Three tiny villages on Italy’s Lake Garda have a World War II connection that has curiously contributed to the preservation of their traditions and peaceful character. By Dee Martin.

Gargnano on Italy’s Lake Garda

Gargnano village on  Lake Garda.
Gargnano village on Lake Garda.
Credit: Dee Martin

The tiny villages of Villa, Gargnano and Bogliaco sit like a gaggle of grandmothers, their backs to the towering mountains, their toes in the clear waters of Lake Garda in Italy’s north. Grandmothers like to tell stories, and sometimes those stories soak into a place, like seawater into sand. Memory, gossip, guesses and dreams coalesce.

The Arosio family has lived in Gargnano since the 1920s and owns two small hotels steeped in family tradition and village lore. Family photographs adorn the lobby walls, charting the family’s fortunes and the changing circumstances of the region.

Valerio Arosio, a spare, energetic man in his early 40s, and his younger brother Andrea usher me into the drawing room on the ground floor, where guests play board games or the piano, read magazines or gaze beyond the bougainvillea-laden loggia out to the gardens. The lake slaps rhythmically against the concrete ramparts. They describe the two years from 1943 during which these villages were occupied by the forces of the Italian Social Republic, or RSI, a puppet state of Nazi Germany. With Italy divided and the Fascist alliance wavering, they tell me, Mussolini’s soldiers and German allies had moved into the locals’ private houses and public buildings, establishing the administrative heart of the RSI here in Gargnano.

On the night of April 26, 1945, as the American allies advanced, Mussolini made an announcement to his family at the Villa Feltrinelli, a neo-Gothic ice-cream cake villa he had claimed as his own. I imagine Il Duce striding into the elaborate drawing room and telling his appalled wife, Donna Rachele, that he’s leaving. What’s more, he’s leaving not with his family but with his lover, Clara Petacci. He’ll head for the Swiss border, hoping for luck and a passage out of northern Italy, now on its knees as the Americans advance. His wife, their two children and extended family will have to fend for themselves.

Two days later he and Clara are dead, shot by partisans in the nearby village of Dongo, their bodies taken to Milan and strung up by their feet in the piazza.

Yet 70-odd years on, it is the relationship between Mussolini and Winston Churchill, who visited the Gargnano region in 1945 and 1947, that still stirs debate.

“The official reason is that [Churchill] liked to paint the view of the lake, but this was not true,” Valerio confides. “He was trying to find the correspondence between Mussolini and himself during the war. Because there was one copy, owned by Mussolini ... that was very compromising of himself and his government … During the war it seems they were in correspondence to negotiate [a settlement] – you see, it is all a secret – and so he spent two years searching.”

The existence of such documents is disputed, as is their nature – be they correspondence or, as some would have it, Mussolini’s secret diaries. There have long been rumours that Churchill attempted to appease Mussolini, offering a deal, after failing to dissuade him from membership of the Axis alliance, but no official record of such negotiations has ever been produced.

Churchill did stay at least once at Villa Feltrinelli. It is said he demanded to be moved from the very rooms Mussolini had inhabited. Not before he’d searched them, presumably.

It’s early afternoon, hot and still. Some of the shopkeepers still follow the tradition of siesta. The car traffic has calmed and the foot traffic is almost non-existent. Cicadas creak. The waters of the lake are too icy for me but it’s not too hot for a stroll. Inspired by the history lesson, I wander up to the Villa Feltrinelli, now a €1300-a-night hotel, and peer through its fringe of foliage. A glittering swimming pool lies parallel to the lake. The gardens are immaculate. The villa’s apricot and cream facade glows. It offers a stunning contrast to the modest homes in the little villages nearby.

The villages’ main centres are within spitting distance of the villa and one another. I stroll along a road originally built for carts and now just wide enough for the four-wheel-drives that nudge their way down the cobbled Via Roma to Via Colletta. Two- and three-storey masonry homes and shops line each side of the road, their door-stoops and shuttered windows opening directly onto the street, but they remain private. A choir is rehearsing in the Church of San Francesco. While modest, the Romanesque church houses paintings by Andrea Celesti and Giovanni Andrea Bertanza. In the adjoining cloister a plaque dedicated to Neptune and an altar to a local god, Revino, illustrate the building’s unbroken connection between contemporary Catholicism and “pagan” Roman times.

All three villages have piazzas adjacent to varying-sized ports, where sailing boats bob in water so clear you can see the speckled fish swimming deep below. Through archways between the houses, tiny cobbled lanes allow a glimpse of the pristine waters of the lake. Many of these buildings – shops, houses, public buildings, even the hazardously narrow traffic tunnels gouged through the mountain – were commandeered for the RSI war effort.

“All the tunnels were converted into factories,” Valerio says, when I return to the subject later. He explains that locating munitions factories in underground tunnels ensured protection from attack. “They housed the Fiat factories and Aermacchi. Everything was made in those tunnels – engines for aeroplanes and for tanks – and in the other tunnel the Caproni factory used to make for the Germans, part of the secret weapons of Hitler – the V-2 rockets and the first jets of the Second World War.”

The villages were chosen because of their inaccessibility – the winding roads and mountains behind them provided protection. Indeed, they serve a similar purpose today – tourist buses are unable to negotiate the tunnels and narrow roads of the west shore. It provides some respite from the huge numbers of tourists in the region, although they pour off the regular ferry services daily. Of all the towns and villages around Lake Garda – there are more than 20 of them – these three have retained much of their culture and generations of families.

Before the war, the lives of the villagers were governed by the almost feudal nature of the region. Two great land-owning entrepreneurial families – the Feltrinellis and the Bertonis – employed the villagers to maintain the olive groves and limonaie that once sustained the local economy.

The limonaie – lemon houses – remain a feature of the lake’s shores. Imagine concrete pillars like the stumps of a Queenslander, but twice as high, presiding in majestic terraces up the side of the hills. They essentially form the basis of houses for the nurturing of lemon trees. In winter, glass and timber panels are set in place around the pillars and small fires are lit inside, creating hothouses for lemons. In summer, the frames are removed and only the pillars and trees remain. These labour-intensive terraces, employed for hundreds of years, allowed the region to produce the best lemons in this part of Europe. The Arosio family run regular walking tours of Gargnano, including around the authentic, working limonaie attached to Andrea’s home, with its hand-built fresh-water drainage system, and gladly offer samples of their produce. But many of the limonaie in this region are derelict, if still picturesque.

Today, most of the lake region is sustained by tourism, but with a different flavour. The villages remain real communities rather than summer resorts. What is it about this region that has allowed the local culture to be retained?

Surprisingly, the answer is Germans.

“It was not easy after the war,” Andrea explains. “The people were very poor. Then start coming the people from Germany on their bikes. You’re starting to see money. In other villages, they start this chain: to build, to let; to build, to let...”

Villages elsewhere around Lake Garda scrambled to cash in on tourism, building hotels and investing in tourist amenities. But these villages had a more modest entrepreneurial spirit.

“Here, people had only worked for the big families – they did not invest. They preferred to sell. They sold their houses to people from Brescia, Milano or from Germany and Austria. Now we have a very big German community. They like to maintain Gargnano just as it is.”

The irony of foreign ownership preserving the local culture, including the traditions, architecture and lifestyle of the community, is not lost on the Arosios. But they too like to maintain Gargnano just as it is. And so they embrace the stories that bring curious visitors, full of local intrigues and mystery, conspiracies interwoven with history.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 14, 2018 as "The unchanging of the Garda".

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