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Galeas per Montes, Lake Garda

by Isabelle Yrma Pace
Reading time 4 minutes

Torbole

This epic and audacious enterprise is a milestone in Lake Garda Trentino history

Imagine you’re ready to get on board for your exciting boat ride. You put a colorful hat on your head and enjoy your nice sunny afternoon. There’s nothing you worry about… You’re relaxing, enjoying your delicious ice cream and looking for the perfect spot for your next picture. The view is amazing and you’re trying to taking the perfect shot to show your friends once you’ll be back home. And then suddenly a guy you hadn’t seen steps back, bumps you… and you accidentally drop your camera… Your camera falls down into deep water… Now it has reached the other side of the lake, its mysterious side, a completely different world. If you were there too, what do you think you would you see? What secrets would you discover?

Among the many ancient and less ancient things you could see, you would find the signs of an old and incredible naval battle. Those traces, half hidden by algae and darkness, date back to the mid-15th century. At that time one, of the greatest military engineering enterprise in history took place: Galeas per Montes.

Galeas per Montes, Lake Garda Garda Stories Garda Trek

During the first half of the 15th century, the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice were at loggerheads. Venice was booming and increased pressure towards the Lombard territories. Some cities under Milanese rule, such as Brescia, spontaneously became loyal to Venice. However, few years later the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, reconquered them all. The captains in the pay of the Duke could take control of the whole southern sector of Lake Garda, except for Brescia, that was put under siege. Brescia inhabitants desperately called on the Venetian senate for assistance.

The Venetian Minor Council met to decide how to proceed. The situation was complex: the Milanese troops barricaded in the castles of Desenzano and Peschiera del Garda. The Council excluded a head-on collision as it would have been too expensive. The only possible alternative to reach and rescue the besieged city was by moving north of the lake. A fleet could have crossed the lake and suprise the Duke’s naval forces anchored in Desenzano by attacking from the north. But how could the boats be transported to Torbole or Riva by land?

A Greek engineer and sailor worked out a crazy plan. It would have been an unprecedented enterprise: the heavy warships would have been transported by land, crossing the Pass San Giovanni.

Galeas per Montes, Lake Garda Garda Stories Garda Trek

It was January 1439. A fleet of eight galleys and frigates, together with other twenty-five large boats, came to the mouth of the river Adige. As the water level was low, they had some difficulties heading upriver until Mori. For this reason the Venetians adapted the boats with floating rafts to keep them buoyant.

After passing the first stretch by river, the ships were pulled ashore and loaded onto huge wooden supports designed for the occasion. Diggers and carpenters had built in a very short time a long track made of wooden planks that went up the narrow Loppio valley. For this great feat they had first leveled land, felled trees, torn boulders and completely demolished two farmhouses. After this great work, the creaking fleet was ready. More than 2000 oxen and hundreds of oarsmen slaves were required to pull it, not to mention all men in force from the surrounding area who were put to work.

The most complex phase was not the ascent to Pass San Giovanni, for which immense physical strength was nevertheless required, but the steep descent towards Nago and Torbole. The Venetians had to draw on their wealth of experience and talent to guarantee a slow passage down to the lakeside: slaves and oxen had to pull the ropes uphill and the boat peaks were anchored to secular olive trees, many of which were uprooted because of the excessive weight. In order to descent the Valley of Santa Lucia, which leads to Torbole, they waited until the afternoon to take advantage of wind Ora strongly blowing from the south to the north.

After two weeks of intense work that had involved thousands of people and a huge amount of money, the fleet reached Torbole. Venice was ready to fight.

Galeas per Montes, Lake Garda Garda Stories Garda Trek

The Venetian ships crossed the lake from the north to the south and launched the attack on the opposing fleet off the coast of Desenzano. However, the unusual activity around Galeas per Montes had not gone unnoticed and the surprise effect was lost. The Milanese troops were prepared for that move: they won the battle and captured part of the Venetian hulls. Only two galleys could return to Torbole.

Although the ploy had failed, everyone realized that the project was good and feasible, it just had to be improved. Brescia could not be liberated, but thanks to the control of the northern part of the lake, the Venetians were able to deliver food and relief supplies to the besieged to help them resist for a year.

During 1439 a larger and more powerful fleet was transported to Torbole, following the same route as the first time. The Venetians waited until April of the following year to prepare and repair the small damages caused by the transport. When the Milanese finally climbed up Lake Garda and clashed with the Venetians off the Ponale, the latter could prove their superiority and eventually won the battle. From that moment Venice gained control of the whole lake.

All Garda Trek trails pass through the same way the Venetian galleys and frigates went through five centuries ago, between Nago and the valley of Santa Lucia. Can you imagine witnessing that scene? Screams, the noise of hulls dragged on wood, orders given with the unmistakable Venetian accent. And Lake Garda ready to host this epic enterprise.
GardaTrek is not only a trekking route on Lake Garda, but above all a path to discover forgotten places and events which have left an essential mark in Garda Trentino’s history.

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