It was our third day of exploring the attractions of Lake Garda and it was going to be a long one. We would start the day off with a reasonably short drive up the east side of the lake to Riva del Garda. We would spend the next two and a half hours wandering the streets and piazzas in the centre of this lovely old town. From here we were to drive north-east for about an hour and a quarter into the Adige Valley to visit Castle Beseno. From here we would drive on to our dinner in Rovereto where afterwards we would visit the Bell of Peace, a fascinating war memorial featuring the world’s largest ringing bell. We would be very tired tourists by the end of this long day of touring the Veneto Region
The image above is taken from the car looking out to the mountains on the western side of lake Garda, just as we were driving into Riva del Garda. Our hosts dropped us off near the Chiesa dell’ Inviolata; my best translation of the name … “Church of the Virgin Mary”. This church is described as the most important architectural monument of Riva del Gardo and when it was finished in 1639, this area was outside the old walls of the town. This was our starting point of our tour before strolling down to the Porta San Michele which would be our official entry into the old Riva del Garda. The diagram of the centre of Riva further on in this article shows the line of the old walls based on the sites of three surviving gates. This Church of the Virgin Mary was one of those austere buildings from the outside that gave no indication of the ornate beauty within its walls. However there appears to be a curious back story to the construction of this church outside the walls of the town. It appears to have been built to house a fresco that was an object of popular devotion that was originally inside a building nearby, outside Riva’s Walls. Important and wealthy local personages pushed for the construction of the church as the cult of the Virgin Mary was considered very important as a bulwark against Protestant ideas that were spreading in northern Europe. No matter the underlying church politics, this a beautiful, Baroque-style church had a stunning interior to start our day in Riva del Garda.
To assist visitors to this travel blog site, I generally like to give a decent map of the town being described and the path we take. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a published one that was fit for this purpose and so I have had to use the less than attractive one below to give some sense of our walk through Riva del Garda.
From Chiesa dell’Inviolata, we walked down Viale Roma, passing by a Roman Archaeological site that was found in 2005/6 in the usual unplanned manner of the 21st century; the construction of a multi-storey underground car park. Called the Terme Romane, it was a first century spa-house or baths that lasted here for a couple of centuries. One of the curious ways archaeological remains are preserved over two millennia is when they are borrowed/saved/looted from original sites and reused elsewhere. The marble basin shown in the image from MAG (Museo Alto Garda) is believed to have been found in one of the local churches, reused for very ‘Un-Roman’ purposes. We would have a stroll later in the morning through this interesting museum.
The Porta San Michele is a medieval gate of Riva mentioned first in 1274. It takes its name from a nearby church but not the one we encountered after passing through the gate…the parish Church of Santa Maria Assunta. The walls and gates were renovated in the 19th century and although not part of the church, the tower over the gate acts as the bell tower for the parish church. Through the gate we entered Pizza Cavour which is a lovely square with lots to admire.
Our next major destination for the morning was the Rocca di Riva, the premier site for visitors to Riva. It is not only a medieval fortress built on its own small artificial island in the centre of town, it also houses the Museum of Upper Garda. It was built in 1124 in the early Middle Ages when the town realised that its strategic position was enviable and a fortress at the edge of the lake was necessary. As usual in our tripping around the castles of Lake Garda, we discovered that the Scaliger family of Verona arrived in Riva in the 14th century and took over the castle, enlarged it and added a moat. Like the rest of the settlements around Lake Garda, Riva and its fortress were taken over in turn by the Milanese and the Venetians in later centuries.
Today the Rocca di Riva houses a museum with sections devoted to the archaeology, the history and the art of the region. The archaeology section was particularly interesting with finds on display that show that Neanderthal hunters roamed Monte Baldo as far back as the Paleolithic period (120,000-33,000 BCE). The stone steles above are examples of funerary materials developed by Neolithic people (from around 3500 BCE) whose society reflected a more settled period in the area when the climate of the mountain valleys enabled the movement from hunter gathering to more settled communities. It is believed these stone pieces represent human figures and the carvings represent clothing and status objects. The carvings of flat axes, daggers and ornaments indicated that metallurgy has arrived at Mount Garda and these objects would have been significant possessions of important locals.
The area along the foreshore between the Rocca di Riva and the Piazza III September is the oldest area of the town and where the town finishes against the slopes of Mount Rocchetta and the towering Garda Mountains. We walked along the edge of the lake round to the main Piazza, the route can be seen clearly in the overhead shot below. This is the historic centre of town which is dominated by the Apponale Tower but also contains the Palazzo Municipale (see right) built in 1492 and has been the civic assembly hall of the town ever since.
In the images above and below can be seen the beautiful Apponale tower that dominates the piazza. It is believed to have been built some time around the start of the 13th century. In its early years it would have had defensive functions when envious neighbours arrived with greedy intentions and could provide safe haven from such assaults. In later centuries it was a prison. Today I can only presume the towns folk are happy that its use is kept for ringing bells and providing a prominent time piece for the crowds of visitors that come to admire this piazza.
Looking up the mountain at the back of Piazza III November can be seen the remnant of a grey stone tower called the Bastione. It was built as part of a fortress at the end of the Venetian period of domination of Riva (early 16th century) and the locals hoped it would provide a bit of security for the citizens in the future. It lasted in this role until it was severely tested by French troops in 1703 who destroyed much of the fortress. Today’s visitors can catch a funicular up to the Bastione and get great views out over Riva and Lake Garda.
We had finished our walk around Riva del Garda and we were in the right area of town for lunch before being collected by our hosts for our journey further north to inspect Beseno Castle..