Como’s Secret Gardens

Conservatorio

Courtyard and cloister of the ex-hospital Sant’Anna, now the Conservatorio di Como

On the weekend of 21st and 22nd September, those fortunate to be in Como can, for the price of €8, visit a whole series of secret gardens and courtyards within, and sometimes on, the old city walls. This very welcome initiative is called ‘Bellezze Interiori – I Giardini Segreti di Como’. An organisation known as TIKVA is to be thanked for this along with their partners, Como’s  Conservatorio music school and the cultural association Iubilantes.

Off Via Diaz

A courtyard off Via Diaz opposite the Le Soste restaurant – open to anyone with the curiosity to enter.

Anyone walking the streets in Como’s old centre must have peeked into the numerous courtyards or sought a glance through open doors onto the private gardens concealed within wishing they could only just step further into any one of these tranquil spaces so definitively separated from the tumult outside. Now, at least on this one weekend, we can.

The purpose of the Bellezze Interiori initiative is best left to the organisers to describe in their own words on their website but crudely translated by myself since the site is still under development. They say:

Bellezze Interiori is an ambitious project established to give public access to places until now known only to a few.

It is an innovative project already duplicated successfully in other Italian locations intended to spread awareness of local treasures, to promote respect for our urban environment and to rediscover the beauty of our historical and cultural heritage through opening up green spaces.

Their statement of aims gets more hyperbolic at this stage as can often be the case in Italy, this land of harsh realities and impossible romantics. They continue:

This isn’t just the physical opening of the gates but also an internal opening up to others in a genuine real moment of shared urban experience contributing to adding value and access to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Chiostrino Artificio

The Chiostrino Artificio, a semi-hidden gem.

Como and its secret courtyards and gardens do however merit the hyperbole and, again thanks to the selfless initiative of some civic-minded individuals and owners, we can all check this out for ourselves.  Locations are all described on their website where you can also purchase the €8 ticket online (€5 for those above 65, free for the disabled and for children under 10). You will in any case need to go to the project headquarters over the weekend in Palazzo Lambertenghi  (Via Lambertenghi 41) to pick up your bracelet that will ensure access to all the locations and events over the two days. You may also buy tickets there on the day.

Palazzo Lambertenghi

Palazzo Lambertenghi, classical exterior, baroque interior

Porticoed courtyards, originating out of monasterial cloisters or the more domestic enclosed yards of medieval dwellings, are bit of a renaissance speciality – and they abound in Como’s urban palaces. Some of these interior treasures are permanently open for all to see and enjoy such as the nymphaeum in the courtyard of the Palazzo Giovio, now the Museo Civico, or the courtyard with terracotta highlighting in Palazzo Rusca. Other treasures like the exterior of the Chiostrino Artificio or the Teatro Sociale’s Sala Bianca can be seen when attending a scheduled event. This does however leave the majority of Como’s architectural delights hidden away from the public, often behind stout ‘portone’ which remain resolutely closed against the outside world.

Museo Archeologico

The Nymphaeum in the courtyard of Palazzo Giovio, the site of Como’s Museo Civico.

There are fortunately some public-spirited owners who have shown themselves prepared and willing to share their good fortune by allowing occasional access on their property to the general public. They appreciate that sites of particular cultural or aesthetic value form part of a shared heritage. The Italian equivalent of the UK’s National Trust, the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) have done much in organising open days to many of these privately-owned treasures. For example, this year FAI organised visits to the Palazzo Odescalchi in Piazza Roma which is undergoing renovation and conversion into apartments for private purchase.

Collegio Gallo Carlo Carloni

The ceiling of the grand staircase in the Collegio Gallio, frescoes by the Intelvi master, Carlo Carloni.

Here was a chance to see some of the 16th century frescoes by the Recchi brothers before the renovated units get sold off into private hands. They also organised visits to the Collegio Gallio, one of Europe’s oldest teaching institutions where the public were able to see the frescoes by the 17th Century Intelvi master from Scaria, Carlo Carloni, on the ceiling of the grand staircase and decorating the walls of the Aula Magna. Visitors to Bellezze Interiori will also be able to visit the Collegio Gallio.

Martirio di San Marco, Recchi

Martirio di san Marco by the Recchi Brothers, taken from the main altar in Chiesa San Giorgio in Via Borgo Vico and now housed in Como’s Pinacoteca on Via Diaz.

When visiting Palazzo Lambertenghi, be sure to note the 16th century frescoes in the Sala Affrescata by Giovanni Battista Recchi and his brother Giovanni Paolo. The room is also referred to as the Sala Recchi. These brothers had a studio in Via Borgo Vico, a street which still hosts the studios of contemporary artists such as Ester Negretti, from where they undertook commissions across Lombardy and Piedmont including decorating their local church of San Giorgio. Their painting above San Giorgio’s main altar, ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Mark’ was removed and is now on view at Como’s Pinacoteca in Via Diaz.

Another of the Bellezze Interiori sites is the Palazzo Albricci Peregrini in Via Rovelli. The main villa here was renovated towards the end of the 15th century and still has a remarkably well preserved fresco from that period on the inside of the main doorway.

Palazzo Albricci Peregrini

15th Century fresco on the inner wall of the main entrance into Palazzo Albricci Peregrini in Via Rovelli.

Behind the villa there is a beautiful garden and alongside that lies a medieval building which has been lovingly restored by the owners of the villa to make one of the most atmospheric Bed and Breakfast locations in the city. It even contains exposed stone walling from Roman times. This is just another, if not entirely secret gem, at least one that deserves a visit and to be better known .

Secret Garden

Not on the list yet of gardens to visit, this is the villa just beside Sant’Agostino outside the city walls on the western side.

Not all the buildings on the list are necessarily old. For example the Palazzo Arturo Stucchi, also known as Palazzo Delle Torre, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 and then extensively renovated by Como’s eclectic-style architect Federico Frigerio for Arturo Stucchi who was a textile magnate. What is of main interest here is the Nymphaeum and the statues representing the Four Seasons in the niches that flank it. This Palazzo is on Via Volta where you will also be able to visit the birthplace of Alessandro Volta. I am not sure if the house itself will be open to the public. Half is now occupied by the Order of Engineers and the other half by a law firm. They have generously given public access to the house in the past. You will certainly be able to visit the gardens of the house and also the gardens down the road at the old silk factory and headquarters of Mantero. Here within the gardens on the corner of the old defensive walls is the tower known as Porta Nuova within which Alessandro Volta undertook some of his early experiments in harnessing electricity. By the way, the whole of the Mantero building, the gardens and the ancient communal salt and tobacco warehouse across the road are for sale.

Sede Mantero

The old Mantero headquarters on Via Volta. The gardens behind also give access to the Porta Nuova tower where Alessandro Volta undertook some of his early experiments seeking to harness electricity.

Both the Volta and Mantero gardens are examples of what are called ‘giardini pensili’ or hanging gardens. These are gardens built on top of other buildings as for example along Via Volta where the gardens have been built on top of the old ramparts and remains of the original Roman wall defences.  From Volta’s house, the gardens are accessed directly from the first floor and then paths lead you up onto the top of the walls overlooking the park and across Viale Varese to the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso. Other hanging gardens along Via Volta will also be open to visits.

Via Volta

The ‘Giardino Pensile’ at Alessandro Volta’s home on Via Volta.

No matter how noisy and populated the streets in the old city might be, once the main doors are closed on them the interior courtyards and gardens retain a surprising serenity which, perhaps more than anything else, helps convey the spirit of days past. This upcoming weekend in September  organised by Bellezze Interiori will offer access to the largest number of private dwellings of cultural or aesthetic interest ever available at any one time.  The modest charges go to cover administrative costs and to help plan future events. Not all the details for this year’s weekend have yet been finalised and there may well be more owners signing up to give access to their properties, along with other events. The initiative deserves every success and I certainly hope that it is something that rapidly becomes a reliably regular highlight in Como’s cultural calendar.

Collegio Gallo

The Collegio Gallio will be one of the sites open to the public on 21st and 22nd September,

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Argegno to Argegno: Up and Down the Telo Valley

Ancient bridge Argegno

The Roman bridge at Argegno over the River Telo.

This circular walk begins and ends at Argegno, a delightful town on the western shore of the Como leg of the lake and at the start of the Valle d’Intelvi. This valley links Lake Como to Lake Lugano or to use the original latin names of the lakes, from Lario to Ceresio. The Valle D’Intelvi has a natural beauty derived from spectacular features such as the majestic Monte Generoso and the Sassa Gordona which both straddle the Swiss border.  The Telo runs down the eastern section of the valley into Lake Como while the similarly named Telo di Osteno runs westwards beyond Pellio into Lake Lugano.  The proximity of the lakes and the abundant irrigation from the streams running down from the mountains on either side create a unique mild micro-climate which was much appreciated by those Milanese industrialists who built their Liberty-style villas here well away from the suffocating summer heat and humidity down in the Pianura Padana.

View from Cerano

View from the path from Veglio to Giuslino down on to Rovasco and Lake Como.

This area also has a remarkable creative tradition having produced artists and craftsmen who have had a major influence on European culture in two distinct eras, the first being from the ninth century and on through the period of Romanesque architecture and the second during the seventeenth century in the period of the baroque.  So an excursion up the Telo Valley offers opportunities to appreciate both art and nature while passing through the medieval centres of a variety of mountain villages.

san sisinio

Church of San Sisinio, established originally in Roman times, This was the view painted by Winston Churchill on his holiday to Lake Como in 1945.

Argegno is easily reached from Como either by bus (C10 or 20) or by boat. From the main piazza, take any of the narrow alleyways off to the north and cross the Roman bridge following signs for the Mulattiera di Pigra, a cobbled ancient path that will lead us up above the town to Muronico.  After a brief climb you will see the Church of San Sisinio on your right. This is one of the oldest churches in the valley originating from the days of the original Roman settlement of Argegno.  The interior of many of these churches in the Valle D’Intelvi  host impressive internal decoration dating from the baroque period. For example, San Sisinio has a great example of the fake marble mosaic work developed by the valley’s craftsmen called ‘scagliola’. Unfortunately the churches are mostly left locked but don’t hesitate to enter if you see an open door. You will always be welcomed to look around unless of course there is a service being held.

Churchill Val D'Intelvi July 1945

Chiesa di Sant Sisinio, above Argegno – Winston Churchill, from sketches done in July 1945

As you walk up the mulattiera past the church look back to appreciate the very viewpoint adopted by Winston Churchill when he painted the church during his holiday on Lake Como in 1945 after the war and his recent defeat in the post-war general election.  The path will lead you on into the old centre of Muronico where you should try the doors of the Chiesetta di San Carlo which houses other fine examples of Intelvi craftsmanship.

The walk described here is one recommended by an association known as the ‘amici di Dizzasco e Muronico’.  They publish a handy leaflet with a clear map available in any of the tourist offices with the long but descriptive title ‘Percorso suggestive di esplorazione culturale e paesaggistico della Bassa Valle d’Intelvi’.  The same association is presumably also responsible for the clear signposting  provided at least for the first section of the walk from Argegno to the Via dei Mulini outside of Dizzasco.  However, signposting gets more challenging once you cross the Telo river and make your way up to Cerano.

SignThe route up the valley takes you past Muronico, past the turning off to the right for Pigra to Rovasco, followed by Biazzeno  and then Dizzasco. Dizzasco is a town obsessed with mules hosting an annual Mule Festival and displaying mule emblems in some most unlikely places.

