Only in Italy can you find a little town of just over 8000 inhabitants that can boast extensive Roman ruins, prehistoric dwellings, natural thermal water and an enormous fortress, not to mention excellent sea food restaurants. Lying at the base of Lake Garda, Sirmione commands a peninsula that divides the lower part of the lake. In the 1st century BC it became a ‘resort’ for rich Roman families from Verona, and that character of luxury and relaxation remains strongly to this day. Come here if you need some spa treatment relaxation during a busy trip around bustling Italian cities.
A Bold Entrance
The historic centre of Sirmione is accessed through a dramatic medieval castle, featuring towers, a moat, two drawbridges and battlements. In its perfect state of preservation an epic battle with knights on horseback wouldn’t seem out of place today. Built in 1277 by Mastino della Scala, it is considered a rare example of medieval port fortification (the castle isn’t sinking, it’s deliberate!). It was used by the Scaliger fleet (Lords of Verona) as protection against enemies and those living in the area. The aerial view below shows just how the castle dominates the strip of land, very effectively isolating the peninsula from unwanted visitors. You can visit the castle and its museum, more information here.
Just inside the castle entrance you reach a residential area that combines quaint little houses decked with blooming lilacs and ivy and elegant villas reminiscent of Sirmione’s past as a resort for Verona’s elite. If it’s still before 12am I recommend grabbing a coffee and ‘brioche’ at La Tavernetta Maria Callas.
The Blue Blue Water
Next stop has to be the water of the lake, rich turquoise and scattered with swans. You can admire the luxury yachts near the historic centre, but then you must take a little walk beyond the town through laden olive groves and blackberry trees that stain the ground purple to the beaches. You can enjoy the rough paths dappled in sunlight just as Alfred Tennyson did one hundred years ago:
Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!
So they row’d, and there we landed-“O venusta Sirmio”
There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow,
There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,
Came that ‘Ave atque Vale’ of the Poet’s hopeless woe,
Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen-hundred years ago,
‘Frater Ave atque Vale’ – as we wandered to and fro
Gazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda Lake below
Sweet Catullus’s all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio!
The water round Sirmione is particularly special as it bubbles up from the rock bed at 70 degrees Celsius and is rich in minerals. Although there are two luxury spas where you can pay for health treatments, you can also cure yourself for free in little pools roughly formed from rocks by the beach. Pick your spot carefully though, because at the point where the thermal water escapes from beneath the rock the temperature can be painfully hot! There is, of course, the notorious stink of sulphur wafting around but you soon get used to it.
The savvy Veronese knew all about spa treatments, and the Grotto of Catullus represents the remains of a vast private Roman villa equipped with metal pipes bringing the precious hot water from the lake to a bathhouse. It is considered the most important example of a luxury Roman residence in Northern Italy. You can find more information and opening times here.
A Cornucopia of Seafood
Sirmione’s location of course means its fish restaurants are of excellent quality. Although a little pricey, which is expected as the main business here is tourism, you don’t need to have the same fear of eating over-priced frozen products as, say, in Venice. My recommendations are: Il Grifone for sunset lake views (though a little pricey) and Osteria al Torcol. Buon appetito!