The First World War has just ended. Italy is among the winners of this conflict which tore Europe apart. But it is a bitter victory for more reasons than the enormous number of lives lost. Italy also lost many border areas inhabited by Italians. It’s against this background that the famous poet Gabriele D’Annunzio promises, “Our victory will not be a crippled one”.
It’s important to keep this historical context in mind if you visit il Vittoriale, the home and museum which D’Annunzio commissioned in the 1920s on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the town of Gardone Riviera.
D’Annunzio was a well-known figure at the time, not only because of his literary merits. His romantic adventures were closely followed as were his daring airplane demonstrations (he was a licensed pilot). He lobbied for Italy’s entry into the war, fought and was wounded.
After the Armistice, he attempted to reconquer the city of Fiume (known today as Rijeka in Croatia) which had gone to Yugoslavia.
D’Annunzio built il Vittoriale to celebrate what he considered his “one-of-a-kind life”. He also wanted to glorify the great history of Italy in the face of its victorious but “humiliating” exit from World War One.
I was a child when I first went to il Vittoriale and was completely enchanted. What other villa in the world has a military ship in the garden?
Or a plane hanging from the dome of an auditorium (D’Annunzio used it to fly over Vienna launching leaflets saying “Long Live Italy!”)? Or an entire semi-circular outdoor theatre overlooking the lake just like the ancient Romans had?
As for the inside of the house? Each room has a descriptive name (“the music room”, “the map-of-the-world room”) where every square centimetre of space is filled with objects: books, paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, ornaments, furniture, carpets and vases. Even the bathroom seems like a museum. I’ve always wondered how one person managed to amass so many things in just one life.
If your coming from Verona, il Vittoriale is not exactly around the corner. It’s approximately seventy kilometres away, with half the time spent on a provincial road that is often quite busy. But there’s a rather scenic shortcut.
From Torri del Benaco, on the Verona side of the lakeshore, there’s a ferry service (equipped to carry cars) which brings you to the opposite side in twenty minutes, docking in the town of Toscolano Maderno. From there, Gardone Riviera is just about four kilometres to the South.
But why visit only il Vittoriale?
Once you are on the other side, you can take the opportunity to explore this beautiful stretch of shoreline. There, one after another, mountains rise up to the North overlooking the water. For some, the view here is as beautiful as that of the Amalfi Coast.
One of my favourite destinations in this area if Gargnano, a few kilometres from the ferry. It’s a small picturesque village, with cafes and restaurants overlooking the marina where the speciality is freshwater fish from the lake (such as with pike).
It you have time, you can continue on to Limone del Garda, which is a real gem along this stretch of shoreline. For centuries, it has been the furthest place north in Europe for growing lemons, thanks to its special microclimate.
This village was isolated for centuries until the construction of the road around Garda in the 1930s. It’s now well-known for the longevity of its inhabitants.
It’s been found that people from Garda di Limone carry a particular blood protein which reduces age-related illness. They have a sort of elixir flowing through their veins guaranteeing long life.
For this reason, the town has a higher than average proportion of people over one hundred. It’s a decidedly good place to grow old.