E-Biking Food Tour in Bellagio – All Gain, No Pain

View of Bellagio

Bellagio ‘the pearl of the lake ‘ – viewed from San Giovanni

I am convinced – e-bikes are the ideal means of transport around Lake Como. It’s taken just the one experience on an e-biking tour buzzing up and down the hills surrounding Bellagio to prove it to me beyond question.


Electric Mountain Bikes from Como Lago Bike based at the Hotel Perlo Panorama

E-bikes (electric motor-assisted pedalling) are, as far as I know, ecologically virtuous. Their negative emissions (and lack of noise) make them preferable to scooters, mopeds or motorbikes. In any case, they are much more flexible than any of those other motorised two-wheelers. On an e-bike you can nip up or down footpaths, over shallow steps, on old cobbled mule tracks, or on an electric mountain bike (E-MTB), on mountain paths and off-piste. All this was proven to me on a three-hour food and e-bike tour around Bellagio, the so-called Pearl of Lake Como. It was organised by Lake Como Food Tours who partner with Como Lago Bike to offer this unique opportunity for discovering those areas of Bellagio you would never get to discover on foot and which you would be hard pressed to access by car.

logoAs a keen advocate of slow tourism, slow food and ecological sensitivity, I was very happy to be the guest of Lake Como Food Tours since they aspire to similar values. It is a Lecco-based organisation run by two women who combine their love of local culinary delights by providing them within stunning lakeside settings for the pleasure of  their guests from around the world. Como Lago Bike is based, appropriately enough for cycle specialists, half way up the gruelling hill climb out of Bellagio that eventually ends up at the cycling museum and sanctuary at Madonna del Ghisallo.

Terrace Hotel Perlo

View from the terrace of the Hotel Perlo Panorama – the starting point for our e-bike tour

This ascent which, alongside the nearby and equally difficult Muro di Sormano, often features in the Giro d’Italia and the Giro di Lombardia. It attracts die-hard cyclists from around the world. Many equip themselves with professional road bikes from Como Lago Bike and also stay at the cycling hotel, Hotel Perla Panorama, within which the bike shop is based. However those on the e-bike tour have no need to feel the strain on heart and limbs as Alberto, our guide, or Carlo, the hotel manager, will transport you up the hill from the Bellagio lakefront or from anywhere else nearby for that matter.

Terrace Hotel Perlo 1

Looking down on Bellagio from the justly-named Hotel Perlo Panorama

Having taken in the glorious view from the hotel, we were kitted out at the bike store with helmets, water and instructions on how to operate the bikes. There is definitely a technique to operating an e-bike based on co-ordinating the two variables (engine power, and gears) to best suit your pedalling speed. We started off downhill just requiring a steady hand on the disk brakes but, as we made our way to our first stop in Limonta, we were all soon using the power assistance  to iron out the uphill climbs. It wasn’t just the exhilaration of being freed from uphill effort that hit me but also the reminder of why cycling is such a positive way of travelling with exposure to the varied scents of thyme and acacia on the road with the sun on the face and the breeze on bare arms.

The e-bike tour takes in those locations most people either don’t know exist or don’t have the time or means to discover. Alberto seemed to know every hidden corner of Bellagio and he first led us over the headland and through the narrow streets of Visgnola (1) to descend down onto the start of the Lecco leg of the lake to the small port of Limonta (2).


Celia Abernethy of Lake Como Style on the dock at Limonta. Point 2 on the map.

Here wealthy villas share a view over the broad convergence of the lake’s two legs to the north and across to Varenna. Straight ahead of us was the forbidding mountain range called the Grigne standing in sharp contrast to the lush semi-tropical vegetation on our side. This leg of the lake contrasts clearly in character from the Como side. Here the waters aren’t churned up by the ferries, water taxis and the whole variety of boats plying between Bellagio, Tremezzo and Menaggio. Here the lake stays calm. We stopped off to appreciate the view further along happy to just stare down mesmerised for a few moments by the tranquility of the still clear water.

Towards Varenna

View from Bellagio towards Varenna on the calm leg of the lake.

Alberto had a delightful surprise for us next as we made our way carefully down a steep path to an isolated sanctuary on the waterfront known as the Madonna del Moletto (3).


Madonna del Moletto. Point 3 on the map

This is a true little gem and the perfect spot for a private picnic and a swim in the clear waters. Before returning up the path, we were advised to set gears to their lowest and power assistance to the maximum. Then, on a simple turn of the pedals, we were off shooting up the steep slope seemingly effortlessly.

Sanctuary 1

The clear waters at the Madonna del Moletto looking over to the Grigne mountain range to the left and the Corni di Canzo on the right

After this delightful moment of solitude we rejoined the numerous visitors milling along Bellagio’s main street (4) above the lakefront passing by the stark but impressive 11th Century Romanesque church of San Giacomo which contains some fine stone carving by the Maestri Comacini (see Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini for further information on the rich artistic tradition of Como stonemasons). We continued onward to the most northerly point of Bellagio and the so-called Lario Triangle – La Punta (5).

la punta

La Punta – the northern most point of Bellagio and the Lario Triangle.

By this time I had truly mastered the e-bike technique. I no longer viewed oncoming hills with foreboding – I just upped the power assist guiltlessly as I maintained a constant level of effort on the pedals.

la pergola

The dining terrace of the Hotel Ristorante La Pergola at Pescallo.

