Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lago di Ledro

This summer, I made it a goal to discover Italy's lakes. Not it's "great lakes" like Garda, Como, or Maggiore--as beautiful those lakes must be (the only one I have been to is Garda), they are too crowded, with their tiny villages enjoyed by millions of visitors each year. Instead, I wanted to see the country's smaller lakes in the north, especially in the Trentino and Alto Adige, which are dotted with small and intimate lakes made difficult to access by the peaks that enclose them. I planned on doing at least one Italian lake each weekend, but it did not work: immediately after discovering her lakes, I discovered her mountains, her small villages, and her party-loving people. I became too inundated, to the point where I only found time to visit one lake, Lago di Ledro. Lago di Ledro happened to be one of the north's most beautiful lakes, and a recent "last weekend of the summer" trip with some friends only solidified my love for the place.

My first trip to Ledro was last June, warm enough for a nice late-Spring sun bathing but early enough that most of the vacationers were still only in their planning phase. It's only about fifteen minutes from Garda, but its modest size and relative lack of self-advertisement prevents it from drawing a significant part of the bigger lake's visitors. Besides, it lacks Garda's grandeur and accesibility--it doesn't smack you with its sublime beauty, with the sun peeking behind giant cliffs and its rays glittering on calm waters; it doesn't have Garda's established hotels, tour groups, and restaurants that make planning a visit easy; and it doesn't have extensive connections to big towns, the closest train connection being from Rovereto (and from there, who can take a bus to Riva del Garda, then maybe you can get to Ledro from Riva del Garda two or three days after you left your original destination). Even though you have to drive further up from Garda, there are no imposing mountains that crown Ledro. You expect a lake up in the mountains to reveal itself in one stunning and blinding view, but you still have to look for it once you get there. It hides, and the only indication that you are finally there are a couple of souvenir shops, a few albergi, the palafitte museum (prehistoric huts were discovered on the lake's shore a few decades ago), and an overabundance of German and Dutch tourists (they have taken ownership of the place, like all the other lakes in Northern Italy). Once you finally find it and sit in its shore, you are calmed by its beauty but not impressed. After almost driving off the road looking up at Arco's castle, or down at Garda's cliffs, or dodging pedestrians at Torbole and Riva, Ledro is quiet...too quiet.

But then that's the point. Mind you, with all the Germans and Dutch tourists as well as the motorcycle riders that frequent it's windy country roads, Lago di Ledro can be a bit noisy. But these never overtake nor overwhelm the place. The water remains calm (hardly a motorized boat traversed the lake), the beaches always guarantee a quiet spot, and the roads and trails that surround the lake are never crowded, allowing for that now cliched emotional and spiritual renewal that the bigger lakes used to offer. It's clear blue waters and constantly shifting light made mobile by the clouds that are trapped in the valley by the surrounding mountains make writers think about time and place, artists of color and movement, and photographers of light and dark. Slowly, the place grows on you until you find that it inspires something in you, and you don't want to drive back to the traffic jams in Garda.

The best thing about Ledro however is the places away from the water. The trails up to Cima d'Oro never got crowded, and every strange hiker you encounter is more surprised by the brief acquaintance you make based on your mutual crazy desire to see the lake from above. The best view is from the door frame of the small church commemorating the Madonna Addorata, built on top of a hill overlooking the entire valley. Facing the altar, the doors look out into the Gruppo di Brenta mountains far to the north. (Note: I hiked the trail, but not all the way up. It's a hard hike, and my body started to do weird things in protest.) The roads going northeast lead to small, sleepy towns, farms, and lonely churches all equally decked out by masses of flowers that freely blossom in the area's spring-like temperature in the height of summer. But the best is Molina di Ledro, the lake's Sirmione, a humble hamlet located a few hundred meters from the lake consisting of winding streets, modest squares, and churches of no importance. It has no castles, no old monuments (or old monument that deems itself important), or does its city layout look particularly charming. Most of the visitors only venture into the town to resupply from its lone market, and maybe buy cigarettes from its lone tabaccheria. But these are why I love the town. The residents paint their houses bright colors and plant copious amounts of flowers out of their sheer desire to live in a beautiful space. It doesn't feel contrived or made to impress; it's narrow lanes are occupied by drying bed sheets and playful children instead of pizzerias and postcard shops. Its lack of irony in personifying the cutesy-ness typically attributed to "Italian culture" is refreshing for its inability to sell itself. Walking down its alleys, with the sun coming in and out of view, you almost feel like you are trespassing into someone else's world, but then the old lady from the bar smiles at you and you feel special again--until she smiles at another customer. Then you realize that she's just going about her day as usual.

But the summer is now done. In a few weeks, the lake will freeze over, the flowers will die, and the roads will be too dangerous. The Germans and the Dutch will be gone, the stores will be closed, and the mountains will continue to trap clouds, but now bearing grayness and chill over the entire valley. After a night of beers, calimochos, barbecues, and hiking (for some), all of us knew too well that the season is over, and soon it will be time to don thicker clothes to hide the season's tan. It rained, but we were too stubborn to give up our grill. The sky finally let-up, but it's with a hint of bitterness because we knew we were supposed to read the signs but refused to do so. The next day, we packed our tents and drove away. Maybe Ledro isn't too bad with a pair of snow shoes, I thought.

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