The largest lake in Italy, was born in the most remote era of our peninsula, and still dominates the landscape of Northern Italy with its unique characteristics, which unite different territories on its shores.
The Garda Lake is between 3 regions: Lombardy, Trentino Alto Adige and Veneto. During different eras it had different names but, surely, it was born well before the humans who inhabited it and venerated it for its rich natural resources.
The origins of Lake Garda
The hypotheses about the formation of this lake are not so clear, and over the time many scholars have debated how and when the Lake Garda was formed. It is speculated that it was formed following various geological events, about 35 million years ago, during the Eocene.
At the time the earth had a tectonic pit, in which what we now call the Benaco (the other name for Garda Lake) did not yet exist. The earth’s surface was modeling, and the fluid rocks of the mountains probably folded downstream, generating the lake bed and raising the surrounding hills around, like Monte Baldo (2218 meters), Monte Manerba, Monte Pizzocolo and Monte Brione that is above the town of Riva del Garda.
These movements gave rise to Lake Garda, as soon as the waters (from the rivers that today we know with the name of Sarca, Churches and Adige) began to fill the cooled pit. The water of the rivers has eroded the rocks and shaped their shape, had created the conditions for the Garda territory to become a lake. But the waters we sail today are not the same. Why?
During the following period of the Pliocene, the whole area of the Po Valley and Garda were invaded by the sea water, on the occasion of the settlements due to the connection between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Later, important glaciations arrived in this territory, so the ice invaded the valleys and also created the many pre-Alpine lakes that we find in Northern Italy. The sea waters froze and left the salt mines in the Garda area. The Benaco basin was affected by about 4 glaciations, so the debris accumulated each time, forming the morainic landscape that we see today on the Garda shores: an erosive work of the glaciers, which has given us the largest lake in the national territory.
The characteristics: data, depth and information on Lake Garda
As we know it today, Lake Garda is located 65 meters above sea level, with a length of 51.9 km and a width of 16.7 km at the maximum point. The length is calculated from Riva del Garda to Peschiera del Garda.
The expansion perimeter was defined in 155 km, while the surface of 370 square km makes it the largest lake in the Italian territory, followed by Lake Como and Lake Maggiore.
The depth of Garda is big, being at the maximum point between Castelletto di Brenzone and Muslone, of 346 meters. On average, however, its depth is about 136 meters.
As you can see from the maps, the Lake Garda in the north it is narrower as it widens towards the south, surrounded by hills of morainic origin that make the landscape so “elegant” and also suitable for the cultivation of oil and wine.
The mountainous reliefs of the lake, on the other hand, are much higher and nearby are in addition to the mountains already mentioned the Presanella (3556 m) and Mount Adamello (3554 m).
In the current geo-political situation, Garda is located on the Lombard border in the east area of Brescia, on the Trentino’s border in the north and on Venetian border for the west part. For this reason, geographically we speak of Western Gardesana for the territory that starts from Salò (Lombardia) and reaches Riva del Garda (Trentino); we speak of Eastern Gardesana for the stretch that from Peschiera del Garda (Veneto) reaches Riva del Garda (Trentino), taking it from the East. Eastern Gardesana is also called the Venetian shore. Basso Garda is the part of Benaco included in the province of Brescia (where Sirmione is located).
A curiosity about Lake Garda from a geographical point of view, is given by the fact that it has a microclimate that makes winter mild compared to the surrounding regions.
For those who love nature excursions, there are several protected areas in the Garda area including the Mincio regional park, the Castellaro Lagusello nature reserve, the oasis of the Frassino lake, and the Archaeological Naturalistic Park of the Rocca di Manerba.
For sailing lovers is useful to know that there are 5 islands in Lake Garda, quite small in size: the island of Garda, the island of San Biagio also called “dei Conigli”, the island of Olives, the island of the Dream, reachable on foot during the dry, and the island of Trimelone.
History: when and how the Garda territory was populated
Already during the Iron and Bronze Age several different populations lived on the shores of the lake to take advantage of its resources: Ligurians, Etruscans, Veneti and Galli left testimonies in some places. Several archaeological areas are located in Desenzano, Manerba, and Peschiera del Garda.
Renowned for its strategic position between the Po Valley and northern Europe, the lake was after conquered by the ancient Romans: at the time the Lake Garda was known as Benacus, that was also the name of a god who personified the lake itself and was revered in association with the god of the sea, Neptune.
During the barbarian invasions several occupations followed, including the Lombard one and that of the Franks of Charlemagne. Later in the centuries, the formation of the Municipalities and Lordships took place: important were those of the Scaligeri and Visconti, faced by the municipalities of the Brescia area under the protection of Venice reign.
It is precisely in the Middle Ages that the lake began to be called Garda. A name of Germanic origin that refers to the word “place of guard”, Warda. In this case, the place was the town on the Veronese shore (Garda is still there), founded with other towns with a similar name (Gardone, Gàrdola, etc.) from the 6th to the 8th century by the Germanic populations, in particular the Lombards.
From the fifteenth century the lake was under the rule of the Serenissima, conquered n 1797 from Napoleon and passed under the Habsburgs in 1815. It was again annexed to Italy during the Risorgimento, and its northern part was again Italian after the First World War.
The mysteries of Lake Garda
There are many legends about Benaco which make this territory fascinating even for those who prefer to know the “secrets” and curiosities of each visited territory.
Since ancient times there have been many stories of witches, wizards and elves, up to the legend of the lake monster of Garda: the so-called Benacosaurus. It is a close rival of the Lochness monster, Benacosaurus seems to have been spotted in 1965, like a huge humped snake, in the Baia delle Sirene and then in many places: since then, occasionally from Garda, testimonies of marine and strange monsters emerge fantastic animals.
Its unexplored depths have been at the center of magical stories and sightings for centuries, as well as ghost stories in Sirmione – where the soul of Ebengardo apparently lives inside the castle – enough to organize real and proper ghost tours of Lake Garda.
Another Garda mystery concerns the legends about the Cathar heretics and the Holy Grail: some scholars think that the secret of the Cathars coming from the Holy Land could be hidden between Sirmione and Desenzano. Maybe hidden under some ancient palace, waiting to be discovered …