We arrived on the eve of La Befana in Sirmione at Lago di Garda.
So you might ask, “hang on a second, what is La Befana and where is Lago di Garda?”
Experiencing the feel of different places, observing the people there and enjoying the food they eat is a fascinating way to get around. Finding your way in faraway places wakes you up and is informing as it is inspiring.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy. You can debate which is more famous, Americans and celebrity chasers will be familiar with Lake Como. George Clooney has a place here, Obama visits here, Madonna has been seen here… On the other hand, you have a Mediterranean climate, mountains, and beaches at Garda. There are cliffs and dramatic mountain drops straight into clear waters. If you like a clean Swiss-like feel, you have it. Wine. Ice cream. Olives. Oranges. Lake activities like sailing, windsurfing, and just plain swimming. Skiing? Sure, on the East bank of the lake you have Monte Baldo. Something for everyone.
It’s situated in the northern part of Italy between Venice and Milan. We’ve come here to tour the lake, more about the lake as we get around exploring the entire area. Our first port of call was the Peninsula of Sirmione. Lake Garda is one of the most popular holiday destinations. In winter the small towns and villages are deserted and most places closed to recover from the busy summer months, so we were told. Nothing happens there in winter, they said.
We parked the car and checked in to the Hotel Alsazia at the base of the Sirmione peninsula. We didn’t think it was too deserted. Sure, the hotel lights were all switched off. There was nobody else checking in (or out). The proprietor greeted us like we were old friends and he hadn’t seen us (nor anyone else for that matter) for ages. But outside, in the general direction of the famous castle, many people coming and going. They moved along the single road lined with apartments and hotels all the way to the citadel. The cafes and gelaterias (ice cream bars) were loaded with visitors along the way. Once through the castle gates, pedestrians try to pass the no-traffic zone heading towards the castle and the narrow passages, filled with live musicians. Jugglers and street artists are on every corner and piazza.
How could a place reputed to have no tourists in winter be so crowded, we ask ourselves. If this is “winter”, what’s the summer peak season like? All around us, people are speaking Italian. Aren’t Italians supposed to mount an assault on their favourite holiday spots in July? July!
It’s a fairly large Old Town. There are beautiful apartments and villas amongst grand old hotels and parks, beaches and piers. A sunset awaits us on one side, a reflective Mount Baldo appears in the distance. One has an all-round view of the lake from Sirmione at the most northern tip. Spots of tiny lights from the various villages along the shores appear once darkness sets in. The short walk back to the castle became a long walk, the number of people had now grown to the point where police officers had to control and direct the masses in and out over the bridge of the castle.
This was too much for us, hungry and tired we were trying to escape the crowds fighting our way back to the road on the search for food. We’d been on the road a long time and restaurants all along had posted on their doors opening times ranging from 7 pm. At this stage, we were ready to eat a cow or even a tire… if it had to be…
So we moved further away from the castle and the crowds thinned out a little. Through a combination of timing and free space, we found an open restaurant with only a few diners. Wow! Lucky us.
More and more people arrived at the restaurant talking excitedly about the most amazing firework display at the castle. Others claimed they had barely managed to get within sighting the eve of La Befana celebrations. We looked at each other, laughing, this was what the fuss was all about. Thousands of visitors to witness the La Befana fireworks at the Scaligera Castle, and we missed it. We hadn’t thought much of it. “5th, 6th if it’s all the same to you we’ll leave today…” clearly it’s not all the same.
La Befana is the Epiphany Eve, the night of January the 5th. In Italy, the 6th of January is the religious public holiday of the Three Kings. The Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas on the 6th of January. Christians remember the Wise Men at this time of year. In Italian tradition, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, she enters the houses through the chimney (like that other Christmas guy) and fills their socks with sweets, if they were good. The children typically leave a glass of wine and a plate cookies for her. Very similar to the stories about that other trinity, Father Christmas, St Nicolas, and Santa Claus.
Our journey around lake Garda starts at the southern bank of the lake in Sirmione. It’s known for its thermal baths and Rocca Scaligera, a medieval castle overlooking the lake. A peninsula, the Archaeological Site of Grotte di Catullo encompasses a Roman villa, a museum and olive trees. Just below the ruins is the rocky Jamaica Beach. It was a very small peninsula with incredible sunsets. Typical Italian architecture. Extremely charming. A perfect start to your Lake Garda trip.