Via dei Mulini Dizzasco

The River Telo at the recreation area on the Via dei Mulini outside of Dizzasco. Our path takes us across the bridge in the background to start a climb up to Cerano.

Take the left-hand forks out of Dizzasco’s main piazza to descend down to the Via dei Mulini where there is a picnic area along the banks of the Telo. It is well worth taking a brief detour before crossing the bridge by taking the river side path going up the valley. A five minute walk will bring you to an old mill followed shortly after by another mill on the far side of the river.Sign 1

When you cross the bridge  you start to climb out of the valley towards the town of Cerano.  Before making a gradual return down this other side of the Telo Valley, you can detour up a further hundred metres in altitude to the neighbouring town of Veglio before following the signs for Giuslino.

Asino Dizzasco

Mule water spout on the fountain in Dizzasco – the town which hosts the annual Festival of Mules

There are few opportunities to eat along this walk but, if arriving around lunch time, Cerano’s Baby Bar offers a fixed price lunch for €12 including wine, water and coffee with a first and second course of mountain proportions – a very good deal.  You may well need this refuelling stop if you decide to walk up to Veglio. The route is not signposted but take the road north out of the town and then turn left where you see a road with a sign warning of a 10% gradient. When in Veglio, head south past a lavatoio (the old communal laundry facilities which are still used by some in these  mountain communities).  The tarmacked road soon gives way to gravel and then a cobbled mule path offering some great views to your left down to the lake below. However, once you follow the sign for Giuslino,  look out for an un-signposted sharp turn left and downhill. If you miss that turn you will carry on to the path leading up to the spectacularly located Church of San Zeno – a seriously long way off your route and a very steep climb!

fresco Veglio

Fresco on the walls of the lavatoio in Veglio. Unusual in that the subject is domestic rather than religious.

Coming out of Giuslino you are forced to follow the main road south until you come to a bridge known as the Ponte Erboggia. The Erboggia is a tributary of the Tela.  A notice beside the bridge explains its strategic importance and the plans to blow it up in the case of invasion from across the border in the First World War. This road  is the only way into the south side of the Telo Valley from the west  and blowing up the bridge would essentially prevent any further access east towards Argegno.

Turn off the tarmacked road at the bridge and then follow the mule path south avoiding any turn off to San Zeno until you come out of the woods and approach the Church of Santa Maria Assunta above Schignano.  Schignano is a town that hosts a truly fascinating carnival in February.

San Zeno

Clouds following a summer storm surround the mountain-top church of San Zeno

Over the years the carnival has attracted more and more attention across Lombardy mainly since it is a true piece of street theatre as well as an opportunity for the local people to demonstrate their skills in carving wooden masks.  Despite its growing popularity, it has remained true to its anarchic origins since its organisation is entirely in the hands of the local community who exclude outside commercial interests.

The route from hereon is downhill taking you down to the Sanctuary of Sant’Anna  perched above Argegno. Here there are a couple of restaurants and I can give a personal unqualified recommendation for the Locanda Sant’Anna where the food is excellent but by no means as economical as Cerano’s Baby Bar!

Interior of Sant Anna

Interior of the Sanctuary of Sant’Anna, below Schignano on the path down to Argegno. The rich decoration shows off the skills of the Intelvi artists and craftsmen in the baroque style of fresco painting and sculpture.

The signs state that the descent from Sant’Anna to Argegno will take about forty minutes from where you can take the bus from the main piazza back to Como.

Schignano

The town of Schignano

The map provided in the tourist office states the entire route amounts to around ten kilometres but, given the slight lack of adequate signposting from Cerano,  allow for a few more. Argegno is at about 220 metres above sea level and Veglio, the highest point on the walk, is at 700 metres.  However you need to allow plenty of time for the walk given all the glorious cultural attractions along the way.

I find the history and culture of the Vale D’Intelvi fascinating so there are a number of other articles in this blog if you would like to read more.  They include:

  1. Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini
  2. Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities
  3. Lords and Ladies of Misrule at Schignano

Statuary

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Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities

Sant Agata Castiglione

Church of Sant’Agata in Castiglione D’Intelvi with Monte Generoso in the background. The masters of stucco and scagliola originated predominantly from the Intelvi valley which runs from Argegno on Lake Como to Lake Lugano.

Back at the start of the 17th Century, a new technique was developed in Northern Italy to create fake marble marquetry – a much cheaper method of reproducing ‘commesso’ –  the artistic effect of marble mosaic using  ‘pietra dura’ (hard stones) which had its heyday from the 14th to the 17th century.

Commesso Pietra Dura Dubrovnik

An example from Dubrovnik of ‘commesso’ marquetry using ‘pietre dure’ . The technique is expensive and time consuming since each stone inlay must be polished individually since they all differ in density.

This new technique was called ‘scagliola’ (large slither or scale) and it derived from the skills already developed in the use of plaster for internal decoration known as  stucco. A certain Guido Fassi from Carpi, a city between Mantova and Modena, is accredited with the introduction of scagliola in Italy and Carpi rapidly became a centre of excellence for the technique. However, the most successful family of scagliola artisans was forced to move away from Carpi to Milan in the mid 17th century when the father, Battisti Leoni,  committed a murder and fled to avoid imprisonment.

Scagliola Carpigiana

An example of scagliola from Carpi.

He and his three sons set up a new workshop in Milan and before long had completed commissions for decorating the altars of churches across the Po Valley and the table tops for nobility from Genoa to Amsterdam.

Also by the mid century, the technique had arrived in the Val D’Intelvi  – the valley which links Lake Como with Lake Lugano – where it immediately took root given the pre-existing tradition in stucco, stonework and the other decorative arts as well as architecture.  The first scagliola altar front (known as paliotto) in the Val D’Intelvi  is attributed to the priest artisan Carlo Belleni (1612-1683) and found in Gottro on Lago Ceresio, the name given to the  eastern end of Lake Lugano. The craftsmen of the Val D’Intelvi rapidly developed their skills deploying a distinctive set of design features and undertaking commissions across the Province of Como, and more broadly over the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Castiglione Sant Agata

Paliotto decorated with scagliola in the church of Sant’Agata in Castiglione D’Intelvi.

The Val D’Intelvi is a beautiful but relatively remote part of the province of Como straddling the Italian side of the border with the Swiss Federation. For historical reasons, the area had always produced numerous families who perfected craft skills employed in construction. There is good reason to believe that it was the stonemasons from this remote far-northern corner of Italy who led the adoption of the Romanesque style of ecclesiastical architecture across Western Europe.

Sacro Monte Ossuccio 1

Painted stucco sculpture in the chapels of the Sacro Monte in Ossuccio, now a UNESCO site.

Our previous article Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini identified the influence of these itinerant ‘maestri comacini’ in the 13th century and how they established freemasonry as an early  artisan guild set up to protect the secrets of their trade – their ‘mysteries’.  Now in the 17th century, Counter-reformation Europe was gripped by the baroque style of architecture and design. It would be a second wave of itinerant ‘magestri comaschi’ deploying their skills in stucco, scagliola and fresco painting to spread this ornate decorative style across Europe.

Scagliola was born out of stucco, plaster work, which had developed in Rome during the Renaissance as a cheaper option to marble. The techniques were first defined in a tract by Alberti in 1542 but examples had been produced in the workshops of Raphael from the 1520s. Stucco designs could be polished, painted, bronzed or gilded. Or painted sections could be polished to resemble ‘pietra dura’  as developed in Carpi to become what became known as scagliola. Stucco designs were made from a variety of plaster but the preferred final layers for scagliola were made from gypsum rather than lime. This would be mixed with water and animal glue and then coloured. There are numerous examples of impressive stucco work across the Province of Como such as the interior of Santa Cecilia in Como itself decorated  in 1687-88 by an Intelvi artisan, Giovanni  Battista Barbarini from Laino.

Santa Cecilia

Detail of stucco work in the Church of Santa Cecilia, Via Cesare Cantu, Como.

Other fine examples can be seen in the chapels of the UNESCO site,  the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio.  These were produced by Agostino Silva (1628-1706) from Morbio Inferiore, a town just over the Swiss border from Como and Cernobbio.

Intelvi unkmown

Detail of scagliola work on a paliotto screen from the Val D’Intelvi

Scagliola work was usually reserved for the front panels of the church altars, known as ‘paliotti’ in Italian. Here the idea was to imitate ‘commessi’ mosaic work to the same aesthetic effect but at a fraction of the cost and time to produce. The earlier Carpi paliotti tended to be monochromatic  but the styles developed in the Val D’Intelvi were bright and colourful including a rich variety of patterns and designs. The background colour was normally black. This was produced by colouring the plaster with ‘nerofumo’ also known as lampblack – a pure carbon produced by collecting the soot from burnt oil. The other main colour used to mix and in pure form was white – a lime white known as Bianco San Giovanni  which originated from Florence. The following recipe for its production was written by Cennino Cennini (1346-1427) in his book ‘Il Libro dell’Arte’.

‘…take good white air-slaked lime, put it, in the form of powder, into a pail for the space of eight days, adding clear water every day, and stirring up the lime and water thoroughly, so as to get all the fatness out of it. Then make it up into little cakes; put them up on the roofs in the sun; and the older these cakes are, the better the white will be. If you want to make it quickly and well, when the cakes are dry, work them up with water on your stone; and then make it into little cakes and dry them again; and do this twice and you will see how perfect the white will be. This white is worked up with water and it wants to be ground thoroughly. And it is good for working in fresco, that is, on a wall without any tempera.’

Sant Anna Argegno

Altar in the Santuario di Sant’Anna, Argegno. with fine examples of stucco, fresco and scagliola work.

The artist’s palette was completed with blue derived from either azurite, indigo or lapis lazuli. Red was obtained from vermilion, cinnabar, hematite for a dark red or crimson. Yellow came from ochre ( a natural clay) or orpiment. The base of the paliotti was made from a plaster mixed with broken up bricks or roof tiles and sand. Quality gypsum for making the plaster for the upper layers  was taken from the local mines at Limonta, just to the east of Bellagio or Nobiallo, to the north of Menaggio.  Marble quarries in nearby Musso (white marble) and Varenna (black marble) and the stone quarries at Moltrasio ensured the craftsman of the Val D’Intelvi had all the raw materials needed for their crafts.

Santo Sisinnio

The interior of the Church of Santo Sisinnio in Muronico above Argegno. The statue of the Madonna and Child is in marble with all surrounding decoration in stucco.

While the Val D’Intelvi  had a long tradition of craftsmanship, its prominence in the production of stucco and scagliola maybe would not have developed if Como, being on the border between the catholic world of Italy and the Calvinism of some of the Cantons in the  Swiss Federation, had not been on one of the front lines of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Also Northern Italy had received many catholic refugees fleeing from Protestant Northern Europe during the Thirty Years War and they were intent on securing and declaring their faith by commissioning works in the style that reflected the religious affirmation and exuberance of the Counter Reformation,  namely the Baroque.  The artisans of the Val D’Intelvi, used to long periods of itinerant work and outward emigration, were thus poised to dominate Europe once again.

ludwigsburg

Ludwigsburg Palace, near to Stuttgart.

The predominant position of Val D’Intelvi craftsman is best exemplified by their role in constructing Ludwigsburg Palace, the largest palatial estate in Germany commissioned by Eberhard Louis, Duke of Wurttemberg in 1707.

ludwigsburg interior

Interior of Ludwigsburg Palace with stucco work by the maestri comacini led by Donato Frisoni.