Pescallo (6), another of Bellagio’s small quarters or ‘frazioni’, was our next destination. We saw some early diners sitting out on the terrace of the ‘La Pergola’ restaurant which juts out over the lake. Here again back on the Lecco-side of the lake, the waters were calm and the views serene. I also earmarked this spot as somewhere to return to, and having been told that the restaurant serves one of the best ‘risotto al pesce persico’, I vowed that one day I would also sit out on that unique terrace soaking in the scene and trying out their version of that delightfully delicate and creamy Lake Como speciality.

darsene di loppia

The terrace of the Darsene di Loppia restaurant looking over the small port in Loppia

We now put our e-bike riding skills to a true test as we went up amongst the old streets of Aureggio (7) to then descend a mule path with shallow steps to cross over to the west-side of the town above the gardens of the Villa Melzi. This was just another aspect of Bellagio that one would never normally get to experience and it was all going to convince me that Bellagio had so much more to it than I had previously assumed. However it was not over yet since we threaded our way around the villa’s gardens to arrive at the small port of Loppia (8) with another delightfully located restaurant – the Ristorante Darsene di Loppia. Again my appetite was being sharpened by further confirmation from colleagues that the food here was excellent and matched the beauty of the location – a winning combination. Also Loppia is just at the southern end of the Villa Melzi  and so would make an ideal starting or finishing point for a visit to the villa’s stupendous gardens.  If coming by boat from Menaggio or Tremezzo, you could also descend at San Giovanni (9) – our next and final destination.

alberto and celia

Alberto Elli. our guide from Como Lago Bike with Celia Abernethy from Lake Como Style.

This small port in front of a piazza which houses the church of San Giovanni is so much quieter than Bellagio itself but visitors could descend here and take a delightful walk to Loppia, through the gardens of the Villa Melzi to arrive at the promenade leading into the centre of Bellagio. However for us San Giovanni housed another attraction – Nenè Food. This is where we stopped for an aperitif and to taste some of the cheeses from Lario and the nearby culinary hotspot – the Valtellina. Nenè Food is another of those Bellagio hidden corners waiting to be discovered – small, intimate, and welcoming.

nene food

Prosecco and spuntino – a welcome restoration at the end of the tour

The aperitif and ‘spuntino’  were most welcome since it would be wrong to convey the impression that e-biking does not require any effort. You have to keep pedalling. The power assistance stops the moment when you stop pedalling. You can of course select the level of assistance but you are still cycling and exercising. Therefore  you should feel no guilt in enjoying a glass or two at the end of the tour.


The e-biking tour is organised by Lake Como Food Tours.

www.lakecomofoodtours.com    They are contactable by email at info@lakecomofoodtours.com    or by phone at +39 349 5600603

Lake Como Food Tours partner with Como Lago Bike who provide the e-bikes and the guide for this tour.

www.comolagobike.com  They are contactable by email at infocomolagobike@gmail.com  or by phone at +39 031 950 229. Their address is Via Valassina 180, Bellagio

Como Lago Bike are located at the bike hotel called Hotel Perlo Panorama, offering active, cultural or romantic breaks.

www.ilperlo.com They are contactable by email at info@ilperlo.com  or by phone at +39 031 950 229. Their address is Via Valassina 180, Bellagio

For more general info on other bike hotels, go to www.italybikehotels.it or http://www.roadbike-holidays.com/en

Our aperitif was hosted by Nenè Bellagio Food in Via Jacopo Rezia, 20. Bellagio.

The two restaurants which attracted my attention during the tour were:

  1. Hotel Ristorante La Pergolawww.lapergolabellagio.it They are contactable by email at info@lapergolabellagio.it  or by phone at +39 031 950263
  2. Ristorante Darsene di Loppiawww.ristorantedarsenediloppia.com They are contactable by email at info@ristorantedarsenediloppia.com or by phone at +39 031 952 069

E-Bikes are now available for hire from shops around Lake Como from Malgrate near to Lecco to Como and Cernobbio. Check out our Bike pages for more information.

Bike Hire

Posted in Culture, Food, Gardens, Itineraries, Lake, Places of interest, Restaurants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Through Conflict to Collaboration, Achille Grandi, Como and the Birth of the Republic

Republic Day Ceremony

Crowds gather in Piazza Cavour before the start of Como’s Remembrance Day Ceremony

Republic Day is celebrated on June 2nd each year to commemorate the referendum result back in 1946 which abolished the monarchy and set in motion the drawing up of a constitution for the First Italian Republic.

Flag Republic Day

Raising the tricolor flag of the Republic as the Corpo Musicale Albatese play the national anthem.

In Como there was the traditional gathering of all the representatives from civic entities and associations for a ceremony starting with the raising of the republican tricolor followed by recognition of those citizens from the Province receiving civic awards and the distribution of copies of the constitution to all those reaching 18 years and thus now able to vote. In spite of the numerous crises and obvious shortcomings or errors of the Italian political class since the Second World War, there is every reason to be exceedingly proud of the achievements of the solid anti-fascist alliance established from 1943 onward which worked collaboratively across political party lines firstly to overthrow nazifascism and then to draw up that first constitution for a democracy based on universal suffrage.

That anti-fascist alliance achieved two major milestones back on June 2nd 1946. The first was the referendum in which the majority elected to abolish the monarchy since as an institution it had done little to protect the country from the disaster caused by the fascist regime. The second was to vote for a constituent assembly whose one objective was to define a new constitution for the newly-born republic.

Musicians Republic Day

Members of the Corpo Musicale Albatese.

The assembly maintained the cross-party collaboration to deliver a constitution approved with a massive majority and enacted on 1st January 1948. In the space of the three years following the anti-fascist alliance born after the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy in September 1943, the partisan and worker organisations had restored pride to a country that had suffered brutal oppression and had been reduced to bankruptcy with mass unemployment and widespread poverty. That pride stemmed from the actions of the armed resistance supported by a heroic civil population and a vanguard of workers who had the foresight to plan for a life after fascism by weakening the Nazi war economy whilst also ensuring that the industrial infrastructure was not destroyed by the retreating German Army.

