When we planned this vacation, the Sirmione peninsula and the ruins of the Roman Villa became a magnet and we planned a day trip into history to visit an ancient holiday resort of extremely wealthy Roman citizens.
Planes, Trains and Cars … but we choose the Ferry System
About 15 minutes from our hotel is the village of Salò which is the seat of the ferry service. The ferry system offers scenic lake steamers or more time-efficient hydrofoils; all depending on your time and budget constraints.
We opted for the hydrofoil and took the midday boat with two more stops before our destination. Moving away from the pier we began to notice white capes and a slight swelling of the water that once again reminded us of the vastness of this lake … an hour later we were docking at the Sirmione pier.
A brief history of Sirmione
The peninsula has a very long history, but we will spare you … in short it went from a fishing village in the Stone Age, to a holiday destination in the 1st century of very wealthy and powerful Veronese families, to a strategic military defensive position with a fortress in the 13th century, to an obsolete castle fortification in the 15th century which then became a warehouse in the 19th century.
Lemons in Lemoncello
After all those turbulence the inhabitants of Sirmione settled in an idyllic agricultural life full of olive trees, orchards and lake fishing. But at the end of the 19th century some enterprising, using a metal pipe, found a way to tap into a hot spring on the peninsula.
Let’s see … we have hot mineral water (158 * F), a castle, a set of ancient churches, a piece of land with beautiful views of the largest lake in Italy topped off by a fairly intact Roman villa / thermal ruins … it was a new tourist attraction reborn on the peninsula.
A stretch but marketing wins over accuracy
Their creative and entrepreneurial minds went to excess and the main attraction was now called “Grotte di Catullo”.
They took some liberties because in reality there was no cave but only a series of crumbling buildings with collapsed walls and a few caves. Also, as for the part of Catullus … the villa was created around 150 AD and the famous Italian poet Catullus had died almost 200 years before the villa was built … but that didn’t stop the show.
Once again tourism finds Sirmione and the crowds return to this ancient village … now complete with a medieval castle, three churches, spa hotels, spas, restaurants, shopping areas and, of course, the famous ruins of Villa Romana / Bathhouse .
The main square is just off the pier area and is lined with more or less usual tourist shops and restaurants … but it’s easy to find good pizza in Italy and dine alfresco on red-checkered tablecloths.
The Scaligero Castle (Rocca Scaligera)
After a short walk from the square we found the advertised “fairytale castle” … the 13th century Scaliger castle. The castle is surrounded by a moat and is accessed by two drawbridges. Drawbridges were built for defensive reasons to ward off invaders as well as locals.
Twelve Euros ($ 15) and about twenty minutes later we had “seen” the castle and walked along the walls … onwards to the next landmark … looking for the ruins as the signage was quite limited.
We observed that the crowd concentrated on the shopping and restaurant areas of the historic center, on the Scaligero Castle and on the three churches (Sant’Anna della Rocca, San Pietro in Mavino and Santa Maria Maggiore).
After making our way through the crowds, we spied an electric train that offered a ride from the baths to the entrance to the ruins. For one euro per person in each direction … a good deal as it is more than a kilometer uphill walk.
The further we were from those places, the more the crowd was spread. So going the extra mile paid off as the ruins were virtually free of foot traffic.
Grottoes of Catullus (Grotte di Catullo)
The gardens around the ruins of the old villa are about five acres in a park-like setting with stunning views in every direction … we finally found the ‘worth getting here’ moment and not too soon.
Entry to the area was through a very well done archaeological museum which had outstanding exhibits in a multi-story structure. A photo is really worth a thousand words … needless to say that the intact ruins were very impressive and justified the trip.
The boat back to Salò
We went back to the dock area a little before our scheduled ferry to Salò as it was the last one of the day and we didn’t want to miss it. There was an alternative ferry service called “Taxi Boat Sirmione” but it came with a premium price tag.
Queuing for anything in Italy is always an interesting experience. Tourists usually keep something like a line and Italians just join the gate. So as the ferry approaches the dock, all forms of discipline come out the window … some call this chaos … we just smile, join ranks and move on.
Our Lake Garda adventure was coming to a very positive conclusion and our last dinner at Hotel Bolsone Dimora was an exceptional culinary delight and a perfect end to our visit.
We leave in the morning for Sestri Levante and head further south towards the Ligurian Coast and the Mediterranean Sea.
Follow us as we continue our “Ultimate European Road Trip Series” – Part Ten – Sestri Levante / Liguria Italy.
After all, what’s the rush … get inspired.
© 2022 Inspired travel itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar
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