You really have to see the crystal-clear blue waters of Lake Garda, glistening under a piercing autumn sun and backed by the Alps, to fully understand the beauty of this region. It’s utterly gorgeous. No wonder that in normal times millions of visitors flock to these shores every year to enjoy the scenery, and relax in the villages and vineyards that run along the shoreline and up into the hills behind. It still amazes me that this was our first visit to the Italian Lakes.
There are plenty of interesting and historic villages dotted along Lake Garda’s 158km shoreline that would make good bases for a stay. Popular Sirmione though is special even by the standards of this region. Sitting on a thin peninsula that juts dramatically into Lake Garda’s turquoise waters, the entrance into the small medieval village centre is dominated by a stunning medieval castle with a fortified port built into the lake’s waters.
The 14th century Castello Scaligero, named after the powerful ruling family of medieval Verona, has guarded the peninsula for over six centuries. Restorations started in the early 20th century have made it one of the best preserved castles in Lombardy. We were lucky to be staying in a lakeside B&B with views over Castello Scaligero from the bedroom window, not to mention a lakeside balcony from which to marvel at the spectacular views with a glass of chilled Lugana in hand.
That alone would be enough to lure me to Sirmione, but at the end of the peninsular the extraordinary ruins of the Grotte di Catullo occupy a spectacular spot surrounded by olive groves and lemon trees. An immense Roman villa that was occupied between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD, it commands sweeping views over the lake and mountains beyond. It’s named after poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus, although it’s very doubtful he ever lived there.
A cooling breeze wafting off the lake, it’s not difficult to conjure flights of fancy of life in Roman times as you wander among the terraces and centuries old olive trees. We’d strolled to the northern end of the peninsular through parkland and on largely traffic free roads – cars are banned and to get from the car park to our B&B involved an hilarious drive in a golf buggy. The area close to the villa is peaceful and relaxed compared to the tourist bustle of Sirmione’s medieval centre.
All through our trip, northern Italy was noticeably devoid of tourists. The southern part of Lake Garda was definitely the busiest place we visited. It’s so close to Austria and southern Germany that German is the language of tourism not English, it seemed that with stricter coronavirus regulations on the cards in early autumn everyone was having one last holiday. It made for a lively atmosphere but did make me wonder just how busy it would be normally.
Sirmione is an odd mix of upmarket lakeside resort and daytripping mass tourism. As a result it is blessed with very good restaurants serving up delicious but pricey dishes, and a ridiculous number of ice cream shops competing to serve the most obscenely massive ice creams I’ve ever seen. Day trippers appear in the mid-morning but by the time aperitivos are being sipped in the evening the village is peaceful.
We stayed here for three nights and quickly got into a relaxing rhythm. Aperol and people watching as the boats that ferry people around the lake disgorged their human cargo into Piazza Giosuè Carducci, quickly became a firm favourite. Sirmione may be the gateway to the southern part of Lake Garda but there is much more to explore and we will definitely be making repeat visits.