When Duke Louis’ architect Johan Nette died in 1714, the sculptor Donato Frisoni, originally from Laino in the Val D’Intelvi, was appointed to take over responsibility for completing the original section of the palace and extending it. Frisoni employed hundreds of his fellow countrymen but the main craftsmen he employed all originated from the Val D’Intelvi, namely Paolo Retti (Frisoni’s nephew), Giambattista Carloni from Scaria,  the Scotti from Laino and the Ferretti from Castiglione. The scale of the works was immense. Paolo Retti was organising  up to six hundred and fifty workers at one stage consisting of stone masons, cutters and labourers.

Val D’Intelvi craftsmen were to be found wherever the baroque style was in favour, particularly in cities across Catholic Mid and Eastern Europe such as Prague, Vienna, Passau and Salzburg. Salzburg Cathedral was designed by Santino Solari (1576 – 1646), born in Verna in the Val D’Intelvi. Construction was also done entirely by craftsmen from the Val D’Intelvi.

Salzburg Cathedral

Salzburg Cathedral, entirely constructed by caftsmen from the Val D’Intelvi.

Giambattista Carloni not only worked on the Ludwigsburg Palace but was also responsible for producing ten altars and the stucco decoration in Passau Cathedral. The whole of the interior decoration of the cathedral was project managed by another Intelvi resident, Carlo Lurago from Pellio. These two became the most prominent promoters of baroque decoration across Eastern Bavaria.

Ceiling Passau Cathedral

Ceiling of Passau Cathedral, stucco work by Giambattista Carloni from Scaria in the Val D’Intelvi.

Giambattista Carloni’s two sons, Diego (1674-1750) and Carlo (1687-1775) were also employed at the Ludwigsburg Palace. Diego was a sculptor and master of stucco and scagliola whilst Carlo was an artist. They, like all the other master craftsmen from the valley, worked predominantly abroad returning from time to time to their towns of origin. These two brothers became internationally renowned protagonists of rococo  – the lighter but highly decorative style that developed out of the baroque.  Along with their successful careers in Stuttgart, Vienna, Passau and in Italy, they decided to gift the parish church of Santa Maria in their home town of Scaria with a complete interior and exterior makeover. Carlo also added some delightful frescoes on the wall of the portico added to the side of the nearby Romanesque church of Saints Nazaro and Celso.

Carloni Santa maria Scaria 2

Interior of the Church of Santa Maria, Scaria. Painting by Carlo Carloni and stucco work by his brother Diego.

Carloni Santa maria Scaria 3

Church of Santa Maria at Scaria with stucco and scagliola by Diego Carloni and the fresco above the altar by his brother Carlo.

As with the story of Como’s group of world renowned abstract artists, ‘the astrattisti comaschi’ , one is left wondering what were the circumstances that led to this intense concentration of artistic talent within such a small defined area. I have alluded to some possible geopolitical causes but maybe the most significant influence was family.

Carlo Carloni Scaria

Fresco by Carlo Carloni on the wall of the portico of the Church of Saints Nazaro and Celso in Scaria,, Val D’Intelvi.

For example Paolo Retti, the architect cited as collaborating with Frisoni on the Ludwigsburg Palace was not just Frisoni’s nephew. Paolo’s father Lorenzo was a stucco master as was his brother Donato. His other brother Leonardo was an architect. Craftsmen would marry into other craftsmen families from the valley. Connections to family and place of origin gave these itinerant workers the freedom to travel for years on end knowing there was always a welcome back home.  Travelling for work exposed them to different techniques and ideas while family pride also drove them to perfect their skills and to innovate.

Thus there have been two clear eras over the last nine hundred years when the ‘maestri comaschi’ have had a disproportionate  influence over European art or architecture.  It is difficult to foresee how this success could be replicated again given modern methods of design and production but their legacy has at least ensured, due to the need for restoration, that their old skills remain current.  Students at the School of Artisan Crafts at the Villa Fabris in Verona still learn how to create and restore scagliola!

Students at Villa Fabris

Students at Villa Fabris learn the techniques of stucco, scagliola and other decorative arts so as to recreate or restore the originals.

 

 

 

 

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Tourism on Lake Como – Then and Now

Argegno

Argegno and the start of the Val D’Intelvi

Are more tourists coming to Lake Como these days? Data on this for 2018 has recently been published covering all of Lombardy and its individual provinces including both Como and Lecco for the two legs of our lake.  The data does reveal the increasing importance of tourism to the local economies of both provinces, with a breakdown on the country of origin of visitors and on how long they stay here.  It also reveals the broad differences in the type of tourism on offer in Como or Lecco.  We also see how many people may prefer to visit Lake Iseo or Lake Maggiore. Yet the figures provide no insight into why people choose voluntarily to visit or to live in any of these provinces rather than just stay at home or in their mother country.  The data cannot explain what brought me as a resident or the 1,372,787 visitors in 2018 to pick Como as a location that may possibly be good for the soul.

Now – The Figures

Bell tower

Towards Lezzeno

InLombardia, the Lombardy Region’s tourist board, has in recent years been actively campaigning to encourage more people to visit Milan and the other provinces in the region. The figures for 2018 show their efforts are paying off with a 3.5% increase in numbers since 2017 but 26.4% since 2013. In 2018 , out of a total of nearly 17,200,000 visitors to Lombardy, 7,800,000 went to Milan and 1,370,000 came to Lake Como making us more popular than Lake Maggiore (Province of Varese) or the Valtellina (Province of Sondrio) but less so than Lake Iseo (Province of Brescia). For Como this represents a significant 34.9% rise in numbers since 2013.

On average across Lombardy, around 50% of visitors originate from outside Italy. However for Como the percentage of foreign visitors climbs to 77.5%, ahead of Lake Iseo with 72% or the other leg of the lake in Lecco at 62.6%. Countries of origin are recorded for Lombardy as a whole but not for the individual provinces. The top ten countries in descending order are 1) Germany 2) United Kingdom 3) Netherlands 4) United States of America 5) France 6) Switzerland 7) Japan 8) China 9) Belgium 10) Russia.  The Provinces of Sondrio (the Valtellina), Cremona, Lodi, Monza, Mantova and Pavia all have a majority of Italian tourist visitors.

There has been a radical change in the type of lodging available with a decline in the number of hotel beds across the region except for Como where there has been a steady annual increase of 1.6% over recent years.  The reduction in beds is most marked in the two or three star category. Conversely there has been a massive increase in the number of non-hotel beds. This category includes holiday homes, bed and breakfasts, ‘agriturismo’ and camp sites. Since 2015 this category of accommodation has increased by a massive 302% in Como with a 59% increase recorded in just the one year from 2017 to 2018. Lecco and Sondrio have also seen significant increases since 2015 of around 150% in this category.

There are also marked differences in the length of visitors’ stay. The average for the whole of Lombardy is 3.64 days per visitor with Como just below this at 3.32 days although those from abroad tend to spend less time here, 2.6 days. The challenge is of course to get people to stay longer and Brescia (Lake Iseo) seems to manage this well with an average stay of 5.72 days.

Brescia and Lake Iseo seem to be doing a number of things well and maybe there is something that Como and Lecco could learn from them. The figures also reveal essential differences in the experiences on offer on the Lecco leg rather than Como with Como maintaining or even increasing the number of luxury hotel rooms as well as increasing the non-hotel options. Lecco is managing to increase the number of visitors but less are coming from abroad than to Como and they are also favouring lower cost accommodation options.

Then – The Origins of Tourism

Towards Bellagio

Bellagio from Lezzeno

So we know how many people visit the lake, roughly where they come from and how long they usually stay. Let’s try now to find out why we are all here? The answer is to some extent obvious, in that the lake has its natural beauty. From Roman times Lake Como, known as Lario, was recognised as having a particular appeal with unique qualities. Pliny the Younger was one of the first to describe the attraction of the mild, fertile lakeside contrasting with the dramatic mountain backdrop. He had a villa built for him on its shores, and his enthusiasm for the lake helped give birth to the concept of ‘Il Mito di Lario’ – or the fame of the lake. As time passes, the ‘Mito di Lario’ will form the basis for the growth of an ever expanding and evolving tourism industry. However, tourism as such is a relatively modern phenomenon and the concept of visiting far-away lands for pleasure could only take root once fundamental infrastructure issues were resolved.

Lakeside and mountain

From lakeside to mountain – Lake Como’s contrasts

We have the diary kept by a manservant of an English nobleman, Sir Edward Unton, who travelled through Italy in 1563 to give us some insight into the concerns and interests of early travellers.  The quote below reveals as much by what it fails to mention and the relative space given to describing Milan compared with the throwaway reference to Como.

‘Milan is a fair great city well-fortified and situated in a fair country having on the one side a very strong castle whereunto all the city is in subjection. This city is very populous and full of artisans of all sorts and much more than other cities I have seen. From thence the 1st October to bed to a city of the same dukedom called Como, not fair standing at the foot of the mountains and the furthest city towards Switzerland. In this part of Lombardy is indifferent good food for travellers, the people notwithstanding are very subtle and crafty given like the rest of Italians to deceive strangers.’

Richard Smith, the diarist, was unimpressed by the lake, the local inhabitants or the cuisine with his focus definitely on urban culture and his preference decidedly for Milan.  His prejudice against Italians in general was matched at the time by the overall contempt of the Milanese towards Como – after all it was only four hundred years previously when the two cities were at war with each other. However, aristocrats, who began to visit the area in increasing numbers from a century later as part of their cultural ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, were more favourably impressed. Some even settled in the area and established neo-classical villas and gardens on the lake shore adding to the lake’s fascination for successive generations.

Villa D'este

Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio

If Elizabethan aristocrats were not yet interested in the lake, Italians were. In 1568 Cardinal Gallio of Como commissioned the architect Pellegrino Pellegrini to build the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio as his summer home. Villa Monastero in Varenna, originally a monastery as its name suggests, was acquired as a home for the Mornico family in the early 1600s.  Villa Pliniana, originally built in 1573, was bought by a branch of the Milanese noble Borromeo family in 1590.  Villa Dell Grumello on the edge of Como was built in 1570 for Tommaso D’Adda.  It would later pass into the hands of the Odescalchi and then the Giovio family whose ancestor Paolo had built one of the early lakeside villas on the current site of the Villa Gallia in 1543 to house his collection of paintings.

Giambattista Giovio

Giambattista Giovio, author (1748-1815)

The Grand Tour, undertaken as part of the intellectual education of young Northern European aristocrats and focussing initially on the major cultural cities of Europe, did much to develop the concept of ‘tourism’.  It introduced the concept of travelling for its own sake, for the experience and for the opportunity to learn and then to exchange ideas and opinions with other travellers. One such journey was undertaken in 1777 in the company of Alessandro Volta by the author Giambattista Giovio, a member of a long-established Como aristocratic family. Giovio kept a journal of their journey together through Switzerland including their meeting with Voltaire in his home town of Ferney, just over the border from Geneva.

Giovio was perhaps the most influential person in his day to encourage interest in visiting Lake Como. He published ‘Como and Lario’ in 1795 and his further text on travelling around Lake Como was published posthumously in 1817. These books helped to broaden interest in travel beyond visits to sites of antiquity into locations which might inspire through their beauty or dramatic quality.

Then – From Spectacular to Sublime

In 1817 Stendhal visited Lake Como and described it as ‘sublime’.  Sublime is a word that in modern parlance has lost most of its original power and significance similar in a way to ‘awesome’.

