(GMT)22 JAN 2017 NEM2SI:
In 1921 Ezra Pound wrote to James Joyce from a pink-walled hotel that still today overlooks Sirmione's harbour on Lake Garda: "Dear Joyce, I'd like you to spend a week here with me. The location is well worth the journey – both Catullus and I can guarantee it!" It is still worth the journey.
It was another poet – Tennyson – who drew me to Garda. Or, rather, Tennyson and Catullus together, touching hands across time. The English poet's moving description of a visit to the ruins of the lakeside home of the "tenderest of Roman poets" fired my imagination. The shores of Garda are studded with pretty harbour towns, but it was Sirmione I wanted to see, perched on a narrow strip of land two miles long, reaching into the lake from the southern shore.
Sirmione, with its cobbled streets, its 13th-century castle and, above all, the ruined Roman villa lying at the tip of the promontory: the Grotte di Catullo – not a grotto, but that's what the early Venetian explorers called it when they came upon what they thought were natural caves in the thick undergrowth, not realising they had stumbled on a vast treasure, the most important Roman site in northern Italy.