Carabiniere Republic Day

Carabiniere on parade

The class of industrial owners had mostly been compromised by their collaboration with the nazifascist regime even though many of them like the Agnelli family of FIAT fame had started to hedge their bets when they saw the tide turning after the Battle of Stalingrad. However the workers’ organisations, which had all been suppressed during the fascist regime, arose again following the allied advance in the south and it was out of the trades union movement that the three emerging political parties – the Socialists (PSI), the Communists (PCI) and the Catholics (DC) – signed the Pact of Rome in June 1944. This pact secured the impetus and coherence behind the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) and its campaigns of armed and civil resistance in the north. The key role of the communists in this resistance with their ability to organise shop floor action as well as sustain their Garibaldi Brigades of partisans is perhaps the best known party in this triumvirate. Much less is known of some of the other players in the resistance such as the Royalists or, more significantly, the Catholics. The recently formed Catholic political organisation (Christian Democrats) was one of the three signatories to the Pact of Rome and it was the majority party within the Constituent Assembly established on June 2nd 1946 to produce the new constitution having won 207 seats whilst the Socialists gained 115 and the Communists got 104.

Achille Grandi

Achille Grandi

How the Catholics managed to come out of the war in such a strong position with a solid base both within the bourgeoisie but, more significantly for the resistance, within a radicalised working class, is partly down to the ability of a particularly skillful political and trades union organiser who happened to be from Como – Achille Grandi.


Achille Grandi’s Early Years

Achille was born the first of four children to Romualdo and Olimpia Cavadini in Como in August 1883. Como was primarily an industrial town in that period which had experienced a massive growth in the silk and textile industry from the 1860s onwards. However those working in the mills had a very hard life with working days of over 12 hours, with little concern for worker safety and only the basic local forms of representation to try and negotiate better terms from the factory owners. In addition, during the period when Achille was growing up, the local spinning industry was suffering a downturn due to competition from France causing wage reductions and redundancies amongst the spinners. Achille’s family was poor. His father was unemployed for long periods and he himself was forced to leave school aged eleven to take up work in 1894 in a Como printing factory. He was not a strong boy and he soon started to suffer from the principle health risk in printing works – lead poisoning.

Volunteers Republic Day

Volunteers on parade at the Republic Day ceremony.

His Inspiration

Given his religious upbringing and the direct experience of the hardships caused by the spread of industrialism with all the advantages accruing to the capitalist class with not a single aspect of social legislation passed to improve working conditions, it was no surprise that Achille was inspired by the Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This encyclical highlighted the need for the church to define and implement a social policy recognising the rights of workers to form unions to ameliorate their work conditions and denouncing unfettered capitalism alongside atheistic socialism. Achille took inspiration from  this and joined the early local union known as the Federation of Workers which was however aligned to the increasingly socialist-oriented ‘Camera del Lavoro’ but there was no other syndicalist option at that time. He then sought to educate himself on the catholic social doctrine laid out by Pope Leo as well as get training on trades union and co-operative organisation through his local church at the Circolo Popolare Cattolico di San Bartolomeo.

San Bartolomeo

Church of San Bartolomeo, Via Milano, Como

From Como Diocese to Local Politics

At only 18 years old Achille became a member of the Como Diocese Committee and six years later he became a salaried member of the Diocesan Management. This salary proved very convenient since he had had to give up his job in the print factory due to the effects of the lead poisoning. His role was as ‘segretario propagandista’ making use of his organisational and communication skills across activities that ranged from education, women’s rights to assisting immigrants from the south but his main focus was on political and union work.

Banners Republic Day

Comune banners are processed into the ceremony in Piazza Cavour.

His difficulties in getting on with the socialist-led union – the Camera del Lavoro – led him into developing a Catholic alternative known as  the Lega Cattolica di Lavoro directed at improving working conditions. Whilst he always tried to work alongside the socialist-run unions, he often ran into issues preventing effective collaboration. Socialist doctrine was based on Marxist theory of class conflict whilst Achille believed that collaboration between the classes would best improve workers’ conditions. By 1908, Achille was able to establish the first national catholic trades union known as the Sindacato Italiano Tessile (SIT -Textile Workers Union). The socialists also formed their first national union in the same year – the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGL).

Catholic attitudes to politics had always been problematic in Italy ever since Pope Pius IX excommunicated all members of the newly-formed Italian government which had sequestered the Papal States and moved its capital from Turin to Rome in 1871. However Pope Pius X recognised in 1904 that attempts by Catholics to further the church’s social doctrine as laid out by Leo XIII would also require participation in politics in order to protect whatever gains they made. He therefore gave a tacit approval for church members to enter into politics. Achille also appreciated how political activity was crucial to securing whatever social advances the unions were able to negotiate. So he entered politics as a Como town councilor in 1908, thus becoming one of the first Catholics to enter politics without the threat of papal excommunication. However his entry into politics was to reveal a marked difference between his social-christian approach and the more cautious attitudes of the Diocese. These differences led finally to total disagreement which led on to his dismissal from his Diocese role in 1913. In spite of these differences. Achille always maintained his course of keeping faith with the church whilst also continuing to fight for social justice.

Alpini Republic Day

Two Alpini regiment veterans relax before the start of the ceremony.

Move to Monza

After his dismissal from the Como Diocese, Achille immediately got an offer to move to Monza to take up the post of Secretary of the Monza branch of the Lega Cattolica del Lavoro and as director of another worker organisation known as the Opere Cattoliche Monzesi. He still held firm to his Leo XIII-inspired ‘third way’ attitude that social injustices, disorder and conflict stemmed from the dechristianisation of society either due to the rationalist liberalism of the rich or the anticlerical socialism of the poor. The Rerum  Novarum of 1891 remained his inspiration and fueled his belief that trades unionism could bring the two industrial sides together.

Ceremony Republic Day

The ceremony continues under the Republican flag.

After The Great War

The brutality and inhumanity of the war led to a Marxist revolution in Russia and the death of the ruling liberal elite in Italy. Out of the social confusion with the growth of the socialists, a Catholic political party (the Partito Popolare Italiano – PPI) was born for the first time under the leadership of Don Luigi Sturzo in 1919. Achille was one of the founder members. He was also made President of the national Textile Workers Union (SIT) and was also a founding member of the first national general catholic union – The Confederazione Italiana dei Lavoratori  (CIT).