Villa Pliniana

Villa Pliniana, Torno – Percy Bysshe Shelley and wife, Mary considered buying this on their visit to Lake Como in 1818

When as a teacher I attempted to introduce students to the Romantic Poets such as Shelley, my personal challenge was trying to get my head round the true meaning and importance to these writers of the sublime – a metaphysical almost mystical belief in the powers of man and nature. So, whatever the sublime might be, for Stendhal and visitors like Shelley and his young runaway bride Mary, Lake Como had it. The Shelleys were so attracted to the lake that they seriously looked into the possibility of purchasing Villa Pliniana, now a luxurious hotel but a dilapidated albeit romantic wreck when they viewed it in the Spring of 1818.

Milano and Sublime

Sublime Lake Como

The Romantic period ushered in a golden age for Lake Como with so many writers, artists and musicians deciding to visit and record their impressions.  Sheer sided mountains reflected in the calm waters, snow-capped peaks above temperate shores, small towns with Romanesque bell towers rising above the surrounding chestnut groves – these were the never changing elements which had enchanted visitors from Pliny’s day.

Torno

The ancient northern Roman gateway into Torno

But for the Romantic sensibility, the beauty and drama of these natural elements conveyed a sense of freedom, awe in its original sense combined with the boundless possibilities of creativity. What could be a better setting for Verdi to complete ‘La Traviata’ or for Rossini to compose ‘Tancredi’ over a three day stay at the Villa Pliniana, or for Bellini to collaborate with Giuditta Pasta, his mezzo-soprano muse, crossing the lake from Moltrasio to her villa in Blevio?

Cardinal Gallio’s summer villa in Cernobbio was acquired in 1815 by Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the English King, George IV. It was she who renamed it the Villa D’Este having bought it as her home in exile from the London court.  Lake Como had by now consolidated  an international reputation for its charm.

View of Menaggio JMW Turner 1842

View of Menaggio from the sketchbook of JMW Turner, 1842

Now – From Sublime to Serene

As the nineteenth century progressed, the wealthy homes of aristocrats either changed hands with or were accompanied by those built for the financiers and industrialists making their fortunes from Northern Italy’s growing industrialisation.  As we know, the increase in wealth for the few was also matched by a partial mastery and a general deterioration in the quality of the natural environment matched by an increase in the pressures of everyday life.

Romance on the lake

From sublime to serene – Lake Como becomes ‘romantic’.

People no longer tended to travel as much for intellectual or spiritual enrichment as they did in search of some peace and tranquillity in a bid to regain equilibrium prior to returning back into the commercial fray. The dawn of the modern world had made the Romantics’ concept of the sublime impenetrable and the search was now more directed to seeking serenity, a concept easier to appreciate even if hard to achieve. Since the quest for serenity was bound to be more in demand than the esoteric search for the sublime, tourism on Lake Como was set for further development. However the lake retained, simplified and then amplified its ‘Romantic’ epithet, becoming to this day a popular location for weddings.

Churchill Val D'Intelvi July 1945

Chiesa di Sant Sisinnio, above Argegno – Winston Churchill, from sketches done in July 1945

Some notable figures in the political world have sought serenity on the lake including Winston Churchill. He visited here immediately after he lost the post war elections in the United Kingdom in July 1945. He started his holiday staying for two weeks in Moltrasio as a guest of an industrialist. He spent much of his time sketching and painting but his stay has also raised speculation that he may also have been trying to track down and dispose of incriminating correspondence between him and Mussolini.

Konrad Adenauer rented a villa in Griante above Cadenebbia for at least two periods a year during his time as the German Chancellor after the last war. Adenauer had one of the most stressful roles in modern politics seeking to drag his country out of the shame and bankruptcy of the Nazi years while also laying the foundations for ongoing future peace in Europe. The Villa la Collina provided the serenity he required. Maybe following Adenauer’s example but years later, the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, on his retirement in 2006, spent three months staying above Menaggio.

He remained incognito for most of this time but feared his cover may have been blown one day when, while out buying a newspaper, someone seemed to recognise him stating, ‘I know you – you’re Morgan Freeman!’ He was also a regular visitor to the Ambrosetti Forum, the annual meeting of international politicians and industrialists held at Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este. In all he visited Lake Como six times dining on one of the last occasions as guest of George and Amal Clooney in Laglio at their Villa Oleandra.

Rezzonico

Rezzonico in the Comune of San Siro

The Clooneys have done more than any others to publicise the lake in recent years, in spite of the fact that other wealthy industrialists like Richard Branson and various highly anonymous Russian oligarchs also own property here. This summer the Clooneys entertained Barak and Michelle Obama as house guests. No doubt they also  appreciated the soothing restorative benefits of staying on the serene lake.

The Future

The one constant throughout the whole long period in which tourism has grown on the lake is its basic attraction. Lake Como has a unique combination of the lush temperate lakeside fringing the calm water which in turn reflects the dramatic mountainsides with their gullies dividing off the individual mountain communities.

Brienno to Argegno - sheer mountainside

Going north from Laglio from Brienno to Argegno, the mountains fall so steeply down to the lake that not even the mountain paths up to the alpine pastures are readily maintained.

Fortunately these features are largely protected by the local geology, which may also discourage the development of a mass tourism and continue to hinder too much further urbanisation. The current communications infrastructure fails adequately to cope with the number of summer visitors. The father of Lake Como tourism, Giambattista Giovio knew back at the start of the 1800s how important roads were to the area’s wealth and development. Now however we need to develop alternative ecological solutions to enhance the communications network.

Christo Floating Piers

Bulgarian artist Christo’s Floating Piers on Lake Iseo

Como may also be able to learn a lesson or two from Brescia on how they have achieved their higher than average  length of visitors’ stay in their city or on nearby Lake Iseo.  Their province includes Franciacorta, a wine producing area best known nowadays for sparkling whites (spumante rather than prosecco). The wine quality is generally good but the wine’s success in recent years is due to superlative marketing. The province must have noted this success and applied similar imagination in promoting their lake recognising the part culture can play in attracting attention.

Villa del Grumello

Villa del Grumello between Como and Cernobbio, owned by the Odescalchi and the Giovio families, where Giambattista Giovio entertained his future son-in-law, the poet Ugo Foscolo – Italy’s equivalent to Lord Byron.

Como too is not short of various marketing initiatives including cultural ones such as Grand Tour 2.0 (not to be confused if searching online with a popular TV programme about boys in fast cars). However they lack a certain impact maybe because they are underfunded or don’t receive enough institutional support.

Airbnb

Local advertising for Airbnb, one of the disruptive technologies radically changing the accommodation on offer on Lake Como in particular but also across the whole of Lombardy.

One positive aspect for Como is the increase in the range of accommodation now available providing more options for those on restricted budgets.  Destinations can now include some of the mountain communities as well as those on the lakeside. Those looking for luxury have also seen their options increase in recent years, with an increase in capacity amongst luxury hotels and with the birth of possibly an entirely new category – the super luxury B&B.

Villa Platamone

Villa Platamone, luxury bed and breakfast accommodation in Como – creating a new category of top end options to rival hotels such as Il Sereno or Villa Pliniana in Torno.

The general view is that Como’s local administrations over recent years have been somewhat complacent in their management of the city. It is not hard to find aspects to criticise ranging from the totally scandalous flood defence project to the lack of any noticeable increase in cycle paths and the generally tired condition of the public spaces. Yet it would feel particularly alien if Como was to become suddenly efficiently and conscientiously managed. The city fortunately has as many charms as faults and the charms of the lake are resilient to administrative indifference since they are deeply loved and appreciated by local residents. As tourism trends change, we can remain confident that the lake will continue to attract visitors from around the world for years to come.

Related Articles:

Read more about Como in the height of the tourist season.

Blevio was the home of Giuditta Pasta, Bellini’s muse and Europe’s most popular diva in the nineteenth century.

Villa D’Este has a long and varied history including this incident that caused a nationwide scandal after the last war.

Visitors need to know if the lake is safe for swimming. This article outlines what is monitored, the data at the start of the 2019 season, and where further updates can be found.

The Odescalchi family, former owners of both Villa del Grumello and Villa Olmo, produced a pope, Pope Innocent XI, and established a noble dynasty across Europe. A summary of their history is included here.

Mention is made above to Winston Churchill possibly seeking to retrieve documents that may have been seized by partisans following Mussolini’s capture and execution on the lake. This article describes the last days of Mussolini and his mistress as they tried to avoid the partisan insurrection in April 1945.

Como Companion recently visited Villa Platamone, on the launch of this super luxurious Bed & Breakfast.

 

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Como’s Pope and other Odescalchi

Via Vitani

Via Vitani, one of the streets in Como’s old town which takes its name from a former noble family. Others include Via Rusconi, Via Lambertenghi, Via Giovio, Via Natta etc.

Florence has the Medici, Mantua the Gonzagas,  Milan has the Visconti who merged through marriage with the Sforzas.   Como for its part has the Odescalchi. Many of the streets in Como’s old town are named after some of its former aristocratic families. Amongst these is Via Odescalchi along which, in a piazzetta just beyond the deconsecrated church of San Pietro in Atrio, you will find a sculpture of a very austere looking character, Benedetto Odescalchi, better known as Pope Innocent XI who served as pontiff from 1676 until his death in 1689. So in addition to Via Odescalchi,  Como also has a Viale Innocenzo XI .

Statue Odescalchi

Statue of Benedetto Odescalchi, Pope Innocent XI, in Via Odescalchi, Como.

The first reference to an Odescalchi  (pronounced O-des-cal-key) in Italy can be traced back to 801 when an Odescalchi accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne on one of his Italian campaigns. However it was in 1290 that a certain Giorgio Odescalchi established his family as important residents of Como. He and his successors developed the family’s wealth through finance and mercantile interests.  Como remained the family’s base but branches of their banking interests were established by the sixteenth century in Genoa and Venice. From Venice in particular they established commercial links with Paris, London, Amsterdam and Nuremberg in Bavaria.

Noble families also sought to consolidate their family status through seeking high ecclesiastical office for their offspring other than the primogenitor.  By the sixteenth century a Bernardo Odescalchi had become Bishop of Alessandria and had spread the family influence through missionary work in Poland and Transylvania.

Stemma Odescalchi 2

The heraldic shield of the Odescalchi family.

The future Pope, Benedetto Odescalchi,  was born on 16th May 1611 in Como – a plaque can be seen on the side of the villa in Via Volta commemorating the place of his birth.  He gained a positive reputation as a fair and effective civil administrator starting off as a captain in the local militia, then becoming the tax collector for the Marche Region and Governor of the Marche town of Macerata. On the strength of his administrative capabilities as much as his religiosity, he was created a cardinal in March 1645 and appointed to Ferrara. Here he made a good name for his ability to manage the availability of grain and flour thus becoming known as father of the poor. He was elected Pope in September 1676.

 

Pope Innocent XI 2

Pope Innocent XI

As his statue in Via Odescalchi  and his portrait convey, Pope Innocenzo XI was an austere character. He was known for his ascetic habits and his attempts to abolish nepotism. However, in spite of this, the Odescalchi family would undoubtedly have profited from his papal position and another strong branch of the family established itself in Rome from that time acquiring substantial property in the capital as well as priceless works of art still in the family’s possession. The Pope did however stick to his high moral principles and set about prohibiting gambling and usury within the Papal States as well as closing all places of public entertainment in Rome itself.  His austerity and frugality certainly was of benefit to the papacy which he left considerably better off on his death due to his supreme financial and administrative capabilities. He was sanctified in 1956 by Pope Pio  (Pius) XII.

