When talking to fellow Englishmen, it is not unusual to hear that they have visited Lake Garda and the surrounding regions or that they are planning to travel there on their next holiday. This is unsurprising. It is breathtakingly beautiful and offers the very best of Italy: enchanting views, mouth-watering food and drink, the promise of sunshine in the summer months and splashes of history. There are also several places on the lake to visit, offering variety and the opportunity to travel. And yet – English tourists to Lago di Garda tend to belong to a particular demographic – older couples. It’s true that for a romantic break or a cultural experience the Lake is the perfect destination, but its charms are not those that exclusively appeal to the older generation. Of course, all those things that pull them in would also appeal to those in their 20’s and 30’s, culture and history are interests for them too, but it also has much more to offer. When one considers that the locals frequent the lake’s towns, it’s important to note that the region also has a bustling nightlife. This nightlife may not look like what happens in Magaluf, Malia, Ibiza and the other party scenes, but it is no less fantastic when you know where to go. Sure, it may demand a little more sophistication than that witnessed on shows like Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, but that only works in its favour.
In the summer months, the area opens for business: there are summer only bars and clubs that operate from May to September, much like a “season” on the classic 18 – 30’s holiday. Instead of clubbing in a building that could exist anywhere in the world, many of these clubs and bars make the most of their enviable location. Having experienced the nightlife in Lombardy and Veneto from my teen years, I can say with confidence there is nothing quite like it. Open-air discos by the lake give every person in the place the real VIP experience. There are man-made beaches which are open from the daytime into the early hours meaning you can party in your swimming costume overlooking amazing views.
Drinking in clubs and bars in Italy is a strange concept for those used to English nightlife and that experienced in the typical English-dominated Spanish tourist destinations. Instead of watered-down mixers and lacklustre cocktails, brace yourself for quite the opposite. Drinks are usually strong and tasty; the ingredients are fresh and the person behind the bar is experienced at making them. Goodbye watery lemonade with one carefully measured shot of vodka, hello five-star cocktails. The price of drinks is not even excessive but rather on the contrary, especially when one considers the volume of alcohol in each glass.
Furthermore, the Italian version of what is affectionately termed “pre-drinks” in this country takes on a new lease of life. Aperitivo time is the best time. It is a custom for all ages, not just for the young, and usually occurs before a meal. The great thing about aperitivo in Italy is that in most bars they put out food for you to help yourself to, totally free of charge. Yes, really. The first time my fiancé visited the country, he kept asking over and over, “Who’s paid for this?”, as my repeated response of, “No one – its free”, was just too good to be true. Sometimes they lay out food on the bar for you to go over to at your own leisure, other times they’ll bring a selection to your table. The minimum is crisps, but this is rare, and it often entails much more. Parma ham as we refer to it in England, or prosciutto crudo as the natives call it, often features. A moreish and often lavish treat that costs far more than it reasonably should at home, is often served up free of charge. Sometimes there are mini pizzas, bread with ham, olives, salami and always breadsticks or grossini. It effectively means that you could go on a bar crawl around the cities as in the case of the nearby Verona or Mantova, and not even have to buy a meal. You pay for your drinks, and you snack as you go. It’s something everyone should do.
If you’re a foodie, I don’t think there’s a better place on earth. Pizza, pasta, meat, fish – you can get all of this at every turn and for a reasonable price. If you’re into wine there are fantastic bars wherever you go, especially in Verona and Mantova where you can stroll from one to next at your leisure. There are fantastic modern restaurants that also incorporate a quasi-nightlife feel and that attract younger people; Piper in Verona sits at the top of a hill in what seems like the middle of nowhere on your journey up, only to provide not only an extensive menu and a disco on certain nights, but unreal views of the city. I can’t recommend it enough.
If all this isn’t enough to persuade you, Italy also boasts an abundance of olive-skinned, well-dressed, beautiful ragazzi to gaze at too – and that really is something to behold. After a couple of drinks you’ll also realise that most younger Italians have at least a basic knowledge of the English language, meaning there’s an opportunity to integrate with the locals even if all you can manage is “ciao!”.