Comunes of Domaso and Menaggio parade their banners at the Republic Day ceremony

In 1919 he was returned as a member of parliament for the list representing Milan in elections that could have seen the first progressive workers government take control if the Socialists had only been prepared to collaborate with the PPI or if the Socialists’ Trades Union (CGL) had collaborated with the Catholics’ CIT.  However the Marxist doctrine of the CGL at that time was fixated on the notion of class conflict whilst the CIT saw inter-class collaboration as the best route to social justice. Later Marxist thinkers such as Gramsci or Togliatti might have been more sympathetic to the PPI and the CIT but it was not to be in those early days of class conflict.


in the 1920s Italy never had recovered economically after the Great War and, faced with ever greater economic turmoil matched by growing industrial unrest, the emerging fascist party took the opportunity to provoke and exploit social disorder so as to present themselves as the authoritarian answer to Italy’s issues. Unfortunately the socialists were out-manoeuvred and many Catholics who had previously supported the PPI were attracted to the appeal  the fascists made to restore social order. The majority of the party thus voted in favour of Mussolini’s government in 1922 but Achille Grandi was one party member who voted against. He was henceforth seen as a potential enemy of the state and kept under police surveillance from that time on.

Visitor Republic Day

Visitors take advantage of soldiers on parade to request portrait pictures to show back home.

In 1922 Achille became Secretary General of the Confederazione Italiana dei Lavoratori (CIL), the national catholic trades union. In the same year Pope Pius XI took over as Pope from Pope Benedict XV. Achille’s trades union was now under attack on two fronts. Firstly Pope Pius XI was not comfortable with the church’s involvement in politics and in social welfare matters. He sought to focus all Catholic laity activity within one organisation, Azione Cattolica, and then to get Azione Cattolica to focus only on spiritual concerns. The PPI thus became increasingly irrelevant and Achille focused ever more of his attention on the CIL union and on trying to forge closer links with the other unions. However, as the fascist hold on power increased, their level of threat and intimidation to the unions increased. Finally in 1925 the fascists declare that the only union that could legally represent workers was the fascist union. Azione Cattolica were happy to accept this but Achille was not. He now had to decide how to react to the imposition of the fascist totalitarian regime and his choice, like many others, was to adopt what has been called ‘internal exile’, that is preferring to go back into obscurity rather than continue a public life of humiliating compromises. So he returned to work in a print shop but retained secret links with some of his former trades unionists such as Giovanni Gronchi, also from Como (from Montano Lucino to be precise) who in later years was to lead the left wing of the post-war Christian Democrats and serve as President of the Republic from May 1955 to May 1962.

Comune mayors gather

The mayors of the comunes within the Province of Como dressed with their sashes of office gather at the start of the Republic Day ceremony

Years of Obscurity

Achille’s wife, Maria, recalled how Achille would often meet up with ex-union colleagues such as Giovanni Gronchi during that hard period of fascist oppression to discuss what to do after fascism collapsed. They all appreciated that fascism was doomed to ultimate failure but Achille also regretted how fascism was only able to prevail in those early years of the 1920s due to the failure of the progressive parties and organisations of the left to coordinate an effective opposition. The same realisation obviously occurred to the socialists, and of greater significance now, also to the Communists who had established an effective power base within the factories and amongst the workers in cities like Milan and Turin – and who, after the Nazi occupation in September 1943, provided the political inspiration and leadership behind the largest group of armed partisans, the so-called Garibaldi Brigades.

Before the ceremony

Piazza Cavour

The Anti-Fascist Alliance

In July 1943, the king dismissed Mussolini’s government and the majority of Mussolini’s ministers failed to support him. Fascism was for a brief period over and the government was put into the hands of an ex-fascist army general, Badoglio, who was as an inept a politician as he was a soldier. However an armistice with the allies was signed which immediately provoked the Nazi occupation of the northern part of Italy and the restoration by Hitler of Mussolini as head of the puppet Socialist Republic of Italy (RSI). In the meantime Pope Pius XI who had been discouraging the catholic laity in organising for anything other than spiritual reasons, died in 1939. Achille could now re-emerge from obscurity and in fact Badoglio invited him in July 1943 to take up the position of Commissioner for the Confederation of Agricultural Workers. (Due to the history of failure to revise feudal land tenure rights, agricultural workers formed one of the most militant sections of the Italian working class at that time.)

Swords and shades

The lifting of the ban on trades unionism was soon to lead to the historic signing of the Pact of Rome in June 1944 when representatives of the Socialists (Emilio Canevari), the Communists (Giuseppe Di Vittorio) and Achille for the Christian Democrats signed the agreement to work together in support of the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) to defeat fascism. Achille had finally seen his faith in collaboration over conflict confirmed. The other significant outcome of the Pact of Rome was the formation of a single national trades union representing all workers irrespective of any political doctrine – the CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori). This cross-party collaboration within a single trades union was to endure until 1948, well after the establishment of the Republic and the enactment of the new constitution. With this new union in place, Achille recognised there was a need for a specifically catholic workers organisation to give catholic unionists a solid understanding of the church’s social doctrine so as to allow them to articulate their views within the consolidated union’s forums. Hence he became a founding member and the first president of ACLI (the Christian Association of Italian Workers) – an organisation still going strong to this day. He was then elected to parliament in the elections of 1946 as a Christian Democrat but was to die only two months later at the age of 63 in his home in Desio, a town close to Monza and just north of Milan.

in the partisan mountains

Localita Boffalora – the mountains above Lenno where the partisan groups under the command of royalist partisan leader Capitano Ricci gathered prior to attempting the assassination of the RSI Finance Minister residing in the hotel on the lakeshore.