Villa Odescalchi

Villa Odescalchi in Alzate Brianza, built as the personal residence of Pope Innocent XI

During his life he remained much attached to Como and had a personal residence built for him just a few kilometres away in the small town of Alzate Brianza. This lovely neo-classical villa has now fallen on hard times and is currently up for sale by auction (current reserve price of €2,717,000) having remained unoccupied (and repeatedly vandalised) since closing its doors as a luxury hotel.  Another relative of the Pope had the Palazzo Odescalchi  built for him facing onto Piazza Roma in Como in the 1670s. Half of this palace has been converted into apartments and the rest of the conversion is still in progress.  Some of its former glory is still evident particularly in the frescoes done by the Recchi brothers and the monumental stucco work around the fireplaces.

The Odescalchi family was also the original owner of Como’s most renowned villa, the Villa Olmo. The land for this villa was initially purchased by the Odescalchi in 1664 who acquired it from the Abbey of Santa Maria di Vico. The current villa was constructed on the site in the eighteenth century and occupied by the family until the Como branch married into the Raimondi in the early nineteenth century. The Raimondis sold the villa on to a branch of the Milan-based Visconti  family, the Duke Visconti di Modrone, in 1883.

Luchino Visconti di Modrone

Film director, Luchino Visconti di Modrone was a member of a local noble family who bought Villa Olmo from the Odescalchi-Raimondi dynasty. He himself frequented nearby Villa Erba for summer holidays.

It is the famous serpent emblem of the Visconti family which now crowns the entrance to the villa. The neo-realist film director, Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) would spend summer holidays in the nearby Villa Erba in Cernobbio.  Villa Olmo was passed on to the Comune of Como in 1925.

Like most other noble families, the Odescalchi protected their privileged position through securing titles and making tactical marriages with other noble families. Following Benedetto’s death, the family secured a string of noble titles in Hungary and Slovenia from the then Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I. Benedetto’s sister, Lucrezia married into the Erba dynasty – a family that also had originated in Como.  In the 1820s the Como Odescalchis joined the Raimondi family.  One visible result of all the inter marriages was the way names became longer and longer.  It was the illegitimate but recognised daughter of Marquis Giorgio Raimondi Mantica Odescalchi who, at the age of seventeen, became very briefly the second wife of the fifty-two year old hero of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi . The marriage was annulled almost as soon as completed due to the likely infidelity of the bride. One of the witnesses to the marriage was a Count Giulio Porro Lambertenghi – another name appearing amongst the street names in Como’s centre.

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi, in Piazza Santi Apostoli in Rome. Bought in 1745 and still the current home of Prince Odescalchi and family.

Benedetto Odescalchi  (Pope Innocent XI) died without heir but his niece Lucrezia maintained the family line through marriage to the Erba family and a strong Odescalchi dynasty established itself in Rome from then (seventeenth century to today), all in spite of the former pope’s disapproval of nepotism and usury.

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi with arms

Detail of the baroque exterior of Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi showing the family crest.

In fact the current Prince Odescalchi lives in the Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi on Piazza Santi Apostoli in Rome. The exterior of the palace was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in around 1665 and in spite of being restored after extensive fire damage, remains a superlative example of Italian Baroque architecture. The palace was purchased by Prince Baldasssare Odescalchi in 1745. This is just one of the many properties owned by the family in and around Rome. Of note also is the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Bracciano. This was inherited as the feudal estate of Bracciano passed from the Orsinis to the Odescalchis towards the end of the seventeenth century. The castle is now open to the public as well as being used for weddings and other events.

Castello Odescalchi a Bracciano

Castello Orsini-Odescalchi at Bracciano with the lake in the background.

The family do however retain an interest in another of their castles – the Castello Odescalchi di Santa Marinella, on the coast near to Civitavecchia. This castle originates from the fifteenth century and was bought by a more recent ‘Baldassare’ in 1888. He acquired it in an auction for very little just as today one could acquire the Villa Odescalchi in Alzate Brianza for relatively little if wishing to participate in the auction on the 15th July.

Castello Odescalchi a Santa Marinella

Castello Odescalchi at Santa Marinella in Civitavecchia

Baldassare Odescalchi went on to be elected to the Italian Senate in 1896. The family developed a beach resort linked to the castle which became a favoured spot for film stars and celebrities in the 1950s with famous guests including Totò, Alberto Sordi, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. It is now also rented out for weddings and retained for the family’s own use as was testified in an interview back in 2014 in Grazia with Sofia Odescalchi, daughter of the current Prince and duly described as an ‘It’ girl!

Sofia, renowned for dining under a Caravaggio in the family’s home on Piazza Santi Apostoli and for spending weekends at the seaside castle in Santa Marinella, was keen to present herself as rather ordinary in her Grazia interview. Here is an excerpt  included just to give an indication of how current aristocrats seek to retain low, understated profiles of banal normality if only publicly.

Grazia: Sofia, must I address you as Princess?

Sofia: Stop pulling my leg! It’s great having an aristocratic name and all the history but all the rest is a disadvantage.

Grazia: How come?

Sofia: Everyone thinks you must be a spoilt brat used to having everything – but it’s not like that.

Grazia: Do you live by yourself?

Sofia: Yes, in a studio flat with a small terrace. I manage it all myself.

Grazia: Is it true you like extreme sports like paragliding and white water rafting?

Sofia: Yes, I find them exhilarating.

Grazia: What’s your dream?

Sofia: To work in the fashion industry.

Grazia: Have you got your own style?

Sofia: Yes, it’s a mix of vintage pieces I pick up in London and items stolen from my mother’s wardrobe. I love soft, capacious handbags like those of Zanellato. I always wear a chain necklace.

Grazia: Do you ever feel like a prisoner in a gilded cage?

Sofia: No – and then I only go to my parents’ castle for a bit of peace – and the sea!

Sofia and Lucia Odescalchi

Sofia with her mother Lucia Odescalchi

If you would like to purchase Villa Odescalchi in Alzate Brianza at auction, there is still time to submit your interest prior to the bidding on https://www.realestatediscount.it/aste-immobili/villa-dei-papi-odescalchi-1162/.

If on the other hand, you wanted to arrange an event at the Castello Odescalchi in Santa Marinella, look at its website for further details.

If you would prefer an Odescalchi connection in Como, enquire into purchasing one of the renovated apartments in the Palazzo Odescalchi at  http://www.palazzo-odescalchicomo.it/eng/

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Como’s Four Seasons – 4: Summer, Open House

Passeggiata

A reflective moment on the lakefront passeggiata in Como.

Lake Como holds open house over the summer – an invitation extended to all to come, visit and share its beauty. Be aware though that summer on the lake can lend itself too readily to cliché – those perpetuated by the tourist industry itself, those provoked by the expectations of Spring and those that may even emanate from within ourselves as the weather promises a renewed sense of freedom. 

The reality beyond cliché is of course more interesting. Often the freedom promised by the increased warmth turns to restriction as the heat outdoors becomes  unsustainable. Or the pleasures of the evening passeggiata are undermined by a night’s sleep disturbed by an airless ‘affa’ over the city. But these are more the sort of issue faced at this time of year down in the Pianura Padana and Po Valley where atmospheric conditions boosted local tourism in the early 20th century as the new railways allowed so many Milanese to escape onto the lake, or within the neighbouring Triangolo Lariano or the Intelvi Valley. For us, if the heat in Como should get a bit too much, Brunate is a short funicular ride away where it will be at least four degrees cooler. 

Funicular

The funicular to Brunate from Como – a rise of around 500 metres and a 4 degree drop in temperature.

They say that the intermediate seasons of spring and autumn are shortening as winter and summer get longer. It is not so easy though to determine exactly when summer starts. It’s nothing like the summers I was used to in the UK, renowned as they are for massive fluctuations in weather conditions giving an overall sense of unpredictability. That is more typical of a Como spring. Perhaps what differentiates summer here, apart from the increase in temperature, is the on-come of a more stable weather pattern formed by the anticyclones originating from over the Azores. As these become established, they dominate the climate of the entire Mediterranean region. So the biggest change for Como is that one of the most land-locked areas of Italy becomes Mediterranean for a few months.

 

Lakeside restaurants

Lakeside restaurants entice passersby along Viale Geno, Como

Many of the lakeside restaurants may have already been pretending to be ‘Mediterranean’ throughout the year. Now even the more established places forego the heavy dishes typical of the winter cuisine with its predominance of pork, polenta or rice in favour of fish (either from the lake or the nearby Milanese markets), pasta, fruit and vegetables from the fertile south. Heavy red wines like Inferno from the Valtellina, Barbera from Piedmont or the fizzy Bonarda designed to accompany all the delightful processed pork dishes from the Po Valley give way to aromatic white wines from Friuli, Alto Adige or Campania. The al-fresco lakeside restaurants do their best to seduce or cajole passersby with their promise of food, wine and a view and no doubt most of the time the experience will be positive, but by no means always.  

Hortensias in Villa dell Grumello

Display of ortensia in the gardens of the Villa del Grumello, open throughout the summer at weekends and throughout the week in August.

Lake Como’s, or to be more precise the Lombardy Region’s drive to increase tourism and direct it to destinations beyond Milan seems to be working well. Hotel occupancy increases each year. New luxury and budget accommodation is coming on stream constantly. One visible result is the number of people in the city – and the queues that form outside the Navigazione Laghi’s ticket office or for the funicular up to Brunate. Queuing for boat tickets is no longer necessary since the Navigazione Laghi adapted its website to allow for online sales. The Funicular railway, managed by ATM – the Milanese public transport company, have yet to follow the example of the Navigazione Laghi so queuing at their ticket office is often unavoidable.

Ferragosto 2

In August, queues for the funicular railway or the lake boats are inevitable but at least tickets for the boats can be bought online.

The Como end of the lake is characterised by small towns or villages nestled into valleys within the steep-sided mountains rising from the lakeside. This is what makes our area so beautiful and also restricts much further development. While this helps safeguard the tranquillity of the individual communities, it does make travelling between them somewhat difficult on the narrow twisting roads. All it takes is for two good-sized tour buses to meet in one of the more constricted sections of the lakeside road to create lengthy traffic jams. So, take the boat rather than the bus, and if forced to travel by car, allow plenty of time for any journeys that take you through notable pinch points such as Sala Comacina or Ossuccio. 

Inviting waters Careno

The inviting water at Careno – a tranquil spot even in the height of August.

A significant part of the summer’s liberating feeling is the extension to a life outdoors – the same sense that inspires the hopeful organisers of so many village fetes across the UK. Here, even though events often have alternative arrangements in place in case of bad weather, they rarely need to be invoked allowing us all to enjoy the many varied festivals, ‘sagras’, and open air events that run throughout the summer months.

Canadian Choir

There are a full variety of festivals and other musical events on Lake Como throughout the summer.

corpo musicale

Como’s Teatro Sociale hosts a season of summer concerts in its open-air venue known as the Arena under the banner of the Como Città della Musica Festival. They always include a major opera production (this year it is Verdi’s La Traviata) involving a large number of local residents within the production’s chorus. In fact the whole summer on the lake is characterised by musical events and festivals of all kinds. Check out our section on Musical Events and our calendar for more information on what is taking place, as well as glancing at the official Como newsletter.

