A Rough Guide to Lake Garda in Italy : Things to Do in Sirmione
I visited the town of Sirmione on several occasion whilst working over in Northern Italy.
It's a very picturesque and historic town full of interest and charm.
Its old fortifications have been the subject of many camera angles by admiring tourists.
Certainly it is one of the most popular attractions on the lake.
You'll find it situated on the southern shores of Lake Garda in the province of Brescia.
It lies at the end of a thin peninsula that protrudes out into the lake affording a wide view of the fantastic scenery.
You'll find plenty of things to do in Sirmione.
In fact the peninsula is how the town got its name as it derives from the Greek word 'syrma' which means 'tail' or 'train'. It was described by the ancient poet Catullo as the "pearl of all islands and peninsulars" when he was one of its residents in the 1st century B.C.
Then in 1880 Alfred Tennyson waxed lyrically "There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow, There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow" as he described a visit to the town. And to this day Sirmione is still a very popular attraction with visitors.
The first time I went there was by bicycle from Peschiera where I worked on a campsite and which was about 6 miles away. I spent an afternoon sampling its delights on a warm sunny June day in summer.
Riding the Devil's Highway
I really enjoyed cycling around the area exploring all the towns and sights that Garda has to offer.
It's an easy and relaxing way to get around as there are no real hills at the south side of the lake.
Just as well considering that the bikes have no gears. They're intended only for use on the campsite but we're allowed to use them outside as well, even on our time off.
But then we're encouraged to absorb as much local knowledge as possible so that we can pass on advice and information to tourists. Such as "Don't cycle on the roads, they drive like mad, you'll die, you'll die, you'll have a horrible accident and die, they're crazy!" One day I saw an old guy clasp his hands and offer a quick supplication to the Almighty at a roundabout, 'Keep your hands on the wheel!' I thought to myself.
But a worse fate than that befell me. I had to ride a girls bike on my trip to Sirmione. The company sent two brand-new, still in the wrapper bikes to our site and both of them were girls bikes.
Don't get me wrong we did have an old boys bike from last year but it was a creaking wreck and the brakes were a bit dodgy too, so not ideal or safe enough to venture out onto the busy roads. It meant I really had no choice but to jump on my girlie bike and head out for the short trip to Sirmione.
Luckily it wasn't a Saturday otherwise the roads would have been full of hairy-arsed bikers. They seem to descend on the area at the weekend and many head for a local bar in Peschiera, the 'Due Route', to gather and talk bikes I guess.
You can just imagine me toddling along the road on my girlie bike with my dinky little bell almost getting blown over from the backdraft of screaming Harley Davisons and pumped-up Suzukis. "D'ya wanna some pink ribbons for them handlebars!" I guess that they would scornfully roar, "Or put them in your hair an' make a nice bunches!" Luckily, no danger of any such humiliation today as it was a weekday and fairly quiet on the roads. No Hell's Angels on the Devil's highway.
The great shoogly pedal incident
My cycle was uneventful although the right pedal felt a bit funny and it wasn't quite flush with the crank.
My own fault as I think I destroyed the thread trying to get the thing on back at the camp.
Well, I won't insult your intelligence and keep you in obvious suspense as the inevitable did happen and the accursed thing fell off on the way back.
I'd only gone about a kilometre when it started to wobble under my foot.
It may be that long ago Aristotle defined the essence of humour as like a buckled wheel but there's nothing funny about a shoogly pedal and it soon fell off. It made for a longer journey home as my left leg had to take most of the strain while I precariously tried to push down the thin crank end with my right.
But as for now, I'm entering the historic town and looking for things to do in Sirmione.
Once upon a time
Similarly to Pescheira, the town of Sirmione has Bronze Age origins from the 18th-16th B.C when villages existed on the peninsula on which it sits. It became a strategic position militarily as it sat between Verona and 'Brixia', the old name for modern Brescia.
