Lake Garda was a serene nature-break after the excitement of the cities we have recently been in.
Lago di Garda
Lake Garda, in northern Italy, is the country’s largest lake (34 miles (54 km) long and 2–11 miles (3–18 km) wide). During the peak summer season, thousands of Italian and foreign visitors flock to this popular destination. In November however, when we visited, the hotels were closed and all was peaceful.
Small Italian towns have a weekly market day when traveling markets – usually a couple of dozen trucks or more – arrive in town together, set up and sell fresh produce, fish, meats, cheese, crafts, clothing, shoes, kitchenware, gifts, flowers, hardware and more. We missed the one in Peschiera but experienced these traveling markets 15 years ago when we visited Tuscany and were surprised and delighted to discover them in 2021. It is like having a superstore roll into town for a few hours and everyone goes shopping.
Peschiera del Garda
Peschiera (pronounced pes-care-a) is a small charming UNESCO resort town, population 10,000, still encircled by large, nearly intact, 16th century walls. The ancient Romans called Peshiera del Garda, Arilica and residents are to this day called Arilicensi. We spent an afternoon exploring the old town with its impressive walls and pretty canal shortly after arriving and our apartment was a pleasant 10 minute walk along Lake Garda to and from town. Here is our pathway into town during daylight and the well-lit return after dark.
Peschiera del Garda’s Patron saint is Martin of Tours. The weekend we visited happened to be the “Festa di San Martino”. At the heart of the celebrations were food stands selling typical dishes of sausages and sliced pork. There was a temporary roller skating rink, a rowing competition, free visits for residents, via boat trips to visit generally closed parts of the historic walls and finally a fireworks show on the bridge of the canal. It had a fair-like atmosphere and we were delighted to be a part of the festivities.
At the southern edge of Lake Garda is a long thin peninsula that juts far out into the lake. At the furthest end of this land mass is the small summer resort town of Sirmione, population 8,000. Most but not all hotels were closed but the tiny town had plenty of visitors on the sunny day we traveled there.
Sirmione is only 6.5 miles (10km) from Peschiera del Garda and the moment we stepped out of the taxi, the 13th century fortress, Castello Scaligero di Sirmione, caught our attention. It is surrounded by a moat and has two drawbridge entrances.
As commanding as the castle was, when we walked to the very tip of the peninsula to see another, much older, historical landmark, we were completely captivated by Grotte di Catullo. This archaeological site is a wonderful example of a 1st century BCE luxurious Roman villa. It was rectangular in shape and quite large – 550 feet long x 350 feet wide (167mx105m). Perched on a cliff and hemmed in on 3 sides by a beautiful freshwater lake with the Alps providing the backdrop, it is easy to imagine life in this heavenly spot in the Italian sun.
The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE) and his family owned a villa in Sirmione. He wrote many poems about Sirmione and although the majority of the Roman villa was built after his death, historians named the Roman ruins after him.
One of his poems simply named Catullus 101 was about the loss of his brother in which he repeated the words “Ave Frater Atque Vale” which translates to “Hail brother, and farewell!”
Nineteen hundred years later, when the English poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) visited Sirmione in 1880, he used Catullus’s words of mourning in the title of his own poem about Sirmione.
Ave Frater Atque Vale – Alfred Lord Tennyson
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!
Olive trees have an average lifespan of 500 years. However, there are many recorded as living as long as 1500 years and there is one olive tree in Crete, Greece that still produces olives and is claimed to be between 3000–4000 years old.
“Olive knot” is a typical olive tree disease. It is a bacteria that is found naturally in the environment and can penetrate inside the tissues when an olive tree is wounded. A wound to a tree can be caused by frost, hail, strong winds rubbing branches together, insects, pruning or harvesting. The disease cannot be eliminated once a tree is infected but it can be managed to reduce the spread of the bacteria and save the tree. Sadly the centuries old olive trees belonging to Grotte di Catullo are now severely infected and the museum is trying to find a balance between pruning to save the ancient trees versus leaving the groves untouched.
Chiesa di San Pietro in Mavino
The medieval stone church of San Pietro in Mavino was built in 765 CE and the bell tower was added in 1070. The church was renovated in the early 14th century – near the entrance is a brick wall with the date 1320 on it. We loved the 12th century primitive and faded frescoes painted on the walls. Walking through these tiny, interesting old churches creates such a palpable sense of what life was once like.
Our 4-day nature break perfectly refreshed us and we are ready to discover what is around the next corner.
Saluti from these Arilicensi,
Edoardo + Guilia (Ted + Julia)
View our Sirmione photo album here
View our Peschiera del Garda photo album here
View our Church of San Pietro in Mavinas photo album here
View our Archaeological site of Grotte di Catullo photo album here