The Italian Job: Day 10 – Salò, the place NOT the movie

The sky had cleared when I opened the curtains this morning and I could actually see the mountains on the other side of the lake.

An earlier start, than yesterday, with the five past eight boat to Salò, and around an hour and a half’s sailing time. Nothing to do but sit back and watch the view.

Desenzano Without the Rain

Try GooglingSalò‘ and see if a page of  movie views appear before you have to add ‘Italy‘ or ‘Lake Garda‘ to the search. The film –  plot summary is seriously a bit much to read before breakfast – was not the reason for my visit to the town. Obviously, ‘Salò‘ the film gets searched for more often than the location these days.

Historically and geographically speaking, Salò was a Roman settlement and, from the middle ages, the town was into the same push and pull as Bergamo and the other Garda towns over which power was the boss of it – Milan, the Republic of Venice, Napoleon, the Austrians and the Kingdom of Italy.

The power struggles didn’t end there.

From 1943 to 1945 Salò was the de facto capital of Benito Mussolini’s Nazi-backed puppet state, the Italian Social Republic, also known as the Republic of Salò. There are just under twenty buildings in the town that were used as ministries. The Villa Castagna was the seat of the police headquarters, Villa Amedei was the head office of the Ministry of Popular Culture, Villa Simonini (nowadays Hotel Laurin) was the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Stefani Agency, which distributed official press releases, was based in the Via Brunati.

This Italian Social Republic was the second incarnation of a Fascist Republic in Italy. It was comprised of Mussolini’s reformed anti-monarchist Republican Fascist Party. The state declared Rome its capital but was de facto centred on Salò (hence its colloquial name.

In July 1943, after the Allies had pushed Italy out of North Africa and subsequently invaded Sicily (if you haven’t seen Operation Mincemeat, do) the Grand Council of Fascism—with the support of King Victor Emmanuel III—overthrew and arrested Mussolini. The new government began secret peace negotiations with the Allied powers.

The German forces then seized Northern Italy in August 1943, released Mussolini from prison and installed him as the leader of German occupied Italy, hence the base in Salò.

The Italian Co-Belligerent Army was created (essentially founded in November 1943) to fight against the Fascist Republic and its German allies, alongside the large Italian resistance movement, while other Italian troops continued to fight alongside the Germans in the National Republican Army. This period is known as the Italian Civil War.

In April 1945, Mussolini was captured by the Italian resistance and executed by firing squad. 

And Salò? In 2020 the town council voted to keep Mussolini on record as an honorary citizen. The majority rejected a petition from three minority members to strip the Fascist dictator of the honour he was given in 1924. “You can’t cancel history”, was the view after the vote that took place with a heavy police presence outside the council building.

The ferry to Salò was quiet, once we had dropped off a group of passengers at Sirmione. Until reaching Manerba on the Western shore, I was the only passenger. There was a small crowd waiting with umbrellas (yes, the drizzle was back) and I thought they’d be boarding but a woman (with a bright pink umbrella) walked to the edge of the jetty, gestured and the ferry crew didn’t even lay down the gang plank.

I hope she really was speaking for the entire group.

The ferry continued on its way and we rounded a rocky headland passing a bay filled with small islands and hugging the shoreline to where we would (I assumed) stop at Portese, in half an hour, before arriving at Salò…and we had better stop there.

The shoreline North from Portese to Salò was wreathed in mist. ‘Atmospheric’ and actually ‘mysteriously atmospheric’ had not been in the weather forecast. As the boat headed in towards Portese we passed the Isola del Garda, looking like a fairytale setting.

Isola del Garda

There was nobody waiting at Portese and the staff there waved the boat on its way. Standing up, to make it clear that I needed the boat to stop at Salò (especially if nobody was waiting on the jetty) seemed like a very good idea.

Two people boarded as I left the boat into the rain.

The cafe, I headed to for breakfast, had neglected to mention that brunch had to be reserved. So ambitious plans for fruit juice, coffee, bagel and pancake were shelved. I had a sandwich and latte before wandering back to the harbour.

By the time I finished eating, the weather had ceased its atmospheric nature and I wandered back to the harbour.


Somebody had been parking vintage and super cars in front of some of the key landmarks in Salò.

It seems that this place is a bit of a heaven for petrolheads with regular exhibitions and rallies. Today, it seems to be mostly about Dodges and in the past the focus has included Corvettes.

There was a truly evil-looking black Plymouth Fury and while it wasn’t ‘Christine‘ red, I decided to keep my distance. #NotTakingAnyChances

Salò gets a bit of a poor write up in the travel guides – the buildings aren’t that noteworthy apparently. I’m not entirely entirely sure what the writers’ problem with Salò is – it looks every part the lakeside Italian town as all of the others that I’ve been to so far. I actually think it’s a more interesting place to visit.

I also like the absence of tourist shops and the endless array of places selling goods from the area. Show me a picture of a Bardolino street and there’s every chance I’ll confuse it with a street in Sirmione or Garda or Lazise. Salò doesn’t feel like it’s for the tourists only.

As I mentioned, there are plaques on the buildings where they were used for the Fascist regime. The one I’ve found so far is the orange building with arches that is now the town hall but was used as the interpreters’ office. (There are plaques that denote other aspects of Salò’s history too – it’s a great place for a history geek).

Now the town hall – others are hotels.

I wandered to the Andre Heller Botanic Garden in Gardone Riviera, not far from Salò – around a 40 minute walk from the centre. The garden was originally planned and built at the beginning of the 20th century by Arturo Hruska, an explorer and doctor, who gathered about two thousand varieties of plants and flowers and planted them on a small area of land, among a tangle of paths, rocks, waterfalls and fountains.

Heller bought the land a few years ago and extended it as well as adding sculptures (his own and those of other artists).

Entry for an adult is €12 and they don’t accept plastic.

It’s fabulous and from the top of the rockeries there are amazing views of the lake… if you can find a view without some eejit doing a yoga pose.

Bad news, kids. Yoga poses are back. I thought we were still in the phase of “here’s the back of my head while I look at a sunset” but no, the back of the head (and I think this is stoopid as well, by the way). After an all too short disappearance, it seems we’re back to “me doing the ‘lord of the dance'”. (Look it up, it’s always that yoga pose – you never see a ‘reclining pigeon’).

A view through the trees without a yoga pose.

Incidentally, I really enjoy yoga but you won’t catch me taking a pose for holiday snaps.

Salò doesn’t seem to draw the ferry crowds (or indeed crowds by any other mode of transport) but it’s a gorgeous town to visit. As the sun came out, a walk around the apparently longest promenade on Lake Garda offered stunning views. I have no idea whether that claim is true.

Salò in the sunshine

NB. If your ferry home turns out to be the catamaran (and you won’t know this until it arrives) be prepared to pay the supplementary fee with a dash to the ticket office to so. I was on board with three minutes to spare. Just as well, it was the last boat/catamaran to Desenzano.

Categories: Italy, Lake Garda, Salò, The Italian Job, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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