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Guide to discovery Sirmione and its Scaligero Castle

Together with a tour guide from Sirmione you will discover one of the most enchanting places in the whole of Lake Garda, so fascinating that it is often called "the pearl of the lake". Its magical atmospheres were already described by the Roman poet Catullus in the 1st century BC. From the middle of the southern coast of Lake Garda, a very thin strip of land extends northwards for 4 km, in some places just 120 m wide. It is the Sirmione peninsula, one of the most evocative places on Lake Garda, sung in various eras by poets and artists. About two thirds of the peninsula is the town of Sirmione, a picturesque village dating back to the Lombard era, although archaeological excavations have brought to light remains from the Roman era. At that time, however, the main center was higher: the immense Roman villa that tradition indicates as the birthplace of Gaius Valerius Catullus, one of the most famous Latin poets.

Sirmione can be a destination in itself for a guided tour that combines history, art, architecture and poetry. Suitable for individual visits, small and large organized groups, families with children, school trips. With a 2-3 hour guided tour you can visit all the main places of interest:

  • Scaliger Castle (external and / or internal)
  • Villa of Maria Callas (external)
  • San Pietro in Mavino
  • Grotte of Catullus
  • Panoramic lakeside walk

Sirmione is also the starting point for boat trips on Lake Garda, from the shortest circumnavigations of the Sirmione peninsula to admire the Catullus caves and the Scaligero Castle from the water, up to longer excursions to Isola Borghese, Isole del Garda, Salò, etc.

The immediate hinterland of Sirmione is also a Lugana wine production area. There are numerous wineries where it is possible to take guided tours with tasting.

Guided tour of Sirmione

The guided tour starts from the entrance to the village, consisting of the southern walls of the Scaligero Castle. Today access is by means of a brick bridge, but once in its place there was a drawbridge which, if necessary, could be raised by isolating the village. To create the moat, the canal that cuts the tip of the Sirmione peninsula was dug, making it in fact an island. From the small dock always crowded with fishing and pleasure boats you can enjoy a beautiful view of the castle, with the keep and the crenellated walls.

The Scaligero Castle

The entrance to the castle is on the right just inside the town. On the entrance portal you can see the Scaligero coat of arms (the shield with the ladder) and the lion of San Marco, emblem of the Serenissima Republic of Venice, symbols of two of the powers that followed one another in control of the region. From the internal courtyard you can go up to the patrol walkways and higher up to the keep from which you can enjoy an exceptional 360 ° view of the village and the peninsula of Sirmione. From the top of the keep you can clearly see the small dock of the castle surrounded by walls and towers built in the water, which would have protected the boats that had taken refuge there from attacks by the enemy. The current castle was built by Cansignorio della Scala at the end of the 14th century, expanding a previous fortress perhaps built on a Roman or Lombard tower. The castle is in perfect condition.

The Borgo

Crossing some narrow alleys you reach Piazza Carducci, the heart of Sirmione, with its cafes, ice cream parlors, hotels, restaurants, pizzerias. From Piazza Carducci there are the embarkations from which you can take the boats of the public navigation line or the private motorboats on which to venture on a boat trip on Lake Garda. Near the dock is the bust of Gaius Valerio Catullo, tutelary deity of Sirmione.

Gaius Valerius Catullus

Gaius Valerio Catullus was born in Sirmione in 84 BC. His was a rich and important family who gave hospitality to Julius Caesar on a stage of his travels to Gaul. To give hospitality to a figure like Caesar needed a suitable place. This is one of the clues that makes many believe that the large and sumptuous villa, the remains of which tradition calls "the grottoes of Catullus", is precisely the place where the famous poet was born and spent his childhood. Catullus moved to Rome around 60 BC. Here he led a sweet life ante litteram, frequenting young artists of high hopes, personalities of the time, fascinating women. One of these, Clodia, fell madly in love, spending a short but intense love story, which ended due to her volubility: "What a woman says to a passionate lover write in the wind, or in flowing water. ". For Clodia, whom Catullus calls Lesbia, the poet wrote unforgettable verses. Catullus joined the poetic current of the neo-heroes, which revolutionized the art and poetry of antiquity. In an era in which poetry dealt with "high" topics, telling about gods and heroes, celebrating the powerful, authors like Catullus spoke instead of little things: love, friendship, nostalgia, writing immortal verses for their universality and modernity . Of course there is no lack of words for his beloved Sirmione as in the XXXI poem.

The Grotte of Catullus

So let's go and visit the caves of Catullus. You have to leave the town and continue north to the extreme tip of the Sirmione peninsula. The remains of the ancient Roman villa occupy an area of ​​about 2 hectares (20,000 square meters) which makes it the largest archaeological excavation in Northern Italy. These are not real caves of course, but when the villa was abandoned and fell into ruin the vegetation grew luxuriant and abundant around and above the immense structures of the ruins, with the underground rooms, giving the impression that they were just natural ravines. "Caves", in general, was how the great rooms of abandoned and forgotten buildings and structures of ancient Rome were defined. When with the Renaissance there was the rediscovery of the ancient, the artists lowered themselves with ropes and torches inside these "caves" to study the decorations on the walls from which to draw inspiration: festoons, masks, garlands, etc., then came defined as "grotesque", that is, in the manner of cave paintings. The villas in antiquity were Patrician residences built within vast landholdings. The rustic buildings were therefore annexed to the noble building, where laborers and slaves who dedicated themselves to work in the fields and processing activities lived, and where products were stored or animals raised. Very little remains of the body of the actual Sirmione villa. What still impresses today are the remains of the annexed rooms and the supporting structures that supported the main body. The villa was in fact built on uneven ground, with depressions and differences in height, which had to be leveled by filling ditches and, where the difference in height was too accentuated, building a complex system of substructures (support structures) that created a large flat platform on which the residential part was built.