Achille Grandi was to see his faith in cross-party collaboration come to fruition within the singularly effective anti-fascist alliance established in 1944. Not only was he a central player in setting up that alliance, but his pragmatic approach, partly in denial of the Marxist dialectic of class conflict, was also effectively adopted by the Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti on his return from Russia. Later, as peacetime progressed, some Communists may rightly have come to question whether such a degree of collaboration with the capitalist class was always tactically appropriate but few can doubt its initial success. From 1943 until the setting up of the Republic, the three main parties worked together to restore pride in the country and put it back on a path to recovery from the degradation and bankruptcy of the war years. For me, not only do I find inspiring the collaboration forged within that anti-fascist alliance, but also the story of Achille himself, his tenacity in self-educating and directing his gifted organisational talents and the fact that there were at least some channels back then for some talented but socially disadvantaged people to progress.

The Partisan battle above the lake

Val D’Intelvi – the area patrolled by Capitano Ricci and his royalist and catholic-oriented partisan band. Ricci got funding support from Allen Dulles and the American OSS offices in Lugano just across the border.

Nowadays the Republic Day celebrations may appear somewhat anachronistic, an excuse for local dignitaries and state functionaries to don sparkling dress uniforms for another opportunity for self-congratulation, but the heart of this celebration lies in history and, specifically in the sacrifices and efforts made by those of Achille’s generation in rescuing the country from the depths of degradation and inhumanity inflicted during the fascist era. To quote the anti-fascist University professor and politician Piero Calamandrei:

‘If you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where our Constitution was created go to the mountains where the partisans fell, to the prisons where they were incarcerated and to the fields where they were hanged. Wherever an Italian died to redeem freedom and dignity, go there young people and ponder because that was where our Constitution was born.’

The Constitution that Achille contributed towards has essentially survived to this day with some elements revised and others, unfortunately, never fully implemented but the one lasting legacy codified in its pages is the Italian State’s commitment to anti-fascism, and long may that last beyond the span of living memory.

Achille Grandi 2

Achille Grandi, 1883 – 1946


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Parco Spino Verde: Walking the Border back to Como

This walk in the Parco Spina Verde runs west to east along the Swiss border. We start off at about 500 metres above sea level rising to a maximum of 600 before descending back to Como at 250 which is to say the uphill or downhill aspects are not too onerous but the elevation is sufficient to get glorious views over the Padana plain, the Swiss Alps or Lake Como.

11 From Punto Panoramico

View from the Panoramic Point by the Pin Umbrela, Parco Spina Verde

I chose to take bus C74  out of Como to the small town of Paré and then walk back into the city. Paré follows Cavallasca in the string of small affluent communities on the southern slopes of the glacial moraine that forms the Spina Verde. Not so long ago these towns’ economies would have been supplemented by the vigorous smuggling trade in cigarettes from across the Swiss border. The exploits of these smugglers known as ‘spalloni’ (literally ‘big shoulders’ ) have entered local folklore.  Access to the Swiss border from these towns is relatively easy compared with the exhausting routes up from Cernobbio or Moltrasio to cross over at Mount Bisbino. The border here must have been much easier to control thus requiring greater guile from the local smugglers.

1 Chiesa San Giovanni Battista Pare

Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista in Pare, Point of departure for the walk in the Parco Spina Verde.

Having alighted at the town centre by the church of San Giovanni Battista, follow the Via alla Valle up and out of the town. The signposting of the park’s footpaths is a little inconsistent but you won’t go far wrong if you maintain your west-east orientation. I took the uphill path off the Via alla Valle which then led me to the junction with the main path known as Sentiero 2 which runs along the line of the state border.

Parco Spina Verde

Map of the Parco Spina Verde showing route taken going west to east

3 Junction with 2

Junction of the path from Via della Valle with Sentiero 2 which runs along the state border.

The state border up on Mount Bisbino is delineated by nothing more than a single cable slung between trees at head height. Here instead there are metal columns set into a concrete base but clearly no longer intended to restrain access although in parts they still provide an effective barrier. However if you chose, you can squeeze between the metal posts and take up the Swiss footpath that also runs parallel to the border although possibly more thoroughly and consistently signposted.

As you immerse yourself in the park, you very quickly feel totally separated from the urban development to the north and south. You may well come across the other occasional walker, runner or mountain biker but this is essentially a rural park with all the tranquillity that suggests  but with the advantage of well-maintained paths, informative noticeboards and, generally speaking, adequate signposting.

7 Cadorna trench

Tunnel, part of the Linea Cadorna defences in the Parco Spina Verde

One of the oddities of this area are the military defences constructed during the First World War known as the Linea Cadorna, named after the general responsible for their construction. The Linea Cadorna ran alongside the majority of the Swiss border in this area and some of the concrete machine gun emplacements, tunnels and trenches can still be seen. It was built in case the German/Austrian armies took it upon themselves to march through neutral Switzerland to attack Italy by entering Lombardy. This never happened since the Italians were to face the Austrian army in the appalling trench warfare at high altitude in the Dolomites above the River Isonzo.

6 Boards and signposting

Boards and signposting

More spectacular military installations can be seen at the summit of Mount Bisbino or on the imposing Sasso Gordona but these here, alongside the rusting steel border posts, do remind us of all those who have trodden these paths before.

9 To Monte Sasso

Having descended towards Cavallasca, we turn left and climb again up to the path that circles Monte Sasso.

As you approach Cavallasca the path joins the tarmacked road descending to the town but we head back up to skirt around Monte Sasso, although at this stage you could take the diversion to the Agriturismo Agrifoglio for something to eat or just for the great view from there over the valley into Switzerland looking north. Back on our path east, as the path goes round the hill we come out from the woods to get a great view south over the settlements of Paré, Cavallesca and San Fermo.

Continue east and you will then come to a sign pointing to more Great War trenches at the Pin Umbrela where there is also a great panoramic platform giving a rare view over the lower end of the Como branch of Lake Como.  From here we make our descent into San Fermo della Battaglia, the town so-named after the battle here in 1859 between the Austrians and Giuseppe Garibaldi’s successful guerrilla army known the Cacciatori degli Alpi. (Read  San Fermo to Como – in the footsteps of Garibaldi for more information).

