The Italian Job: Day 8 – Drizzle in Desenzano

Apologies, dear reader, I appear to have become stuck on alliterative titles. I’m sure this horror will pass soon.

Now where were we? Oh yes… I was trapped in a pizzeria owing to inclement weather. Contrary to apparently popular belief, I did not spend the night there and was not to be found still eating pizza or drinking my way through the beer this morning.

Breakfast, after returning to my hotel, was in a bakery next to the cathedral.

Custard and fruit brioche

The weather continued to be as ‘atmospheric’ as it was yesterday – yep it was atmospherically chucking it down.

I’d managed to borrow an umbrella from the hotel, and that will be staying in my possession until I leave Desenzano. I had also reluctantly (but pessimistically) packed waterproofs so I was fully equipped for a lakeside walk. A hike in the hills would be pointless – I would see nothing.

I briefly thought about getting a boat up the lake but the weather was worse at Garda and Bardolino so a wander to Sirmione it was. It’s two hours along the lakeside from Desenzano to Castle Scaligero and on a sunny day, I imagine it is stunning… though it’s far from horrendous in the rain too.

Lakeside Views

I arrived very much ready for lunch and the conversation at the next table involved “The Mystery of the White Stones”. The man at the head of the table reported that the stones outside his house have all gone!

There were some details missing from this story – namely concerning the size of the rocks. Were we talking a personal henge or were we talking the stones that cats mistake for kitty litter? As he suspected that animals took the stones, and he hadn’t mentioned elephants, I was left assuming pebbles rather than mini monoliths. But then I found myself wondering if cats had rocked up with small diggers and trucks to relocate the litter.

Despite being tempted to linger and listen to more random conversations I explored the town and first we have the most underwhelming tour of the homes of the rich and famous… this is Maria Callas’s villa.

I’m not saying that Sirmione lays on the connection to Callas a bit thick but honestly have a read of this:

“Sirmione is kissed by fortune with its location and scenery. It could not have asked for more. But it was missing a legend, something to give it a sublime aura to make its fame and beauty endure over time. Enter Anna Maria Cecilia Sophia Kalogheròpoulos, in art Callas, the greatest lyric singer in history.

“Forty years have passed since her death, yet she still lives in Sirmione, in the minds and hearts of those who perhaps she never met, but grew up with the stories about her from their parents, her admirers in turn. If you close your eyes in Via Catullo for a moment, you can still hear her sing from the terrace of her villa. It is a sweet, sublime song. A duet with the leaves ruffled by the park’s wind nearby, dedicated to her.

“Her presence is still alive in the peninsula, especially in the mind and heart of its inhabitants. If you walk through Sirmione you can’t miss the stupendous villa (comment: actually, you can) with her name, where she lived between 1952 and 1958 when she was married to Giovan Battista Meneghini, the king of Verona construction materials.

“She entered Sirmione from the main gate, making a great deal of noise. (Comment: well, that’s just rude). She came here at the height of her career, when she triumphed in theatres and had the world at her feet. In that period Callas considered this place an oasis of peace where she could take refuge, far from the chaos that surrounded her.

“She was completely in love. She took in the quiet, relaxing atmosphere that only this corner of the world could offer her: she loved the thermal baths, going shopping in the town’s shops and spending time at Caffè Grande Italia. She was so attached to Sirmione that even when she left she never stopped thinking about it, in fact, she would even send postcards to the people she most loved here.” (Comment: postcards to people who lived here, not actually to Sirmione).

More satisfying history geeking was undertaken at the Grotte di Catullo.

For the last few days, certainly since Friday night in Turin, I’ve mostly been looking at stuff (technical term) built on top of Roman foundations. Today: up on the clifftops at the edge of Sirmione’s peninsula, one of the best preserved and largest Roman villas in Northern Europe.

The Grotte di Catullo dates back to the 1st and 2nd Centuries BC and the name belongs to a poet who lived around 54AD but not necessarily in the villa or even in this area. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

It’s called the Grotto or Grotte because when it was first rediscovered in the mid 1800s, it was thought to be a series of naturally formed caves. Despite being revealed to be an extensive manmade structure, the name stuck.

As well as continuing to uncover and restore the villa, the museum also conserves the olive trees whose ancestors are thought to have been planted at the time of construction. The olive trees of Lake Garda are susceptible to a fungal disease called olive knot – there is no cure and all they can do is attempt to prevent and treat infection by removing parts of an infected tree.

It’s an amazing place to wander as is the town:

And finally, after ignoring it on arrival into the centre of Sirmione, I headed for Castle Scaligero.

Top Tip: Don’t visit the Castle when you arrive in Sirmione and especially not around lunchtime. The school parties and people arriving off the boat all pile in. Go and visit the Grotte first, get a combined ticket and come back to the Castle as youvare leaving Sirmione in the late afternoon.

At the end of the Middle Ages, Sirmione was governed by the powerful Della Scala family of Verona whose members were known as Scaligeri.

During the second half of the 14th century, the ruling family ordered the construction of a fortification. The castle served a defensive function, but also acted as a small port with its docks serving as a safe haven for Scaliger and Venetian fleets. (The clue to the Vetnetian link is another winged lion carved into the stone). The entire castle, including the dock (no weak points here – pessimism in action again) , is surrounded by towers and battlements. The structure was enlarged and improved upon during the following century when the area was governed by the Republic of Venice. The castle remained the most important fortification in the region until the 16th century when a new fortress was constructed in nearby Peschiera del Garda.

In the following centuries, the castle was used as an armory and military barracks. After the unification of Italy, the Sirmione council offices and the local police station were placed in the castle. It also served as a small jail. The castle was restored after World War I and is now a museum. 

And the walk back to Desenzano? Not quite as ‘atmospheric’ as this morning.

Categories: Desenzano, Lake Garda, Nature/Landscapes, Sirmione, The Italian Job, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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