Travel Guide: LAKE GARDA
Words By Rowan Sorrell
Photos by Victor Lucas
I first stopped briefly in Lake Garda a few years ago, I drove along the lake between world cups with the ‘Scottish Contingent’ and scheduled in a couple of hours for an ice cream and swim before trucking on. It was stunning, the sort of place that makes a lasting impression on you. I wanted to head back there at some point and I had no idea at the time that Garda was such a mountain bike Mecca.
Over time I was hearing more and more about the riding here, many bike companies have launched their product ranges here and the massive Garda bike festival sees swarms of bikers buzzing around the northern periphery of the great lake drinking free beer and then riding an 80km enduro. I scheduled in a couple of days to scout out the trails early on in the summer and was soon overwhelmed with how much there was out there to see, so we had to return, this time allowing a week to really get to grips with the area and try to give you a better overview of what to expect if you head to the beautiful Lake Garda.
More recently the myriad of old trading and wartime tracks, tunnels and bunkers up in the mountains have seen a new group of tourists flock to Garda, the mountain bikers. There are thousands of them, never mind Morzine, or even Whistler, there are more riders here than both put together, though most are Lycra clad Germans who climb to the top of the mountains only to roll back down the road!
Only a very small percentage of the crowds of bikers actually ride the technical trails here, I found it funny to think that Garda is one of the few places where you could probably run a successful down–lift shuttle bus!
So the fly–by visit in early May turned into two trips in order to have some time to get to grips with this vast riding area. First time around we had Ralph Jones, Ben Reid, his mechanic Ali and Italian resident Ian Thomas in tow, with photographer Victor Lucas behind the helm and me floating about in there somewhere. We had mixed success on the trails, we were hooked up with a guide for a morning called Carlo, who took us to a pretty fun trail to ride, but I’d say Victor wasn’t too chuffed with it, all that beautiful picture postcard scenery and we were tucked away in the woods rattling down our first Garda rocky trail.
On the plus side the local knowledge paid off in the shape of the No. 1 ice cream parlour of the summer, and trust me we tried a few… this was awesome. The next day we were up early and caught the somewhat pricey cable car to the top of Monte Baldo, we had planned to climb Altissimo from here and access a really long descent from near 2000m down to the lake side at 69m, so nearly 2km vertical height drop, but we were easily distracted from the 45 minute
climb by a trail heading off back towards the lake between the peaks of Mnt Baldo and
This was a somewhat scary number with massive drops and exposure as we teetered along the edge of the cliff top, grabbing onto ‘via ferrata’ wires where necessary. I was glad when we had finished traversing and came out onto open ground again where the trail rocketed back down towards Navenne. There were some great sections of trail on the lower slopes of the hill, but what you had to endure to get to it was a little full–on really.
This first trip showed me that local knowledge is essential here not only to find the best trails in this vast area, but also to avoid ending up in some compromising and dangerous positions. There are many cliffs and exposed edges around the lake and the trails need to be treated with more than a modicum of respect.
We returned in September and this time we hooked up with Tarja and Nail from the All Mountain Experience, they had been guiding all summer and knew their way around some of the best trails. We weren’t on such a tight schedule either this time as we had the best part of a week to soak it all up. Ben and Ali returned for some more riding as we had all enjoyed ripping about on the short travel bikes.
We were based up in the village of Ronzo Cheinis, which had a whole different feel to the hustle and bustle of the resorts down on the lake’s edge, arriving in the sleepy traditional village late at nightthe hotel owner had waited up for us and was quick to pour us a welcome drink, first impressions were good! The next morning, in daylight, we could see our surroundings and we were nestled into the pretty Ronzo valley, a traditional area all but forgotten by tourists, but one that thanks to Tarja and Nial is gaining popularity with mountain bikers. Nial is a world cup XC racer but had previously competed in a few downhill world cups (something that very few people can lay claim to). Tarja is a former Olympian and was a very successful XC and endurance racer, so this set up can certainly keep up with any groups both physically and technically.
The week spent exploring the hills around the lake was a pleasure and despite the overwhelming German presence in the resorts, the region has maintained what Italy does
best: great food, ice cream and wine. In fact Ralph has Garda down as his No.1 pizza stop of the summer, another high accolade indeed when you consider Pizza Time in Cardiff has held that title for some time!
When you head to a ski resort everything is laid out for you, often with a number of trails running off the one lift, letting you blast the runs out. Riding here in Garda is very different; it is a massive area with multiple hills and valleys to explore. Most rides require a little climbing, whether they are lift assisted by cable car or shuttles or out and out XC loops.
A guide pays dividends here as they can take a lot of the guess work out of the area, plus just knowing what is coming up and that you’re not going to overcook a corner off a cliff has a comforting effect. Our local guide Carlo, and then Tarja and Nial, did a great job showing us around some of the best trails. They are still learning new trails themselves as this is such a vast area. Up in the Ronzo valley the riding is a little mellower, there are some fun descents linked by short climbs, you’re not so reliant on the uplifts riding in this part of the valley and the descents aren’t as full–on.
The tracks around the hills vary from cart width to singletrack, and most seem to have vertical drops somewhere along their edges. If I were to try to paint a picture of the riding here it would have to be – rocky. Sorry I mean damn rocky, relentless, loose, sketchy, fast, steep and most importantly fun! I haven’t ridden anywhere else like it. Some of the trails are a little straight and fast (old trading tracks and wartime trails), but then it’s unique; I really don’t think you’ll be able to get a feel for just how rocky these trails are from pictures alone.
