IMAGINE an isolated yellow rock rising some 430 feet sheer from the Sarca plain, clothed as to its base with the pearl-gray foliage of olive-trees, higher up bristling with the dark points of many cypresses, and the whole surmounted by castle towers in partial ruin. Spread for yourself at the foot of this extraordinary castle hill several streets of houses in a semicircle, some handsome hotels, gardens, and shaded walks, and you have a rough sketch of Arco, as it looms up before the visitor approaching from Riva. North of Riva the river Sarca has deposited an alluvial plain of exceptional fertility. Roses are found here by the thousands, even in December. The almonds ripen in February, the peaches, apricots, and pears in March. It is out of this flat plain that the castle hill of Arco juts forth like some antediluvian marine monster raising its head above the surface of the placid sea.
The great rock is so situated that its strategic value must have engaged the attention of any race wishing to fortify its settlements in this region. The actual building of the castle has been variously ascribed to the Romans and to Theodoric the Great, king of the Goths. It is certain that it finally became the home of the Counts of Arco, and was partially ruined in 1703 at the time of the French invasion, during the War of the Spanish Succession.
The hotels of Arco are especially designed for winter patronage, some of them possessing covered promenades and sunny garden terraces. There is an avenue of magnolias, a casino, a grand villa belonging to the Austrian Archduke Frederick, and a town pal-ace of the Arco family. The trees planted along the favourite walks are illuminated at night with electric lights ingeniously placed between them. From the standpoint of its sheltered situation Arco may be likened to one of those lemon plantations on Lake Garda, which are protected on the north, east, and west by walls, and open to the south only. That which is done artificially for the lemon-trees on the banks of Lake Garda, nature has done unsolicited for the houses of Arco. The place is in some respects a miniature Nice or Algiers. Many guests crowd its hotels during the season, mostly speaking German, and bringing with them the good graces and pleasant ways of Vienna and Berlin.
Arco and Riva combined form admirable centres for excursions in all directions by land and water, down along the valleys or up into the heights. The region is not exactly conspicuous for short strolls, although some such have been laid out at Arco. The country lying around the upper part of Lake Garda is built upon too large a scale, and is preeminently a land of magnificent distances. It is far removed from mere prettiness.
Riva the town proper receives the shade in the afternoon from towering Monte Giumella; doubtless for this reason the superb hotels (which are designed to meet the needs principally of autumn and winter guests) stretch out eastward along the lake, in order to enjoy as much of the sunshine as possible.
An interesting excursion from Riva consists of a visit to the Ponale waterfall. This object of scenic beauty may be reached by boat, and, with a little forethought, the winds may be made to serve admirably for propelling power. Thus, if an early start is taken, the north wind can be used to sail south to the mouth of the Ponale gorge, the waterfall can be visited, and the ora, or south wind, can then be used for the return to Torbole or Riva. In connection with the Ponale waterfall excursion, it is possible to climb also to the high-placed hamlet of Pregasine, perched above the frowning cliffs that plunge straight down into the lake.
For the excursion to Lake Ledro we follow the interesting carriage road which is cut into the cliffs in the direction of the Ponale gorge. There are three galleries and tunnels. In the longest of these tunnels an inscription records that the road was built as long ago as 1851. As this superb bit of road-building rises gradually along the perpendicular mountainside, the view from it grows in extent over Lake Garda and the Sarca valley. One is reminded of the famous Axenstrasse on Lake Luzern, in Switzerland, and of portions of the no less beautiful road along the northern shore of Lake Thun in that country. At the Ponale gorge the carriage road turns a sharp corner and winds inward to the valley of Ledro with its pretty little lake of clear green and its chief village, Pieve di Ledro. This highway may then be followed for many miles to Storo, in the Val Bona, and to the Italian Lago d’Idro, with its famous frontier fortifications at Rocca d’Anfo. Nor in the list of excursions from Riva should be forgotten little Varone with its gorge and waterfall.
As long as the visitor makes Riva or Arco his headquarters, he has before him the extraordinary mountain mass of Monte Baldo, already mentioned as separating Lake Garda from the valley of the Adige. This range extends from Torbole down to the town of Garda. After that it disintegrates gradually as far as Bardolino, and is succeeded by the pleasant hill country in which lie, in a wide curve, Lasize, Peschiera, Desenzano, San Martino, Solferino, and Salo. Monte Baldo forms a happy hunting-ground for geologist, botanist, and entomologist. The edelweiss is still to be found in its high places. Its two principal peaks are called respectively the Altissimo and Monte Maggiore. From both views of exceptional extent can be obtained, linking into one superb whole the snow groups of Tyrol and the Dolomites, and bringing them to the very feet of Verona, La Degna, and Venice on the Adriatic.
Writing to his mother on May 21, 1869, from Verona, Ruskin said of the view of these mountains from the plain: ” I had a sunset last night which convinced me that, after all, there is nothing so picture-like as the colour of the Italian landscape. There were some blue mountains beyond the Lago di Garda seen against the light, and they were of a blue exactly like the blue of paint, or of the bloom of a plum, a lovely plain, covered with vines and cypresses, being all round to the south and west, and soft lower slopes of Alp on the north. I never saw anything more heavenly.”
Far to the north and west of Arco lie the majestic snow groups of the Brenta, the Presanella, and the Adamello, marvellous arctic outcroppings amid this southern land of sunshine. For those who are bent on high touring, as the Germans have it, these groups afford great opportunities and not a few difficulties. Others will take profound interest in the Sarca valley, reduced to ruin for long stretches by various landslips. From Arco it is possible to drive to Alle Sarche, and thence by Lake Toblino, with its island castle, over the Buco di Vela to Trent. Or else, turning eastward from Alle Sarche, the traveller can reach Tione, Pinzolo, and charming Madonna di Campiglio. These names evoke grand possibilities in a region still largely off the beaten track, but they hardly belong to the subject here being considered, namely, the Italian lakes. Suffice it at this point to confine our excursions to the environs of Riva and Arco, to glory in the exceptional beauties of this corner of earth, to admire the thrift of its inhabitants, noticeable not only in the fertile Sarca plain, but also among the barren rocks where mulberry-trees are planted for the silkworms upon every available spot, even amid the devastations and desolations caused by pre-historic crumblings of mountain masses.