An Easy Hike in Salò, a Most Charming Part of Lake Garda

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There are three things that we found out about Lake Garda on our recent short stopover. One: the trains from Venice and Milan all stop on the lake’s southern shore. Two: all the interesting hiking routes are in the North. Three: it is mighty difficult to get from one to the other, because the distances are large, the buses infrequent, and the traffic congestions horrible. In summer, apparently, the entire road network around the lake is one enormous traffic jam.

So if you plan to visit the southern shore of Lake Garda on a short stopover, be aware that there is a price you will have to pay for the easy accessibility. Trips to the mountainous North are long: Garda is, after all, the largest lake in Italy and the road from Desenzano (the biggest town with a train station) to Riva di Garda in the North is 65 km long. It takes the bus, even in light traffic, 2 hours to make the journey. And even then, you are only in Riva’s town centre, not at the trailhead.

Take an easy hike along a most charming part of Lake Garda

So if you only have a day or two to visit Lake Garda, be modest in your aspirations. And plan for the easiest of easy hikes – such as a stroll down the most charming part of Lake Garda, along its longest shoreside promenade in the idyllic town of Salò.

"Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

Boring, you say? Well, what if we throw in a bit of local history, featuring the fight-against-death of a brutal fascist government and one of the 20th century’s most notorious art scandals? Would that interest you? At least sufficiently to give me another few paragraphs worth of your attention? I thought so.

Well, the art scandal first: In 1975, Salò provided the location and the title for Italian movie director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last work which was released three weeks after his murder. (Was he killed by a rent boy? a fascist gang? with the involvement of secret agents of the state? We may never know the truth.)

The film, which freely (some say gratuitously) depicts rape, murder, and, ahem, unusual sexual practices, was quickly banned in many countries for its extreme content. More than 30 years after the film’s initial release, the magazine Time Out still listed it as the “Most Controversial Movie of All Time”, and serious critics, including Rogert Ebert, have refused to watch it.

“Salò and the 120 Days of Sodom”, to give the work its full name, was based on a book by the Marquis de Sade, but ties in its story with the last days of Italy’s Fascist government, which – and here we come to the second bit of local history – was indeed based in this idyllic little lakeside town.

Thankfully, Salò’s modern administration is not overly coy about the fact, and information panels show the way to many well-preserved government buildings of the period.

Granted: the panels identify several buildings which are of interest only to dedicated historians of the period (“this is where a youth rally was once held …”) and some sites lie far beyond the town’s borders, but they also point the way to several key buildings of the fascist administration within easy walking distance, such as the Foreign Ministry …

"once a foreign ministry in Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

… and the Secret Police HQ which today houses a branch of the local savings and loans bank.

"once secret police HQ in Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

The overall effect is quite bizarre, an incongruous mix of the unexpectedly banal (one would have expected something a little scarier for the HQ of a fascist police force than that) and the Ruritanian. How could a Foreign Office work out of a building that looks like a country gentleman’s hunting lodge?

The truth is that in late 1943, when the Republica Sociale Italiana was formed as Mussolini’s last refuge, the Fascists no longer governed anything. The RSI was a mere puppet government, while the part of Italy that was still under German control was in effect run directly from Berlin.

So why did the RSI come to Salò? It was surely not a coincidence that Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet laureate of the Italian Fascists, had a house in the area, which is – believe it or not – still one of the Lake’s premier tourist attractions (visitors are mainly Italian, of course).

It is equally safe to say that Mussolini, at this stage of the war, had at least one eye on a possible escape route across the Alps. (His actual escape ended in 1945 swinging from a lamppost near the Swiss border.)

After all these grim stories, you surely deserve some light relief now in the form of a pleasant lakeside walk.

Start at the roundabout near the Hotel du Parc and use the historic old gate to enter the town centre …

"old town of Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

… before making your way to the lake on your left hand side.

"to lungolago in Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

Turn right into this pretty promenade, which is fairly lively even outside the summer months.

"Lungolago of Salo- most charming part of Lake Garda"

It will take you some time to reach the town border, where the lungolago continues for a while on wooden steles and boards.

This is the calm section of the walk, …

"part of walk in Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

… where you can discover some traces of a time when Salò was still a small fishing village.

"old pier in Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

Follow the path to the apex of the bay …

"apex of bay of Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

… and continue on the bay’s other side if you like, but always remember: you will have to return the same way.

You can stop for refreshments in quite a few restaurants and bars along the way, but practically all of these places are concentrated in the first part of the walk.

"restaurant in Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

If you still have time after your return to town, we suggest a boat ride. Pick a route (there are several) that allows you to cross the lake over to the eastern shore. That way, you will at least catch a glimpse of the mountains in the distance.

As a reminder of what you are missing, sure, but also as an encouragement to come back for another – and longer – visit.

"mountains around Salo, most charming part of Lake Garda"

If you are intending to visit, make sure to stop by this most charming part of Lake Garda. You won’t regret it!

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