Mr Smith and I like to consider ourselves seasoned travellers. You know: sophisticates with well-stickered ‘weekend’ luggage, versed on which local aperitivo to order, and dedicated to staying in so-stylish-you-wouldn’t-know-it’s-a-hotel-without-SatNav kind of places. The type who gad about Lake Garda on a speedboat, swapping trattoria tips with the captain. Not the sort who get sunburn on the first day. Or look the wrong way when they cross the road. No, no, no. Not the sort who stand filming the very fast and shiny catamaran from what they think is the ferry terminal, only to watch it sail past into the next pretty bay. Never. Not us.
But, you see, holidaying in Italy is relaxing. And holidaying at Lake Garda, without your tantrumming toddler in tow, and with sunshine, mountain vistas and non-stop fabulous food and wine, is especially relaxing. In fact, so enchanting is holidaying here, it’s brain-befuddling, stupidity-magnifying – turning even the most seasoned travellers (sophisticates with special weekending bags!) into craven half-wits. Thankfully, during our stay at the exclusive Villa Arcadio hotel, staff are professional enough to overlook poolside narcolepsy, dangerous toaster mismanagement and other breakfast-buffet blunders (which we blame on them, for placing an ice-bucket of champagne right next to the fresh blood-orange juice).
They also provide the kind of subtle prompts that allow off-duty parents and loved-up fools to swagger about like bona fide minibreak gurus. Would Signor Smith perhaps like a ‘spritz’? It’s that prosecco, Aperol and soda cocktail he has no doubt seen the pastel-chino-shorts crowd drinking in Salò’s fashionable lake-front bars. The one he perhaps naively mistook for bright-orange IrnBru? Yes, that one. Would Signorina (why, thank you) perhaps like chef to whip up some handmade gnocchi with tomato ragu for lunch today, to soak up last night’s multi-spritz-spree in aforementioned lake-front bars? And (in mezzopiano tones) would Signor like the table dressed with a posy of wild flowers plucked from the hotel grounds, because it is also Mother’s Day, which he has forgotten? Tutto va bene.
Elbows suavely propped on immaculate linen and enjoying a sensational alfresco meal, we pause to fully appreciate our surroundings. From this handsomely restored monastery, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the town of Salò, the view is mesmerising. When it is misty, it’s hard to know where the world ends. When it is clear, snow-capped peaks loom majestically in the distance. Little boats buzz across the water; songbirds flit busily among olive trees; the owners’ spaniel, Diana, bounds through buttercup-sprinkled grass with a blackbird in her muzzle. It’s all very… Arcadian. I’ve already taken about 4,000 pictures. At least.
We’ve enjoyed those splendid views from the bed, designer sofa and dressing area of our junior suite (admittedly we enjoyed it less at 6am – we’d forgotten to close the light-stopping wooden shutters at bedtime. I still took a few pictures, though). Our room is serene, and blissfully free of unnecessary trinkets (most refreshingly, there are no plastic fire engines to trip over). The beams overhead may be new, but they marry harmoniously with original architectural features, terracotta flooring and creamy linen drapes. A single, striking modern canvas packs a colourful punch amid an otherwise neutral palette – undoubtedly taken from the owners’ enviable stash of art and antiques.
Jaana and Francesco have an unerring eye for quality: their collection – generously shared around Villa Arcadio’s 18 bedrooms, dining rooms, bar and lounge – spans bronze figurines, 18th-century etchings, frescoes, Alvar Aalto glassware and contemporary carvings by Loris Marazzi. They also own a boat. Not just any boat, mind: a vintage Riva Aquarama launch. Calling it ‘a boat’ is a bit like calling a hand-built Bugatti ‘a runaround’. They even let you charter it.
As we polish off lunch with some local Bardolino and ristrettos, my of-Italian-descent Mr Smith declares this the sort of terrace Merchant Ivory would have picked for the scene where the brooding farmhand is overcome with desire for the English governess. He says it quite suggestively, and throws in ‘mi amore’, for good measure. I ignore him, partly because he forgot Mother’s Day, but mostly because I want to go and explore. And have another spritz.
Sirmione – which we (eventually) reach aboard the very fast and shiny catamaran that leaves from Salò’s Lungolargo promenade – is a spindly peninsula packed with café-cornered piazzas, gelaterie and touristy trinket shops. It’s Grand Tour gold. The town’s star attractions (apart from Maria Callas’ holiday home) are the so-called grottoes of Catullus, and the moated mediaeval fortress, all swallow’s-tail crenellations and reflections of ducks. Tennyson’s been; and Ezra Pound bumped into James Joyce here.
But, for us, draw of the day is a Riva-style cruiser. OK, it’s just a water taxi, but still. Approached by a rakishly handsome Italian speaking in a seductively incomprehensible rolling staccato, I thought my luck had turned, but Paolo is simply offering us a spin in his nice boat, on the cheap, since it’s quiet. He navigates us round the tip of the peninsula, letting the engine idle and the wheel spin so he can take a snap of us as we pass the Augustan Roman villa on the headland. He waves his arms, gesticulating for us to get closer (to each other, presumably, not the perilous rocks).
It turns out to be the perfect picture: romantic, sunlit, elegant. It makes us look like the type who gad about Lake Garda on a speedboat, swapping trattoria tips with the captain. You can barely notice the sunburn.