Sirmione: Tour ruins of first-century Roman villa at Garda

The old town of Sirmione is behind the towers of the 13th-century fortress, the Castello Scaligero. Only those with business or a hotel room inside the walls are permitted to drive across the bridge into the town.



By JOHN TAYLOR | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 13, 2008

The Grottoes of Catullus have nothing to do with caves, or Cattulus. But it is still easy to see how the place got its name.

The ruins of a Roman villa at the end of the town of Sirmione on Italy’s Lake Garda resembled a series of caves when they were rediscovered in the 15th century. The villa was named for the Veronese poet Gaius Valerio Cattulus because he owned a home on the peninsula that he described in loving terms.

Today, researchers believe the extensive ruins are from a grand home started near the end of the first century B.C., after the poet is believed to have died. It was built for a wealthy family from Verona, in whose territory Sirmione lay during the Roman period. The villa is on the end of a tip of land poking into the lake, with gorgeous views on three sides.

Visitors are free to wander over and around the ruins of the villa, some 550 feet long and 350 feet wide, and its nearly 5-acre site. Signs in three languages explain how the villa was constructed and what individual rooms were used for. Drawings show how it is believed to have looked when it stood in all its glory.

The multistory villa was built into a sloping rock formation. Lower stories featured arcades that provided support for the foundation of the top floor where the owners lived. To make certain the floor for the living quarters was level, the height of the arcades and the number of supporting stories varied, depending on the slope of the rocks.

These below-the-ground rooms and supports, overgrown by vegetation, looked like caves when the ruins were discovered and received their current name.

In some places, parts of the original walls are little more than piles of stone among cypress and olive trees, but in others there are erect columns and towering walls, reconstructed and supported by steel braces. Much of the original stone, especially for the residential area, was looted for construction material.

A small museum sits before the entrance to the ruins. Its exhibits trace 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 the usual collection of tools, pottery shards, buttons and coins from past settlements, and parts of surviving mosaics found in the area. On the day we visited, the museum and grounds saw a steady stream of Italian schoolchildren more interested in exploring the ruins than examining the museum.

For those not interested in 2,000-year-old ruins, Sirmione also has a 13th-century fortress that guards the entrance to the old town. It is surrounded by a moat, patrolled by ducks that sometimes take to the cobblestone streets to make sure all is in order.

There is also the San Pietro in Mavino church, begun in the 11th century and including frescoes added during the following years; the small chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, dating to the 15th century, opposite the fortress; and a modern thermal springs center that probably draws from the same hot springs that the villa’s hot bath did.

Know and go ...

Directions: Sirmione is on the southern end of Lake Garda. Take Autostrada 4 to the Sirmione exit and follow Route SP13 into town. Continue on Via XXV Aprile then Viale Marconi through town to a parking lot at the old-town wall. Only those on business or staying at a hotel can drive in the old town. The ruins are about a 25-minute walk from the parking area. A wheeled train runs from outside the thermal spring center to the ruins, knocking 10-15 minutes off the walk.

Times: The Grottoes of Cattulus and its museum are open 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer; the ruins close around 4:30 p.m. in the winter and the museum at 5. The castle is open same hours as the ruins. Both are closed Mondays and holidays.

Costs: Admission to the ruins and castle are 4 euros each (discounts for European Union members). The train is 1 euro each way. Parking at the metered lot is 2.20 euros per hour; a larger lot about 500 meters from the walls charges the same but you pay with a ticket, not at a meter.

Food: There are numerous restaurants, cafes and gelato shops in the old town and a small snack area just outside the museum.

Information: The city’s official Web site, www.comune.sirmione.bs.it, includes some tourist information, but is in Italian only. The city’s tourist office is at Viale Marconi 2; its telephone number is 030-916-114.

— John Taylor

The ruins of the Roman villa known as the Grottoes of Cattulus cover a large area. Some of the ruins are marked by piles of rocks with a marker explaining what once stood there, but others include reconstructed towers. The small rooms and arcades of the lower sections, used to support the foundation for the living quarters, were overgrown with vegetation with the ruins were rediscovered, giving them their name.

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