Family fun in Italy: There's something for everyone at Lake Garda
Cormac Bourke takes his family on a package holiday to Lake Garda, Verona and Gardaland...
The lightning flashed. The thunder seemed to shake the air. Rain and hail fell in a deluge. In the darkness, behind the din, a noise slowly grew louder and more rhythmic. Like the sound of a tap dripping but much louder.
And so it proved to be - somewhere between a drip and a downpour, water falling from the roof of our chalet on to the double bed in which the two boys slept. Not exactly the first night of the holiday we had expected as summer began in northern Italy.
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Holidays are an adventure. It's a bit like the maxim that life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans. The holiday is what happens to you while you were busy being on holiday. The fun of the family holiday is frequently the unexpected challenge overcome, the mild disaster survived.
The coldest May in 60 years according to a local was one thing (separately, the esteemed Italy-based journalist Paddy Agnew apologised by email for the "very unseasonably cold May"). However, a storm the like of which the people of Peschiera del Garda had not experienced in over 25 years was something else. So freakish was the weather that, on that first storm-soaked Saturday night, a river of water and ice (from the hail) had poured down the central street of our excellent Bella Italia campsite. Holiday bungalows are not supposed to have to face weather like this.
Our chalet problem in fact only underlined the benefit of something we were trying for the first time: the joy of a package deal and the holiday in-resort manager. So it was a simple matter of a few WhatsApp messages and a quick visit from superb Topflight in-resort manager Connor and we were moving around the corner into a new chalet - without even needing to go to reception.
We had arrived late afternoon into a sunny Verona airport. When it's your first time flying as a family of six, it is a pleasure having the friendly face of your in-resort manager welcome you at airport arrivals and help corral the four kids (after their first flights, ever) and your eight bags and get the whole lot into the transfer coach.
Within half an hour we had driven through the outskirts of the city and arrived at our holiday house in Bella Italia, a beautiful resort near the aforementioned Peschiera on the Southern edge of Lake Garda.
The lake looked majestic when we first saw her - dark clouds starting to gather over her darkening waters, the Alps and the Dolomites forming the backdrop. Luckily, we managed to eat our first authentic Italian meal out on the terrace before the weather changed. The kids were bowled over by real Italian pizza and gelato. And the whole table was particularly impressed by the Italian waiter's ''Go raibh maith agat'' when we finished our order. It was little things like this that made us feel so welcome at Bella Italia, and at Lake Garda.
I was reminded of previous visits to Italy and the warmth Italians show generally, but particularly to families. They want you to be there, they will try to speak to you in your language if you don't speak theirs (I don't), they want to show you their beautiful country and their amazing food.
We were staying in a bungalow, although the resort offers a wide range of accommodation types - mobile homes, apartments and a hotel. Because of the damp weather, we couldn't check out the five swimming pools that first day - but we certainly made up for that later in the week. Even without the storm, the weather in May can be mixed, so we had brought raincoats and wetsuits - day one gave us the chance to explore the site, stock up on supplies from the onsite supermarket and fruit and veg shop, eat a few crepes in the cafe and test some of the playgrounds dotted around the site.
The next morning we woke to blue skies and took our first dip in the pool which has a range of pretty spectacular water slides and features to keep the little ones entertained.
Travelling with the children, Peschiera del Garda is about 15 minutes walk away along the lakeside (which is a beautiful route to run too) but the resort also runs a small road train in and out every half an hour or so. Once a walled town, it is quaint and friendly with its Roman gates and cobbled streets.
Given the ages of our co-travellers - nine, seven and twins aged five - it would have been remiss not to have taken the opportunity to visit Gardaland, the Italian equivalent of a mini Disneyland, at least after a fashion, owned by Merlin Entertainments, the same parent company that owns a string of Legolands and Alton Towers in Britain. Last year, on a detour home from France through the UK, we had visited Peppa Pig World in Paulton's Park in Southampton. Little did I think I would be visiting Peppa Pig land in Gardaland less than a year later. The twins may now expect a Peppa Pig theme park to feature on every holiday, which will be a challenge.
Getting there was very straightforward. A free shuttle bus from the train station in Peschiera del Garda runs every 20 minutes and drops you at the entrance to the park.
It was a relaxed way to enjoy the theme park experience. You can book tickets online or buy them at the door but the key was to go on a school day in Italy, so the park was - relatively - quiet. The queues were no more than 10 minutes long and we got to go on what felt like dozens of rides, or maybe it was that we went on some rides dozens of times? In fact the longest queue was for a coffee, and that was mainly because the barista was putting a lot of effort into making sure the previous customer's sandwich was toasted perfectly.
