What made Maria Callas sing?

Sharron Livingston travels to the Lake Garda region to find out


The town of Sermione on the southern shores of Lake Garda is probably the most popular seaside resort in northern Italy. It is also a spa with Roman origins - you will find the small town and its thermal springs on the tip of a protruding peninsula that divides the gulfs of Desenzano and Peschiera.

Anyone driving into Sirmione has to be admitted by a guard, before crossing the moat via a drawbridge and finally reaching the arched portcullis of the fairytale castle.

The historic town centre is a pedestrianised area (so ditch the car) just inside the town gates. It is surrounded with quaint shops and cafés. They say that Maria Callas, the opera singer, who lived in Sirmione, used to serenade crowds from a balcony here - you can still see her tall, yellow house.

Perhaps Sirmione's most popular Roman ruin - and the most photographed - is the Grotto di Catullos, a first-century Roman villa in a park-like archaeological complex. The estate sprawls over five acres on the tip of the Sirmione peninsula and is still beautiful, with well-preserved stone arches and rooms, some retaining decorative stucco and walkways.

Just meander through for wonderful views over the coast and sea. The Romans had their living quarters on the top floor, perhaps to make the most of those panoramas.

The place was named after Gaius Valerius Catullus, a poet of the Roman Republic who had a summer residence in Sirmione. His bust can be seen on the Piazza Carducci.

The greatest landmark around here is a 13th-century castle, the Castello Scaligera, built by the Scaglieri clan, who hailed from Verona. These days the moat is home to swans and frisky ducks.

Though the exterior is impressive, the interior is nothing more than a shell. However, this was once Garda's first point of defence and visitors are still able to walk along its ramparts and climb the 93ft tower for a glorious perspective on the surroundings.

The bridge in front connects the town to the mainland and behind it are the twisty cobbled streets, straddled by medieval stone arches and embellished with floral gardens and a lake beyond.

There are also some spectacular beaches - some pebbled, some sandy - between the large smooth rocks.

Just along the seafront is the three-star Hotel Olympic, nestled between Peschiera and Sirmione.

There are 12 en-suite rooms, all with mini-bar, satellite TV and wi-fi, a synagogue, two restaurants and a kosher l'mehadrin kitchen under the supervision of Rav Itzchak Belinow of Chabad, Milan. Pesach catering will be kitniot-free, gebrocht (with non-gebrocht available)., 0208123 8676

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