Fortifications were added in the 4th century A.D. and taken advantage of by the Heretics as a stronghold during the era of the Inquisition.
It has a castle built in the 15th century by the Scaligeri family, who were Lords of Verona, and actually used the existing Roman foundations on which to build it upon. It is very well preserved despite its age and the 'fish-tail' shape of the battlements lend it a strange fairy-tale appearance.
Apparently on a boat trip entering the towns one day a little girl was heard to exclaim in Italian "It's Cinderella's Castle!" But make no doubt about it this was built for war and today you can see why as it's sited at the end of the thin peninsula jutting out over a kilometre into the lake. This afforded a comprehensive view and therefore complete control over the whole southern part of the lake.
So the castle is actually more of a military fortress at a strategic location.
It's open to the public for a fee and although the inside consists of an empty courtyard you can climb up the ramparts.
It's good fun for chidren and on a clear day will give you a wonderful view across the lake.
The fort is surrounded by a moat in which ducks pottered about on top and large fish swam beneath them. I think they were carp but I can't be sure.
Boutiques and bucket-shops
Of course within the town you experience a mix of the ancient and the modern sitting side by side. Designer-clothes shops displaying 'Armani', 'Dolce & Gabani' and 'Versace' next door to souvenir shops selling trinkets t-shirts and beach towels all under the shade of the ramparts and old buildings within the fortified grounds.
Depending on your particular point of view, Sirmione is very tourist-friendly or tourist-dominated as the town is geared towards the holiday season.
Therefore if you would rather avoid the crowds and enjoy a more authentic experience it would be best to visit in off season.
However the streets, lanes and piazzas certainly have character and plenty of colour.
It makes for a pleasant and interesting stroll and has a nice atmosphere.
If you're not shopping then a sit-down in Piazza Carduci will suffice and you can watch the people walk by. You'll see a mixture of chic and elegant Italians as well as tourists bedecked in bright t-shirts and shorts.
But be aware that there is a dress code in the town. As with many other Italian holiday resorts and historical centres, beach wear and scantily-clad visitors are banned. In some places this can incur a fine.
Cars are only allowed in for essential use allowing people to walk unhindered along the narrow streets and lanes at their own pace.
But there is a large car park at the front of the old town where, for a charge, you can leave your car.
Plenty of ice-cream on display too as Sirmione is justly famous for its delicious flavours.
You will be spoiled for choice as there are so many parlours selling a multitude of different flavours.
A moderate refreshment
There was also a pub called 'Doc Bar' would you believe. As my surname is Docherty I immediately got my photo taken in front of that posing outside as if I owned the place. A man can dream.
I had a wander around the shops and sipped a beer in a German-style pub. It cost me €5.50 and it wasn't even a full pint, being a 'birra media' which is only half-a-litre. Not the kind of place to have a right good night out. I made my beer last and made it my last. I can't afford to get that pissed.
There are not that many bars in the old town and certainly no real night life. But this makes Sirmione a relaxing place to visit in the evening and perfect for a quiet meal or a wander.
The best place for bars would be at nearby Colombare at the base of the peninsula next to the main road that surrounds the lake. There are several lively bars in a small area either side of the street that leads towards Sirmione.
Hit the beach
To slake my thirst on a hot day I stuck with my big bottle of water, with added juice from a freshly squeezed lemon to give it that little bit of zest. Along with some fresh rolls filled with either mortadella ham or fette cheese, chuck in some lettuce, tomatoes, a dash of mayonnaise and for that final kick some chopped black olives. That was my packed-lunch as I sat in a little park above the small beach taking in the view of the lake and mountains. This is the life I thought.
On another occasion I went with some friends and we walked down to the little beach at Sirmione. Here we came across a natural spring that some locals were bathing in. The stench of rotting eggs was pervasive so I guess it contained sulphur but you wouldn't get me in it with that stink, no thank you. There was a small disused building next to it and such was the smell I seriously thought that maybe it had been an old cafe and someone had discarded food in there.
