Sir Winston Churchill came here to paint and loved it. So did D H Lawrence, who called Lake Garda "one of the most beautiful places on earth". Garda is Italy’s largest lake, and its pristine waters and alpine scenery make it one of the most tranquil places in the country.
Lake Como may be better known, and frequented by tourists attracted by the more glitzy surroundings complete with Versace and Fendi boutiques. You would not come to Garda to shop, but you would come here to escape and discover why generations of Italians and Germans have made it their summer hideaway.
Garda has an almost sub-Mediterranean microclimate of its own. It’s where the foothills of the Alps - still snow-capped when early summer begins - meet palm trees and bougainvillea. Even lemons thrive here. The lake’s surroundings have a faintly Teutonic air - a reminder of the times when large parts of northern Italy were under German and Austrian control.
Many wealthy Lombardian families own villas on the shores of Lake Garda and, in 1892, one the richest, the Feltrinelli family of Milan, decided to build their summer seat on eight acres of choice lakeside land. Their fortune was founded on lumber and publishing, and they were also one of the founders of Edison, the oldest Italian energy company.
In common with most 19th-century tycoons, Faustino Feltrinelli liked to impress, and his villa - built in neo-gothic style with a dash of art nouveau - must have left the locals speechless. But the family fortunes declined over the years and, in 1972, the head of the family joined a splinter group of the Red Brigades and managed to blow himself up while planting a bomb at a power-station. As a result, the villa was left empty.
Until 1997, that is, when Robert Burns, an American hotelier who established the Regent Hotels Group in the 1980s, bought the property. He intended to renovate it as his private house, but ultimately decided to turn it into a small hotel. No expense was spared in restoring the villa to its former glory, and its 21 rooms opened for business two years ago.
Burns has succeeded in combining effortless opulence with state-of-the-art gadgetry, from discreet flat-screen television sets to top-of-the-range music systems. You feel as though you’re staying in a very luxurious country house presided over by an eccentric Italian millionaire rather than in a hotel. Lots of little touches enhance this atmosphere. When you enter the lobby, for example, there is nothing so vulgar as a check-in desk, but instead there is a leather-bound guest book on a side table.
Staff seem to materialise from nowhere to offer drinks, and don’t expect to have to sign for anything - they all know your name. Naturally, this kind of thing comes at a price. But, as American tycoon J P Morgan said, "If you have to ask the price, you probably can’t afford it."
The Villa Feltrinelli’s most famous - or infamous - guest stayed there for a year and a half and left in April 1945. He was Benito Mussolini. Il Duce was deposed in 1943 after the Italian government surrendered to the Allies, but his chum Adolf Hitler had him rescued and set up as the head of a puppet regime known as the Fascist Republic of Sal, which is a little town just along the western edge of the lake from the villa.
Mussolini, together with his family and entourage, was duly installed at the Villa Feltrinelli, but was effectively under house arrest. Every evening, after dinner con la famiglia, he would pay a visit to his mistress Claretta Petacci, with a carload of SS soldiers as escort. She faithfully remained with him right to the end, and was executed alongside him by partisans near Como, as the couple were attempting to escape into Switzerland at the end of the war.
Of course, your days will be spent somewhat differently. Apart from catching up with your reading by the pool, there is plenty to do close by.
The pretty town of Gargnano, which looks much the same as it did in the 1950s when Churchill was painting watercolours there, is a short walk away. And La Contessa, the hotel’s 52ft wooden yacht, can carry you gently around to the lake’s other picturesque little ports.
Just down the road in the town of Gardone Riviera, is a quite extraordinary house built by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italy’s leading writer in the late 19th century. It is a monument to himself, rather than a mere house, and is crammed with works of art and bric--brac of every imaginable kind.
It’s also worthwhile taking a trip to the beautiful medieval city of Verona while you’re in the region. "Fair Verona", as Shakespeare called it, is among the best preserved cities in Italy and is the setting for Romeo and Juliet, not to mention Two Gentlemen of Verona. The town’s old squares, the pavements lined with characteristic pale marble, magnificent palaces, churches and Roman remains all contribute to a very romantic atmosphere. The 12th-century candy-striped Duomo, the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral with a fresco by Titian and the stunning Roman arena are especially worth a look.
Make time, too, to visit the centuries-old open-air markets at Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza Dante, but resist the temptation to buy a Romeo and Juliet snow globe. Leave that to the tour groups and head back to the lake and the delights of Villa Feltrinelli instead.
Fact file Lake Garda
Five things you must do...
1. Have a wander round the town of Gargnano, with its orange trees and fishing boats.
2. Visit the house of Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio - it is completely over the top.
3. Go for a boat trip on the lake on board La Contessa.
4. Have dinner on the terrace at the Villa Feltrinelli.
5. Have a night at the opera in nearby Verona.
How to get there British Airways (0845 7733377) flies twice daily from Gatwick to Verona, with return fares starting at 88. Verona airport is about an hour’s drive from Lake Garda. Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Brescia, which is slightly closer (www.ryanair.com).
Where to stay Rooms at the Grand Hotel Villa Feltrinelli, 25084 Gargnano (BS) Italy (0039 0365 798000, www.villafeltrinelli.com) start at 350 a night, for single or double occupancy. For this, you also get full breakfast, a selection of house wines and soft drinks in the room bar, personal laundry, valet service and use of all on-site recreational facilities.
Currency: The Euro. €1 > 71p.