Travel Europe: Il Duce's last resort

It was on the shores of Lake Garda that Mussolini made his final home. Andy Bull sets out on the elegant trail of the founder of the Fascists

It wasn't me who mentioned the war. It was the waiter. He asked if we would like to see the Nazi command bunker that they had just discovered underneath the garden of the Albergo Elena.

How could we refuse? So he led us, by the light of an expiring torch, down a neatly rendered tunnel that descended to a vaulted brick hideaway. And we were able, before the torch flickered and died, to sift through the discarded wartime junk and wine bottles with which the floor was littered. Actually, I have no way of knowing whether the bunker was what he said it was, but the locals nodded sagely when told about it. They certainly had an eventful war here, for it was on the shores of Lake Garda that, from 1943-45, Benito Mussolini made his last stand.

Springing him from Allied incarceration in a ski-lodge in the rugged Abruzzi region to the east of Rome, the Nazis installed him in the puppet Republic of Salo, in what little Italian territory they still controlled. A big Fascist in a small pond.

His strutting ground was the elegant Garda riviera - the little towns of Gargagno, Gardone and Salo itself. Each a huddle of villas around a tiny harbour, with a couple of dusty but still grand hotels, they have the white mountains behind them and the silver lake at their feet. There are palms, cypresses and oleanders, and a lakeside road which was cut through the rocks on Il Duce's orders to link the tiny towns of this tinpot kingdom.

You can mention the war in all of them. I did. It is, after all, a significant anniversary this year. Not for Mussolini, but for his greatest mentor, the Italian patriot, soldier and poet Gabriele d'Annunzio.

It is 60 years since the death of d'Annunzio, who built a spectacular monument - to Italy, to the Italians but most of all to himself - on the foothills above Gardone. Mussolini was a regular visitor and, when given the run of northern Italy, chose Garda for his fiefdom because of d'Annunzio. He even installed his mistress, Claretta Petacci, in a villa on the estate where d'Annunzio used to keep his wife tucked away while he frolicked in the main house with his lover and a harem of girlie admirers.

I mentioned the war in the tourist office in Gargagno, and the girl pointed me up the lane to the northern edge of town where Mussolini's former private residence, the Villa Feltrinelli, stands. Once neglected, this pink-iced cake of a country house is now being converted into a luxury hotel. The forest of saplings that have colonised the extensive gardens were being thinned by a gang of men with chainsaws, but the main gate still seemed to be in use - as a public urinal. I peered through the gloom of the house, with its disturbing ghosts, to the lake beyond, where windsurfers sailed past in an altogether brighter world.

A few hundred yards back towards town, I found Mussolini's official residence, the Palazzo Feltrinelli. Today it looks rather like a provincial town hall with extra flourishes. It is now a summer study centre of the University of Milan. Driving south down Mussolini's road, where the contrast between cool pitch-black tunnels and blinding sunshine is disorientating for the driver, you reach Salo itself. Here they would much rather you come to admire the Gothic cathedral, or the Palazzo Fantoni with its ancient library, than dwell upon the dubious interlude with Mussolini. In any case, from 12.30pm until 5pm, the whole place seemed to be asleep, so we moved on.

A few kilometres further, in Gardone, there is another landmark - the Villa Fiordaliso where Il Duce and his mistress would meet up for what the Michelin guide delicately describes as "trysts". Once the home of Gabriele d'Annunzio, until he moved up the hill to the grand memorial he called Il Vittoriale, it is now an exclusive six-bedroom hotel. The restaurant is renowned, but the doorknobs still have swastikas on them ...

But perhaps the best place to mention the war is at Il Vittoriale.

It is a huge bordello of a mansion. An eccentric and voluptuous place where, in its design, furnishings and decoration, Biba meets the Third Reich. The rooms are very different, but share an overpowering atmosphere of cloistered theatricality. Hating direct light, d'Annunzio ensured that the sun be diffused by coloured glass, windows within windows, shutters, blinds and curtains, giving a muffled intimacy to the house. A black cat slunk along with us on the tour, until nabbed and slung out by the guide.

There is the music room, where black silk drapery covers walls and ceiling, and the two grand pianos, bass clarinet, rustic pipe and violin are squeezed in among 15 Doric columns of varying heights, topped with sculptures in the shape of pumpkins and bowls of fruit. There is the globe room in which you find the death mask of Napoleon, alongside his hour-glass and the snuff box that he used in exile on St Helena. Among the war relics is a tripod-mounted Austrian machine gun which sits in the middle of the carpet. But by far the most affecting room is the Stanza del Lebbroso - the room of the leper. This was d'Annunzio's death chamber, and when he died on 1 March 1938, his body was laid out on the narrow ceremonial bed behind gilt banisters. There is a disturbing touch of the Hannibal Lecters in the squares of chamois leather with which the walls are covered and the curtains in front of the deathbed are made.

As Mussolini's forerunner, d'Annunzio was keen to keep Il Duce in his place. He refused to travel to Rome to meet him. Mussolini had to come here. Had he chosen to visit d'Annunzio in his writing room on the first floor, he would have had to bow like everyone else as he came into the presence of the master - d'Annunzio had the door made low so all had to duck to enter. Yet the photographs of the pair show d'Annunzio as a hunched and deferential little figure, strolling in the gardens alongside Il Duce. Nevertheless, it was when the poet gave up on politics himself and retired to this house that he left the gap that Mussolini stepped into.

Meanwhile, d'Annunzio hit upon the perfect way of financing a grandiose vision. He bequeathed the Vittoriale estate to the nation. In return, a grateful nation was prepared to advance whatever funds he needed to create his monument.

The 12-hectare grounds are as remarkable as the house. With a series of loggias, porticoes and piazzas, stuffed with war relics and props, he created a surreal landscape dominated by the huge grey hulk of a battle ship, the Puglia. The ship has been dug into the hillside, and the aft section recreated in stone so that it blends seamlessly into the garden.

Even the mausoleum, where d'Annunzio's remains lie in a Roman sarcophagus, elevated 20ft on a white stone column and surrounded by his greatest chums, all upon smaller columns, does not top the Puglia. Among those who surround this supreme performance artist is Gian Carlo Maroni, the architect who turned his visions into reality.

Maroni was to live for 20 years after d'Annunzio. As a spiritualist, he claimed to be receiving regular messages from d'Annunzio which enabled him to continue with the great work, including adding an amphitheatre in which his plays are now regularly performed and, coincidentally, keeping himself in gainful employment.

Later, as I sat in the restaurant opposite the Vittoriale's main gates and cut into my d'Annunzio pizza, a German couple, whom I recognised from the tour of the house, came and sat at the next table. We swapped impressions of d'Annunzio. But I didn't mention the war even once.

Fact File

THERE ARE two gateways to

Lake Garda: Milan and Verona. Budget flights to Milan run from Stansted on Go (0845 6054321), KLM UK (0990 074074) or Air One (0171-434 7321), for fares of around pounds 100 return. You can also fly to Milan from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester on British Airways (0345 222111), and from Heathrow and London City on Alitalia (0171-602 7111). BA flies to Verona from Gatwick.

At the Garda riviera, d'Annunzio's house, Il Vittoriale, at Gardone (00 39 365 20130) is open to the public all year. The gardens are open daily 8.30am-8pm (April to Sept), and 9am-12.30pm, then 2pm-5.30pm (Oct to March). House open daily 8.30am-8pm (April to Sept), and 9am-12.30pm and 2pm-5.30pm (Oct to March).

The Italian State Tourist Office is at 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254).

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