This lovely island, the largest in Lago di Garda, seems to hover above the lake. It happens a lot around water in Europe I’ve noticed. In pictures of tropical islands, land slopes gradually and vegetation maintains a respectful distance so that land and water are seen merging. Here, land skims the surface darkly, plants and water each daring the other to rise or sink, to transcend natural boundaries; forces in companionable opposition.
As one circles the island, this abrupt and dense boundary entices and invites discovery of the delights hidden onshore. And, I am told by locals, that the visit is worth it. The gardens feature native and exotic plants and one is able to tour parts of the Venetian neo-Gothic style villa as well.
But don’t moor there just because you like the look of the place. Only tour boats are allowed to do so as it is a privately-owned island. Boats depart Sunday – Thursday from April to October inclusive, from a number of towns around the southern end of the lake. The island also hosts concerts – boat ride included. Times and prices are available from the official website.
In 243 or 245AD a cataclysm destroyed the villages around the lake and the island detached from the mainland. Legend tells of forbidden lovers, torn asunder, imprisoned and eventually reunited. As for documented human occupation, two lake resorts discovered in 1864 were ‘probably prehistoric’. The island was also inhabited in the Roman era.
It was possibly given by King Charlemagne to monks in 878 or 879. Around 1221 St Francis of Assisi built one of the first hermitages for prayer in the territory of Brescia. Over the next two hundred years its reputation as a sacred place of peace and solace increased, with visits by St. Anthony of Padua and St. Bernard of Siena. It is said that Dante stayed on the island and referred to it in the Divine Comedy. A Franciscan school began there in the 1500s and gradually the number of monks reduced. In the 1700s the Venetian Republic ordered their suppression and in 1798 the island was acquired by the state.
For centuries, ownership and usage changed. Requisitioned during times of war, restored and expanded during times of peace, the island is now open for guided tours so the owners can make ‘their unique heritage known’ and continue restoration.