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A day in Sirmione

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"You want a romantic boat ride? 40 Euros! 40 Euros for a beautiful boat ride around the lake!" the man yelled to us as we walked along Lake Garda to the entrance of Sirmione. You'll find one of these men, usually young, handsome and enviously tanned, stationed every few feet, trying to tempt vacationers entering or exiting Sirmione's historic center.

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Sirmione is just one of the many historic towns situated along Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake and a prime vacation spot for Italians and other Europeans. The lake itself already provides ample recreational options, boating and sunbathing being the favorite activities, but what really sets Lake Garda apart are the towns, many of which date back to before Roman times, that line up one by one along the lake. Each town offers visitors everything needed for an quintessential summer Italian vacation: winding cobblestone streets full of family-owned shops, ancient stone buildings covered in ivy and bougainvilleas, eateries with inviting terraces and, of course, gelaterias.

Scaliger Castle

Sirmione, located at the top of a peninsula at the southern end of Lake Garda, has the added benefit of a castle. The 13th-century Scaliger castle was a major point of defense for the Lake Garda area against invasions from the south. Visitors walk over the castle's moat, stopping to stare at the swans and ducks swimming below, and past its gates to get to Sirmione's historic center. For a small entrance fee (4 euros), you can go into the castle and walk up 150 steps to get to the castle's tower for a lovely view of Sirmione and the lake.

Pizza, Paninis and Gelato

During the peak summer tourist season, the historic center is full of vacationers eating, drinking, shopping and simply strolling around. Very soon you'll want to join the every third or fourth person greedily licking a gelato cone. Gelaterais, lined up in a row right in the center, offer mounds of gelato in flavors hard to find anywhere here in the United States. Order two to three flavors in a cup or cone to maximize your taste buds. Typical of popular tourist towns, Sirmione is full of overpriced restaurants serving mediocre food to people just happy to sit out in the sun but it also has plenty of places selling cheap slices of pizzas (3 euros) and sandwiches. Grab your pizza or sandwich and walk north to the beach. It's a rocky beach so unless you have a towel you won't want to lie out but it's great for swimming. The beach path goes all the way to the tip of the peninsula.

Caves of Catullo

At the tip you'll find the Caves of Catullo, an archeological ruin surrounded by olive trees that is the remains of a huge Roman villa. A museum there features Roman artifacts evacuated from around the area.

Boat Ride

If you do find that you're not able to resist the lure of a boat ride, find the one captained by Virgilio Bertoldi. He's currently 85 years old and doesn't speak much English but he'll turn on some Italian opera recordings and show you plaques with summaries and close-up pictures of the sights you're seeing from the boat. Famous people that he's taken around include Winston Churchill, Maria Callas (who had a villa in Sirmione) and Laurence Oliver.

Getting there: Sirmione can be fully enjoyed in a day or even half a day if you're heading on to the other Lake Garda towns such as Peschiera del Garda and Bardolino. The best way to get to Sirmione, and Lake Garda in general, is by car. It's between Milan and Verona, right off the A4/E70 motorway. Park in the large lot right outside the castle. The only cars allowed in the city center are taxis and those staying in a hotel in the center. By rail, you can take the train to Peschiera or Desenzano train station and then a taxi to Sirmione.

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