A Rough Guide to Lake Garda in Italy : Things to Do in Riva del Garda
"Conosca il bar 'Laurel and Hardy?" I asked
"Non!" came the consistent reply from shopkeepers and cafe staff alike.
I'm sure they knew who I meant since I explained "Hollywood, you know?" before whistling the universally recognised theme-tune.
After all the two legendary comics are called 'Dick und Doof in Germany so maybe the Italians have a different name for them too.
At a kebab stall, the guy pointed behind me and said "sk!",
I looked around and pointed too,
"Si! Ask!", he repeated
"But I just did, I asked you!" I thought to myself.
All this palaver was because my brother had been on holiday in the town nine years ago and had enjoyed a visit to the 'Laurel and Hardy Bar' in the town.
Being a huge fan I was keen to find it but eventually gave up and guessed that it just was not there anymore.
Later on a Google search failed to find it either. But there are plenty of other things to do in Riva del Garda
Riva is at the north end of Lake Garda in the northern part of Italy where the lake tapers to its narrowest point and is surrounded with high mountains. It is one most spectacular parts of the lake, visually splendid combining a mixture of ruggedness and verdant charm.
To my Caledonian eyes it was like a colourful Italian town transported into the Highlands of Scotland situated on the shores of a loch albeit with added sunshine and ice-cream.
The hills tower almost oppressively over the buildings the latter of which seem tightly squeezed into the land between the high ground and the waters of the lake. It is a pleasant town almost completely pedestrianised since the main road curves around the rear.
A road well-travelled by many motorcycles as a popular day-trip for the biking fraternity is to cruise around the lake stopping off at Riva before turning back or continuing along the other shore.
Riva del Garda is where the winds coming off the Dolomite Mountains are first felt by the inhabitants of the lake.
The breezes that have the colourful flags fluttering in the marina and which draws windsurfer and sailors to the waters around Riva and the nearby village of Torbole.
Nevertheless sometimes the winds can be gale-force buffetting the waters of the lake and fixtures and fittings of the towns.
They can also appear with little warning which has waiters rushing to save their tablecloths and tourists chasing their hats.
Even the Ponale hydro-electric building to the side of the town has an impressive architecture and colour as if the Italians had no intention of spoiling the look of the area.
It was opened up in the 1920s and is named after the river on which Riva sits.
A local architect called Giancarlo Maroni designed the structure which exploits the waters of Lake Ledro.
Massive pipes descending down the hillside mark the end of a 6 kilometre journey for the water pumped from the lake.
Therefore a relaxed stroll on the promenade along the lakeside can be taken without fear of encountering any industrialised monstrosities to shock the senses.
Riva is a constant visual feast for the eyes and aesthetic sensibilities of the discerning visitor.
Taking a 'passagiatta' along the lakeside you will hear many German accents as Riva is very popular with Austrians and Germans who can reach the town after negotiating the Brenner Pass on their way south through the mountains.
That can be a daunting journey even in spring and autumn if the heavy snows fall but usually the Pass is open. An exception was in 1989 when Italian truck drivers blockaded the road during a protest.
But you will also hear many English accents among the German as for some reason it is popular with British visitors. Much more than other resorts further south on the lake where German and Dutch tourists descend en-masse during the summer months.
Perhaps they are attracted more by the scenery than the sunshine but of course you will be guaranteed both during the summer. Moreover the electrical storms in the north of the lake can be fierce and spectacular for any sensations seekers looking for a more exciting weather.
A little bit of history
With the Germanic influence it is little surprise then that Riva del Garda was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire until as late as 1918 which was years after many other towns enjoyed independence in the new state of Italy.
The influence of the Austrian heritage is still strong in the culture and hospitality of the town. You will find many fine Austrian beers to refresh your taste-buds and slake your thirst on a hot sunny day.
Histrorically there have been excavations finding evidence of pre-Roman societies in the area and near the village of Campi the remains of a fortified Roman village have been discovered.
After the fall of the Roman Empire Riva was under the control of many different overlords such as the Goths, Longobards, the Franks, the Scaligeri family of Verona, Visconti and the Venetians.
On the modern road near the Trat crossing, you can see the ruins of a castle built in the medieval age to control traffic. Battle took place here in 1439 between Venice and Visconti of Milan after twenty-five ships and six Venetian galleys had been carried overland on carts pulled by men and oxen and lowered down the slopes of Monte Baldo. An incredible feat of military logisitics.
In the early 16th century the Venetians built the Bastion, which afforded them a strategic view over the lake. This contains the Civic Musuem which has an art gallery and archaeological exhibits on display.
Nearby is the 'Piazza III Novembre' overseen by the Apponale Tower topped by the famous ‘Anzolin de la tor’, a revolving angel made of tin which is the symbol of the town.
It was built originally in 1200 and for an admission charge you can ascend the 165 steps of the tower stairs and enjoy the view over the lake. For senior-citizens willing to tackle the 34 metre climb entry is free.
The buildings framing the square were built in the Lombard-Veneto style including the Palazzo Pretorio of 1375 and under the loggia there are tablets of medieval, Roman and modern origins.
