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3 Idylls in Italy's Lake District

An afternoon saunter through Lake Garda's Salo

May 12, 1996|BRUCE SCHOENFELD | Schoenfeld is a Colorado-based author and freelance contributor to Sports Illustrated, Esquire and other publications

SALO, Italy — The sun streams through the Piazza delle Vittoria, warming our waiter as he loiters against the door frame, motionless as a cat. He has one other table of customers to attend to, and those old men sipping their grappa seem in no hurry to do anything else but talk. So we have him to ourselves, for what that's worth. Eventually he yawns, stretches his arms, makes his way to our table, and stands before us, blinking.

It's hopelessly early for a proper and dignified lunch, I'm sure he's thinking, but sometimes circumstances dictate. Julie and I had left our hotel on Lake Como that morning bound for Verona. I wanted a necktie, so we planned a mid-morning stop at Salo, a resort town on the western shore of Lake Garda. I had been here before and knew the tourist trade supported several good men's shops--and, anyway, I wanted to come back. I like to return to places I like, which is a philosophy of travel not nearly as obvious as it sounds, the lure of novelty for its own sake being insidious in an ever-widening world.

But getting here hadn't been easy. The driving was strenuous because of the traffic that now seems to plague the two-lane roads of the Lombardy region all of the time, and finding a parking place in Salo was nearly impossible. I'd sent Julie, my fiancee, ahead on foot while I negotiated the maze of dead-ends and one-way streets that had seemed so charming when I'd walked them.

When we hit the Via Butturini, which is blocked to vehicles and set back from the lake, shops were closing. So we decided to eat. Butturini is a narrow street that angles to the left and the right block by block and stays in shadow much of the day. That keeps it comfortable during high season, but in breezy October the idea of sun entices.

So we chose the warmth of the piazza over the better restaurants toward the center of town. We liked the ambience, sitting beneath the stone columns of a public building. As we await our food, we can hear the hum of scooters a block away, but it's a peaceful hum, a hum that sounds like Italy.

That our meal doesn't taste like Italy is my fault. The four languages on the plastic-covered menu should have told me something, or the lack of other patrons. Our waiter remains planted in the doorway, gazing toward Lake Garda for minutes at a time, even as we gesture frantically for water. (The southern end of Lake Garda has a tranquil beauty that can be hypnotic, but he should either be immune to it by now or stay inside.)

When he finally arrives bearing food, we wish he hadn't. Our pizza is soupy and our soup is cold, and together they cost $35. To remind myself that we are in Salo, and fortunate enough for that, I relate to Julie some of its history.

*

I tell her that an opulent, art nouveau villa gifted from Mussolini to Gabriele D'Annunzio--that elderly, one-eyed poet and patriot--is minutes away in Gardone Riviera, and that Mussolini himself lived in Salo the last year and a half of his life.

When the Allied Powers landed during the summer of 1943, Mussolini lost the government and was driven from Rome. Following Hitler's bidding, he proclaimed himself the head of something called the Republic of Salo, and spent his days bunkered down here by the lake.

He picked Salo because, basically, it was a nice place. Lakefront villas were requisitioned for use as ministerial buildings. Years later, I stayed at one, as the Hotel Laurin. I borrowed the hotel's kayak and paddled on Lake Garda in the shimmer of the early morning, then ate roast duck in the dining room that night. I drove out of town a few days later, bound for the Matterhorn in Switzerland. (Mussolini ended hanging upside-down from the roof of a gas station near the Swiss border.)

*

Salo remained much the same through it all. It still has a Mitteleuropean feel, as though Italian unification may not hold and it wants to hedge its bets. It caters to the Milanese businessman and Veronese wine merchants who take lakeside vacations in the summer, swimming and boating and taking twilight walks up the Via Butturini. Seeing them makes you want to throw an Armani blazer over a silk shirt and walk too.

Instead, we dedicate the afternoon to finding Mussolini's ghosts. Never mind that we don't speak Italian and the Via Butturini is deserted. It's the journey that counts.

The Via Butturini is one of those marvelous small-town Italian streets that sets the humdrum shops of a neighborhood--butchers and tobacconists and boot-smiths and vegetable sellers--beside boutiques selling Missoni ties. We walk north after lunch and find the street temporarily lifeless, as vacant as an old movie set. At the Bar Batik, we see board games stacked against a wall and a soap opera heroine weeping on the television, but no patrons. We pass a scientific school named after Enrico Fermi, an Italian who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen and was building the atom bomb in Los Alamos even as Mussolini was drinking wine here with his mistress, Claretta Petacci.

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