It was quite the afternoon of sightseeing that awaited us when we were collected from Verona for our seven-day visit to the shores of Lake Garda. Our first stop before we even reached Lake Garda was to visit a winery just north of Verona in the Valpolicella Region to check out the wines of a local family-run Cantina. It was then on to Sirmione which is a small ancient town that sits astride a narrow peninsula that strikes north from the centre of the south end of Lake Garda. Verona was built nestled in the curve the Adige River and similarly the founders of Sirmione would have been delighted that they were surrounded by Lake Waters on three sides. They just had to build defences against enemies coming from the south and hopefully the lake waters would slow any other invaders coming by boat from the other directions. The rough map on the right below shows that a castle was built across the narrow entry to the town and so the defenders gained a height advantage against acrimonious neighbours come the early Middle-Ages.
Arriving at the gate of Sirmione is an impressive occasion. There is a conveniently located car-park in front of the castle and so from there, the peaceful visitor of the 21st century doesn’t have to call for the drawbridge to be lowered; the gate is open and the stone bridge is effective in getting you unhindered across the moat and into this lovely town. Having visited the huge Castelvecchio in Verona, we were almost old friends of the Scaliger family who ruled there in the 13th century. We discovered that this castle had also been built by the family, starting in 1277 with Mastino della Scala in control. Archaeology has indicated that the Romans were here before Mastino but this didn’t stop him building the castle over the top of Roman remains. The Scaligers not only wanted to control this area of the lake from their enemies but they also felt the need for protection from some of the embittered locals.
Our first destination for the afternoon was not to stroll the streets of Sirmione but to go for a lengthy walk to the other end of the Peninsula where are located the remains of the most impressive Roman villa to be found in Northern Italy, the Grotte di Catullo. The name literally means the cave of Catullo which is, as titles go, quite inaccurate. The villa was built in the early years of the first millennium CE and appears to have fallen out of use as a residence in the late third century. Large sections of it were covered over the centuries so presumably its appearance was suggestive of Caves for the locals. The famous, youthful Roman poet Cattulus (C. 84 – 54 BC), spent much of his life in Verona but some of his poems show that he had spent time around this area of Lake Garda. Unfortunately, he was long gone before this villa was built.
A large section of our walk down to the Villa was through a substantial Olive grove; apparently many of the trees are hundreds of years old. The above image on the right illustrates not only how impressive the original villa must have looked but how impressive the whole site on the end of the peninsula was. It was certainly prime Roman real estate.
Like the Scaliger Castle at the entry to Sermione, this villa was not the first structure to be built on this scenic spot on the edge of Lake Garda. There were Roman ruins of an earlier building found here and this Grotte di Catullo was of course later quarried for some of its component parts which were then reused in another villa closer to the town. The original owner must have been very wealthy because he needed to build substantial foundations to ensure that the first floor of the Villa was raised above the natural slope of the Peninsula. Much of this first floor has disappeared but todays visitors can get a clear idea of the huge building it must have been. The image on the left below shows the huge steps that needed to be in place to enable the residents to head down to shoreline in front of the villa. The image on the right is of the remains of a long, covered walkway that would have been a major part of the comfortable living area of the original inhabitants.
There is a small museum near the villa that houses some of the archaeological remains from the excavations of this large site. The fresco image shown on the left from the villa illustrates the quality of the original decorations. After our examination of the museum, we then walked back to Simione and to our surprise, a boat was awaiting us to take us on an inspection tour of the Grotte di Catullus from the waters of Lake Garda. This not only gave us views of the Scaliger Castle but also of the whole promontory on which the Villa had occupied pride of place.
After our hectic schedule so far that day, we were very appreciative of getting some slow time walking the old streets of Sirmione and enjoying some time relaxing at one of the cafes after our scenic boat trip. We finished off our visit to the town with a look at the 9th century church of San Severo with its frescoes from the twelfth century.
Our home for the next week on the shores of Lake Garda was Hotel Meridiana in the town of Malcesine, about two thirds of the way up the east coast of the lake. It was going to be a lovely place to stay, particularly given its amazing views out over the lake and the silhouette of Malcesine Castle dominating our skyline.