Let me try to help you visualise. Riding down two of these trails, Slabmus on Monte Stivo and the 601 down from Monte Altissimo, your eyes were out on stalks, you were focusing so hard on what was coming up. I’m used to really technical sections in tracks and trails, but I’ve never ridden a 30 minute section! I’d say the 601 trail was pretty near the limit of what is possible on a short travel bike and we were pretty pleased to clean it, but I would advise you to try this one with caution as it is a very technical run. At the bottom of one of the descents on the Limone side of the lake I remember thinking this is perhaps the first time I’ve wanted a kidney belt on a push bike. Probably partly down to the fact that we were riding short travel bikes and going full–bore everywhere.
You can of course back it off and pick your way through these trails, but what the hell’s the point in that, these trails are perfect for letting the brakes off and rattling on down full tilt, it makes you feel alive. If you’ve never ridden loose rock then it takes a little getting used to, it ranges depending on the trail from gravelly stone, much like around Monaco and Nice, to fist and football sized rocks you simply have to hop skip and jump on the fly. Sorry, does this sound uninviting? It shouldn’t, I really enjoyed the challenging trails and riding around the lake the vistas are stunning. There are of course some mellower trails too up around the Ronzo valley where the gradients are gentler and it is a little earthier, but the general vibe when you’re descending around Garda is that of…it’s shake rattle and roll time!
If you want to be down in the thick of it I’d suggest you stay in Riva Del Garda or Torbole, right at the northern tip of the Lake these are the liveliest places and also where many shuttles and rides start from. Hotel Santoni in Torbole is your best bet as they are totally set up for bikes with a secure bike lock up, workstand, bikewash, trail maps and Fabio the owner there is knowledgeable and helpful. Away from the resort then up in the peaceful village of Ronzo Cheinis, where there is some great riding, Hotel Martinelli will look after you, with bike storage, free wi-fi and excellent food, and most of the All Mountain Experiences rides are based from here.
One thing that’s a safe bet in Italy is the food; Pastas, pizzas and ice cream are all fantastic here. If you like your coffee then you’ll be in your element, just be prepared to rattle for a while when you come back to ‘normal’ strength coffee back home! Ronzo is an agricultural valley known for its plentiful vegetable harvest and you will get some lovely dishes made from the local produce. The ice cream stalls around the square in Arco are heavenly, the food in Hotel Martinelli is great and for that one–off meal take a short drive down the lake towards the south to the Al Commercio in Bardolino, the best pasta dishes ever, go for the wild boar.
This all depends on where you’re staying, if you want to be out every night then perhaps you’d be better based down at the Lake but even then it’s not really the full on party vibe up at the north end. Weekends are a little livelier and you can head to Winds bar in Torbole to sink a few drinks. If you’ve got your disco shoes and a whole lot of cash in your pocket then you could try heading to the glitzy Sesto Senso Club, in Desenzano right at the southern foot of the lake, this is where the beautiful people go and party through the night. To be honest though, we were always too shattered after a long day and were more than happy to have a couple of beers up in the village before collapsing.
There are plenty of shops in the area and most hire bikes too if you’d rather not fly with your bike. Carpentari, situated on the main road through Torbole, is one of the biggest or Mecki’s bike and Coffee in Riva is where many riders meet up and chill out with a coffee between rides.
For once, getting hold of maps isn’t a big problem, the area is massive and there are three main maps that cover the riding area and these maps can be bought in most bike shops and tourist info points. Problem solved? Well not exactly, although the maps mark cycle routes and grade them they are very hit and miss, follow one and it may well be one of the great Garda singletracks, take the next and you’re pushing up steep sections, walking or bored senseless following a gravel road. This is a place that takes a large amount of exploring to get to grips with the trails and know which trails on the maps are the good ones. Speak to local riders and guides and tell them what you want and they will point out the better trails.
Uplift around Garda is far from cheap, with the Monte Baldo cable car that departs from Malcesine costing 15 Euros per run, to be using this as your main shuttle you would have to be of the ‘money is no object’ school of thought. Shuttles can be arranged from the two bike shops mentioned previously and come in at a similar price per shuttle, although it is worth noting that you are only likely to do two or max three runs per day here due to their longer all–mountain nature.www. AllMountainExperience.com offers various
shuttles during their week’s package, which is probably the best value way of uplifting and hitting the right trails.
Garda is not a cheap place to come and ride, if you go the DIY route then by the time you’ve totalled up your shuttles it can be pretty expensive. The best bet is to try and do a package deal of accommodation, guiding and shuttles.
The climate is mild, with summer enjoying pleasant average temperatures of 23 centigrade, there are episodes of dry heat, but much of the time the atmosphere retains a lot
of moisture making it quite hazy looking out over the lake. The water is beautifully warm and can reach a surface temperature of 25 degrees in the summer, and with temperatures
outside often around 30 degrees on warmer days it’s hard to drag yourself away from the beach.
The nearest airports to Lake Garda are Bergamo and Verona. RyanAir service both airports with flights to Bergamo available from Luton, Stanstead, Bristol and Manchester, flights to Verona currently run just from Stanstead. Lake Garda is a 12.5 hour drive from Calais.z
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