Europe Quick Trips

Tour impressive ruins of ancient Roman villa perched above Lake Garda

The Grottoes of Catullus, the ruins of an old Roman villa in Sirmione, offers an archaeological lesson and numerous photo ops.


By NANCY MONTGOMERY | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 19, 2019

On a June trip to Sirmione, the charming town on Lake Garda, I did what many tourists do and visited the Grottoes of Catullus.

There aren’t any grottoes there, nor was Cattulus, the classical Roman poet in love with Lesbia, in attendance.

Still, it was hot during the visit, nearly 95 degrees. Arguably too hot to tour what are the remains of the largest Roman villa in northern Italy.

The archaeological site and museum is open all year. However, viewing what remains of the ancient mansion, along with its cypress trees, olive groves and panoramic lake in the autumnal light might be ideal.

The capacious ruins are thought today to be from a grand home built between the end of the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. for some 1 percenters from Verona.

Now it costs just 8 euros (about $8.80) for visitors to wander among the ruins of the villa, some 550 feet long and 350 feet wide, and its nearly 5-acre site. To the uninitiated, it might look like a lot of rocks and arches. But signs in three languages explain how the multi-story villa was constructed and what individual rooms were used for. Drawings show how it might have looked in all its splendor.

A small museum at the entrance traces the history of the area, from the formation of northern Italy’s lakes through glacial melt, to the earliest settlements and Sirmione’s place on the trade route connecting Rome with the Alps and beyond. It also has a collection of tools, pottery shards, buttons and coins from past settlements, and parts of surviving mosaics found in the area.

The ruins retain their name for understandable reasons. When they were first discovered and before they were excavated, they looked like caves. And Catullus did have a nice house in the area — he wrote about it in his poems — but at an even earlier time.



TIMES: 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesdays. Closes at 2 p.m. on Italian holidays. Winter hours 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

COSTS: Adults: 8 euros; 18 and under: free

FOOD: Sirmione is full of cafes, restaurants and gelato stands.

INFORMATION: Online: grottedicatullo.beniculturali.it/index.php?en/1/grotte-di-catullo-home

The Grottoes of Catullus, an archaeological site and museum in Sirmione, had a thermal bath system, service passageways, elegant public rooms, large terraces and more at a time most people lived in huts.

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