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Out and about in the north of Italy

2 November 2017

Lake Garda is one of northern Italy's most famous, and favourite, tourist spots, and how could it not be? From the glittering blue surface of the lake, to the numerous towns and villages clustered around its shores, the mighty backdrop of the Alps giving the lake a rather dramatic feel, and, of course, some fabulous transport links to more of the elegant cities of Italy that are scattered about this region. I was fortunate enough to find myself in Sirmione on Lake Garda for four days, and here is my advice for those that go.

Leisure time - Day 1

There are numerous things to do on days off around here. In Sirmione, the Grotto di Catullo is well worth a visit. This old Roman mansion boasts of fairly awe-inspiring views across the lake thanks to its position on the headland. It's just 15 minutes' walk past the Old Town of Sirmione, and there is also an electric train that goes from the Piazza Piatti, however this only runs in the summer. Of course, the ancient castle of the Rocca Scaligera is a must-see, standing proudly over the entrance to the Old Town.

Alternatively, take a boat over to nearby Desenzano. On Tuesdays, there is an enormous market, selling everything from clothes, to kitchenware, to handsome leather bags. If you aren't visiting on a Tuesday, another Roman ruin might call for your attention, in the form of the exquisitely preserved Villa Romana ed Antiquarium, a short walk from the port and the main square.

Verona - Day 2

The first stop here is the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. This modern looking church was built on the foundations of an old Habsburg fortress, and what a view it has. Looking over the ancient city of Verona, fringed by cypress trees, enjoy the sight of a terracotta topped houses, with the River Adige curling through them. If you can stand to tear your gaze away from the panorama, go into the church, where the window over the alter showcases a view of a statue of the eponymous Madonna - an optical illusion that makes the statue seem like it is inside, but in reality, is in the serene garden.

In Verona itself, Juliet's Balcony can really be more of a fly-by visit, but the enchanting Piazza delle Erbe and the ancient Arena deserve to be savoured. The Piazza, surrounded by gorgeous buildings and apartments, and filled with stalls, is just off the Piazza dei Signori, where the most famous residents of Verona stand guard on the buildings, immortalised in marble. The Verona Arena exudes a sense of unfathomable history. Build in AD 30, it seems almost unreal that this elegant opera house once saw bloody battles between Gladiators and vicious beasts.

Sigurtá Gardens and Mantova - Day 3

Visiting the gardens in October really proved that they are a wonder at any time of year (although it is closed over the winter). The dazzling display of colours and the explosions of flora and fauna are replaced by the more muted tones of autumn. Gold, red, and brown are the colours of the moment, and they are displayed to an extraordinary effect in the woods and bushes that surround the place.

Mantova is a beautiful little city, defined by the enormous Ducal Palace complex. Here, look for the Bridal Chamber, and more specifically, look up in the Bridal Chamber, where a cleverly painted fresco on the ceiling gives the illusion you're being looked down at by various putti (cherubs). Upon leaving the Ducal Palace, head to the Basilica di Sant'Andrea. Although it looks like a fairly small but pretty church from the outside, inside is a spectacular nave, covered in paintings that, at first glance, appear to be three-dimensional.

Venice - Day 4

There is almost too much to see and do in Venice, and honestly, it can't be done in just one day. From the sights that surround St Mark's Square - the Doge's Palace, St Mark's Basilica, and the square itself to name a few - to the more far-flung sights, this is a place that needs to be savoured. The basilica is my undisputed favourite of these famed sights. Every part of its façade is draped in marbled elegance, including a boastful reminiscence on how the body of St Mark himself was smuggled out of the Middle East. The inside is no less spectacular, with tens of thousands of tiles making up breathtaking mosaics that tell biblical stories from Genesis to the Gospels.  

The best part of Venice itself is venturing away from the crowds (which is actually possible). Take a few turns away from the busy hubbub of the main square, and you will find yourself in a relatively quiet 'campo'. Usually, there is a large and beautiful church, as well as a café serving delicious pastries, pasta, and pesce (fish), where you can while away the hours soaking in the Venetian glory.