It's a 17th-Century classico. Lake Garda has been Europe's original tourist resort ever since English aristocrats, in search of cultura and Chianti, sojourned there during their epic Grand Tours. Despite the advent of autostrada, Alpine tunnels and flights from Knock, however, Garda has retained its amaranthine appeal as one of the continent's most timeless getaways. Where better, then, for me to recapture some Italian gran turismo.
An hour after touching tarmac at Milan Bergamo Airport, I'd reached the arresting majesty of Sirmione, "Perla del Lago" of Garda's southern shores. Through a toe-to-toe procession of tourists, driver Roberto and I edged into the old town along the buttressed bridge of Castello Scaligero, as nesting waterhens and wooden dinghies bobbed languidly in the waters below.
The town, with hints of Manzoni romanticism, harmonised with the buzzing finezza of an Italian resort: gelato-slurping Germans meandered the cobbles, gesticulating pizza vendors dished out Margherita slices.
Even this hotspot hamlet had scope for a hideaway, however. There were the Grotto of Catullus Roman ruins on its northern tip, the hidden jetties on the east banks, and a trove of tucked-away trattorias to savour seafood risotto to the clink of toasting vino glasses.
Garda's shores are themselves bounteously fruitful, so my next stop was to the lesser-trodden terroir of the local Lugana grape. At winery Provenza Cantine (provenzacantine.it), I wandered amid vines and cellars before being led to a tasting bay by ultra-charismatic host Aldo Steccanella.
A zesty straw-yellow Fabio Contato was followed by the sublimely plummy Negresco red. "What would you serve this one with?" I asked, imbibing a second quaff. "A good woman," Aldo replied sardonically, a riposte straight from the Silvio Berlusconi school of Viticulture.
Deeper into Garda's hinterland lay Franciacorta, Italy's very own DOC sparkling wine region, set along cherry blossom-blotted countryside, stonewalled villages and aristocratic villas. I headed to its tiny village of Ome, for an afternoon of cookery with agri-tourism outfit Al Rocol (alrocol.com, €80). Wearing the toques were the Vimercatti Castellini family, who've been farming the lands here since the 18th Century, while also producing their exclusive bubbly à la méthode champenoise. Speak not of Lambrusco in these parts.
I got to chopping basil and crumbling gorgonzola, while my fellow foodies rolled pastry and got to grips with the fettucine maker. Being the home of slow food, things were positively pedestrian, with stages of prep generously buffered with alfresco antipasti and flutes of Franciacorte.
Come dusk, our rustic fare was finally primed: fresh tagliatelle, wild mushroom risotto, a savoury pomodoro and basilico tart and chaser of tiramisu and grappa. Che buonissima!
Next on the itinerary was Iseo, a more untouched and hypnotically picturesque lake nestled between Garda and Como.
I indulged in Ristorante Vittoria's menu of grilled tench and herb-roast polenta, while overlooking the lakeside glisten. Beyond, a tiny private islet was capped with a fairytale castello. Were Enya house-hunting for place in the sun, she'd probably opt for here.
My tour ended in nearby Brescia, the urban underdog sandwiched by the big-city sophisticato of Venice and Milan. Brescia's been on the cultural charm offensive of late, however, keen to attract some of the A4's bypassing masses. The city's Santa Giulia Museo uncovers a subterranean warren of fascinating Roman ruins, while its Daimler exhibition melds pop-art kitsch with superhero retro motors.
Architecture romantics, meanwhile, can be awed by the city's unmobbed Venetian-style squares.
I joined some old Italian amici at Piazza della Loggia to catch up on life over a traditional aperativo of Pirlo: Campari and tonic water drenched with Prosecco. I found myself in the midst of a truer, tourist-free Italia.
It seems, four centuries on, the Lake Garda region can still lure the grand traveller. Especially with a few detours.