Felice Anno Nuovo! What better way to start the New Year off than exploring a new lake. And what a lake! Poets have been ‘liking’ it for centuries – from Catullus in the 1st century B.C. to Dante in the 13th century, Goethe in the 19th and more recently the likes of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Tennyson. So have wind surfers. OK, maybe not for quite so long, but with all the regattas and surfing schools they’re catching up, numbers-wise, on those artistic types. And there is lots for the wine lovers too. This is Bardolino, Valpolicella territory. Wine tours – con degustazione of course – galore. And olive groves. And over forty kilometres of beach.
Nowadays it’s called Lake Garda, but for centuries it was known as Lacus Benacus. Long before the Romans arrived it was occupied by the Celts and benacus comes from a Celtic word meaning ‘horned’. The Celtic name lingers on in place names like Torri del Benaco, for me the loveliest – and calmest – picture postcard perfect village on the lake. And where I would be spending the night.
Personally I think the alphabet soup metaphor gives a better idea of Lake Garda’s shape. If Lake Como is an inverted ‘Y’, Lake Garda is more like a ‘b’. A spidery, crooked ‘b’. In the museum at the entrance to the Grotte di Catullo (which is not a grotto but the remains of the Roman villa where Catullus may, or may not have stayed) is an illustration of how this ‘b’ came to be.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because Lake Garda is so big – it’s Italy’s biggest lake and at 370 sq. km. over twice the size of Lake Como. A mere puddle of course compared to the Great Lakes back home – Lake Superior is over 82,000 sq. km. and even the bathtub we call Lake Ontario is almost 19,000, but being in Italy does strange things to one’s sense of distance. In ogni modo – because it’s so big, I had decided to visit a picture perfect village complete with medieval castle and narrow cobblestone alleys on the way to my hotel in Torri del Benaco. It made perfect sense. Even the weather was on board. Brilliant blue skies and the hottest temperatures I’d seen in days. What I had not counted on was that with the sudden return of bel tempo, all of northern Italy seemed to have the same idea. Sirmione is by far the most visited site on the whole lake. By Italian as well as foreign tourists. It’s at the south end of the lake, close to the A4, which means that you can have a nice breakfast in Milan – or Venice (Milan is 10 km closer) – and arrive in Sirmione in time for an even nicer lunch.
On the glacier illustration Sirmione is at the north end of the black line that juts up, mid-point, from the south end of the lake. Having visited Sirmione years ago I knew how narrow that black line was in real life. I also knew there was a road that followed the shore from Desenzano, a few kilometres to the south west, to Sirmione, so when I saw signs warning of code lunghissime (koh-day loong-ghee-see-may) at Peschiera, the exit to Sirmione, I decided to skip the ‘very long tails’ and get off in Desenzano. Ingorgo is the Italian word for ‘a rapidly rotating mass of water in a river or sea into which objects may be drawn, typically caused by the meeting of conflicting currents’. A whirlpool. It is also the word Italians use for what I knew would be transpiring as cars streamed off the highway at the Peschiera exit. Even though things slowed down to a crawl once I was on the peninsula, I was still feeling quite delighted with the way I had avoided most of the traffic. It was just a few hundred metres to the lot at the entrance to Sirmione where I was going to park my car, just as I had done on my previous trip. Then I saw the barricade. As I continued to crawl forward, I watched in disbelief – the parking lot is HUGE – Sirmione is essentially a pedestrian zone – virtually everyone who visits the town has to park in it – as a couple of rather frazzled-looking vigili urbani waved the cars ahead of me to the left. Back towards Desenzano.
I found a parking spot in a lot about 2 kilometres away. I know it was 2 km because I had asked the vigile urbano who refused to let me though where I was supposed to park. You can get all judgey on me if you like, but unless you’re a saint, you too might have found yourself asking similarly inane questions. I took off a few layers. And the shoes I was thoroughly sick of by this time – they hadn’t ever really dried out while I was on Lake Como. I thought for a minute or two about just skipping the whole thing and coming back another day. But as with the other two lakes, all that gorgeous scenery – the mountains, the bays – makes getting from one place to another on the narrow, single lane roads a challenge. It would take at least an hour to cover the 44 km between Sirmione and Torri. There were other places I wanted to visit on the lake – including two gardens that would take up a whole day for sure. If I didn’t go to Sirmione now, that was it. I fooled around for a minute or two with the idea of driving all the way to Desenzano – I was already halfway there – and taking the ferry from there to Sirmione, but then I looked around at all the other rerouted visitors, almost all of them Italians, many with strollers and toddlers, as they set out on the long walk and I joined them.
On my previous trip I hadn’t experienced any problems parking because I had stayed in the centro storico of Sirmione. Hotel guests and vehicles providing essential services are given special passes to enter the town. But what first-time visitors don’t know is that they have traded the fry pan for the fire.
What with all the hotels and stores and restaurants, not to mention the tempting gelaterie for us tourists, there isn’t much room left for vehicles on the narrow peninsula. The streets – or what passes for streets – are not just senso unico (one way). In places they are senso unico in alternating directions.
In all the places in Italy and France I’ve visited there are a few plants that really stand out. One of them isn’t even in a garden. It’s a Bougainvillea that sprawls across a building in the centre of Sirmione.
What would it look like almost 10 years later? Would it have even survived?
By now I was starving. Fortunately, unlike parking spots, there was no shortage of places to eat. I found a lovely outdoor terrace and ordered an antipasto. Don’t be fooled by the appearance of those lumps at the corners. They’re a Venetian specialty – Baccalà mantecato alla veneziana – a creamy, garlicky mixture made with cod, olive oil and garlic. When I finished the crostini, I started mopping it up with bread and then I just used my fingers.
After lunch I headed to the tip of the peninsula.
I would have loved to linger, but apart from lunch I had been walking for hours and I still had that 2k walk back to the car. And then the drive around the ‘horn’ and up the east shore to my hotel, which I realized when I checked my directions again was actually not in Torri del Benaco, but a couple of kilometres further up the lake. How had I missed that? Definitely time to get back on the road. Hopefully before the hordes. By the time I reached Torri the sun had already begun to take on a soft evening glow. Beautiful but unnerving given that I didn’t know where my hotel was.
Having already had the experience, I had no desire to end up looking for my hotel in the dark, but it was such a beautiful day and Torri’s promenade had been one of my favourite places on the lake. I figured I had just enough time for a bit of a stroll. Maybe even a glass of something local.
I stayed until the sun dipped below the clouds. My hotel was only a few kilometres up the road. It was twilight, but not dark when I turned into the hotel parking lot. By the time I checked into my room and got freshened up it was dark and dinner was being served on the terrace. I put on a sweater and sat down at a table right next to the lake. When I asked the waiter, he recommended the house specialty, lavarello alla griglia. I’ve given up on trying to learn the names of all the fish, but I have learned to trust waiters – especially when the fish is local. I ordered verdure grigliate -an assortment of grilled vegetables – to go with it and a bottle of wine. I would be staying here for three nights and they would keep the bottle for me.
Next – two gardens that break the mould.