Hills and vines always make pretty scenery. But there is no prettier landscape anywhere than the sweet hills of Bardolino facing Lake Garda and the sunset, a serene pattern of vineyards, olive trees, cypresses, castles, and Veronese villas in pale pink stone, arranged on gently inclined slopes, lit by the cheerful shimmer of the lake-reflected light. It deserves to be called charming as well as any place on earth, probably more so than most and produces a wine to match.

Victor Hazan, Italian Wine

Captivated by Victor Hazan’s charming description above, I was looking for a place to stay near Lake Garda between my time in Venice and a visit to wine producer Corte Gardoni. Having a weak spot also for thermal baths, I settled on the spa resort town of Sirmione.

In general, resort towns hold little appeal for me. Mass tourism is a scourge on any place, no matter how beautiful (Venice!). But something drew me to Sirmione. Perhaps it was the thermal baths, perhaps that the whole town was a car-free zone, perhaps something unconscious that I only recollected when I was checking into my hotel: that Victor and Marcella Hazan had spent a honeymoon night in Sirmione more than 60 years ago.

Marcella writes of the experience in her memoir Amarcord:

We spent a single winter night in Sirmione…long since devastated  by tourism and the cheap souvenir stalls that thrive on it, but it was deserted that February, a beautiful  and romantic place. On the evening of our arrival, we had leek and potato soup, which I have made many times, partly for the nostalgia, partly for the invariably comforting taste. That steaming soup, so earthy yet so gentle, seemed to us miraculously reassuring. To this day, Victor recalls it with alms more warm than anything else that took place during our stay.

When I realized the amazing coincidence — that here I too was on a chilly February night, 60 years later — I was amazed and suddenly felt the place imbued with meaning. I checked into my hotel, just in time to relax at the hotel’s thermal spa for an hour before closing. At the dinner hour (around 9 pm in Italy), I went in search of a meal but found the streets deserted and most restaurants still closed for the off-season. I settled on a small trattoria with a promising menu, but it seemed that I was the only diner that evening, and the whole night began to feel just a bit lonely and depressing. On the walk back to the hotel I saw the signs of tourist destruction Marcella referred to, and I began to think that coming to Sirmione had been a mistake.

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Yep, just what one comes to Italy for.

But, still jet-lagged, I awoke early at 5:30 the next morning to this lovely view from my window and suddenly it felt like I was in the right place after all.

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I had several hours before I had to depart and thought it would be best spent walking the town. I quickly got through the tourist trap section and was pleasantly surprised to be soon surrounded by parks and natural beauty, which make up the bulk of the northern half of Sirmione.

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It was about 40 degrees with winds whipping up to around 40 mph by the lake, but the sunrise was stunning.

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Gorgeous Lake Garda with the Alps in the distance

This was the Sirmione which has attracted so many through the years: Tennyson, Ezra Pound, Maria Callas, and others who have all been drawn to or written about this place, drawn by its calm and and restorative powers.

At the uppermost tip of Sirmione is an important ancient ruin, the so-called Grottoes of Catullus, which are ironically neither grottoes nor connected to the Roman Republican-era poet Catullus. It was probably a private villa or perhaps even a bath complex (2nd century AD), but it is a spectacular site for those interested in Roman ruins, one of the most important in Northern Italy. Marcella and Victor had been there too:

In the morning we clambered over the ruins of a Roman bath, past a grove of olive trees planted before the birth of Christ, to reach the lake’s icy edge, our exhalations dissolving in the wintry mist as we gaily chucked stones to see who could send them bouncing farthest over the waves.

For me, the walk to the northern tip of Sirmione was equally exhilarating and made the visit worthwhile. Like many places in Italy, Sirmione is not perfect, but its charm and beauty are undeniable. I’m not sure it’s the place to be at the height of tourist season, but in the fall or spring it can be the beautiful and romantic place Marcella experienced more than 60 years ago.