SIRMIONE: 5 Reasons TO VISIT ITALY'S 2-Mile Stretch of Paradise.
May 3, 2016 / By Anthony J. Carro
The reflection from the early morning sun bounced off the turquoise waters and into my eyes, making it hard to drive. I caught a glimpse of a colorful lakeside village through the trees that bordered this massive lake, we knew we were getting close.
The road began to narrow and suddenly we were surrounded by water on two sides. We were driving on a narrow piece of land jutting out into the crystal waters of Lake Garda and we were near entering one of Italy’s best kept secrets, Sirmione (Sir-me-oh-nay).
And then, right when it started to get exciting…we hit a dead end. At the end of the road we’d been driving on for almost two hours stood a solitary guard house and a big sign warning us to stop. We sat quietly, the small engine of our tiny Fiat resting after the high speed journey from Milano. I put the car in neutral, pulled the e-brake and took a step outside. Almost immediately, an Italian guard appeared. Before I had a chance to ask “which way to Sirmione good sir” he smiled and said "Why do you enter Sirmione?” Uh, for vacation? I replied. “Where will you be staying” he asked, Hotel Olivi I answered (by the way, almost everything in Sirmione is named Olivi due to the abundance of Olive trees). He walked back into his little guard house and the barrier was lifted.
Walking back to my little buddy (the name for the Fiat I was quickly growing accustomed to), I noticed a man standing beside a large fruit cart. He quickly cut brightly colored fruits with the speed of a Hibachi chef. His big trick wasn’t an onion volcano but what appeared to be the best lemonade 2 euro could buy. The local lemon groves provided the fresh produce. I made a mental note to pay this man a visit before leaving.
The guard motioned for me to drive forward. I thought to myself "I’m about to drive my car over a drawbridge through a medieval fortification wall. A draw bridge filled with people”. "Is this the only way in?"
I began forward. At first, I expected the wooden planks of the drawbridge to rattle but when they didn’t, I looked down and noticed they’ve been masoned since the old days. The gently whirring sound of motor boats drifted up from waters below as we drove over the bridge and then under the stone archway of the fortified wall. We were in the most ancient part of Sirmione and there was no turning back.
My “little buddy” never left 1st gear as I carefully slithered around couples on honeymoon, pets being walked and older folks strolling with canes. Slowly we progressed down the narrow cobblestone road, at times one of my mirrors rubbing against some unaware backpacker, window shopper or over excited Gelato buyer.
I noticed a small, circular, blue sign with a white arrow indicating my next turn. We passed through one more small arch and at once the street opened to a wide sun filled intersection. On 3 corners stood faded stone buildings, an outdoor tree covered cafe stood on the 4th. Huge brightly colored purple flowers crawled to the top of one of the buildings, the blooms bursting skyward somehow made their way over the road and connected to the rooftop of the building on the opposite side. How did that ever happen? Did someone actually pull the vine from one rooftop to the other?
Rusted bicycles parked below and small irregular doors lead into restaurants, souvenir shops and art galleries. Freshly painted shutters were tied open, persuading the lake breeze to enter a second story reading room. Needless to say, I was floored. I felt as if I trespassed on a movie set. But the details are such that only time and history can construct. I've since named this meeting of streets, “The Most Beautiful Intersection in the World”…I’m happy thinking it might be. We drove slowly (still in 1st gear) past olive trees and 60 foot tall cypresses until we reached our home for the next 3 days.
So what makes Sirmione so special? So uniquely beautiful? Here are my 5 reasons:
1) The sense of wonder and discovery that comes from seeing a place not often spoken about or photographed. For the most part, Lake Garda is relatively unknown to Americans, even amongst those regular travelers to nearby Lake Como. However, this is not the case for Italians, Germans and the Swiss. They’ve been making Sirmione and greater Lake Garda the place to vacation for centuries.
2) Historical and cultural significance. On the northern tip of the peninsula, nearly falling into the depths of the lake peacefully rests the crumbled remains of Grotte di Catullo. This ancient villa from Roman times was once believed to be built and occupied by the famous Roman poet Catullus. While it seems true that he may have lived on this spot due to it’s beauty, he probably didn’t build it because no poet would have been wealthy enough at that time. I love that he spoke about Sirmione in his own eulogy. He wrote “O beautiful Sirmione, the gem of all peninsulas and islands”. Walking through the olive groves and exploring the ancient remains of these extensive walls made us feel tiny in the scope of time.
Another awesome historical site is Castello Scalier. Built by Mastino della Scala in the 13th century, this moated castle is situated inside protective walls on top of ancient Roman foundations. You can climb the 142 steps to the keep (the tower on the very top). From there, you will enjoy the same 360 view some nameless night watchmen had over 700 years ago. The varied landscape is laid out before you. Starting with the hazy light blues of the Monte Baldo range to the north, the greenish blue waters of the lake then the bright orange terra-cotta of the roof tops in Old Town Sirmione.
Back on the ground you can rest a bit beside the castle's moat before visiting St. Ann’s; a humble 14th century church with 15th century frescoes. You can also visit San Pietro in Mavino - a Romanesque church built in 765 by monks on the remains of a pagan temple.
3) The overwhelming floral growth and lush landscapes: Sirmione and southern Lake Garda benefit from a warm Mediterranean climate. The dramatic mountains on the northern side of the lake act like a natural barrier, keeping out the colder Alpine winds. The result is the climate in Lake Garda is warm longer and cold for a shorter period of time, creating the perfect climate for all sorts of floral growth, lemon and olive trees (more commonly seen in the southern territories).
4) Secluded beaches: If you have the right guide, you can locate a small path which leads to a hidden beach located just below Grotte Catullo (mentioned above). Spiaggia Giamaica Beach, is one of the prettiest free beaches Sirmione has to offer. What makes it unusual is it is only accessible by swimming or by rowboat when the level of the lake high. When the level of the lake is low, you can walk on the white rocks that give the lake it's alluring turquoise color.
5) Natural health and wellness: It’s one of Sirmione’s most ancient qualities that has drawn visitors from around the Roman empire so many years ago and from around Europe today. I’m speaking of the natural thermal spas. These hot spring waters, at almost 158 F emerge from below the bed of the lake approximately 985 ft northeast of the 2 mile peninsula. In fact, bubbles from the natural springs can be seen at the water’s level in different locations around the lake. These natural spring waters are piped directly into the luxurious hotels and spas around Sirmione. Additionally, there are 2 or 3 spots along the coast indicated by rocks piled in a circle. These locations are free and open the public and in my opinion may be the best way to experience the thermal waters, the way locals have been for centuries.