Saturday, October 29, 2016

Lake Garda’s Sirmione

Sirmione Scaligeri castle entrance
Photo credit: Wikipedia
We left Verona shivering. The rain was now coming down in earnest and it was hard to see the road signs. The GPS British male voice was taking us through roundabout after roundabout and slip roads, the British word for ramp. I dozed off briefly and woke up on streets I did not recognize but the GPS said we were very close to Sirmione, one of the resorts encircling Lake Garda.

We had driven years ago for fun, at break neck speed all around lake Garda and it took us 3-4 hours to make a complete circle, riding white knuckled through tunnels dug in the hills, without any artificial light, only the day light streaming through the open windows cut into the rock facing the lake.

When we had finished the Lake Garda circle on a cold winter day, we were almost out of gas and decided to fill up the Swedish sporty rental. We filled up with premium because that is what the manual said to do. We had no idea the manual was a generic one for all models. As we really ran out of the remaining Diesel in the tank and it reached the premium, the engine started to choke, sputtered, smoked, and stopped. It took the tow truck a while to get there and it cost us an additional 300 euros for having to dump the premium and clean the engine. As I looked inside the cap of the gas tank, it clearly said Diesel. I took responsibility for the faux pas. I think the Italian tow truck drivers are still telling stories about us, dumb Americans, and laughing.

To get to the fortress where our hotel was located, we had to be let in through a police-guarded gate at the entrance of the medieval bridge, quite narrow for modern cars. Hotel Olivia Thermae was on a steep hill and Dave had to maneuver the rental car within inches of centuries old rock walls. Some local merchants even brought their displays outdoors, adding to the congestion. One business owner, who was arranging his merchandise outside, visually directed Dave to make sure he would not hit any building or the many pedestrians wondering about.

Once we finally made it to the front entrance of the hotel, Dave spent 30 minutes parking in various spots that did not belong to the hotel. The best surprise was the superior suite called Aurora and the spectacular view of Lake Garda with the breathtaking 11th century castle. A sulphur water spa, massage, and a large infiniti jet pool indoors and outdoors made the hotel experience a truly five star event. The cozy balcony let fresh air into the pink-decorated room with rose shaped red velvet pillows in the boudoir.

Sirmione aerial view
Photo: Wikipedia
Sirmione is a “commune” in Brescia, Lombardy, close to Verona in Veneto, in the lower part of Lake Garda. It is such an old resort, archeological digs found human presence in the 6th-5th centuries B.C. with settlements in the 3rd-2nd century B.C. It was a favorite resort of rich Roman families in the first century B.C. The famous poet Catullus talked about the villa he had in the area. It was even a defensive point for the southern shore of Lake Garda during the 4th-5th centuries A.D.

The remains of the beautiful medieval fortified castle belonged to the Scaligeri family and it was probably founded by Mastino I della Scala in early 13th century (1277). A garrison was located in the castle until the 19th century as the castle is strategically located at the entrance to the peninsula. Surrounded by a moat, the castle can be entered through two drawbridges. A small museum contains Roman artifacts and some medieval items. The castle protected the Scaligeri family against locals and against invading outside enemies.
Next to the castle there is a small church, Sant’Anna della Rocca, which dates back to the 12th century, with fescoes from the 14th-17th centuries. The church was only used by the garrison and a few local villagers.

Sirmione was a possession of many powers, i.e., the Republic of Venice (1405-1797), the Habsburgs, and the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.

Famous for its thermal springs which can be seen and smelt coming out of the ground while walking alongside the lake, Sirmione is also renowned for the Grotto of Catullus (167x 105 m). Romans had a fascination with grottoes where lavish parties were held.

San Pietro in Mavino church was built in 765 A.D. by Lombards and renovated in the early 14th century. It is located “up in the vineyards,” as the Latin name indicates, “in summas vineas.” Frescoes from the 12th-16th centuries make a stark contrast to the wooden beamed ceiling. The bell tower is really old, cast in 1070. The church was used as military hospital and the surrounding grounds as a cemetery for plague victims.

Santa Maria Maggiore is located in the town center on the site of the former Lombard church of San Martino and is decorated with 15th century frescoes.

We walked in the path of the famous like Gaius Valerius Catullus, Alfred Tennyson who wrote a poem about Sirmione, Ezra Pound and James Joyce who met in Sirmione in 1920, Maria Callas who had a villa in Sirmione.  English writer Naomi Jacob lived in Sirmione until her death in 1964. I cannot imagine a more beautiful and serene place to spend a lifetime in its magical surroundings.

The tranquility of waking up to the soft lake breeze coming through the open balcony door, and to the billowing white lace curtains, is hard to imagine. Breakfast on the balcony overlooking the lake and the medieval peninsular fortress was a dream.

After a visit to the salt water heated spa, the jaccuzi, the infiniti pool, and the massage, we roamed the enchanting gardens in full bloom, the turtle pond, the outdoor pools, the citrus trees, unusual potted flowers and bushes, palm trees, cactuses, and other vegetation making natural fences between nearby beautiful villas. The misty rain made everything come alive.

A short walk later, we were in the middle of town, checking out the interesting hand-cast Roman statues, hand painted porcelain boutiques, and other local curiosities. We walked to the ruins of the Roman baths and then down to the rocky beach with waves crashing on the slippery steps. The calming sounds reminded me of the sea.

We had dinner close to Catullus’ bridge in a restaurant called Modi. It was colder at dusk and the gas heated lamps were going full blast. I picked up two rolls and fed the begging ducks, the black and white swans, and the little birds on the rock bridge overlooking Lake Garda.



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