Today was going to be a long and interesting day of exploration of the west coast of Lake Garda. Our journey would involve driving to the northern end of the lake to Riva del Garda, through this top of the lake town and turning back down the west coast for our first destination, Limione that we could see from our Malcesine hotel directly across the lake. The section of road between Riva and Limone is ruggedly beautiful and we stopped along the way to explore some of the ‘galleria’ walking paths off from the main lakeside road. Our day ahead was set to be a great day of touring where we would not only see the startling beauty of the lake side mountain landscape, but get a sense of the role the Lake Garda region played in early 20th century Italian history. We wouldn’t quite make the town of Salo towards the southern end of the lake but for two years between 1943-45, it was the home of Benito Mussolini who ran his German sponsored republic from there.
Given that the edge of the lake in this region hammers into sheer cliffs, road building has always been challenging. If you look closely at the image below, note the short sections of the road running along cliff edges before it once again re-enters the cliff tunnels. As could be predicted, the rugged beauty of the lakeside road made it a perfect target for the shooting of a James Bond thriller (Quantum of Solace) in 2008. It also could be predicted that ill timed speeding of Bond’s famed Aston Martin ended up with the car in the lake.
We pulled into the beautiful tourist town of Limone sul Garda looking for a morning coffee. It was clearly a lemon-based town as the lemon groves built on the mountain side were part of its background landscape. Curiously, the name of the town did not refer to the local citrus growing industry but had been inherited from Roman, pre-lemon growing times. The other thing we had to get used to was that we were now in another region of Italy. After leaving Riva, we crossed the border from Trentino into Lombardy; much of the western side of Lake Garda is in the Lombardia region. Much of the eastern side of Lake Garda is in Veneto.
From Limone, our next destination was a significant distance down the west coast of Lake Garda in the town of Gardone Riviera where were would be visiting a very unusual Museum/Estate/Landscaped Garden on the edge of the lake. While originally it was a villa owned by a German art historian, Henry Thode, it is remembered for the tenant, Gabrielle d’Annunzio, who took it over after it was confiscated by the Italian state. D’Annunzio is one of those Italian historical figures that biographers struggle to sum up in one or two words. Here for example is Lonely Planet’s excellent attempt at a summary of this self-promoting, larger than life character.
“Poet, soldier, hypochondriac and proto-Fascist, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938) defies easy definition, and so does his estate. Bombastic, extravagant and unsettling, it’s home to every architectural and decorative excess imaginable and is full of quirks that help shed light on the man.”
The map to the left shows the location of the estate that d’Annunzio took over in 1921 and began his reconstruction of the villa and expanding its gounds, all at the expense of the Italian nation. Due to his popularity as a poet and WW1 war hero, he was supplied with finances by Mussolini’s fascist government to keep him busy and out of the limelight so he wouldn’t have time to criticise their governance.
I have always been fond of the term “defenestration”. It is a technical term for executing or murdering individuals by throwing them out the window of a building. In his early days at his new villa, an unknown assailant (or perhaps he just fell out the window when he was drunk) pushed d’Annunzio out of a window, injuring him severely. If a real critic of his flamboyant showman politics made the decision to kill him by throwing him out his own window, tourists to Lake Garda would miss out on a fascinating afternoon of touring his gorgeous, poetical estate.
Everything about this estate, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, the “Shrine of Italian Victories”, is amazingly over the top, planned by a man determined to create a landscape masterpiece worthy of someone (himself!) who was the modern equivalent of a Dante or a Michelangelo. All great men need a theatre on their estate, so d’Annunzio had one constructed not far from the entrance to the gardens, next to the path that led to the main residence. As outdoor theatres go, if you got tired of the play, you would be able to enjoy the view out over the lake or admire the giraffe-size blue horse that stood guard over the amphitheatre.
From the outdoor theatre we wandered to the main residence where there are regular tours of the house. It is a strange place with apparently over 30,000 books and 10,000 objects d’art that d’Annuzio needed to surround himself with. This was a man in love with himself whose own bedroom was a shrine to his greatness; his bed was in the shape of a coffin and raised up so it looked like he lay on an altar each night. Psychologists should use this house as a model for the narcissist whose ego has expanded to merge with the surrounding environment.
A man with a shrine for a bedroom would not be satisfied in the long term with such a small memorial. Perhaps the largest construction on the estate apart from the outdoor theatre was d’Annunzio’s mausoleum with an even grander view out over Lake Garda. If you can ignore the extravagance of the various structures on and over this mausoleum, the thing that catches the eye are the dog statues. Our hero clearly liked the idea that his dogs would be able to laze around his grave and take a ‘quantum of solace’ in the sun, the views and the lingering presence of their almost divine master below ground.
D’Annunzio had a great World War One which apparently he enjoyed immensely. I can only assume that the name of his estate, ‘Shrine of Italian Victories’, was basically a shrine to his own perceived daring deeds. On the map of the garden earlier in this article can be seen one such shrine, a transported naval cruiser that was used by d’Annunzio in his most famous post war action, the taking over of the Croatian city of Fiume that he believed belonged to Italy. The incident gained him a lot of popularity in his home country and his work there can be seen as a forerunner of the fascist system that took over Italy in the 1920s. The other keepsake of his wartime exploits was the plane that he had flown during his 1918 ‘Flight over Vienna’ where he led nine planes to drop propaganda leaflets, not bombs, over Vienna. This is hung from the ceiling of his Museo de Guerre in the grounds.
There was a lot to see in the gardens of Il Vittoriale degli Italiani and our group spent a number of hours strolling the paths of the estate. As a landscape artist, d’Annunzio created an amazing series of rolling pathways and hidden nooks with a surprise artwork around every corner. The image below shows a group of tourists taking a well-earned rest in one of the garden enclosures after their long stroll around the estate.
A large part of our day had disappeared, so it was time to turn our path back towards our hotel in Malcesine. This required a short-cut across the lake on a vehicle ferry from Gardone Riviera to Torri del Benaco on the Trentino side of Lake Garda. Torri is an old Roman settlement with town walls and its very own Scalageri Castle, making it the fourth Castle built by this family in the Middle Ages that we had encountered in our travels around Verona and Lake Garda.
It was a long day touring the West Coast of Lake Garda but it was perfect finish to the day when we dined as the sun was setting over a Torri del Benaco piazza on the edge of the lake in the shadow of the Castle.
MADONNA DELLA CORONA