Italy on the right track: Food and cultural journey through northern Italy and Lake Garda
Picture-postcard backdrop of Lake Garda unmissable
The achingly beautiful expanse of the crisp, shimmering and picture-postcard backdrop of Lake Garda is certainly a good place to start when visiting northern Italy.
Peppered with vineyards, cypress and olive trees along with a fresh, thick scent of mint and fresh foliage hanging in the air, each jaw-dropping view seems to trump the last.
And on one recent trip, I discovered one way to explore the towns, villages and ancient castles that are scattered across the breathtaking landscape, is by bike.
One advantage of staying at the friendly and welcoming Hotel La Quiete, located just outside of Manerba del Garda, means the great lake itself is less than a two minute stroll away from the front door.
And despite coming towards the end of the season, the crisp and shimmering salt-free water remains luke warm in the late summer evenings - perfect for a cleansing and refreshing late-night dip.
Kicking off the first day of a long weekend, we headed off on two wheels - meandering through the countryside, and myriad small villages and beauty spots along the way.
It's a stunning way to take in the ever-evolving sun-laden backdrop - something that would have been otherwise impossible by car. It's one of the many different packages offered by Bangor-based Activity Breaks - catering for a range of customers, including energetic types looking for something more active than just a cycling tour.
Stopping off at thousand-year-old Rocca di Lonato offers a panoramic view of the terrain - an opportunity to out get the camera, and to rest the legs on the 20 or so kilometre trip.
Lunch at the tranquil and picturesque Ristorante Al Rustico Da Bena, in Polpenazze del Garda, Brescia, offered up the first sampling of northern Italian food – with cured meat, lardo and local Bagoss cheese paving the way for fresh, earthy wild mushrooms and dense buttery pasta.
Located not far from the lake is fair Verona – home to some of the region's most beautiful Roman and medieval architecture, as well as the Bard of Avon's famous fictional tragic star-crossed lovers.
From the must-see amphitheatre – built in in the first century - to Juliet's House, where thousands of tourists pack into the courtyard in an attempt to merge fact and fiction.
The city offers up a beautiful combination of ancient history, as well as ample shopping for those with deep enough pockets.
Lunch at the four-star Roseo Hotel Leon d'Oro offers a mixture of unfussy clean cooking, from stuffed plump courgette and crisp flowers, to rich and creamy cheese fondue.
This part of Italy offers its own culinary specialities, such as world-class wine, as well as heaps of butter and cheese-laden dishes, with less emphasis on tomato-based dishes.
The gateway to much of northern Italy, the train journey begins at Milan's central station. It's a towering, gigantic 1930s architectural icon, built in the days when Italy remained under the thumb of Mussolini. And it's here where we began a two-day food and cultural voyage. Setting off from Milan on a chocolate brown vintage 'slow train', the journey aimed to showcase some of the region's best produce. Working out of a minuscule kitchen, a small team of the area's top chefs prepared a course each - five in total - as the train chugged and meandered through dazzling sun-kissed mountains and swathes of green velvet expanse.
From a trio of trout, to veal cheek and buckwheat gnocchetti, each course was accompanied by a paired local wine.
They are trying very hard to impress, ahead of the Milan Expo in 2015, which begins next May.
There are, of course, a plethora of winemakers in the region. We stopped off in Tirano to try the juicy reds at Rivetti & Lauro - paired with the nutty and rich local Bitto cheese - and the mountainous Triacca.
Spending the night in Retici Balzi - a 'wine hotel' in Sondrio - you're greeted in the morning to yet another awe-inspiring vista, with almost neverending layers of mountain tops and sparkling villages waking up to a crisp early morning.
Setting off from Tirano on the Bernina Express - a vintage phone box red train which curves and slithers up and around some gorgeous panoramas - we were soon at hundreds of metres above sea level.
In just a few minutes, the journey headed into bordering Switzerland, taking in astonishingly pretty areas on the way, including Poschiavo and Pontresina.
Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, it's a hotspot for skiing, but the fresh, invigorating late-summer climate still offers some of the most jaw-dropping sights you're likely to see anywhere in Europe.
Lake Garda proved to be a useful base for a lot of what northern Italy has to offer – with a combination of beautiful and relaxed surroundings, with more active pursuits for those so inclined.
Getting there: There are several airlines that cater for those travelling to the various towns and villages that lip around the edge of Lake Garda, with Ryanair flying into Bergamo, with Aer Lingus into Linate, just outside Milan.
What to do there: Activity Breaks has a wide range of packages available for Lake Garda, as well as skiing and other areas throughout Europe. A typical half-board long-weekend trip without flights - including bike and kayaking tour - costs around £200 per person.
Packages can be tailored to include a range of customer options, including transport, transfers, tour guides, activities and concerts.
The Bernina Express - setting off from Tirano - can also be booked.
For more information, click here.
Belfast Telegraph Digital