse at the market?
On the days you can't decide, slip on your fluffy spa robe and embrace that other great Italian hobby: ‘dolce far niente' – the sweetness of doing nothing. It is not as difficult as it sounds while staying at a stylish spa hotel located across the road from a rather stylish lake.
:: TUI fly direct from Belfast International Airport to Verona (the flight takes less than three hours) with a 45-minute transfer time to Bardolino.
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