It was a 30 minute drive from our holiday residence to the charming town of Desenzano del Garda, beautifully situated on the southwest side of Lake Garda. The town has about 27,000 inhabitants and offers a splendid view of Sirmione, the pearl of Lake Garda, which was built on a promontory that extends into the lake and which is, from north to south, about four kilometres long. The most important reason to want to visit Desenzano was the Roman villa, the remains of which can still be admired today. I will dedicate a separate post to the villa. This post is about the other attractions in the town.
After arriving in Desenzano, we first visited the Duomo, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. The Duomo was built from 1586 by the architect Giulio Todeschini from Brescia and consecrated in 1611. It has a simple Baroque façade and a fairly dark interior. The Duomo possesses paintings made by the Venetian masters Andrea Celesti (1637-1712) and Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804). The latter was the son of the more famous Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770).
Our second destination was the medieval castle of Desenzano, built on a hill that offers a nice view of the town. According to a plaque placed there by the local Lions Club, the castle was built in the ‘Dark Ages’ as a stronghold against ‘invasions by barbarians’. Well, no. In reality the castle was only constructed in the eleventh century – i.e. in the High Middles Ages – and remodelled several times right up until the fifteenth century. The castle had little to do with invading barbarians, and nothing at all with the Huns, as is claimed by one of my sources; what is true is that it was located on a strategic spot on the shores of Lake Garda and possibly replaced an older Roman fortress (castrum). The whole complex had four towers, 120 houses and a church dedicated to Saint Ambrosius. In times of need the population of Desenzano could retreat behind the walls of the castle. Apart from an amazing view the complex offers temporary exhibitions and theatrical performances in the courtyard.
From the castle we walked down again, to the centre of town. The old port (Porto Vecchio) is truly charming; it dates from the Venetian era (Desenzano came under Venetian rule at the beginning of the fifteenth century). Not far from the port is the statue of Saint Angela Merici, who was born in 1474 just outside Desenzano. She was the foundress of the religious order of the Ursulines and has been patron saint of Desenzano since 1962. Another famous Italian born in Desenzano was the general Achille Papa (1863-1917). His monument can be found close to the aforementioned Roman villa. During the First World War Papa and the Italian army fought against the Austrians. On 5 October 1917 he was near Bainsizza, just across the border with Slovenia, when he was struck by a bullet fired by a sniper. The general died the same day.
Next we had a nice stroll along the boulevard that runs along Lake Garda. There was limited traffic in this part of town, so that was good. We passed by the beautiful Hotel Splendid Mayer, which purportedly opened its doors in 1824 and is now run by the seventh generation of the Mayer family. The present façade dates from 1901. On its website, the hotel proudly lists the famous guests that it has welcomed in the past. These guests range from the emperors Napoleon III of France and Francis I of Austria to the Italian king Victor Emmanuel II, the poets Lord Byron and Giosuè Carducci, and the famous composer Giacomo Puccini.
Our stroll ended at the Museo Rambotti, Desenzano’s archaeological museum that opened its doors in 1990. The museum was named after Giovanni Rambotti (1817-1896), who was a mayor, schoolteacher and amateur archaeologist. The Museo Rambotti focuses on the prehistory of the area in which Desenzano lies. Its most prized possession is the so-called Lavagnone plough from the Bronze Age (ca. 2000 BCE). This wooden plough was found in 1978. The museum gives a detailed explanation of how agriculture was developed in the Middle East in the Neolithic period (5600-3400 BCE), and of how it subsequently spread from there, first to Egypt and much later to Europe as well.
Another interesting object in the museum is a bison’s skull that was found in 1955 and is about 17,500 years old. A reconstruction of a hut from ca. 2000 BCE gives an idea of how people lived in this part of the world in that era. These people lived on all sorts of grains and animal products. Their animals provided them not just with meat and milk, but also with bones and skins. At night they slept on the floor of the hut, using as beds a mix of branches and wool. A final object of interest is a bronze knife with an ivory handle from about 1100-900 BCE.
Further reading: Evert de Rooij, Lago di Garda, p. 84-87 (in Dutch).