Springtime for Sirmione
But the story of the sulphur springs in Sirmione has a far more structured and commercialised footing than our little hot stream on the lakeside. We have to go back to 1889 when a man called Procopio who came from Venice sought out the spring which was already known to exist. For over 300 hundred years the locals had known that there was hot water emanating from the lake.
Using a diving suit and specially designed pumps sent from England he explored the shallow depths of the lake. He reached the spring 20 metres below the surface and successfully inserted a long tube into the rock face.
Thereafter a construction project began to lay 300 metres of piping to carry the 70 degrees hot water into Sirmione itself and in 1900 the first Spa was opened. A further two springs were opened and eventually a network of pipes carried the thermal water to the Catullo Spa, the Virgilio Spa and to the Spa hotels.
Art in the park
Before you come to the beach there is an attractive park and next to the entrance is the house in which Maria Callas, the famous opera singer, lived in for many years.
It is a private household and is therefore not open to the public. But I suppose if you want to have a go singing an Aria or two under the window you might get lucky and they'll let you in for a peek. But probably not I would hazard a guess.
Perhaps a lesser known but nevertheless talented inhabitant of Sirmione was the English writer Noami Jacob. She lived on Lake Garda for over 30 years until her death in 1964. You will find a plaque on the wall of the house where she lived in the centre of town .
The park itself had various objet d'art positioned among the trees although to our eyes it looked like somebody had been fly-tipping.
One of these 'modern masterpieces' looked like a pile of wooden crates dumped on the grass.
Perhaps we're just not connoisseurs of esoteric art in the park so we'll leave that for more discerning minds.
Nevertheless the park offers welcome shade from the summer sun and also an opportunity to rest or have a picnic. We simply stopped for a refreshing drink of water from the public water tap at the entrance to the park followed by a pleasant wander. But if you don't fancy walking you can catch the little train on wheels, ubiquitous the world over in resorts far and wide for tourist transportation.
Things to see in Sirmione
At the end of the peninsula there are Roman ruins which you can visit. These have an entrance fee unless you want to try your luck and sneak around the lakeside fence if someone distracts the attendants. I decided on neither and just had a look from outside.
There is also a ruined villa dating from Roman times and has been associated with the poet Catullus. However the villa was built slightly later and presumably was owned by a wealthy and important person such is its size and grandeur. It is open to the public although is closed on Mondays.
Other historical attractions of interest are the Church of San Pietro in Mavino which was built in the time of the Lombards but renovated in the 14th century. It contains frescoes dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries and a bell tower from 1070.
Also the Santa Maria Maggiore dating from the 1400's which has frescoes dating from that time as well as a wooden statue of the 'Madonna Enthroned' and valuable paintings. It has unusual terracotta decorations, an elegantly structured apse and fine external buttresses. For those interested in old churches you will find many of interest around the lake.
Back in the shades
Back in the town centre I found a shop selling cheap sunglasses at only €10 each but most of them were ladies sunglasses or at least looked quite feminine with brightly coloured frames and dotted with small sequins.
That would set the seal on my cycle back along the Devil's Highway, "Hey!! There that big pussy on the girlie bike again, he thinks he's Elton John now!". It's bad enough being stuck on a girlie bike without accessorising into the bargain. There were only a few sunglasses that I liked but none of them seemed to sit right so I thought I'd leave it for another day.
There's nothing worse than that uncomfortable feeling on the bridge of your nose caused by ill-fitting glasses. No matter how cheap they may have been I still like my comfort.
Springtime for Mussolini
All this sight-seeing was hard work as squinting in the sunlight is good exercise for the eyes even if it does give you blinding headaches.
I had a rummage through another shop looking at small items like t-shirts, fridge magnets, cups, mugs, and mirrors with pictures of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Mussolini, Jim Morrison, James Dean, Pope John Paul II etc, on them.