Villa D'este

The Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio, one of Lake Como’s luxury hotels.

Tourism on the lake is still very seasonal even if the season seems to be lengthening. The luxury hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio marks this by providing local residents and visitors with spectacular fireworks from time to time as part of some hotel-based celebration such as a wedding or for their traditional celebration of the United States’ Independence Day on 4th July. 

Isola Comacina

The spectacular annual firework display at Isola Comacina re-enacting the sacking of the island by the Como fleet in 1169.

Nothing though can equal the most extravagant firework display held every year on the Saturday closest to St. John’s Day – usually the last or penultimate of the month. This celebration of the ‘Sagra di San Giovanni’ is in effect a re-enactment of the sacking of Isola Comacina by the Como fleet back in 1169 as an act of revenge for the island’s previous alliance with Milan during Como’s 10 years war with the cities of the Northern League. During the display it seems as if the whole of Isola Comacina is consumed by flames – a true pyrotechnical wonder. No doubt the Clooneys will have accompanied their newly arrived guests, the Obamas, travelling by boat from Laglio to Sala Comacina to witness the spectacle. Arriving and departing by boat is the best option.  As dusk falls a whole flotilla of small boats gather in the channel that divides the island from the mainland to await the start of the action. Given the narrow roads and the numbers attracted to the event, it is best to travel to and from the event courtesy of the Navigazione Laghi who lay on special cruises.

Lake

No stay on the lake in summer would be complete without at least one swim in its dark, clear waters. On the evening of July 22nd, 600 people will participate in a mass crossing of the lake from the delightful town of Torno to the equally delightful Moltrasio. This represents a one kilometre swim in waters which should have warmed up to above 20 degrees Celsius by then. This event has become so popular locally that all 600 places were signed up for within two hours of opening for applications. For those of us looking for a less challenging swim, read our two articles on water cleanliness and beach selections, or use the Italian government’s site to check on the water quality wherever you may be staying. 

Orion

Orion, one of the largest of the Navigazione Laghi’s boats.

The tourist season peaks during the week including the national holiday of Ferragosto on August 15th. In the past most factories would have closed for the entire month of August. That is no longer the case but the vast majority in Italy will at least be on holiday during Ferragosto week.

Duomo

The interior of Como’s Cathedral

For Como, Ferragosto is particularly significant since this is at heart a day of religious celebration to mark the assumption – the ascension to heaven –  of Mary, and Como’s cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. In lead up to this event, the cathedral leaves its massive western doors open in the evening so passers by can look in on the richly decorated dome and roof illuminated to great effect. 

The storms caused by clashes of cold and warm air tend to multiply as summer progresses and provide the first intimations of us losing our Mediterranean identity as autumn beckons. However, if it was hard to identify the start of summer, it is even more difficult to define its end. Maybe the best guide are the dates of the scholastic year which ended on the 8th June this year and will start again on 15th September.

Storm clouds Baradello

Storm clouds gather by the Baradello Tower

Certainly by then the intense heat will be over and the days are noticeably shorter but… nothing else will necessarily change until the weather systems above the Azores weaken and allow Como’s climate to revert to its major influences arriving from across Continental Europe or the Atlantic. The Villa D’Este has traditionally turned its back on tourists by then and welcomed instead the politicians and industrialists who come for Italy’s version of the Davos World Economic Forum – the European House organised by the Ambrosetti Club. With the tourist season extending, they may well prefer if it were possible to postpone this prestigious event until mid October but rather worryingly, traditions evolve more slowly than the climate these days. 

Lakeside passeggiata

The lakeside park in Como

Como’s nature changes markedly thoughout the seasons and we have tried to capture some of these different features in this mini series of blogs. We started off in Autumn as if we were following the academic year, on to winter where Como puts on an extravagant show for the holiday period followed by a deep hibernation which in turn gives way to the rebirth of Spring.

Marching Bands

Marching bands form part of the summer’s musical entertainment

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Palanzo on Show: A Pilgrimage to Serenity

Palanzo

View of Palanzo from above Molina, courtesy of the Amici del Torchio di Palanzo

Within the comune of Fagetto Lario, on the road from Como to Bellagio and suspended about 300 metres above lake level, are three small medieval towns – each as beautiful as the other. From the lake you see them nestled in the mountainside in a string above Faggeto starting with Molina to the south, Lemna in between with Palanzo at the end.

Palanzo 5

Ancient portico in the heart of Palanzo

Palanzo has decided this year to show off its very particular appeal to a broader audience than usual by holding an exhibition and various events over the three weekends between 15th and 29th June. It’s an artistic event designed to celebrate the town’s unique virtues. And quite rightly so since all three of these towns possess a singular quality of peace and serenity, with Palanzo perhaps exceeding its siblings through a touch more beauty in its architecture and in the advantages of its natural setting.

Il Torchio

The medieval wine press (il torchio) lies at the physical and spiritual heart of the town. Courtesy of the Amici del Torchio di Palanzo

The exhibition is staged in various parts of the small town and curated by Roberto Borghi and Stefano Ceresa. They have produced a fascinating guide to the exhibition which can be downloaded in PDF format. I was particularly impressed by the written introduction to the guide by both curators. Stefano Ceresa cites the importance of the old wine press at the centre of the town (which dates from 1572 and is a national monument) as almost representing the original soul of the community. He mentions how the town is surrounded on all sides by impressive dry stone walled terracing used in the past for the production of grain and fruit and for the extensive cultivation of black grapes. Many of these walled terraces remain although agricultural production has ceased to be important and wine production a distant memory. But the wine press (il torchio), and the soul of the town, lives on.

Terracing

An example of the extensive dry stone wall terracing to be found surrounding Palanzo. This example is on the stretch of Strada Regia to the north of Palanzo in the direction of Pognana Lario.

terracing 2

Palanzo when all the terraces were intensively cultivated. The decline in agriculture has transformed the hillsides around the lake since the 1940s.

I have often mused to myself as to what is the best elevation for viewing the lake. Is it on the lakefront itself, or half way up the surrounding hillsides or viewed from way above when walking on the crest of the mountains? I have come to believe that Palanzo and its sisters share the ideal, more or less at two hundred fifty metres above the lake level. At this height the lake is not so far down to not be in constant sight, yet it is away from the more intense commercial activity or the numbers of people to be found at lakeside, particularly in the summer months. It and they are also very much welded into the mountainside with Monte Palanzone rising to over one thousand metres behind them.

Cascata Palanzo

Waterfall on the walk towards Pognana.

Roberto Borghi’s introduction in the ‘Palanzo in Mostra’ catalogue identifies how Palanzo’s reality is defined by the three physical factors of sky, lake and mountain with rock and water forming the vital elements. Buildings and terraces are made from locally quarried stone. Water is present in the abundance of the lake and also in the streams, springs and waterfalls that surround the town. He goes on to introduce the exhibition in the form of a metaphor where the artworks on display form a type of glossary to Palanzo, the story. And if Palanzo is a story, the routes to follow from one set of exhibits to another form the narrative lines. Water for Borghi is the main protagonist in this metaphorical story of Palanzo with an implicit, actual and symbolic presence.

Palanzo 3

Maybe I have now been living in Italy long enough to become accustomed to the type of  metaphysical hyperbole in Borghi’s description of the town, but I believe Palanzo warrants it. Palanzo (and her sisters) deserve both the hyperbole and strangely enough, the meta-physicality. Borghi describes the work of one set of exhibitors, the Como-based visual installation co-operative ‘OLO Creative Farm’ as representing a pilgrimage to the town. It’s true to say that when you enter Palanzo you leave one world behind and enter a different reality, one that Borghi sees as being mysterious, silent, thoughtful inspiring contemplation, as shared with the pace and reflection of pilgrimages in the past. He admits that all this serenity may not be to everyone’s taste, and certainly it may not be so easy to live in such a community if unaccustomed to the silence of its indolent rhythm. And who knows, maybe that serenity starts to fade as new arrivals become more accustomed to the place and aware of the various forms of intrigue commonly found in most societies. But he totally captures the spirit of the town to those of us visitors willing to be impressed.

Palanzo 1The exhibition itself consists of six different sets of works displayed across the small town. All of the works are relevant to Palanzo in one way or another – as Borghi says, providing a glossary or a set of footnotes to the town. The catalogue suggests an ‘itinerario espositivo’ that starts off with the sculpture by Como-born Carmen Molteni on two sides of the large doors to No. 3 Via Stretta. Moving on to a courtyard by the town’s wine press you see the large canvases depicting Palanzo’s view down onto the lake. These are the work of Milan-born Alberto Colombo who now has his studio in nearby Torno.

 

The Bar Dolores is the only bar in Palanzo and so it is not hard to imagine how central it must be in the social life of the town, particularly for those whose working life is over and who have the time to meet and talk. Borghi describes it as ‘Simenon-esque’ Photographer Jeanette Muller, Swiss-born and resident in Como Province, has taken a series of images of some of the bar’s former and current habitues and these are on display here.

Sentieri Palanzo

Palanzo lies on the Strada Regia with paths also up to the summit of Monte Palanzone and the Rifugia Riello

Palanzo does boast a very small but well maintained library and this now houses the exhibition of photos taken by the members of the OLO Creative Farm collective when on their ‘pilgrimage’ from their base in Como to Palanzo.

lavatoio

The ‘lavatoio’ – Palanzo’s communal laundry facility used in the days before domestic washing machines.

So many towns and cities in Italy retain the communal laundry facilities known as ‘lavatoio’. These are no longer used but they seem to be preserved, if not intentionally, to provide a collective reminder of a not-so-distant past where everyday life was materially much poorer but socially richer. Palanzo boasts a particularly fine and extensive example of a lavatoio, and it has been used to display the sculptures by Milan-born Ornella Piluso, better known as Topylabrys in the art world. The final installation is the sculpture by Roberto Biondi in the portico of Chiesa della Madonna del Soldo. His suspended empty frames look down onto a view of the lake which is itself framed by the arches of the church’s portico – a work which exploits the unique qualities of Palanzo’s natural setting.

Madonna del Soldo

The Chiesa della Madonna del Sordo, on the southern edge of the town with a view over the lake.

Palanzo 6

To accompany the exhibition, a series of events have been organised for each weekend starting on the 15th June and ending on the 29th. Visit the site of the organisers, the Associazione Amici del Torchio di Palanzo, for more information on these events, about the Torchio itself or on the other events they organise throughout the year.

Palanzo can be reached from Como on Bus C31 but note that no buses operate there on Sundays. Alternatively, if you have time to enjoy a walk taking in all three of these medieval towns, read our article on the stretch of the Strada Regia starting from Torno and ending at Pognana.

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Exercising Outdoors – Some Options

Total Fit 3

Total Fit’s instructors lead a group through their exercise programme beside Como’s Monumento ai Caduti.

Most of us recognise that physical activity is good for us – but exercising indoors can be unappealing particularly when the weather improves as at this time of year. So here are three main and some supplementary options for exercising outdoors under guidance and in the company of others.

Total Fit

Total Fit 1If you pass by the Monumento ai Caduti (the War Memorial) along the lakefront you may well see an animated group, ranging from between ten to twenty people, being led through a work out to the accompaniment of a reggaeton soundtrack. These classes are run by Total Fit. Their website introduces themselves as follows:

‘We aim to appeal to those who do not want or are unable to subscribe to a classical fitness centre where you are left on your own during your training without options for stimulus or support. With us instead you will find a welcoming and enjoyable environment.’