10 View to Pare

Going east from Monte Sasso, views open up south over the towns of Pare, Cavallasca and San Fermo and over the Pianura Padana

The path I took had a thick cushion of pine needles and a considerable number of chestnuts lying uneaten and rotting since last Autumn – enough for me to note it as a potentially rich chestnut source come October. This route brought me out into San Fermo too far west but a pleasant walk down Via Delle Busacce, with suburban homes on the right and the woods on the left, led me down to the point where I could either rejoin a path in the park leading to Como Camerlata or take the more direct route down the Valfresca to the lakeside. This last leg is described in the article on San Fermo mentioned previously. Alternatively if you have had enough of walking by this stage (approximately two and a half hours since setting out at Paré), walk down to the bus terminal and take Bus No.1 back into town.

12 Pine path

Descent down to San Fermo along the chestnut path.

It’s easy for us to take the Parco Spina Verde a bit for granted being so readily accessible on the edge of the town – but it does have a lot to commend it. Firstly it allows for a quick dose of country immersion leaving all traces of the urban environment behind you. Its nature is varied and beautiful  and when the vistas open up they encompass spectacular scenery. Then there is also all the history around you ranging from evidence of the early Golasecca settlements to the remains of Cadorna’s untried defences. The paths are well maintained, signposting is adequate but in any case, it’s easy to orientate yourself and you are never far from civilisation. The park’s website (Italian only) contains maps and details of the different paths and the maps are also reproduced on boards at strategic points in the park. For this walk we started on path 8, strayed onto Path 2 and then back onto 8 which turned into 7 from Cavallasca onwards.


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Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini

Sant Abbondio

The paired bell towers of the Basilica Sant’Abbondio in Como – Romanesque masterpiece of the Maestri Comacini.

Como is a city of art and culture built up over centuries of tradition originating from the advanced bronze age culture of the Golasecca.  The Golasecca lived in the area known as Insubria that includes Como, its and the other Lombardy lakes and a good part of the Swiss Canton Ticino. At certain periods in history, the area has produced ‘schools’ of artists and artisans who have achieved pan-European significance. The most recent were the so-called ‘Artisti dei Laghi’ who, as painters, sculptors and craftsman in other decorative arts, left their mark in churches and palaces across Italy and Europe, with possibly their best-known landmark being the Ludwigsburg Palace designed by Donato Frisoni (born in Laino near Como) and built for Duke Ludwig in 1733.


Ludwigsburg Palace

Interior – Ludwigsburg Palace 

Yet they in turn would have gained some inspiration from a tradition in masonry, sculpture and stone carving emanating also from the area of Insubria – the so-called ‘Maestri Comicini’. These artists and artisans helped develop and spread the Romanesque style of religious building across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Roman carving - Museo Archeologico

Carved marble denoting the good life for young Como residents in the Roman era – a day out hunting, in the Museo Archeologico.

So let’s focus on this early group of artist/artisans to understand more about what they achieved. Como was established by Julius Caesar and from the start it appears that the ‘Comacini’ had a talent for stone sculpture.  Pliny the Younger had a summer villa built on the site of the current Villa Pliniana and he cited the ‘most excellent work’ of the Como builders in a letter to the Emperor Trajan.

Moltrasio Mines

Sentee di Sort – Ex-limestone quarries above Moltrasio.

They were of course aided by the natural advantages of the area, as in the supply of Moltrasio limestone used extensively for building due to its unique strength yet ease of working. It also formed natural strata which made extraction and cutting into regular shape that much easier.


Multi-coloured marble facing of the Broletto, Piazza Duomo

Black limestone and marble were available from Varenna and white marble from Musso – hence so many two-shaded facades to Como buildings. Como was also well placed for communications on one of the main ancient north-south axes in Europe on the Rhine branch of the Via Francigena crossing the Alps at Splugen thus providing a link from Rome through Milan, to Como and then Chiavenna on up into Northern Europe.

The Lombard invasion of Italy secured a role for the Maestri Comacini as preservers of the Roman building and stone masonry skills. Little building was done by the Lombards until the 7th century when Queen Teodolinda converted to Christianity and started an extensive building programme led by the Maestri Comacini in Monza, Milan and, primarily in the Lombard capital, Pavia. The first formal mention of the Maestri Comacini comes in a text written by the Lombard king Rothair in 643 CE. By this stage, they were formally licensed as a guild and given the right and protection to travel as itinerant craftsmen.

They took as their early inspiration the iconography from both pagan Lombard sources and early Christianity. Many of their interlacing geometric stonework designs are reminiscent of Celtic work. Additionally they portrayed mythical monsters and symbolic beasts.


Frieze Sant Abbondio

Maestri Comacini work on the exterior of the Basilica Sant’ Abbondio.

A German musicologist,  Marius Schneider, has gone so far as to suggest that the repetitive patterns and mythical designs of the maestri incorporated a form of musical annotation encrypting the Gregorian chants dedicated to their patrons.

One design oddity is the development by these maestri of the so-called ‘nodo comacino’ as a carved device around a single or multiple columns performed to show off the dexterity of the stonemason. Examples of this can be seen  on the east side of the Broletto in Como’s Piazza Duomo.

As time progressed they developed a ‘Romanesque’ style of stone decoration with main examples of their work still visible on the exteriors of the Romanesque churches San Fedele (built 1120 CE) and Sant’Abbondio (rebuilt between 1050 and 1095 CE). They worked on one of the very first Romanesque buildings, the Baptistry of St. John at Galliano near Cantu (built 1007) and also on the church of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan.

Further stimulus to work abroad occurred after 775 CE when  Charlemagne defeated the Lombards in Pavia and thus encouraged the stonemasons to look at the opportunities beyond the Alps.  Their fame spread abroad as testified by Archbishop Aribo of Mainz (known as Magonza)  when he passed through and subsequently died in Como on his return from a pilgrimage to Rome in 1031. He took the opportunity to seek out Maestri Comacini to work on rebuilding his cathedral in Northern Germany.