The Baths

The complex had its own spa. We can clearly distinguish two rooms equipped with a hypocaust, the ingenious system of cavities into which hot air was conveyed from a furnace for heating. One, larger, was perhaps the tepidarium, the other, smaller, the calidarium. A quadrangular construction whose walls have been preserved was probably the cistern that supplied water to the baths.

The Great Cistern

An even larger cistern is instead located in the middle of the esplanade on which the body of the building stood. It was an imposing work, 43 meters long, 8-9 meters deep, carved into the rock and covered by a brick vault arranged in a herringbone pattern which, after two thousand years, is perfectly preserved. In it the water that the entire villa needed was collected since, built on a rocky spur, it was too far from the lake, and it was not possible to reach any aquifer.

The Terrace

The north end of the villa ended with a large terrace facing the lake, built on the highest and most imposing of all the substructures. The large platform has almost completely collapsed. Some pierced stones found among the rubble downstream have suggested that around the terrace there was a system of poles that supported a large velarium, a curtain like that of theaters and amphitheaters, which shaded the entire surface of the terrace, making it a pleasant place. under the hot summer sun. One can only fantasize about the splendor that such a villa had to express. Such dimensions and grandeur suggest that the finishes and furnishings were of a luxury and refinement with few comparisons, built among other things in a particularly uncomfortable place, but with the specific intention of enjoying an unparalleled view of the lake that opens up in front of it. to us in all its magnificence.

The abandonment

In the third century the villa was abandoned. The first raids of the barbarian invasions made it clear that a residence so luxurious and in such an open position, impossible to defend, would be an easy target for raids and violence. The decline was rapid and inexorable. In the Lombard period it became the site of a lookout post and some burials. On the esplanade once occupied by the sumptuous villa, olive trees were planted that have resisted even the various excavation campaigns and still embellish the area.

The Museum

The guided tour of the Catullus caves ends in the small but very interesting museum annexed to the service building. There are exhibits found during the various excavation campaigns that have taken place in the villa and in other neighboring areas: fragments of friezes, pottery, oil lamps, bronzes, coins, inscriptions, milestones. A fragment of a fresco found in the villa that deserves particular attention is exhibited in a reliquary of the museum. It represents a young man, dressed in the typical patrician toga, holding a scroll, the equivalent of a book in the ancient world. Many like to think that it is the portrait of the young poet Catullus.

Maria Callas

The famous soprano made her debut at the Verona Arena opera festival in 1947. There she met her husband, Giovan Battista Meneghini, a wealthy businessman. The couple spent their summer holidays in the villa they owned in Sirmione. You can still find the places that the divine frequented during her vacation in Sirmione, such as the Gran Caffè Italia, in the main square of the town, where Callas used to have an aperitif. The beautiful Art Nouveau villa, no longer owned by the Meneghini family, is still visible just outside the town and included (externally) in the guided tours of Sirmione.

The Terme di Sirmione

Sirmione is also an important spa center. In 1889 some divers discovered on the bottom of the lake, just off the tip of the peninsula, a spring from which water at about 70 ° temperature came out. Some speculated that the Romans already knew and exploited the thermal waters. This is quite unlikely as the source is located at a depth of 15 meters, and only the development of diving equipment has allowed its discovery. The sulphurous waters of Sirmione have shown efficacy in the treatment of some respiratory and auditory disorders, but they are also ideal for carefree relaxation. The water was channeled and is still distributed to spas and some hotels. Lake Garda is in fact a renowned spa town. During the boat trips that circumnavigate the Sirmione peninsula, the boatmen often stop right on the spot overlooking the source. If the lake is calm enough it is possible to see the dense bubbles when they reach the surface and smell their characteristic smell.

Panoramic Walk

At the end of the guided tour of the Grotte di Catullo we will return to the village along the beautiful promenade that runs along the lake on the eastern side of the peninsula. You will then pass along the thermal water pumping station near which you will perceive the characteristic smell of sulfur. Excess water is returned to the lake through overflow pipes. Someone, years ago, built a sort of dam by piling stones around the channel, and thus creating a rudimentary pool flush with the lake where hot water accumulates allowing you to enjoy the spa for free. Along the panoramic walk you can enjoy some suggestive views of the castle and the village.

Navigation on Lake Garda

From Sirmione it is possible to take boat trips, both on the vehicles of the Garda Navigation Company that make regular connections with all the Benaco countries, and with the numerous private boats with which it is possible to arrange personalized tourist itineraries around the peninsula or in various areas of the lake. , accompanied by tourist guides who illustrate the history, art, nature and curiosities of the area.

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