If Sirmione was empty, it might be a quaint lakeside town. But it’s full, an endless torrent of tourists flocking to its tourist trap shops, cafe’s and restaurants like morbidly obese people to motorised scooters in Disneyland. Undoubtedly one of Lake Garda’s most popular places to visit, Sirmione is also, it struck me, full of things that are not exactly what they seem.
You enter Sirmione’s old town through the drawbridge of what looks like a castle. But is it really a castle, or is it more a set of walls in the shape of a castle? If you then want to see all the small town offers in way of history, there are a few options.
You can stand in the street and look at the villa where opera star Maria Callas used to live, or if you’re loaded you can stay there (it’s now a hotel) for about £500 a night. You can check out a few churches, the one on the hill, San Pietro, has frescos from the 12th century and a bell tower from the 11th. Or, in lieu of motorised scooters, the old, infirm or plain lazy can ride a mini train to the Roman ruins of what was once a grand villa – the Grotto of Catullus (the Roman poet). This, by the way, is neither a grotto nor somewhere Catullus actually lived.
All the while, since Sirmione is so abundant with conifer, pine and olive trees, you can breathe in the same smells as you would if you were in the Mediterranean.
But don’t get me wrong. Sirmione was not so full of deceptions I would actually urge you to cross it off your list of ‘things to cross off a list’ during a holiday to Lake Garda. For me, it’s best bit was it’s ‘beach’. I say ‘beach’ because, well, there’s water you can swim in, that part will feel familiar, but for most of us it will be like no other beach we’ve ever been to. Giamaica Beach, or Jamaica Beach if you want to confuse your Facebook friends about exactly where you’re holidaying, is located at the very tip of the peninsula that is Sirmione, evocatively overlooked by the ruins of the house that Catullus did not live in.
Almost the entirety of Sirmione’s old town is encircled by flat, smooth rocks that go out about twenty meters before they fall away and meet the lake. Imagine the rocks taking the place of sand you’d normally find at a beach, with people sitting on them, sun baking on them, running their dogs over them and you’ll be starting to get the idea.
If you’re not a great swimmer you can paddle around between the rocks, while the superstar swimmers can slip and slide their way to the edge of the lake (the rocks are pretty slippery so take it slow) and swim out as far as their strong swimmer arms allow. Watch out for the boats though as they go past fairly often and fairly fast. It would be a shame to be smacked unconscious and drown.
But wait, there’s more. There’s a bar! So once you’ve cooled off you can grab a drink and people watch until you’re dry. Prices are not that cheap, but come on, someone had to scramble over rocks with a bunch of supplies for you to have that six Euro Spritz! There’s basic snacks too, crisps, nuts and an anaemic version I got of a ham and cheese toastie, but that’s not a complaint, it filled a hole and sopped up a bit of the Spritz.
So there you go; Sirmione has a castle that’s not really a castle, a grotto that’s not really a grotto where the man its named after never lived, a beach that’s not really what a lot of people would call a beach and it feels and smells like you’re in the Med but you’re not. No matter, if you’re like me you will have found the beach too, you will have had a swim, your cheeks will be rosy and your spirits will be high from the sunshine and alcohol, and then you’ll be able to strut back along those streets teaming with tired tourists who have no idea what they missed out on.
And then you can buy a gelato, the one touristy pursuit in Sirmione that’s totally worth indulging in.
Good to Know
So how do you find this little unique place? Start by standing in front of the ‘castle’, On the west/left side of it, walk up a little hilly street until you see the little sandy beach with a promenade leading around the coast. Simply walk along this promenade, hold your nose when you hit the sulphuric water pouring into the lake from the nearby natural baths, keep going past Lido delle Bionde, keep going, keep going, don’t worry that you’re lost, you’re not, and ta daaa, a few more minutes and you’ll hit Giamaica Beach.
*If you’re coming from Verona by bus, the LN26 doesn’t go all the way into old town anymore. You’ll have to get off at the last stop and wait for the shuttle bus to take you the rest of the way. Tickets for this are 1 Euro from the ticket offices or 1.50 Euros if bought on the bus.