Tourists flock to Lake Garda island after hidden path is revealed by drought
Tourists are flocking to the islet of San Biagio, a tiny outcrop in the middle of Italy’s Lake Garda.
The island is usually only accessible by boat - but historically low waters have revealed a narrow path of stone and sand connecting it to the shore.
The unusual phenomenon is the result of the winter drought that is devastating the region.
"It's a beautiful sight, but sad at the same time, because it's due to the drought. We hope it will be short-lived," says Alberto Pampuri, a 62-year-old pensioner who cycled to the spot with his wife and friends.
This unusual phenomenon reminds several visitors of ‘Floating Piers,’ a 2016 art installation by the artist Christo on Lake Iseo. Christo installed several footbridges across the lake.
"But they were artificial pontoons, whereas here it is a natural work of art!" enthuses Agata Carteri, a 48-year-old teacher.
Why are Lake Garda’s waters so low?
An abnormally dry winter has brought Lake Garda to its lowest wintertime water levels in over 30 years.
The lake’s waterline is around 65 cm below average for this time of year. The waters of the river Po, and Lakes Maggiore and Como, are also exceptionally low.
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Usually, the lake is filled by snowmelt from surrounding peaks - but the region has seen very little snow or rain this winter.
Winter has brought little relief to local residents, who suffered through record-breaking drought in the summer.
How will the drought impact tourism at Lake Garda?
Five years ago, Matteo Fiori crossed the bay of Manerba del Garda on foot to reach the island of San Biagio, lifting his backpack over his head to protect it from the waves.
"The water was up to my chest, it was an adventure," said the 45-year-old social worker, who came to admire the new pathway to the island.
The influx of tourists, unexpected for a month of February, is a boon for the small town of Manerba del Garda.
“The island has become an out of season attraction, which makes our lake better known," said mayor Flaviano Mattiotti.
But the drought could spell trouble for the town in future, he warned.
"If the level of the lake does not rise in the spring, we will have to dredge the harbors to facilitate access for tourist boats, which would be a first," he said.
Nearly 28 million tourists visited Lake Garda last year, about 40 per cent of come from Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
"It's like walking on water," marvelled Afra Vorhauser, a tourist from South Tyrol.
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"As soon as I saw a report about the island on the German TV news, I decided to come".
On San Biagio - also known as "Rabbit Island" - families picnic on the grass in the beautiful winter sunshine or walk on the barren beaches. Children climb on the rocks and skim stones on the water.
The winter has seen "a new tourist movement due to the curiosity to discover some areas of the lake that are usually under water," says Paolo Artelio, president of VisitGarda, the agency promoting Lake Garda.
Tourists can glimpse the partly-surfaced Caves of Catullus, the remains of a Roman villa at the tip of the Sirmione peninsula.
But local authorities insist that most typical lake attractions are still available - and that it is “premature to cry disaster.”
"For tourists, nothing changes, because the lake is still 136 meters deep on average, they can surf, sail or swim at will," reassures Pierlucio Ceresa, secretary general of the local water quality organization Comunità del Garda.
"It is enough for the end of February with snow and a rainy March for the situation to return to normal,” he says.