By Anita Draycott
Looking for a new golf destination with a romantic hook? Consider Northern Italy’s gorgeous Lake District where the greens are grandissimo and the après golf is quintessentially Italian. Wherever you chose to play in the Lombardy region you’ll note that the locals flaunt their Gucci and Versace bags and shoes with impeccable style and you’ll never be far from fabulous food and wine.
Lake Garda: Get thee to a monastery
Palazzo Arzaga Hotel Spa & Golf Resort, a 15th century monastery, converted to a five-star property with two courses and an academy, put northern Italy on the map as a golf destination when it opened in the late 1990s.
Keen to hit the greens, my husband, Bill, and I deposited our luggage into a spacious room with an ancient wood-beamed ceiling, then hiked up a steep hill to the first tees on Arzaga II, a nine-hole links-style course designed by Gary Player. The South African took full advantage of the undulating terrain and backdrop of the snow-capped Dolomite Mountains.
From the elevated first tees on the first one aims for the striking silhouette of the ancient Drugolo castle. The church spire of the nearby town of Bedizzole is your target on the third. We enjoyed the 3,127-yard, par-36 tract so much we went around a second time.
Unlike most North American courses where golf carts are mandatory, in Europe most golfers walk. By the end of the rounds we were ready for Arzaga spa’s Purification Ritual that includes steam bath, rhassoul clay treatment and massage.
Early the next morning, after breakfasting buffet-style overlooking the Palazzo’s inner courtyard, we were ready to take aim on Arzaga I, the resort’s 6991-yard, par-72 course designed by Jack Nicklaus II, son of the Golden Bear. Once a vineyard, the championship Nicklaus II masterpiece also delivers distant vistas of snow-capped Alps as it winds around a series of five artificial lakes, its fairways lined with oak and robina trees.
Both Arzaga courses were in immaculate condition and blissfully uncrowded. Four sets of tees and distances conveniently marked in metres and yards make the game challenging and enjoyable for all levels.
We found that by booking an early morning tee time, there were plenty of après golf hours to discover Garda’s many attractions. Sirmione, its most enchanting town, is located on a peninsula that pierces the narrow south end of the lake. The historic section is inaccessible by car so it’s necessary to park in a nearby lot and walk through the gates of the Castello Scaligera, a fairy-tale crenellated castle ruin. Once inside, we bought mocha gelatos and let ourselves wander aimlessly through the cobbled winding streets and medieval arches, reminders that Garda has been a holiday resort for the wealthy since the height of the Roman era.
One afternoon, we drove to Verona in search of the Casa de Giulietta and the most famous balcony and the most famous balcony in the world. In summer the Arzaga concierge can book tickets to operas and concerts in Verona’s well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. We also visited Cremona, home to such master violinmakers as Stradivarius, stopping for samples of vino at several local wineries along the way. Not your usual après golf activities, but this is Italia. In summer the Arzaga concierge can book tickets to operas and concerts in Verona’s well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. We also visited Cremona, home to such master violin makers as Stradivarius, stopping for samples of vino at several local wineries along the way. Not your usual après golf activities, but this is Italia.
Lake Como: The most romantic lake in the world
We waved arrivederci to Lake Garda and drove west to the hotel Villa d’Este in the town of Cernobbio on Lake Como. Villa d’Este has been seducing the most jaded of travelers since 1873. It has hosted a stream of aristocrats and glitterati including Prince Ranier, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain, Greta Garbo, Mick Jagger and Madonna.
The star-studded guest list also includes Bing Crosby and Clark Gable who’ve been swingers at the Golf Club Villa d’Este just a few kilometres away in Montorfano. The golf experience here is a memorable one—from the wrought iron entrance gates emblazoned with the Villa d’Este crest to the grandiose wood paneled clubhouse to the spectacular 18th hole with its green in the shadow of a handsome clock tower. The locker rooms have every conceivable convenience, including a woman who’ll iron your clothes.
