There is a place of rare beauty on Lake Garda that hides from passersby and reveals itself to sailors. We are talking about the Grottoes of Catullus, which are located in Sirmione, in one of the most picturesque spots and right in the middle of Italy’s largest lake.
They are so interesting that I included them in my article on the best things to do on Lake Garda, an article that I recommend you.
To the Grottoes of Catullus through beautiful Sirmione
Leaving the car in a convenient parking lot near the historic center, one must walk the entire length of the Sirmione peninsula; a thin strip of land firmly anchored to the rock. Rocks in soft shades of pink, yellow, and white, framed by the emerald green of the shallow water.
Some say the elongated shape is precisely the origin of its name, from the Greek “syrma” meaning tail. Maria Callas, the famous opera queen who lived here, imagined instead that Sirmione was a springboard from which to dive into the lake.
Moving toward the Grottoes of Catullus, don’t be distracted by the thousands of temptations along the way; I recommend indulging in the pleasure of a relaxing stop only on the way back.
Continuing then toward the end of the peninsula, through the narrow, bustling streets that characterize Sirmione, step by step the hubbub of the crowds dies down and you begin to climb a gentle hill, one of three in the village. Three hills enclosed in a magical triangular shape, characterized by colorful oleanders, olive trees, myrtle and rosemary.
It is the lines from Caryme XXXI, carved in stone, that confirm that we are on the right track. It is the poet Catullus himself who guides visitors with his immortal words:
“Hail! O my beautiful Sirmione, pearl and queen of villas that lake or sea ever kissed with the caress of its waves! Oh, with what joy today I see thee againo…. Oh, blessed me, who to thee I return as the pilgrim returns to his desired home. And, full the soul still of the emotions felt, I rejoice to rest my weary limbs….”
Theentrance to the Grottoes of Catullus lies just ahead.
Recommended Clothing for the Grottoes -> Thinking about the definition of “grottoes” you might decide to cover yourself properly, but you don’t need to. Don’t worry about having the correct clothing. You do not need boots, flashlights, or waterproof jackets to visit the Grottoes of Catullus. Instead, in summer, you need sunscreen, a hat and goggles to shield yourself from the scorching sun. The name of the place may evoke dark caverns with stalactites and stalagmites, but here it is a different story..
Grottoes of Catullus: a bit of history…
Let’s take a dip into the past, into the splendor of imperial Rome, at the time of Octavian Augustus, or, if it comes easier, at the time of Christ’s birth.
In fact, it is to those years that the construction of what we would now call a “megagalactic villa” dates back: 167 meters long by 105 wide, 3 floors, a thermal sector complete with calidarium, tepidarium, frigidarium. Basically an exclusive beauty farm, a pier with private docking, a breathtaking view of Lake Garda and the enchanting heights that frame it: from the Pre-Alps to the moraine hills.
Why are they called Grotte di Catullo?
The use of the word “Grottoes” to identify ancient Roman villas is a custom that dates back to the late 1400s, when the remains of patrician homes inhabited more than a thousand years earlier began to be unearthed in Rome, including Nero’s Domus Aurea.
Where were these sumptuous dwellings located? Exactly underground, under a layer of vegetation and earth, accumulated by a whole series of events. One entered them as if into natural cavities, into grottoes in fact. Hence the name “grottoes” which is still used today.
It is said that when a young Roman accidentally fell into a crevice on the slope of the Opium Hill in the late 15th century, he found himself in a strange cave filled with painted figures. Here is also revealed the origin of the term “grottesche”: paintings that stood on the walls of “grottoes.” However, the earth had saved villas and paintings from the neglect and dust of time. Even today, archaeologists choose to re-cover with earth certain areas that have already been excavated and investigated to preserve them intact for as long as possible.
In what part of the villa did the poet Catullus live?
To be honest, Catullus could not have stayed in this beautiful mansion. You will probably be very surprised by this.
Let’s do some math: Catullus was born in 87 B.C. and died in 54 B.C. at the age of 33, the villa was built at the turn of the millennium, between the end of the first century B.C. and the beginning of the first century A.D., and therefore… Catullus cannot have lived in this house.
One hypothesis is that the poet and his family lived here in an earlier villa of smaller size, but still with this priceless view of Lake Garda.
“…you give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred, then another thousand and another hundred, then still another thousand and another hundred…”
…wrote Catullus to his beloved Lesbia in Carme V.
If you choose to be accompanied in the discovery of Catullus’ Grottoes by a professional guide, you will be thrilled to hear the whole of this beautiful love poem recited, perhaps in front of the evocative “Trifora of Paradise.”
Visiting the Grottoes of Catullus with an official guide
The various rooms of the villa, present-day Grottoes of Catullus, retain distinctive and fancy names. For example, there is a Hall of Giants and a Cryptoporticus, names given by the Veronese Count Girolamo Orti Manara who began excavations in the 19th century. Many must have been friends of the unknown but wealthy owner if some fifteen cubicula (bedrooms) were needed for his guests.
It is not possible to completely describe in words the grandeur of the Grottoes of Catullus. One must experience them, walk through them, climb up and down their stairs, get lost in the labyrinth of countless rooms, look out on three sides to admire the deep blue waters and the silvery green of the olive trees.
Visiting the Grottoes of Catullus is a unique experience, one you absolutely must do, and to convince you I will use the same words as the poet Ezra Pound wrote to his friend James Joyce “the place is worth the trip. You have Catullus’ guarantee and mine.”