No! you weren't seeing things, read that last line again, they were really selling mirrors with our dear old friend Mussolini on them.
I had come across him before on Lake Garda and promised to try to not mention him again. But what can I say? There he was on sale among the other dead superstars.
Who the hell would want to hang a bloody mirror of Mussolini on their wall? There obviously must be a market for wall-mounted megalomaniacs. Perhaps for the sideboard or mantlepiece even because not long after that I saw a small bust of him on sale in a shop in Pescheira.
I wouldn't mind if it was a dartboard, punch-bag or a souvenir doormat for a shit-factory. Even a little Mussolini doll hanging upside-down from a toy lamp-post to keep the kids amused. But if they're making commemorative busts of 'Il Duce' then they're evidently intended as reverential tributes to his memory. I give up!
A cultural interlude
We got a short spell of rain in the afternoon but it was just a local shower, quite light and actually very refreshing on a warm day. I think I can handle four minutes of rain, it's just when it stretches to four days or four weeks that I get really brassed off with the weather. Luckily I came across an art exhibition with the enticing sign 'Ingresso Libero'.
Yes! 'Free Entry', my kinda show. It got me out of the rain but I enjoyed looking around the gallery and one painting above all attracted me.
It was a long portrait of a beautiful woman in a red dress, standing absolutely straight with quite arresting features on her face, penetrating staring eyes and a stern looking mouth. It was interesting that the artist was actually sitting at a desk at the door. I recognised his face from the leaflet, his name is Riccardo Maffioli.
It got me thinking that I should buy a sketch pad and try some drawings myself. I'm getting inspired. Not inspired enough to pay €19 though. I saw the pad in a local shop. It was hardback, with an old map of Italy on the front. Really nice but too pricey. I won't suffer that much for my art.
Transport in Sirmione
There are enough things to do in Sirmione if you are on a short trip. But if you are planning on staying longer then it best serves as a hub for other areas too.
Sirmione is well serviced for transport links like many towns and villages on the south of the lake. As the land is flat the road links are aplenty although to be avoided at weekends during high season or festival days.
In fact anywhere around the lake you could end up stuck in a traffic jam for around two hours in busy holiday periods.
Nevertheless the town is on the bus route between Brescia and Verona with about an hour’s travel approximately for both cities on a good day. The bus will also take you to the nearest train stations at Desenzano to the west and Peschiera to the east.
They are only around fifteen minutes travel either way and from either station you can be in Milan in less than an hour, or you can reach Venice in an hour and a half by express train.
For private drivers the Milan-Venice autostrada is nearby and opens up the hinterland for touring and visiting the many interesting towns and cities in the region.
Of course aside from stormy weather you can rely on the ferry port to carry you anywhere on the lake on time and in comfort.
A boat trip to the north end of Lake Garda is highly recommended for the outstanding mountain scenery.
It can be a little expensive but certainly worth it on a good day with glorious weather.
The waters can be busy at the weekend with speedboats, yachts and rowing as the local Italians descend on the lake for watersports. But to date I've never heard of a waterborne traffic-jam, not even on festival days.
Hotels in Sirmione
- Trip Advisor website information
Containing a list of hotels in Sirmione with prices, availability and customer reviews.
Out through the outdoor
I finished my trip with some cracking ice-cream, a vanilla and strawberry doubler and headed for home.
Not the most adventurous choice given all the varieties of ice-cream on offer in Sirmione but I thought I would play safe and experiment another day.
I passed under the old archway entrance to collect my bike at the carpark.
On my way I noticed a shop nearby selling Rock t-shirts so I went in to see if they had any ACDC ones. They had some with the 'Black Ice' album cover but I passed on them because I found a brilliant Led Zeppelin t-shirt instead and only for €10, a real bargain.
I'll wash it in cold water just in case, I reasoned. It had the famous 'Swansong' record label logo on the front; you know the one, the heavily muscled dude with the long hair, outstretched wings and no genitals.
I bet he rides a girl's bike.