Detail of Mainz Cathedral, Germany

Mainz Cathedral

Certainly by 1050, Maestri Comacini were working north of the River Danube. Their fame would extend up the old pilgrim route up the Rhine  for them to undertake commissions in Denmark and Sweden.

Bell tower San Fedele

Bell Tower of the Basilica San Fedele, Como

The whole area around Lake Como is rich in churches built in the Romanesque style dating back to the times of the Maestri Comacini. They may not have been the only exponents of this style but the wide diffusion of their skills across Europe certainly led to them having a primary role in the widespread adoption of this style of architecture on a truly pan-European basis from Sicily to Sweden and from Spain to Russia. Local historian, Marco Lazzati is prepared to state: ‘After the Latin language and the spread of Christianity, the first ‘Euro’ to circulate in Europe and to thus partly contribute to unifying its culture was the Maestro Comacino .’

nodo comacino

Eastern exterior of the Broletto, Como. Nodo Comacino – a technique developed by the Maestri Comacini showing off their abilities.

Their ability to circulate was originally granted by the safe passage accorded members of the ‘guild’ by the Lombard kings and the church authorities of the time. Very quickly they established an itinerant culture setting up camp alongside (even attached to) the construction sites on which they worked. This not only led to the diffusion of the Romanesque style but also some have claimed it formed the basis of European Freemasonry. Their status in the 12th and 13th centuries was that of ‘liberi muratori’ which can be literally translated as ‘free masons’. The barracks they set up on the building sites were known as ‘logge’ or ‘lodges’. The secrecy associated with freemasonry may stem from the oaths of secrecy taken by members of the masonry guild to not divulge any of the secrets  imparted by the ‘maestri’ (masters) to their apprentices about their trade. In addition, they signed their works by leaving carved symbols with that of the Maestri Comicini being an open compass above a rose.

The artistic merit of the Maestri Comacini may well have been undervalued over the years with the tendency to dismiss them as mere artisans but they were working at a time when ‘art’ was indistinguishable from ‘craft’. The lack of documentation also prevents us from singling out individual master craftsmen but note must be taken of their obvious impact on their environment with the rich legacy of Romanesque structures that populate Lake Como and beyond. Their contribution to this in Como, around the lake, in Lombardy, in Italy and in Europe is outstanding.

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San Donato to Camnago Volta: Opening up a Circular Route to and from Como

In March volunteers organised by the association Sentiero dei Sogni restored an old path linking the Sanctuary of San Donato with Camnago Volta where it then joins up with the disused tramway leading  to the Chapel of San Francesco in Ravanera in the Cosia Valley.  Thanks to their efforts, it is now possible to take a circular walk out of Como encompassing  a variety of environments and places of interests while avoiding heavy traffic.

san donato

Sanctuary of San Donato on the path up to Brunate

The San Donato Sanctuary is half way up the hill from Como to Brunate. I have previously described a route up to it as one of the short excursions out of the city. The Chapel of San Francesco in Ravanera instead is at the rural end of the Cosia Valley. The Cosia runs east-west through Como flowing out into the lake near to Terragni’s War Memorial.

lower cosia 2

The lower reaches of the Cosia as it enters the St. Martino district on the south east edge of Como.

In the past this stream provided the power and the means to develop textile printing, dyeing and finishing and some industrial plants remain along its lower reaches. I have also previously described a walk here in A Walk in the Cosia Valley and Camnago Volta.   Its main attractions are the sites linked to the life and death of Alessandro Volta, Como’s most famous son. Now however, with the opening up of the old path from Garzola to Camnago, both these walks can be combined into one. It makes quite a substantial walk up to three hours long but with options to shorten it from Camnago onwards by cutting out all or parts of the section along the old tramway.

The way I would do this walk is as follows:

Leave the centre of Como for the San Donato Sanctuary by walking up Via Maurizio Monti, crossing Via Zezio and Via Crispi to take the footpath uphill.

Via Maurizio Monti

Via Maurizio Monti

Bivio San Donato

As you arrive at the base of San Donato, turn right onto this path in the direction of Garzola.

Bivio Via Bernasconi

For the short walk, turn right to descend back towards Como – but for Camnago, turn left up Via Bernasconi

Via Per Brunate

As you reach Via Per Brunate, turn right to descend for about 600 metres until you see the first yellow sign for the start of the footpath.

First signAs you come off the tarmacked road, the footpath starts with a brief climb before crossing a couple of streams and levelling out as it traverses the mountain side. Signposting along the path is good and will eventually lead you down to the top end of Camnago Volta close to the Flavia Bed and Breakfast which has a swimming pool on a terrace with a marvelous view over the valley. As you emerge from the mountain path, turn left onto the asphalt parking area and follow the cobbled road down until it joins the main road for Como.

B&B Flavia

This is where the path comes out of the woods. Turn left onto the asphalt road going round the back of the B&B Flavia.

Turn left as you join the main road – the old buildings and the Church of St. Cecilia are just 100 metres further on.

saint cecilia

Church of Saint Cecilia, Camnago Volta

As you get to the Trattoria della Pila (named after Volta’s invention) you have a choice. You can either take the path that follows the disused tramway or turn right to follow the road down past Alessandro Volta’s tomb and on to his favourite summertime retreat. The latter option is the shortest since you can either take the bus back into Como at its terminus or continue right down the Cosia Valley. The tramway route is very attractive but will add an hour to your walk. If you decide on following the disused tramway, there are two or three paths that lead off it to the right which you can take to shorten your walk. They all lead down to the path and road that follows the Cosia Valley back into Como. 

tomb of volta

Alessandro Volta’s Tomb

If you stick to the tramway you will be rewarded by crossing a deep gorge before joining the asphalt road.

Turn right and go downhill keeping to your right and following the road which eventually turns into a cobbled path that leads down to the Chapel of San Francesco.

Follow the road down to Volta’s summer residence outside of which is the bus terminal for route no. 4 that will take you back into Como, or continue on down the valley.