The rides are great - from full-on rollercoasters to traditional (and gentler) carousels for the smaller smallies - and are classified as either ''fantasy'', ''adventure'' or ''adrendaline''. A note of caution, though, the underground pirate ride called I Corsari: la Vendetta del Fantasma was a little scary for the five-year-olds (one asked: ''Why have you brought us here?'').
Then again, when I Google-translated its name for the writing of the piece, it's a bit of a dead giveaway. It translates - at least roughly - as Revenge of the Ghost Pirates.
There is also a separate Aquarium at Gardaland, we didn't go in but it would be a good option if you did encounter bad weather.
Having tried planes, (road) trains and rollercoasters, it seemed fitting to take a bus to Verona. That was, being truthful, only after missing the real train by a matter of minutes. Crestfallen and frustrated and pretty much all having a fight at the same time in the wake of our transport disaster, we had spotted a bus with the number 164 and word Verona on it and run en masse to the next stop and managed to find a remarkably patient and understanding bus driver who happily transported us all the Verona for half nothing. The downside was that we had to stand for 40 minutes but it was far more preferable to be moving at speed along Italian roads rather than cooling your heels waiting for the next train.
But luck was on our side. While the train would have left us away from the absolute centre of Verona (as we discovered when we had to walk out to it later), the bus dropped us by the old Roman amphit heatre, the Verona Arena, heart of the city's most tourist-friendly area. Nowadays it's used for opera events and historical tours, though you might spot the odd Roman with a plastic sword posing for pictures out front.
Be warned, these centurions will want a few quid for the inevitable picture with the kids - even if it has not been agreed in advance.
As you wander through the streets there are historic buildings on every corner, sculptures and fountains, markets and tourists to watch. Nearby was Piazza delle Erbe, one of the oldest squares in Verona, where we had lunch amid the tourist bustle. We have decided the restaurant, the name of which we have forgotten, makes the best lasagna in the world.
Verona is of course famous as the location for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. So we visited Juliet's house and her famous balcony. You enter the courtyard via a small archway, covered in autographs and padlocks from lovers who have visited. From ground to ceiling you are surrounded by love messages. And the bronze statue of the young Juliet contemplates her sweet Romeo as she poses for picture after picture with the tourists. We also called by Romeo's house, but he wasn't in (the gates were locked and, apparently, it's simply a private residence nowadays).
After all that, we trooped back through the city and up to the train station and travelled back on the train. The luxury of it compared to standing on the swaying bus! I would have easily stayed on the whole way to Milan but alas the journey only took about 15 minutes.
And that was pretty much our trip to Lake Garda. This time we didn't actually go out on the lake - world famous and the largest in Italy.
But sure we'll leave the boats to next time.
Two top attractions
A holiday in Italy has to be the best — from a food point of view — for kids. Their two favourite dishes, pizza and pasta, served up daily. What’s not to love? My youngest son now says that he is going to live there when he grows up.
Opera at the Arena
Built in the first century AD, the Verona Arena is a brilliant venue for concerts of all genres. The acoustics are particularly suitable for opera. The cheapest seats are on the stone steps, so getting one of the cushions available for rent is vital.
Cormac and his family travelled to Lake Garda with Topflight, Ireland’s Italian specialist, and stayed at the highly sought after 4* Bella Italia Resort in Peschiera del Garda. Topflight offer holidays to Lake Garda all summer with flights from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Alongside Peschiera, Topflight also offer the resorts of Limone, Riva, Sirmione, Desenzano, Malcesine, Garda and Bardolino.
Bella Italia is a clear winner with families thanks to its top class facilities, entertainment and stunning setting. Topflight’s in-resort manager in Bella Italia will be available throughout your holiday. The resort is also perfectly located for day trips to Verona and Venice. Bella Italia resort’s accommodation options include apartments, hotel rooms, bungalows and mobile homes.
Bungalow accommodation starts from €539 per person based on a family of four sharing a two-bedroom bungalow. Price includes return flights, return transfers, self catering accommodation for seven nights, taxes and the services of Topflight’s in-resort manager. For further details call Topflight on 01 240 1700 or 028 9752 1168, visit topflight.ie and drop into your local travel agent.
NB: This feature originally ran in The Sunday Independent.