THE traveller on and about Lake Garda is constantly beset by the sight of a great tower rising from the plain somewhere between Desenzano and Peschiera and inland from the headland of Sermione. He cannot permanently escape this landmark as long as he tours around the lake, for it looms up in the open country with singular persistence and insistence. Sooner or later he will ask what it is, and the answer will be that it is the tower of San Martino, marking the site of the victory of the French and Italians over the Austrians in r859. This battle is better known among English-speaking people as that of Solferino. A trip to the battle-field will take us down the eastern shore of Lake Garda and give us at least a passing acquaintance with the places on that side.
The first stop is at Torbole, crowded in its cosy corner between the range of Monte Baldo and the inflow of the Sarca River. Thence the steamboat skirts for many miles, at least until the town of Garda is reached, the bare, slanting strata of Monte Baldo, which rears its uncompromising sterility from the water’s edge, a veritable desert of rock tipped at an angle, occupying the space between the lake and the valley of the Adige. Two tiny islands appear offshore near Malcesine and Castello, called Dell’ Olivo and Tremelone respectively. Near Malcesine a few olive-trees full of wayward grace begin to clothe the baldness of the shore with a shimmer of silver-green punctuated and emphasized by rigid cypresses.
Malcesine itself decidedly invites the artist’s pencil, as it did that of Goethe. Perched upon a rock which projects into the lake stands the square tower which tempted the poet, with adjoining building and wall, the whole complex being crenelated in true mediæval fashion. Alongside the houses of a village have grouped them-selves around a natural harbour.
The steamboat journey southward from Malcesine presents a weird sameness, a powerful uniformity of aspect quite unlike the shifting scenes usual upon the Italian lakes. The great seriousness of Lake Garda and its large scale are constantly enhanced by the terrific range of Monte Baldo on the one hand and the blank wall of cliffs on the western shore. These natural features alone are quite sufficient to differentiate Lake Garda from the lesser lakes.
The stopping-places succeed each other at irregular intervals, all at the foot of Monte Baldo. Assenza, Macugnano, Castelletto di Brenzone, and Torri del Benaco, the very names frequently indicating the presence of castles or towers. The headland of San Vigilio, exposed and rocky, is deeply impressive, with a certain remote and neglected air. Here again the olive-trees dispute the meagre ground with each other, and in so doing form delightful groups. The rich green cypresses are reflected in the mirror of the lake, and the rocks cast deep purple shadows. Here a villa looking forsaken and forlorn, there a lively little harbour, add their pictures to this bizarre lake-shore.
The steamboat, speeding on its way, now enters the sheltered bay of the old town of Garda, which has given its name to the whole lake. A ruined castle has been used to make a background for a lemon plantation and for a vineyard surrounded by an incongruous red brick wall. Now we pass a large cream-coloured villa, green as to its blinds, and situated upon a terrace surrounded by decorative grounds. Then the boat stops at a place given over to fishing. The beach is covered with long white nets drying or being mended. Rows of huge bottle-shaped receptacles of wickerwork repose on the break-water, making one think of the lobster-pots of the New England coast. The harbour is full of fishing-boats, which are black and rise to antiquated points at the bow and stern, suggesting primitive gondolas. In-deed, the influence of Venice is noticeable far and wide about Lake Garda, even at this late day. Women still go to the lake with copper buckets slung over their shoulders on long wooden yokes, as their sisters go to the small piazza fountains of Venice.
We pass Bardolino, where Goethe landed in 1786 to continue his journey to Verona.
Lasize has its fine old castle and garden. Indeed, Lake Garda is of martial aspect, bordered by characteristic square structures of massive mediæval architecture. Then comes Peschiera at the outlet of the Mincio, once a famous fortress of the Quadrilateral, but today apparently counted of small strategic value. The place presents little of interest upon the water-front. Before you are fully aware of its military character, the boat has entered a fortified harbour of small dimensions but most warlike appearance. Whichever way the traveller turns, his eye falls on bastions, moats, and masonry. Even the casual visitor, however, cannot fail to see that these are of a pattern which long-range guns and smokeless powder have now made obsolete. The Mincio is not navigable at the Peschiera outlet on account of weirs.
The Tower of San Martino (Solferino)
The battle-field and tower of San Martino can be reached from Peschiera by rail. On the 24th of June there is always a large gathering of country people and military associations from far and near.
In that famous battle the French and Piedmontese stood under Napoleon III. and Vic-tor Emmanuel respectively, the Austrians under the Emperor Francis Joseph. The number of men engaged is said to have been 150,000 on each side.
On the evening of June 23, 1859, the whole Austrian army sallied forth from Verona and Mantua, recrossed the Mincio, and occupied a line of battle some twelve miles long, with Solferino as a centre. The village of Solferino lies some five miles south of the San Martino tower. Next morning early the French began the attack on the Austrians along this line and were victorious. A row of hills afforded valuable shelter for the combatants. At the same time the position of San Martino was attacked by the Piedmontese and fell into their hands at nightfall. The monumental tower which marks the site of San Martino and is visible even from Austrian territory does not disappoint on nearer acquaintance. It is truly enormous. Instead of steps, the interior reveals a series of inclined planes which mount to the top, and frescoes on the interior walls tell the tale of the great struggle for Italian independence. In the rotunda on the ground floor Napoleon III. is seen riding side by side with Victor Emmanuel, and, in general, due regard is given in the different frescoes to the share of the French in the work of that fateful day. The battle-ground covers a stretch of hilly country, displaying the general characteristics of the plain of Lombardy, where rows of mulberry-trees alternate with fields of American corn and pleasant vine-yards. The peace of work well done has now displaced the havoc of war. The former Italian and Austrian combatants have since become allies, and their contiguous territories along a wavering line of great extent resound to-day with the hum of useful, mutually beneficial industries.