The façade of the building displays a fresco of the coat of arms of Bishop Prince George III of Neideck and is inspired by Venetian architectureas are many buildings in Riva. Next to the Palazzo Pretorio is the Municipio, or Town Hall, restored in the late 15th century and which bears the town's coat of arms.
The architectural attractions
At the end of Viale Roma is the Church of the Inviolata designed in the early Baroque style in 1603 by a Portuguese architect who is unknown.
But it was commissioned by the Governor of Riva at the time Gaudenzio Madruzzo and behind its plain exterior it houses ornate altars and paintings by local artists Pietro Ricchi and Teofilo Turri.
Nearby you can visit the Piazza SanRocco, which still shows the old style of the town surrounded by the ruins of the town walls. Around the town are its entrance ways, Porta San Marco, rebuilt by the Venetians in the second half of the 15th century and Porta San Michele.
Piazza Catena is so-named from the Italian word for 'chain' and refers to the chain that would be drawn across the water to close the harbour. Piazza C. Battisti has a pleasant look with many trees planted there and next to that is Piazza Garibaldi which contains an exhibition gallery.
From the latter Via Maffei begins, once the well-to-do street of the town, it has pleasant squares, Lutti, Armani, Martini and Clari. Their interiors boast many fine frescoes and paintings.
If you follow this road you will reach Piazza delle Erbe where you can find Palazzo Bettinazzi and Casa Menghin. In the eastern part of Riva you can find Monte Brione before Torbole. It offers a wonderful view of the area and the lake.
The slopes are dotted with forts that were built between the end of the 1800s and the early 1900s. The 19th century was a time of great turbulence in Italy under invading forces before eventually the country fought for its independence. There is also a restaurant on the hillside where you can have a snack to maintain your energy levels.
If you want to aim higher then you can visit the church of Santa Barbara, built in 1935 and located halfway up Monte Rocchetta. It was constructed by miners who were working on the Ponale hydro-electric plant and also offers a magnificent panoramic view over the area.
Shopping and commerce
The paper industry is one of the most significant in Europe and a local mill opened in 2009 actually provides heating for 4,500 house in Riva. It supplies surplus energy generated in the industrial process and reduces greenhouse gasses and wasting of fuel resources.
There are other local products, one of the most important of which is olive oil, in fact, thanks to the more mild climate on the lake there are many olive groves, especially on Monte Brione.
The streets of the centre offer plenty of ideas for buying gifts or even treating yourself. In actual fact, there is no shortage of souvenir, antique, clothes and sports shops and on the road that goes from Riva del Garda to Arco you can find several shopping centres.
If you just fancy an ice cream then there are plenty of 'gelato' parlours, such as Flora which is next to the ferry pier.
For the sporting life
The main sports are sailing and windsurfing and there are schools located on the beaches. There is canyoning along the rivers of the Val di Ledro valley or climbs on Monte Rocchetta.
Between Riva del Garda and Arco there are stables where you can go horse riding. If you prefer motorised ridinf there is also the opportunity to go quad biking,
On the lake, the FIPSAS group provides the chance to dive under the waves. The acronym stands for 'Federazione Italiana Pesca Sportiva ed Attività Subacquee' and they can take you down to see the statue of Christ at the bottom of the Baia Azzurra waters.
Alternatively you could just snorkel in the shallows if a full-scale dive seems too daunting.
In the winter months for the hardy, although hopefully not the foolhardy, there are the challenges of walking the hills or climbing the mountains. Just a seventeen kilometre drive away is Malcesine where you can take the Monte Baldo cable car.
This will transport you up to the ski slopes, where you can slalom your way down the mountain whilst enjoying a comprehensive view over the whole of Lake Garda. Or you can even just sit in the mountain cafe and enjoy the view all the same whilst keeping your bones intact.
Bars and Rockstars
After my tour of the town I settled in outside a bar while I waited for the ferry back down the lake.
I chose the J/24 pub whose sign has its name written like the ACDC logo.
Certainly slightly more imaginative than a couple of others bars I noticed.
One was called 'Pub No Name' and another simply 'The Bar' which keeps things pretty straightforward I suppose.
My bar, which had a name, was playing the rock tune 'Abracadabra' by Steve Miller which worked for me.
But then it switched to some freeform Jazz which had me sprightly tapping the table, glass and condiment tray with my pen like Gene Krupa on holiday.
Hotels in Riva del Garda
- Trip Advisor website information
Contains a list of hotels in Riva del Garda with prices, availability and customer reviews
Then just before I finshed my beer the familiar pulsing bass of 'Roadhouse Blues' came over the PA.
It was a live version concluded by the voice of Jim Morrison proclaiming "I'm a sagittarius, the most philospohical sign there is, but I don't believe in it".
Then why mention it Jim?
Next up was James Blunt so I decided it was time to go, deciding against ordering another beer and walked over to the ferry port. I thought about taking a bus back but couldn't see any timetable information so decided just to wait for the boat.
In any case it's by far the best way to travel around the lake. If you don't believe me then you'll have to have a go. Lake Garda is a wonderful experience and has something for everybody.