“Mussolini was not a good man,” Leonardo whispers to
me, a solemn look on his face. His left arm touches my shoulder, as if to assure me of the veracity his words, while his right arm points to the former home of Benito Mussolini’s best friend, a man who was hauled off to the crazy house at the end of the Second World War.
This conversation is one of the most striking
memories of my trip to Northern Italy. I was in the town of Salo, a gorgeous lakeside city known for leisure, sailing and being the last official home to Mussolini’s fascist government; and Leonardo, a man of similar age to myself, seemed to be apologizing for his country’s role in the Second World War.
For Gen-Y Canadians such as myself, the Second World
War may as well have ended a thousand years ago. But for nations who found themselves on the wrong side of the gun barrels, it may as well have ended yesterday.
I nod at Leonardo’s statement.
“Yeah, I know.”
Then we head to the boardwalk for an eiscafe (iced
I am standing lakeside in the Brescia Region of
Northern Italy, an area that stretches throughout eastern edge of the province of Lombardy. It is home to scenic lakes, wonderful Roman ruins and pleasant towns galore, yet the entire area seems to be off the average Western tourist’s radar. Northern Italy is all Milan and Verona, it would seem.
But as I was a guest of Tourism Brescia, Milan was
merely my airport and the closest I got to Verona was staring at its brown and beige buildings from across Lago di Garda (Lake Garda). After an exploration of the best of Brescia, however, I departed Italy without any sense of want.Grotte di Catullo
One of the most amazing ruins in all of northern Italy, the Grotte di Catullo is a shining example of just how advanced and opulent the ancient Romans could be. Located on tip of Lago di Garda’s Sirmione Peninsula, these 2,000-year-old ruins are one of the largest and most striking ever to be unearthed in Northern Italy.
These ruins are all that are left of the massive, 167-metre-by-105-metre private edifice of the Catullus family. The edifice is best known for being where the Roman artist Gaius Valerius Catullus whiled away hours during the first century BC, writing poetry inspired by Lago di Garda and tending to his horses — during the time Julius Caesar was murdered in Rome.
Today, it is a marvelous walk-through ruin, where one
can get up close and personal with architecture pre-dating Jesus Christ — with no crowds. No velvet ropes. No security guards. Just ancient stone that
whispers the poetry of the ages.
As I walk through the ruins, I can’t help but reach out and touch history — I place my hand against a two-millennia-old Roman arch and close my eyes.
I can hear the ghost of Caesar.
I wander further through the ruins, stopping at a cliff’s edge and staring out over Lago di Garda. When one thinks of Italian lakes, famous Lago di Como (Lake Como) often jumps to mind, and Garda is rarely mentioned. This seems an injustice to beauty of Garda.
A breeze wanders in from the Alps, on the opposite side of the near-400-sqaure-km of lake in front of me, and caresses my face. The injustice of recognition Garda endures may seem unfair, but then again, maddening crowds would surely be to this place’s detriment. Maybe a touch of secrecy is OK, for now.
Near to the Grotte di Catullo, Sirmione sits like a
mini-Venice on the shores of the Lago di Garda. The town is a tourist hotspot, primarily housed inside an 800-year-old castle, Commune di Sirmione, where canals of emerald lake water wind through the stonework and hoards of tourists eat lunch and browse the shops. It is a hub of activity.
But I have to admit, after the quiet solitude of the Grotte di Catullo, a little people-watching will do me good. Especially when combined with a wood-fired pizza and glass of red wine.
Leonardo helps me with my voyeurism.
“Those women are from Turkey,” he says, pointing to a
group of females dressed in matching yellow and-black couture. Leo explains that Italian women wear their hair flat, while the Turks like to poof up their coiffures. I’ll take his word for it. Our menus are in Italian, German and English. This could be the most touristy spot in all of Brescia.Salo
Salo is a rich man’s town, Leonardo explains.
Stone-walled estates line the shores of Lago di Garda throughout Salo, as do exclusive spa retreats, well dressed Italians and Lamborghinis. The town is famous for sailboating and luxury tourism, and infamous for being both the birthplace of Italy’s fascist regime, and the final stronghold of that particular government.
But for me, Salo is the Northern Italy of my dreams. We enjoy iced coffee on a lakeside boardwalk. Sailboats pass by, heading for waterborne excursions in the shadow of the Alps. Venetian architecture, a remnant of when the Republic of Venice ruled the region in the 12th Century, is prominent throughout the city. It is a perfect mix of the calm I felt in the Grotte di Catullo and the activity of Sirmione. And it is a perfect final memory of my trip through the lesser known side of