Though most think of Como as the only lake worth visiting in Northern Italy, to the east is Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, housing lovely resort towns, incredible weather and food galore! Located between Brescia and Verona, Venice and Milan, the lake makes for an excellent day trip or a stop-over on a Venice to Milan road trip. It’s wide girth puts it into three different provinces – Verona, Brescia and Trentino – meaning that each shore has a unique feel to it.
Though there are dozens of towns worth exploring, there’s only one that feels like a pearl: Sirmione.
Catullus said it best when he dubbed his beloved Sirmione “the pearl of the islands and peninsulas.”
A first century BC Latin poet, Catullus, or Catullo in Italian, came from a wealthy Veronese family. Their summer villa on Sirmione, Italy just so happened to be Catullus’ favorite place. “How willingly and happily I visit you,” he writes.
And the truth is, he wasn’t the only one captivated by Sirmione. From Lord Byron to Ezra Pound, James Joyce, George Orwell, Hemingway, Churchill, even Greta Garbo, stars and artists have always been attracted to this pearl. Because Sirmione does feel like a sort of pearl tucked away in the giant oyster that is Lake Garda. The town is a pinprick on the tip of a lake peninsula that juts between the two beautiful towns of Desenzano and Peschiera. It’s small and gorgeous and has the best climate for miles around. Basically, it’s the perfect lake vacation spot, and apparently has been since the time of Catullus.
What to do
The travel for Catullus and his family from Verona to Sirmione was short (in today’s journey it’s just about a 30-minute drive) and likely a welcome escape from the heat that Verona seems to steadily collect during the summer months. And though Sirmione influenced Catullus, enough so that he left behind a world-famous poem about the town, Catullus has also influenced Sirmione immensely. So much so that the two main attractions both include his name: the Terme di Catullo and the Grotte di Catullo, natural hot springs and an old Roman villa, respectively.
Actually, Sirmione has more than one thermal centers: there’s the Terme Virgilio and Terme Catullo, all in just 13 square miles! Sirmione’s natural thermal baths spring up from the rocks of Lake Garda at a scorching 150°F and are renowned for their mix of healthy minerals and salts.
The Grotte di Catullo, on the other hand, are neither caves nor owned by Catullus. Once thought to be the remains of his family villa, it’s now considered simply an ancient Roman villa or perhaps a bath house. In any case it’s the largest and most intact Roman villa in Northern Italy and, sitting on the furthest point of the peninsula, offers the best views of the entire town.
What once was a favorite resort town for rich families of the area, eventually became a strategic fortified town on the lake to defend the southern shoreline. It passed from the Romans to the Lombards, the rich Scaliger family to the Republic of Venice, Hapsburg Empire and later back to the Republic of Italy in 1860, but it was the Scaliger family that left the most noticeable mark. Right at the entrance to the historic center looms the 13th-century Scaliger Castle.
The Scaligers, or Scala family, ruled as lords of Verona (and it’s surroundings, such as Sirmione) from the mid-13th century through the 14th century. The castle was built during their rule to protect the east side of Lake Garda, especially from the family’s rivals in Milan, the Visconte family.
Though Sirmione’s history has been rocky – like all Italian history – the town’s beautiful views, fresh water and wonderful summer breeze have kept it a fabulous resort town from the 1st century BC until today. It’s nice to simply stroll the streets, dip your feet in the water and enjoy the summer flowers that bloom in abundance. After all, there’s little more relaxing than arriving to the city center, crossing the narrow drawstring bridge and knowing that you’re on vacation without a worry in the world.
Like Catullus said: “What is more blessed that to put cares away..”
How to Get There
Lake Garda is huge. It’s about 32 miles from north to south, so getting from one end of the other is bound to take a bit of time. Depending on where you’re coming from, visitors can get to Sirmione by ferry, train, bus or car. Trains run from Verona (and thus further afield, with a change at Verona) to nearby Peschiera, from there you’ll have to take the hourly bus into Sirmione, a ride that takes about 20 minutes. Alternately trains from Milan will come into Desenzano, to the west of Sirmine, and you’ll have to take a bus into Sirmione. Bus options from either Verona or Milan are a bit uncomfortable and inconvenient, though they do exist.
On the other hand, the lake is well covered by the ferry service which connects Sirmione to nearly all the other resort towns of Lake Garda. Though the fare is definitely not as cheap as it once was, the trip across the lake is a beautiful way to explore Garda. The overall price depends on the distance, but you can check online here.
The most convenient way to get there, obviously, is by car. Just a 30 minute drive from Verona, the drive around the entire like is worthy as well. Just know that Sirmione is a car free town. You’ll have to pay to park no matter what, but you might get stuck parking the car well outside of the town and hiking up to a mile in. Further away options have shuttle busses, otherwise look for bike rentals or simply be ready to walk. You’ll already be on the peninsula by that point and surrounded by beautiful light blue water. Enjoy it!
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