Lake Garda

Lake Garda is the biggest of the Italian Lakes and stretches from Monte Baldo in the north to the Po Valley in the south. It is also possibly the most beautiful – at least that was my thought as I saw it shimmering enticingly when I set off to explore some of the places which had inspired writers and poets.

A good ferry service links most of the lakeside towsn but I was in a little motor boat which skimmed over the incredibly luminous blue water and passed under the drawbridge ofScaliger Castle to enter the Old Town of Sirmione which is situated at the end of a 4 km peninsula. It has been a favourite holiday spot over the centuries from the time when the Romans had their holiday villas there until Maria Callas came to relax there in her own villa.

Now, however, it is to some extent a victim of its own success as it is the most popular day-trip destination on the lake and crowds pour off the ferries and boats to enjoy the restaurants, smart boutiques and gelateries. As I was engulfed by the swirling masses it seemed ironic to me that this small peninsula has possibly inspired more poets throughout the ages than anywhere else in Europe: Virgil, Flaminius, Catullus, Dante, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Swinburne, Laurence Binyon, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender and Goethe, to say nothing of d’Annunzio and the Italian poets – enough certainly for a Sirmione anthology.

The grotto of Catallus – not a grotto and probably not connected to Catallus!

The focus has always been Catullus, that poets’ poet of the Late Roman period. In fact one of the best-known monuments on Sirmione is Catullus’s Grotto – which is not a grotto and probably wasn’t Catullus’s. It was given this name by Venetian explorers who thought it was a series of natural caves or grottoes. In fact it turned out to be the ruins of a Roman villa – but one believed to have been built well after Catullus’s time. Catullus who lived in Verona, was like most of us, probably just a visitor, calling there on his way home from Bithynia in Turkey where he was on the Governor’s staff – although his poem XXXI ‘Sirmio’ does imply, maybe in a metaphorical sense, that there he was at home there.

This simple poem delighting in the place has inspired, attracted and influenced many English-language poets. Algernon Swinburne felt so close to Catullus that he calls him ‘brother’ in his 1885 poem ‘To Catullus’; Thomas Hardy’s translated XXXI ‘After passing Sirmione, April 1887’; James Elroy Flecker penned his ‘Sirmio’ at the beginning of the twentieth century; Laurence Binyon published his long lyrical poem ‘Sirmione’ in 1909 and more recently in 1954 Stephen Spender wrote ‘Sirmione Peninsula.’

Arriving in Sirmione

My personal favourite however, is Tennyson’s lilting 1880 ‘Frater Ave Atque Vale,’ in which we find echoes of both Catullus’s XXXI and his elegy for his dead brother.

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 Sirmione/Catullus influence was possibly at its strongest and most long lasting in the case of Ezra Pound. He first visited Sirmione in 1910, staying at the Hotel Eden (which is still there) to ‘meditate on Catullus’ whom he viewed as a mentor saying, “ I would rather lie on what is left of Catullus’ parlour floor…than discuss any processes and theories of art whatsoever.” Sirmione had at the time had a special emotional pull for him as he was at balancing affairs with both Olivia Shakespear and her daughter. In his ‘ Blandula Tenulla Vagula’ he is at his most lyrical – but in fact Sirmione runs like a thread through his Cantos.

In 1920 he enticed James Joyce from Trieste to Sirmione but Joyce’s poetic output only amounted to this limerick
A bard once on lakelapped Sirmione

Lived in peace eating locusts and honey
Till a son of a bitch
Left him dry on the beach
Without clothes, boots, time, quiet or money’

In order to experience anything of the pleasure expressed by all these poets now you would need to come and spend the night in Sirmione for apparently once all the day trippers leave the essential beauty of the winding streets, the old castle, the flower filled gardens and the glorious lake setting rises up and is completely restored.

Lemons – a feature of Garda life

One of the first things I had noticed on disembarking was a display of the huge lemons. Garda has a strong historic lemon tradition with a resort to the north even called Limone. It is believed that lemons first came to Garda from Genoa in the 13th century and legend also associates them with St Francis. It peaked in the 1700s when Garda was important enough to deal with the administrative ‘cernuta’ or selection. The fruits were then individually wrapped and sent up to Riva for onward distribution to Germany and other northern European towns.

In 1786 Goethe noticed them growing when on his Italian journey. “We passed in from of Limone which ‘gardens’ laid out in terraces and planted with lemons, are rich and beautiful.”

D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy contains a chapter about the lemon groves of Gargnano. In 1912 Lawrence lived there for a year after with his-wife-to be Frieda. They lived just out of Gargnano in a flat in the Villa Igea, which is still there and bears a white plaque marking the couple’s residence. Unlike Sirmione, Gargnano has not changed greatly and it is easy to imagine Lawrence wandering about, studying the natives and finding his way up to the Church of San Tomaso.

On the edge of the lake is the Villa di Gargnano where D H Lawrence stayed

He achieved a lot here, finishing Sons and Lovers and drafting some of The Rainbow and Women in Love but the book he wrote about his stay, Twilight in Italy is an odd, idiosyncratic book, part gripes about industrialisation taking over from peasant life, part meditation on life itself and part tales of his travels.

In it he describes going to look at his landlords’ lemon gardens high above the lake. In summer all there was to see were strange pillars rising up through the undergrowth like the ‘ruins of temples” but Lawrence learns that they are roofed and built up with wood every winter so that the trees could be brought in to shelter from the cold. At this time they are dark places, crowded with orange and lemon trees and containing little fires which could be lit at night to keep them from freezing. Even then the lemon industry was failing with many lemon gardens for sale or abandoned. Lawrence wrote. “I sat and looked at the lake. It was beautiful as paradise, as the first creation. On the shore were the ruined lemon-pillars standing out in melancholy, the clumsy, enclosed lemon-houses seemed ramshackle…the villages too seemed to belong to the past.”

A panoramic view of Sirmione and Lake Garda

Lemons do still grow on Garda but not in a great quantity. As this was such an important local industry however, several old lemon gardens have now been opened to the public. One of them, La Malora in Gargnano as well as being a museum, does also still function and produce lemons. Pra de la Fame at Tignale is an interesting modern interpretation of a lemon garden and at Castèl in Limone the old lemon house has been restored.

I have mentioned only some of the poets and writers who have been inspired by Lake Garda; there are many others, to say nothing of painters and musicians who were drawn to this enchanting area. Many found it worth it although their journeys were often arduous and their lodgings miserable. Now we can enjoy all the pleasures it has to offer plus easy travel, good food and comfortable accommodation.

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