Information about Catullus’ Grottoes and surroundings of Sirmione
How much does a visit cost? Prices for the Grottoes of Catullus
Entrance to the rottoes is free on the first Sunday of the month, other days it costs 8 euros. Reduced: 18 to 25 years old, free for those under 18. The closing day is Tuesday, but in the height of summer they are always open, with reduced hours on Tuesdays. Same benefits for the Rocca Scaligera, 6 euros, which observes closure on Mondays. Purchasing a ticket for both sites entitles you to a free visit to the Roman Villa in Desenzano.
The electric train
For those who would like to “shorten” the walk to the Grottoes of Catullus, a nice little train/shuttle bus with a terminus at the Catullus Baths is in operation in warm weather. It is fun, appeals to young and old, is quiet, and costs 1.20 euro each way.
Not only car… Sirmione is well connected to Brescia, Desenzano, and Verona by a bus service with regular daytime departures every hour.
When to visit Sirmione and the Grottoes?
Each season presents its own charm:
- Spring: the reed beds around the peninsula teem with life and broods of ducklings, swans, grebes and coots engage in their first flights and dips. The temperature is mild and pleasant. Carefree students of all ages come to Sirmione to touch history with their own hands.
- Summer: the large bougainvillea in the center of the village is dressed in bursting purple. A jubilant, multicolored crowd enlivens the life of the alleys, occupies tables in cafes and ice cream parlors, whizzes by speedboat in search of refreshment. The Grottoes of Catullus rise majestically in the sunlight while, not far away, vacationers dive from the “Jamaica.” The lake level gradually lowers, exposing the rocks, and the peninsula’s profile turns pink.
- Autumn: with its mists, gives feelings of infinity and suspended time. Temperatures are still mild between September and October, and from the peninsula, almost a watershed between east and west, one enjoys spectacular sunrises and magical sunsets. Water again submerges the rocks, now visible in transparency.
- Winter: is silent, the calli are deserted, here and there improvements are made for the next season. The air is crystal clear, and from the Grotte the view sweeps as far as Riva del Garda; Mount Baldo is suspended in the blue, between sky and water, with its snow-capped summit.
Catullo’s Grottoes as seen from Lake Garda
Another fascinating way to see the Grottoes of Catullus is aboard a comfortable speedboat. You skirt the peninsula to admire them from the lake, just as ancient travelers did. In fact, the most impressive ruins are located on the extreme tip and have always been visible, so much so that their outline was outlined on an ancient map now preserved in Venice. We continue by sailing over the thermal spring “Boiola” and return to the picturesque harbor passing under the drawbridge of the scenic Rocca Scaligera. If you will be with friends, the price for the speedboat will be more than reasonable.
At the foot of the Grottoes of Catullus, in warm weather it is not uncommon to see bathers who appear to walk on the water. They are actually moving along the surface of the water on the wide, smooth rocks, the same ones used to build the Roman villa two thousand years ago. This splendid area of Sirmione, thanks to its enchanting beauty, is known by the exotic name of “Jamaica.” It can be reached on foot from a small open road at the side of the Grotte. The advice is to lie on the warm rocks and let the sun kiss you, then seek relief in refreshing dips.
“Jamaica” was also chosen as a film set for some scenes in the film “Call Me By Your Name” by director Luca Guadagnino, who won an Oscar for the screenplay by James Ivory.
Beyond the Grottoes of Catullus: what to do and see in Sirmione
After you have satisfied your historical-archaeological curiosity, you can mingle with the crowds, lose yourself among the stores in the village streets, have a coffee where Hemingway liked so much, taste the fine Lugana DOC wine in the still or bubbly versions, and, why not, season permitting, don a bathing suit for an invigorating swim at the Lido delle Bionde or Jamaica.
By the way: do we say Lugana or Lugana?
Both the masculine and the feminine are used, the masculine indicating the wine and the feminine the territory. It is like talking about Franciacorta and Franciacorta (read also Things to do in Franciacorta), another excellent wine and at the same time interesting territory in the province of Brescia just a stone’s throw from another beautiful lake: Lake Iseo -> read my article –> things to do on Lake Iseo
Rocca Scaligera: this scenic fortification with elegant battlements is also a must for the visitor. From its walls and tower, the gaze sweeps over the surrounding landscape, the zig-zag shape of the peninsula, and up to the Tower of San Martino, the scene of a very important Risorgimento battle.
Aquaria: Thermal Wellness Center of the Sirmione Spa. It is located directly on the lake, in the middle of the medieval village. You can undergo a variety of spa and beauty treatments to regain well-being, health and beauty. Open year-round. Saturday and Sunday reservations always required.
Church of Santa Maria Maggiore: 15th-century, consecrated in 1512, preserves Gothic architecture, fine frescoes and Baroque altars. Outside, a Roman milestone is reused as a column.
Church of San Pietro in Mavino: a solitary little church on the hill of the same name, a place of the spirit and peace, of ancient Lombard foundation, it is the treasure trove of precious medieval frescoes.
Recommended reading on Catullus’ Grottoes
I recommend reading the book Sirmione in Love, which you can purchase -> HERE
Along with a poetic-literary itinerary, you will find stories about the great travelers of the past and a collection of their most passionate writings dedicated to Sirmione and Garda. But…try your hand at describing the emotion in one of your own lyrics, submit it to the poetry contest of the same name held in the summer, and good luck!