The website (in Italian) also includes this illustrative video which captures some of the excitement and energy I witnessed when passing by the other day.

Total Fit 4

Total Fit have a three point approach to wellness, namely through exercise, nutrition and what they refer to as integration. Their holistic philosophy is something participants can take on, explore as profoundly as they wish or alternately, ignore in its entirety. Theirs is a well-established organisation that has been running for the last three years in which time they have built up a following of over sixty clients.  They are associated with Herbal Life, the nutrition and dietary supplement company. They do state that those who sign up with them are entirely free to pursue any recommended lifestyle goals as far as they wish. Nor are they obliged to purchase supplements from Herbal Life if they prefer not to.

Total Fit 5You can just drop in at the Monumento dei Caduti on one of their outdoor sessions held, weather permitting, from 09.00 to 10.00 on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays and from 10.00 to 11.00 on Saturdays. There are also two evening sessions held in the same location from 20.00 to 21.30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. One session will cost you €10. When weather does not permit, sessions (at the same times) are held in the gym of the Scuola Media ‘Ugo Foscolo’ on Via Borgo Vico. All ages, abilities and aptitudes are welcome with courses designed for three levels of participation – base, intermediate and advanced. Each level has its own focus for achievement with base level directed at posture and breathing, intermediate at strength and resistance while advanced incorporates cardio and muscular definition. Scroll down to the end of the article for their contact information.

MammaFit logoMammaFit

Total Fit aim to hold their exercise sessions outdoors as far as possible for both the physical and mental benefits of direct contact with nature. The same commitment to exercising in a natural environment is shared by our next group – MammaFit.  If you were to continue your walk from the Monumento ai Caduti, along the lakefront walkway to the gardens of Villa Olmo, you may well see a group of young women, with their babies in buggies, being led through an exercise programme designed specifically for postpartum mothers.

Mammfit 1MammaFit is an Italian organisation set up to offer vital support to mothers looking to get back into shape after giving birth. But its much more than a standard exercise class. Its an opportunity to get together away from the home, to undertake exercises designed specifically for the needs of a new mother and of course, to share thoughts, ideas and information amongst a peer group facing the same sort of emotions, concerns and challenges.

Mammfit 7

Katy Rose, leader of the Como group of MammaFit with baby and dog.

The Como group meet in front of Villa Olmo, on the lakefront close to the Lido bar on Tuesdays and  Fridays at 10.30, weather permitting. They are led by qualified personal trainer and osteopath Katy Rose who is originally from the UK. Her group is truly international consisting of both Italian and foreign mothers. As with Total Fit, the instruction is given in Italian but language really is no barrier and of course, Katy can always clarify in English if necessary.

Mammfit 3Recent mothers are recommended to join the programme approximately forty days after the baby’s birth and maintain it for about twelve months or as long as the babies are happy to stay sat watching in their buggies. In fact, the babies all seem totally intrigued as they watch the circle of mothers pass by their push chairs. The activity has a calming effect on everyone, including Katy’s beautiful dog!

Katy’s personal journey from Guildford in Surrey to Como is fascinating and she shares some of the similar qualities I discovered when recently interviewing Sarah Aller, Como’s New York artist – a determination to make a success of living as an ex-pat by embracing Italian life for its positives and of course, managing the negatives! Sarah happens also to be one of Katy’s MammaFit participants.

Mammfit 4Katy started leading the Como group back in 2016 having completed her training with MammaFit in 2015. She was looking for an activity that allowed her to continue her interest in physical activity while caring for her new-born child. Now into her fourth year, she is again accompanied by her second child but also thinking of the needs of mothers with toddlers. For them, she has devised her own programme held indoors called ‘Back in Shape‘. Contact information for MammaFit and Katy is at the end of the article.

Pratiqiamo logoPratiqiamo

June in Como is the ideal month for outside physical activity – the heavy rains of spring have stopped, the sun is shining but the temperatures have not yet risen too high. It is just the right time to participate in the totally free ‘pop-up’ activities organised by Pratiqiamo which start on Monday June 17th.  All the groups mentioned here pay attention beyond the physical to embrace the mental and social advantages of participating in outdoor activities. For Pratiqiamo these aspects, alongside the ethical, are fundamental to their philosophy based as it is on the principles of the Chinese art of Qi Gong from which are derived Tai Chi and other martial arts. As was explained to me by Francesca Cervellino, Pratiqiamo’s activity coordinator,  Qi Gong is basically about listening to your body and learning how to use our internal energy.

pratiqiamo 1Pratiqiamo is a loose grouping of like-minded professionals who volunteer their time to offer a month long programme of physical activity in the open, for free.  They range in age from 30 to 70 and come from a variety of different disciplines including dance and sport as well as the martial arts. They eschew publicity as much as they reject formal organisational structures, marketing or any other aspect of commercialism. However, by following their Facebook page and getting your details into their WhatsApp group via Francesca, you will receive all the practical details as to where and when they are meeting.

pratiqiamo 2For them, being outdoors and surrounded by nature is of primary importance hence their name Prati-Qi-Amo (translated as Fields-Qi Gong-I love) but also sounding like ‘pratichiamo’ – we practice. They like to locate their activities within Como’s different parks  and public spaces with the intention of reclaiming these as places for communal enjoyment. Some of Como’s parks away from the lakefront can be somewhat neglected and certainly underused. Pratiqiamo aim to assist the reintegration of these overlooked areas back into social urban life.

pratiqiamo3Their group activities are not highly structured. Each session is normally ‘guided’ (not taught) by three or four leaders. They seek to assist all participants, no matter what age, level of experience or capacity, to find their individual source of energy. Language is not a barrier. Francesca speaks English but, as with the other physical activities described here, communication is as much about being led by example as through verbal explanation.

Pratiqiamo’s programme (if it can be called as such) runs for just about a month starting on Monday June 17th. They may also hold one or two additional events at other times of the year. Follow their Facebook page to get information on the start of their activities or you may also contact Francesca directly. If you have time free in June or are visiting Como during this month, get your name and details into their WhatsApp group so you know where to be and when. Contact details can be found at the end of the article.

Row-In-Fit

Gerosa Twins Provincia di Como

The Gerosa twins, instructors for the evening classes in rowing for adults known as Row-In-Fit. Photo courtesy of the Provincia di Como.

Right alongside the Monumento Ai Caduti is the club house of Canottieri Lario, Como’s very successful rowing club. They too offer classes for adults aged typically from twenty five to sixty and above. These are not strictly outdoor courses since they run in the evenings from autumn through winter until spring.

vascavoga

The Vasca Voga at Canottieri Lario

They make use of the club’s gym and the ‘vasca voga’ – one of the unique features of the club which allows teams to practice rowing indoors.  They do also go out on the lake on occasion if weather permits. These evening classes have been running for the last seven years and they offer a great way for participants to test out if rowing could be an enjoyable physical activity for them. In many cases, this proves the case since usually about half of the courses’ participants go on to join the club.  Instructors such as the Gerosa twins, are both qualified and experienced rowers.

Summer Activities for the Young

June sees the start of the long summer holidays which bring the annual challenge for parents to find activities to keep their children occupied and happy.

Horse Riding

Red House Horses

One of Red House Horse Riding Club’s ponies being introduced to an adoring public.

The Red House Riding Club, based in Senna Comasco on the road out of Como towards Cantu, organise two weeks of summer camp with a daily programme running from 09.00 to 17.00. If days horse riding and helping out in the stables with an international group of children might be of interest, contact long-time English ex-pat resident Roz on +39 338 3405 954 for more information.

Football School

The soccer school run by the famous Portugese team, Benfica, hold soccer training camps for children and young people in Olgiate Comasco from 10th to 14th June, in Giubiasco from the 17th to 21st June and a residential course in the Valtellina from 30th June to 5th July.

Contact Jorge Pinto (Portugese also speaking Italian, Spanish and English) on +39 349 385 0344 for more information. You can also visit their website.

Varied Sports

rugbycomoGo to our Sport page for details of a number of other organisations offering courses for adults and children. Check out the Como Rugby Club who will be facing a touring team from Ireland later this month and are also holding an open day for children born between 2008 and 2015 this Saturday (8th June) from 15.30-17.00 at the Centro Sportivo Belvedere on Via Longoni.

Contact Details

Total Fit

Website: http://totalfit.it/ 

Facebook: @totalfit.it

Contact name and number: Marta Garlaschelli +39 333 241 7952

MammaFit

Website: http://www.mammaf.it/

Facebook: @MammaFit

Contact name and number: Katy Rose +39 392 533 7036

Pratiqiamo

Website: https://www.facebook.com/pratiqiamo/

Facebook: @pratiqiamo

Contact name: Francesca Cervellino, message her via Pratiqiamo’s Facebook page and send your telephone number to her to get included in the WhatsApp group.

The first week’s schedule of Pratiqiamo’s activities are also listed on our calendar and future dates will also be included when known.

Row-In-Fit

Website: http://www.canottierilario.it/

Facebook: @canottierilario

Contact name and number: Call +39  031.574720 Mondays to Fridays 09.00 to 12.30 and 14.00 – 18.00

 

 

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Swimability 2019: Lake Como’s Clean Water

Bellagio

Bellagio’s Beach – one of the cleanest on Lake Como

Looking down into the clear waters of the lake on a warm summer’s day always invokes the desire in me to jump in and swim! There are few simple pleasures that beat bathing in cool, clean fresh water. Yet, no matter how it looks, can we be sure the water is safe for swimming? As in 2018, I am pleased to say that, for 99% of the public beaches on Lake Como, the answer is a very definite yes. And I can say that with full confidence since water quality is checked every month from April to the end of the swimming season at the start of October.

carena

The inviting water at Careno

Overall Results

I have checked the latest data for the eighteen beaches monitored on the Como leg of the lake from Griante on the west bank and Bellagio on the east to Como itself. One of these, the Spiaggia Rivabella Crotto at Lezzeno, was closed last year due to unacceptably high levels of pollution. It starts this year with good figures well within acceptable limits. The beach at Laglio is not recorded since it remains technically closed due to construction work on the lakefront.

Laglio

Laglio’s beach currently officially closed due to construction work on the lakefront.

All the others are swimmable with most recording only trace evidence of bacteria. Those close to the more dense areas of population record higher figures, such as Como’s beach at Villa Olmo or Lenno’s at the Spiaggia San Giorgio. However they are both well within safety levels. Dense population does not necessarily mean higher figures since the Rivetto beach at Bellagio and the Argegno lido register some of the cleanest water on the lake. The one site which did record high figures at the start of Spring but which have since come down is the beach within the old galloping track of Villa Erba. This beach, used by the Cernobbio Sailing Club, is near to where the River Breggia enters the lake. Possibly a fault in Chiasso’s water treatment plant or meteorological conditions caused a temporary escape of pollutants. The figures have since come down but are still the highest for all the beaches reviewed.

Canottieri 2

Unfortunately this magnificent but impractical diving platform designed by rationalist architect Gianni Mantero in 1930 for the Canottieri Lario clubhouse remains unused.

There was talk last year of beginning to monitor the quality of the water at the lido on Viale Geno but no figures are yet available. This lido is very close to the Como Swimming Club who organise an annual swim for professionals across the lake to Cernobbio. I doubt they would be prepared to organise this if swimming from their site was deemed to be dangerous. The annual swim across the lake from Torno to Moltrasio for amateurs will also go ahead this year on Monday evening July 22nd.

