Italian Lakes – Riva

THIS little lakeside city is quite unique, not comparable to any of the towns or cities on the Italian lakes already described. Its atmosphere is Italian, its background alpine, its government Teutonic; immensely picturesque, it is yet well-ordered and serious; romantic, yet demure and dignified to a degree. The prevailing mood of Riva is like that of Lake Garda itself, a little serious and earnest. Over against Como, voluble and sparkling, Riva seems subdued and in the grasp of its stupendous surroundings. For travellers from the north who have need of withdrawing at times and being left to them-selves, Riva comes as a welcome home, a cosy resting-place, whence beauty can be admired at leisure.

The picture of Riva from the lake approach is one not to be forgotten. The waterfront of grand hotels and stately gardens upon the east, the miniature city, compact and strong, upon the west, the tower of a ruined castle upon the hillside, and the overtopping height of Monte Giumella combine in a rare manner for a noble effect.

The steamboat lands at a pier which leads up to the station of the narrow gauge line for Arco and Mori. There is another landing in the harbour proper, the latter being generally filled with picturesque sailing-vessels, called barche, and fishing or pleasure boats of smaller size. The houses facing the harbour on the north side stand upon arcades of great age, ascribed to the time of the Scaligeri. Near by is an open space used as a market. Everywhere an appearance of great solidity of construction makes itself manifest. Riva, situated at the head of the lake and acting as one of the portals to the Alps, has always had considerable commerce. Agricultural products from the great plain of Lombardy were at one time largely brought up the lake and exchanged for the mineral wealth of the mountains. By reason of its excellent harbour and its warm climate, it used to be called both the Genoa and the Nice of the Principality of Trent while that principality lasted. At present Riva is no longer on the direct line of transalpine traffic, which now passes almost exclusively up the Adige Valley from Verona to Trent.

A substantial municipal building bounds the market-place on the west; on the eastern side stands a massive clock tower, square and powerful of aspect, called the Aponale, upon which an angel blowing a trumpet acts as weather-vane. Farther east comes the crenelated fortress of La Rocca, surrounded by a moat and used as barracks. A street lined with palms and magnolias, indicative of the genial climate of Riva, leads to the station of the Arco-Mori line. Here and there a loggia or a fig-tree against the wall confirms the southern character of Riva, while on the other hand, it is here also that the traveller, making his way north from Italy, begins to hear much German spoken among the visit-ors, generally that Austrian-German which is so delightful in its rhythm and kindly diminutives. The native population, how-ever, speaks Italian, as throughout the rest of Trentino. The tall official cap of Austria is much in evidence on the heads of the military and customs-house officers, and Austrian politeness is heard in the common speech. A frequent word of address in this region is ” favorisco ” or ” reverisco,” while often the term ” complimenti ” is used. In-deed, there is no little courteous formality among this hospitable people.

Safely ensconced for a stay in one of the delightful hotels of Riva, the traveller has the prospect of many happy hours. The day passes in a series of panoramic pictures.

At dawn the twitter of countless birds induces you to throw open your window and to look out upon the garden full of azaleas and orange-trees in bloom. The birds are calling and singing before the heat of the day. They, like the hotel guests, are travellers seeking perennial spring in their flights from zone to zone. Under the window the great waxen blossoms of the magnolia-trees are discernible in the half-light, and the wistaria blooms on the garden arbour. The mystery of the morning hour is abroad. There is a sighing of branches, for the north wind which blows through the night is still upon the lake, and a little boat is seen scud-ding before it, wing and wing, along the rocky wall beyond Ponale. Near by the water gives the appearance of being pale green, farther off it merges by degrees into a transitional green-blue, a peacock-blue which, farther off still, becomes any blue you like and every blue you can imagine, up to the final streak, which is distinctly ultramarine, intense and sharp, closing the argument.

By nine o’clock we are seated under the horse-chestnut-trees in the direction of the Ponale road, watching the life of the harbour.

The night wind has now entirely ceased, the lake looks glazed as far as the eye can reach. The sails of some pleasure-boats hang limp at their masts. Even the gentle atmosphere of Riva, however, cannot subdue the washerwomen on the quay, scrubbing frantically. Here laborious Italy asserts itself. The unclouded sun visibly dries the clothes on the lines, but the women will not leave their tasks till the work is finished. Besides, they are expecting prompt relief from the heat; in the meantime, the dancing reflections in the water play upon their faces and make them screw up their eyes. Then they tie handkerchiefs upon their heads, but work on. The soap-suds float about in the blue. Under the glazed surface the water seems to be shot through with a web of reds, browns, and greens, creating a glitter as of changeable silk. This colour complex is the reflection of the mountains, which colours seem to have sunk below the surface of the water and made of the lake a great opal.

We look up again. A pale blue line is stretching itself steadily in the direction of Torbole. Suddenly the line arrives in the harbour. The air freshens, and the washer-women look up from their task. The ora is here, the delightful fair-weather guest of Riva and of the hot Sarca valley, expected punctually at ten in the morning or at two in the afternoon, according to the time of year. Presently the pale blue line has painted the whole lake a rich dark blue, and some sailboats, which have been counting on the ora to make port, are seen to turn the Ponale corner and advance quickly on the home run, bellying their sails. By and by the Desenzano steamboat also arrives, and with it a further contingent of travellers to rejoice in Riva. This change of wind seems as fixed as the law of the Medes and Persians. It acts upon schedule time, and regulates both trade and pleasure jaunt. The people call the ora also simply the aria, and its opposite, the night wind, the vento. It is the ora which cools the hottest day and keeps green the luxuriant gardens of this warm region. The air, though laden with the scent of exotic flowers, is pure through the presence of the mountains.

As the day progresses and the ora freshens, the lake grows deeper and deeper in colour, until the wind reaches its maximum strength; then comes a beautiful change, a mistiness produced by the air from the warm plain of Lombardy passing over the cool lake. This precipitation both softens the harsh outlines of the cliffs and smooths the frowns on the mountain faces. Under this benign influence Monte Giumella gleams less forbiddingly, and the terrific slant of Monte Baldo becomes a gentle slope. From the hotel terrace the clouds are seen sailing on-ward in a vague manner, melting and re-forming to no purpose. There is the swish of wavelets against the parapets and the rustle of the trees in the garden.

In the afternoon the crack of musketry suddenly resounds from over by Monte Brione and reëchoes through the surrounding mountains. A company of Austrian sharp-shooters are at their practice range. Later in the day there is the sound of the beating of the water with heavy oars, and two barges of custom-house guards dart out into the lake. The men row standing, but splash a good deal, and the officer in charge shouts words of command. A few pleasure-boats are seen making the trip to the Ponale water-fall. A loud trumpet-call comes from the barracks at set of sun, and about this time the birds start up their evening twitter in the rose-bushes under the magnolia-trees. They seem to have much to say and are eager to say it, but when daylight finally fades entirely and the moon stands directly over Monte Giumella, only the nightingales continue to speak and pipe at rare intervals into the gleaming night. The stars peep over the shoulder of Monte Baldo, the search-lights from the Italian customs navy below Limone sweep the shores from end to end, rest for a moment upon upland meadows, where shepherds are sleeping beside their flocks, illumine the crevices in the cliffs and the dreary mountain paths which smugglers might follow, or peer into your room with vivid glare.

Little Riva is composing itself to rest, and under the glare of the moon continues to duplicate its outlines in the good lake which gives it both name and renown.