Designed in 1926 by Peter Gannon, the course, described as one of the most varied and difficult of the European par-69 is home to several international tournaments.
Unlike most new North American courses, this one and most of the others on Lake Como have a refreshing lack of residential development and no homes to clutter your pure golf experience.
Alas, there is no view of lovely Lake Como from any of the fairways but lots of spectacular mountain vistas. Each tight roller coaster fairway is lined with magnificent mature pine, birch and chestnut trees. (I remember this because a chestnut bonked Bill on the head on the first hole.) Bunkers and water are minimal and the manicured greens are undulating and slick. From the championship tees it’s a short and sweet 5732 metres. Course maintenance is superb with fast greens and lush but narrow fairways and thick rough putting a premium on accuracy. In no hurry to leave we sat on the balcony and sipped Bellinis (champagne mixed with a purée of white peaches).
There are several other courses tucked in and around Lake Como. To get to the Menaggio e Cadenabbia Golf Club, about halfway up the lake north of Cernobbio, you must navigate a skinny, twisting road but it’s well worth the effort. Perched high about Lake Como, Menaggio, the second oldest course in Italy, was built in 1907 by what the records show as “a group of Englishmen.”
Thankfully the mountain goat terrain on this par-70 is offset by the relatively short 5,988 yardage. The first is a downhill par-four where gravity is most welcome. Numbers seven and nine are upward challenges known by locals as the Himalayas. Just remember that on Menaggio what goes down must go up. Scattered along the 18 fairways, charming stone huts covered in vines and climbing roses add the charm.
Set in the centre of this alpine wonderland you’ll find a rustic clubhouse with a terrace overlooking the 18th. A room inside the clubhouse houses one of the world’s best golf libraries with more than 1200 rare volumes, some dating back to the 1600s. Order a glass of grappa and spend some time perusing these ancient tomes.
We also enjoyed two more modern-style courses in the Como area. Though it lacks the old-world refinement of the two previously mentioned courses, the Golf Club Monticello boasts the more challenging Red Course at 6,874 yards where legends such as Greg Norman, Billy Casper and Sam Torrence have won the Italian Open. The shorter 6,457-yard Blue Course is also pleasant and a recommended warm up before the Red. Over the 36 holes water comes into play on nine fairways.
You can take a swing on numerous other golf courses in the Lake Como region but be sure to allow time for sightseeing as this is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The best way to enjoy Lake Como’s seductive beauty is from the water. A five-minute walk through the village of Cernobbio took us to the ferry pavilion. Our steamer plied the lake, calm like a burnished mirror, past palatial cliff-top villas, rose-laden belvederes, operetta-set towns with shuttered stucco houses of ochre, terra cotta, and pink.
Lake Como is shaped like an inverted “Y.” Magnificently perched where the three branches of the lake meet is Bellagio, often described as the prettiest village in all of Europe. Its colonnaded waterfront is lined with bustling cafés, every window box ablaze with gregarious geraniums. We climbed the narrow steep streets to Silvio, a family-run trattoria with a gardened terrace for a lunch of fish stew and a glass of chilled Soave.
Back on the steamer, the gentle drone of the motor, the distant peeling of church bells and the soft mist rising from the lake had put us in the mellowest of moods. We returned to the hotel and took a dip in the swimming pool, a feat of engineering that floats on the lake.
Maybe the reason that the Villa d’Este never disappoints me is because nothing ever seems to change. The double marble staircase still makes a grand entrance. The sheets are still pure Irish linen. The lapping waves of Lake Como still lull me to sleep. The gardens are still magical, studded with grottos and statuary follies. The 500 year-old plane tree still shades the terrace. The wisteria-entwined gazebo still frames Lake Como. Why tamper with perfection?
Planning Your Italian Golf Trip
Most courses are closed to visitors on weekends because they hold club tournaments, so plan your rounds from Monday to Friday. Distance is measured in metres, not yards on scorecards.
Perry Golf can customize a trip for you in the Italian Lakes.