I have been lucky enough -perhaps through my location, though more likely through an enthusiastic host parent – to see what must be some of the most beautiful towns surrounding the West side of Lake Garda in little over two weeks, with the majority fitting into the first few days. I hope to detail all off them – Desenzano, Salo, Brescia – but I must start with my current favourite, Sirmione. Stretching out from the south side of the lake, it offers impressive views of the surrounding area, as well as an interesting history in its link with the Romans. Its layout and architecture is indebted to them, being one of the clearest resemblances to their work in Northern Italy. There is clearly some incredible culture to be found here, of which I only witnessed a small part due to the social agenda of my being there: certainly another few hours will be needed to enjoy this beautiful town properly, after which I hope to post more on its historical and cultural aspects. For now, I wish to share one of my most interesting experiences so far.
As stated, I was there on a social agenda: my aupair family were meeting some old friends for pizza, and it was these friends that really made the evening. I had been told something of them; they were mainly teachers, some bilingual, plus a journalist, three priests – one Italian,one Lebanese, one American – and an older couple who were the parents of the American priest.
Though I didn’t confess it, I was wary of a gathering taken up largely by priests: being in Italy, they were Catholic, leading to two potentially awkward situations depending on their conduct – they could dislike me for being christened as Church of England, that is protestant, or dislike me for the fact that I no longer follow church, which I wouldn’t deny to them. However, within moments of meeting the first two my worries were eradicated. They were not at all conventional; the first words I heard from the American were “is anyone else dying for a beer?!” Though there were a couple of questions were regarding my religious stance (I was English, so I must be protestant?) , they were taken light heartedly, and seemed more out of general intrigue into my views than a dismissal of them. This attitude was the standing point for the evening: maybe I am more sheltered than I believed, but I have never experienced such a culturally diverse group. It was a thrill to hear the mix of accents and languages, to turn one way and communicate in English, and another to switch into Italian (or at least, my attempts at it). To hear discussions of the church mixed with those of opera, travel and television.
The location also worked to our benefit: as a tourist attraction, Sirmione holds plenty of delights in the area of pizzerias and cafés or bars. Our first stop was a small, open air bar just outside the stone walls of the centre, which took in a beautiful view of the lake. As is tradition in Italy, our drinks were served with an aperitif of snacks: if there is one thing England is needing most, it is the Italian style aperitif! The bar staff were a perfect example of the welcoming attitude I’ve received in Italy; the young bartender took to Agnese, the toddler I care for, who was far too intrigued by her surroundings to stay at our table, whilst the American priest got a picture with the two bar maids, mutually mocking one another’s accents.
The bar’s lakeside position allowed for a walk along the shore: though the view wasn’t particularly extravagant compared with other Garda towns, that’s not to say it wasn’t beautiful – it would be hard not to have a view that kept your eyes in this area. The significance of Sirmione’s views, however, lies in their variety: as a peninsula, much like Italy itself, it is bordered on three sides by water, allowing for views East, West, and North of the Lake. This is perhaps most enjoyable after visiting other local areas; there is something intriguing about viewing known places from a distance, and recognising certain landmarks. I was fortunate enough to have my visit coincide with a fireworks display in Desenzano, just across the water, and after only a few days living here, I received a memory which I know will stay with me forever – seeing the fireworks shoot above the land, reflecting in the dark field of water before us, and listening to two of our social group sing what sounded to be a traditional Italian folk song. It was one of those dreamlike, made for movie moments, which Italy is becoming full of.
Also particular to Sirmione is the natural hot springs, created through the sulphur in the Lake’s water. There is a well-reputed spa, Aquaria, which offers relaxation in these springs as well as a variety of therapeutic treatments. You can find more details on its location and offers here – http://www.termedisirmione.com/aquaria-sirmione-en.jsp – and there are also rumours that Groupon does bargain deals for it occasionally. However,if you simply want a quick dip, there is a spring to be found along the further along the shore which I believe is open to the public.
Due to its tourist status, this unique stretch of land is not short of places to eat: there are cafés and bars dotted around the streets by the castle, and if you make your way to the piazza you will find yourself surrounded by pizzerias, serving both aperitifs and main meals. Although we struggled to find a place with room for us – due to our large party and it being 8.30pm, the Italian dinner time – the restaurant that took us in gave exceptional service, offering inside seating and an aperitif with wine while they prepared our table (a costly freebie when you consider there were fourteen of us). I was then pleasantly surprised by the cost of meals: in England, it is generally expected that tourist locations will allow for a greater expense in food and drink, yet it would have been a struggle to spend more than €15 here. Indeed, I dined on a whole pizza (the done thing in Italy, it would seem) four only €6.50, a price which by no means devalued its delicious standard.
Unfortunately, there is a hiccup in the area of prices, that comes if you plan to drive to Sirmione – it being that there are thousands of others like you through every sunny day from May until September, allowing the car parks to charge extortionate rates (so much so that they allow the use of bank cards). It took us at least twenty minutes to find a space, and I believe between ten and twenty euros to have it for the evening. Do not let this put you off, however, as there are plenty of other ways to travel here – the Garda ferry boat being perhaps most appealing. Running through Spring until November, it stops and picks up passengers at all of the main towns and tourist spots on the South side of the like, at very little hardship to your wallet. You can find timetables for the various destinations here – http://www.navlaghi.it/eng/g_orari.asp Though I haven’t experienced it myself yet, I hope to do so in its final weeks before winter.
Sirmione, though now one my of early visits in Italy, remains one of the most impressionable upon me – not just for its history and beauty, but for the atmosphere. The evidence can be seen in the length of this post (which I apologise for), and that there are still aspects I haven’t mentioned. If you visit the south side of Lake Garda, Sirmione is a must-see, even just for an afternoon to witness the Roman castle and take a walk along the front shore.