The Grottoes of Catullus in Sirmione: the sun-kissed “caves”

Who I am
Aina Martin

Author and references

At the Grotte di Catullo crossing the beautiful Sirmione ...

Leaving the car in a convenient parking near the historic center, you have to walk along the Sirmione peninsula, in all its length; a thin strip of land firmly anchored to the rock. Rocks with soft shades of pink, yellow and white, framed by the emerald green of the shallow water.

According to some the elongated shape would be precisely at the origin of its name, from the Greek "syrma”Which means tail. Maria Callas, the famous queen of opera who lived here, instead imagined that Sirmione was a springboard from which to dive into the lake.

Moving towards the Grotte di Catullo, do not get distracted by the thousand temptations along the way, I recommend that you indulge in the pleasure of a relaxing stop only on the way back.

Continuing then towards the end of the peninsula, crossing the narrow and lively streets that characterize Sirmione, step by step the shouting of the crowd fades and you begin to climb a gentle hill, one of the three in the village. Three hills enclosed in a magical triangular shape, characterized by colorful oleanders, olive trees, myrtle and rosemary.

The big bougainvillea

Are the verses of poem XXXI, engraved in stone, which confirm that they are on the right path. It is precisely the poet Catullus who guides visitors with his immortal words:

THEentrance to the Grottoes of Catullus is located a little further on.

Recommended clothing for the Caves -> Thinking about the definition of "caves" you may decide to cover yourself adequately, but it is not necessary. Don't worry about having the correct clothing. You don't need boots, torches or waterproof jackets to visit the Grotte di Catullo. Instead, in summer, a protective cream, a hat and glasses are needed to shelter from the scorching sun.

The name of the place may evoke dark caverns with stalactites and stalagmites, but here it is a whole other story ...

The Grottoes of Catullus: a bit of history ...

Let's take a dip in the past, in the glories of imperial Rome, at the time of Octavian Augustus, or, if it comes easier, at the time of Christ's birth.

In fact, it was in those years that the construction of what we would now call a "megagalactic villa" 167 meters in length to 105 wide, 3 floors, a thermal sector complete with calidarium, tepidarium, frigidarium. In practice, an exclusive beauty farm, a pier with private docking, a breathtaking view of Lake Garda and the enchanting hills that surround it: from the Prealps to the morainic hills.

Why are they called Grotte di Catullo?

The use of the word "Grotte" to identify the ancient Roman villas is a custom which dates back to the end of the 400th century, when the remains of the patrician houses inhabited more than a thousand years earlier began to be brought to light in Rome, including Nero's Domus Aurea.

The spectacular substructures

Where were these sumptuous mansions located? Exactly underground, under a layer of vegetation and earth, accumulated for a whole series of events. It was penetrated as in natural cavities, in caves. Hence the name "Grotte" which is still used today.

It is said that when a young Roman accidentally fell into a crack on the side of Colle Oppio at the end of the XNUMXth century, he found himself in a strange cave, full of painted figures. Here is also revealed the origin of the term "grotesque": paintings that were on the walls of the "caves". The land, however, had saved villas and paintings from the neglect and dust of time. Even today, archaeologists choose to cover again with earth some areas already excavated and investigated to keep them intact for as long as possible.

In which part of the villa did the poet Catullus live?

To be honest, Catullus could not have stayed in this beautiful mansion. This will probably surprise you a lot.

Let's do some math: Catullus was born in 87 BC and died in 54 BC at the age of 33, the villa was built at the turn of the millennium, between the end of the XNUMXst century BC and the beginning of the XNUMXst century AD and therefore ... Catullus could not have lived in this house.

One hypothesis is that the poet and his family they lived here in an earlier, smaller villa, but always with this priceless view of Lake Garda.

"... you give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred, then another thousand and another hundred, then another thousand and another hundred ..."

... wrote Catullus to his beloved Lesbia in Carme V.

If you choose to to accompany you in the discovery of the Grottoes of Catullus by a professional guide, you will be thrilled to hear all this beautiful love poem recited, perhaps in front of the suggestive "Trifora del Paradiso".

Trifora of Paradise

Visit the Grotte di Catullo with an official guide

The various rooms of the villa, current Grotte di Catullo, retain particular and imaginative names. For example, there are an Aula dei Giganti and a Cryptoporticus, names attributed by the Veronese count Girolamo Orti Manara who began excavations in the nineteenth century. Many must have been friends of the unknown but wealthy owner, if about fifteen cubicula (bedrooms) were needed for his guests.

It is not possible to fully describe in words the grandeur of the Grottoes of Catullus.

You have to live them, walk them, go up and down the stairs, get lost in the labyrinth of countless environments, look out on three sides to admire the blue of the deep waters and the silvery green of the olive trees.

Look at the Rocca di Manerba

Visiting the Grotte di Catullo is a unique experience, to do absolutely, and to convince you I will use the same words of the poet Ezra Pound written to his friend James Joyce "the place is worth the trip. You have Catullus' guarantee and mine ".