Detailed figures for 2019 are included in the table below.  For those of you wanting details of the beaches either at the top end of the lake or on the Lecco leg, please refer to the government website following this link, and enter in the name of the Comune, e.g. Abbadia Lariana. Ensure you enlarge the map sufficiently to make evident the individual beaches in each comune and then click on your preferred location. Since there are only two months’ data for this season, the classification of excellent, good or acceptable is based on last year. You need to check the actual results to evaluate the current state.

Portale

Screen shot from the Italian Government’s water portal site where data on levels of pollution at both salt and freshwater beaches are reported.

From Como to Griante

The hot weather does tempt some people to enter the water by the Tempio Voltiano in the lakeside park. Unfortunately this is also where the Cosia river enters the lake having passed by Como’s water treatment plant just up the road. This is also not an official beach and it is not a good idea to swim there. Instead there is the lido on Viale Geno although there is no data for this yet.

carate urio

The beach at Carate Urio

The other monitored site is the lido in the park of Villa Olmo where swimming is approved. Going north, the beach in the ex-galloping track of Villa Erba is not the cleanest but the strange thing is that this part of the lake is not actually accessible to the general public. Go out beyond Cernobbio to Moltrasio and you will find an excellently clean lido. Carate Urio has a popular beach on a lawn in front of the church but it is not monitored. Laglio’s beach remains closed due to ongoing construction work on the lakefront.

 

brienno 1

Brienno’s beach is actually a platform built over the lake with a bar on the terrace above.

You then arrive at Brienno which is my favourite location for swimming on the west side of the lake. Brienno’s beach is within the small public park on the northern edge of the town. It consists of a couple of platforms built on the mountainside over the lake with a bar offering sun beds and umbrellas if required. The bar provides all necessary facilities alongside simple dishes like rice or pasta salad and sandwiches. The water quality is monitored and is good. Brienno itself is a delightful little town of old fishermen’s dwellings linked by a maze of narrow streets. It is not on the main tourist map so remains pleasantly relaxing throughout the summer.

 

brienno 2

Brienno

On from Brienno, Argegno’s lido is excellent. Colonno’s beach is also very good. Lenno has three monitored beaches. All are well within acceptable standards but not as good as Argegno or Tremezzina to its north. Finally, the last beach reviewed is Griante which started off with a very low result and will hopefully regain it soon. It too though is well within safe limits.

From Como to Bellagio

 

carena beach

Careno’s beach is below the Romanesque bell tower of San Martino

The first beach to be monitored on the eastern side of the Como leg is at Faggeto Lario. Its results are good but not as good as Nesso, the next monitored beach on the road north. It has excellent results. Between Faggeto Lario and  Nesso there is an unmonitored beach which happens to be my favourite spot for lake swimming on this side. It is Careno. The water here may not be monitored but I can assure you that it looks and feels good. Also there are no dense areas of population nearby least of all in Careno itself which is a very small town. This is a beautiful place to come and lounge in the shadow of the Romanesque bell tower of San Martino. The beach consists of a grassy area, and, if the level of the lake is low, a gravelly section. There are no public facilities here. However, if you have wisely booked lunch at the nearby Trattoria del Porto (call +39 031 910195 for reservations), you should be able to use their facilities. The restaurant specialises in lake fish and offers a fixed menu that usually includes two of Lake Como’s traditional local delicacies – missoltini and perch fillets with rice. There are not a large number of boats stopping at Careno but the schedule does allow you to arrive in good time to sunbathe and swim, eat, digest and then return home. Here you have all the ingredients for a perfect lazy excursion well off the normal tourist track – a spot that, like Brienno over the water, remains delightfully quiet and calm also in high summer during the week.

 

carena restaurant

Trattoria del Porto – specialises in lake fish at Careno.

Lezzeno is the next town on the road to Bellagio. Here there are two monitored beaches with the Spiaggia Rivabella Crotto being the only one in our area closed last year due to unacceptable levels of pollution. This year, however, its results are very good. The neighbouring beaches in Lezzeno at Bagnana and Salice have always been excellent. Finally we arrive at Bellagio’s beach at Rivetto – and just like Griante at the end of our western stretch, this beach is one of the cleanest recorded in our area.

careno beach 2

Leaving Careno beach on the boat back to Como

The EU’s Bathing Water Directive

Rezzonico Beach

The beach at Rezzonico, a beautiful lakeside village north of our area near San Siro.

All the countries within the European Union apply the standards defined in the 2006 Bathing Water Directive. These require member states to monitor rivers, lakes  and beaches regularly, to report their results and immediately publicise closure whenever any specific location fails to achieve acceptable levels. There is a broad range of poisonous bacteria that can enter the water either from sewage, water treatment centres or as agricultural or industrial run-off. Beyond causing gastroenteritis, they may also lead to very serious conditions such as meningitis. Rather than test for the wide variety of possible bacteria, the tests focus on identifying the number of units of just two microorganisms, e-coli and intestinal enterococci. Levels of these provide a good indication of general levels for the other harmful bacteria. Units are measured per one hundred millitres with any number below 1000 acceptable for e-coli and below 500 for enterococci. Depending on results, the water from each site is then classified as being either excellent, good, sufficient or poor.

Detailed results

Here are the latest figures for those beaches close to Como.

Table 1

Table 2

swan

 

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Villa Platamone – An ‘Aristocratic’ Bed and Breakfast

Portico and park

Villa Platamone Portico and Park

The holiday lodge built in the 1820s for Michele Platamone, the Duke of Cannizzaro and Prince of Lardaria, has now been restored to former glory and opened today for the first time to paying guests. This glorious neo-classical home is the latest offer in  luxury holiday accommodation in Como. It is also available as a stylish venue to host special events.

From the dining room

View from the Dining Room to the Great Room and on to the Winter Garden. Public space in Villa Platamone

The villa has been lovingly restored by ex-pat couple Katy and Alex who have realised their ambition of renovating and sharing this dream of a villa.  You are invited to share their truly beautiful home if you would like to experience its nineteenth century opulence matched with modern day comforts and convenience. The Villa Platamone opened for reservations today, 15 May 2019 exclusively via their website.

The Sicilian aristocrat Michele Platamone (Duke of Cannizzaro, Prince of Lardaria and Rosolini, Count of Sant’Antonio, Baron of Roccapalumba, Cipolla, Imposa and Longarini, Signore of Buscaglia, Ritibillini, Almidara and Sannini) had renowned architect Luigi Clerichetti build this holiday home for him in the gardens of a monastery suppressed during the Napoleonic era. Clerichetti designed a number of villas for the aristocracy in Lombardy and the Swiss Canton of Ticino. His urban villas such as the Villa Ciani in Lugano were mostly built in the fashionable neo-classical style as is the Villa Platamone.

Villa Ciani

Villa Ciani in Lugano, the neo-classical ‘capolavoro’ of Villa Platamone’s architect Luigi Clerichetti

He also designed many of the aristocracy’s rural retreats in the eclectic romantic style borrowed from the United Kingdom as with the Villa Bignami on the lake on the border of Tavernola and Cernobbio. Built above the eastern edge of Como’s old town looking up towards Garzola, the villa was designed both externally and internally to suit the needs of a commissioning aristocrat with a two-line string of titles to his name.  

Villa Bignami

Villa Bignami by architect Luigi Clerichetti on Lake Como at the mouth of the Breggia as it enters Lake Como on the border between Como and Cernobbio.

For Katy and Alex it has been a long road both physically and metaphorically in getting to this grand opening. They originally lived in Moscow but left there thirty years ago for Israel and then on to numerous countries around the world. However, having holidayed on the lake, they gradually came to focus their gaze on Como. Initially they just bought a holiday home up in Argegno but Katy started to explore the feasibility of establishing some form of hospitality business nearby. It was only on seeing Villa Platamone that her ideas took final shape – a shape determined by the building itself. For Katy recognised that the villa would make a beautiful family home yet with plenty of space and the potential to offer top end luxury bed and breakfast accommodation. Hence was born her dream of restoring this grand villa to former glory and sharing it with family and guests.

Great Room Fireplace

The Great Room

Most of the ground floor is public space with only the professionally equipped and spacious kitchen marked out as private. Guests are encouraged to make use of the billiards room, the Winter Garden with its stunning frescoed ceiling, the dining room and the immense Great Room with its imposing fireplace. Each of these rooms lead out onto the patio and park and the swimming pool on its south facing flank.

The villa can house up to fourteen guests within four suites and two double rooms. The suites are all on the first floor, all individually decorated and furnished but in a classical style in keeping with the neo-classical design of the villa.

Terraces

Private terraces with views over the villa’s park

Every effort has been taken to use the original fittings wherever possible as in the case of the deep marble bath adorning one of the suites. Most of the suites have access to a private terrace. The villa’s website details the exact decor, facilities, and disposition of each suite. Such huge care, attention and cost has gone into the renovation and decoration of the villa that Katy feels it is not an appropriate environment for young children. I could appreciate her point of view after my visit.

The conversion of the attic space gave Katy the opportunity to go for a more contemporary design making creative use of skylights whilst incorporating architectural features such as the immense timber beams supporting the roof. The attic also houses the gym and the sauna.

Beams

Wood, marble and chrome – this bathroom on the top floor incorporates the beams supporting the roof.

Suite

What truly impressed me was the quality of the restoration work. No expense could have been spared. The restoration of the Winter Garden’s floral frescoed ceiling or the delicate marquetry in the small room that runs off from the Billiard Room go to show how much love has been put into revitalising this architectural gem. It is exceptionally rare to find such extensive early nineteenth century interiors so faithfully restored and available for public viewing and enjoyment.

Marble bath

The Principe Suite bathroom has an original deep-fill marble bath

Winter Garden Ceiling detail

Gold leaf detail around the ceiling rose in the Winter Garden.

Winter Garden statuary

Winter Garden Statuary

Winter Garden Ceiling fresco

Winter Garden Floral frescoed ceiling

It surprised me to hear that the villa itself was not under the Soprintendenza delle Belle Arti although the villa’s park is. The Soprintendenza is a well-meaning organisation designed to ensure the integrity of Italy’s immense architectural and artistic patrimony. This means that no changes can be made to the parkland surrounding the villa without the express approval of the Soprintendenza.

three hundred year magnolia

The park includes this 300 year old magnolia

Who knows what may or may not have been allowed if their jurisdiction had also covered the villa itself. Buildings like the Villa Platamone cost a lot to restore and maintain and, with a lack of public funding available, one way such treasures will be preserved for the future is by placing them in the hands of those entrepreneurs who can cover the high costs of sympathetic restoration. Yet they also need to be at liberty to modify such buildings to produce sufficient revenue. Villa Platamone is lucky to have found a couple prepared to restore her to former glory out of pure love and respect for the building and out of a  genuine desire to share her glory with others beyond their family.

If you would like to be one of the first to experience this marvellous addition to Como’s options for luxury accommodation,  go to the villa’s website for more information and to make a booking. Large discounts are available for this opening season. Early birds may get up to a 40% discount by entering the code VPLAUNCH2019 on their booking form. Katy intends to keep the villa open to guests until the end of October, opening again over the Christmas period before restarting next year’s season from the end of March. For more great images of the villa and its park, use the Instagram hashtag #villaplatamone or @villaplatamone to view their Facebook page. Send any queries you may have to contact@villaplatamone.com or call Katy on  +39 031 249922.

Swimming Pool

The swimming pool on the south facing side of the villa.

 

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