Information on the Grottoes of Catullus and the surroundings of Sirmione

How much does the visit cost? Prices for the Grottoes of Catullus

The entrance to the Caves is free on the first Sunday of the month, the other days it costs 8 €. Reduced: from 18 to 25, free for children under 18. The closing day is Tuesday, but in the height of summer they are always open, with reduced hours on Tuesdays. Same advantages for Rocca Scaligera, 6 euros, which closes on Mondays. By purchasing the ticket for both sites you have the right to visit the Roman Villa of Desenzano for free.

The electric train

For those wishing to "shorten" the walk to the Grottoes of Catullus, in the summer there is a nice little train / shuttle which ends at the Terme di Catullo. It is fun, loved by young and old, it is quiet and costs € 1,20 each way.

Not just a car ...

Sirmione is well connected to Brescia, Desenzano and Verona thanks to a bus service with regular daytime departures every hour.

When to visit Sirmione and the Caves?

Each season presents its charm:

  • In spring, the reeds around the peninsula teem with life and broods of ducklings, swans, grebes and coots try their hand at the first flights and dives. The temperature is mild and pleasant. Carefree students of all ages come to Sirmione to touch history firsthand.
  • Towards the summer, the large bougainvillea in the center of the village is dressed in a bursting purple. A festive and multicolored crowd animates the life of the alleys, occupies tables of cafes and ice cream parlors, whizzes by motorboat in search of refreshment. The Grottoes of Catullus rise majestically in the sunlight while, not far away, holidaymakers dive from "Jamaica". The level of the lake gradually lowers, exposing the rocks and the profile of the peninsula is tinged with pink.
  • The autumn, with its mist, it offers sensations of infinity and suspended time. Temperatures are still mild between September and October and from the peninsula, almost a watershed between East and West, you can enjoy spectacular sunrises and magical sunsets. The water again submerges the rocks, now visible in transparency.
  • The winter instead it is silent, the calli are deserted, here and there improvements are made for the following season. The air is crystal clear and from the caves the view extends to Riva del Garda; Mount Baldo is suspended in the blue, between sky and water, with a snow-capped peak.

The Grotte di Catullo seen from Lake Garda

Another fascinating way to see the Grottoes of Catullus is aboard a comfortable motorboat. We skirt the peninsula to admire them from the lake, as did the ancient travelers. The most impressive ruins are in fact found on the extreme tip and have always been visible, so much so that their profile has been outlined on an ancient map now preserved in Venice. Continue sailing over the “Boiola” thermal spring and return to the picturesque port passing under the drawbridge of the scenic Rocca Scaligera. If you are with friends, the price for the speedboat will be more than reasonable.


The Jamaica of Sirmione

At the foot of the Grotte di Catullo, in the summer it is not uncommon to see bathers who seem to walk on the water. In reality they move on the surface of the water on the large and smooth rocks, the same ones used to build the Roman villa of two thousand years ago. This splendid area of ​​Sirmione, thanks to its enchanting beauty, is known with the exotic name of "Jamaica". It can be reached on foot from an open road on the side of the Caves. The advice is to lie down on the warm rocks and let yourself be kissed by the sun, then seek relief in a refreshing dip.

“Jamaica” was also chosen as a film set for some scenes of the film “Call me by your name” by director Luca Guadagnino, winner of the Oscar for the screenplay by James Ivory.

Beyond the Grotte di Catullo: what to do and see in Sirmione

After satisfying the historical-archaeological curiosity, you can mingle with the crowd, get lost in the shops in the streets of the village, have a coffee where Hemingway liked so much, taste the fine Lugana DOC wine in the still or sparkling versions and, why not, season permitting, wear a swimsuit for an invigorating swim at Lido delle Bionde or Jamaica.

By the way: do you say Lugana or Lugana?

Both masculine and feminine are used, the masculine indicates the wine and the feminine indicates the territory. It's like talking about Franciacorta and Franciacorta (see also: What to see in Franciacorta), another excellent wine and at the same time interesting territory of the province of Brescia, a few steps from another beautiful lake: Lake Iseo -> read my article -> what to see on Lake Iseo

The Scaligera Fortress: this scenographic fortification with its 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, up to the Tower of San Martino, the scene of a very important battle in the Risorgimento.

Aquaria: Thermal Wellness Center of the Terme di Sirmione. It is located directly on the lake, in the middle of the medieval village. It is possible to undergo various spa and beauty treatments to regain well-being, health and beauty. Open all the year. Reservations are always required on Saturday and Sunday.

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore: from the 1512th century, consecrated in XNUMX, it preserves a Gothic architecture, valuable frescoes and Baroque altars. Outside a Roman milestone is reused as a column.

Church of San Pietro in Mavino: solitary church on the homonymous hill, a place of spirit and peace, of ancient Lombard foundation, is the treasure chest of precious medieval frescoes.

Recommended reading on the Grotte di Catullo

I suggest you to read the book Sirmione in Love that you can buy -> HERE

Together with a poetic-literary itinerary, you will find tales about the great travelers of the past and a collection of their most passionate writings dedicated to Sirmione and Garda.

But ... you too try to describe the emotion in one of your lyrics, send it to the poetry contest of the same name held in the summer and good luck!

This article was written by Marisa, a licensed tour guide who works in Brescia, on the lakes of Garda and Iseo, in Franciacorta and Val Camonica. I advise you to contact her for any itinerary in the province of Brescia.

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