As you walk down the Cosia Valley, the environment gradually becomes less rural as you pass some surviving textile factories which at least give an idea of the level of past industrial activity in this semi-rural location. The river not only provided the power but was vital in the textile dyeing industry when the river would itself change colour depending on what colour batch was being produced at the time.

You pass two notable restaurants along this route, the first is the Trattoria della Pila back in Camnago.  This seems to follow sound ‘slow food’ principles using  fresh, local seasonal produce  and seeking to do traditional dishes well. It certainly gets a lot of favourable reviews. The second is the Ristorante Navedano  on Via Navedano as you go down the Cosia Valley. Here also the reviews are very positive but this is an expensive restaurant – not somewhere to stop by for some rapid refuelling!

Alessandro Volta Villa Olmo

Bust of the scientist Alessandro Volta in Villa Olmo.

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‘Como Antifascista’ – Then and Now

Hitler and Mussolini in Street Art

Hitler and Mussolini Streetscape Art – 2016, on the Teatro Sociale

Today is Liberation Day – a public holiday celebrating the end of the Second World War in the Nazi-occupied half of Italy. That date seventy three years ago marked the culmination of a two year period following the dismissal of Mussolini when the territory was under the nazifascist regime of the two dictators. It was a tragic but immensely inspiring period when the antifascist alliance of partisans, workers, and others courageously and ultimately successfully defeated totalitarianism and racism. A celebration of their huge contribution in regaining the honour of Italy and laying the foundations of the current democratic constitution was held this morning on the lakeside with wreaths laid at the Monument to European Resistance. The speeches made afterwards stressed the unique  cross-party collaboration in the antifascist alliance whilst the representative from ANPI (National Association of Italian Partisans ) spoke eloquently for ever greater European unification and ongoing  antifascist resistance to combat the increase in both explicit and implicit fascist attitudes and the corresponding growth in racist and nationalist rhetoric.


From 1st to 8th March 1944, the call for a general strike supported by the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) but organised primarily by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) made clear the determination of the workers in the occupied part of the country to stand up to the authorities and to work alongside the partisans’ armed struggle in liberating the country – something they achieved a year later in the general industrial and armed insurrection on April 25th seventy three years ago. Workers in factories in the city and province of Como took an active part in these strikes paying dearly through imprisonment of the organisers and deportation into Nazi labour camps of many others.

Victims of Tintoria Comense 1

Plaque commemorating 4 out of the 6 workers deported to German labour camps following the strike in Tintoria Comense. 3 died in Mauthausen, 1 died shortly after returning to Como due to bad health induced by the prison regime. The other 2 (both women) survived.

On April 25th 1945, at 5.00am the Como workers got up as usual and went to catch the trams out to the factories on the edge of town or in the province. The factory sirens sounded as usual to signal the start of the working day. However leaders of the Como branch of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) got the trams to wait on standby to ferry the workers back into town since the sirens soon sounded again to start a general strike. The trams thus carried all back for a mass demonstration in Piazza Duomo scheduled for 10.00am. A group of workers were delegated to go up to the De Cristoforis army barracks to arm themselves with seized weapons.  Meanwhile Mussolini on this very same day left Milan which was now witnessing a general insurrection following four days of strike action. He and his wife stayed the night in Como where hostile crowds were gathering. He left the following morning in his bid to escape Italy hidden within a column of retreating German soldiers. (See 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection for details of Mussolini’s flight  from Como). The long war and the even longer period of Italian fascism thus ended – on Liberation Day.

Caserma De Cristoforis

‘De Cristoforis’ Barracks – Como. Now used as a military documentation repository but soon to close.

1943 to the General Strike, 1st March 1944

Yet Italian fascism should have ended on 26th July 1943 when King Vittorio Emanuele III dismissed Mussolini, only to have him re-imposed on the Italians by Hitler on September 8th as head of the puppet state known as the Republic of Salò (RSI – Socialist Republic of Italy). But his government was perceived by many as entirely illegitimate. The invasion by the Germans and the return of Mussolini were conjoined in the word ‘nazifascist’ and so readily rejected maybe because the nationalism nurtured by Italian fascism since 1922 could hardly be reconciled with the country’s occupation by a foreign power. This was just one contradiction too many for fascism to overcome. Opposition to the regime came from all sectors of society – royalists, many Catholics, socialists and most definitely the communists. On September 8th 1943 opposition to German occupation became associated with an opposition to fascism itself. The formation of partisan groups started immediately recruiting the ex-soldiers of the ‘royal’ armed forces. Other ‘royal’ organisations like the border police (Guardia di Finanza) could never be trusted by the nazifascists and even came to be banned from patrolling the Swiss-Italian border outside Como (see Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust for more details).

Neri and Gianna

Luigi Canali (Battlename, Capitano Neri) and girlfriend Giuseppina Tuissi (Battlename, Gianna), lovers and partisan members of the 52nd Brigata Garibaldi. Both killed in mysterious circumstances in May 1945 outside of Cernobbio after involvement in the capture of Mussolini.

Industrial unrest had always been present even in the original period of Fascist rule – back in March 1943 a series of strikes under the banner of ‘Peace and Bread’ started out in the FIAT factory in Turin quickly spreading to the heavy industry based in the Milanese suburb of Sesto San Giovanni – in the factories of Falck, Pirelli and Ercole Marelli. By 1944 however, living conditions under the RSI were rapidly deteriorating. The cost of living was forever increasing; reduced working was often imposed due to shortages of raw materials or even due to the lack of coal to generate power or run the trains that were vital in transporting workers to the factories. (Many factories had been relocated out of Milan into the provinces of Como, Lecco and Varese to reduce the risk of damage from the intense allied bombing over the northern cities. The workers thus had to commute from Milan. Como was spared the worst of allied bombing maybe due to the proximity of the Swiss border and the allies’ fears of accidentally bombing a neutral country.)

Piccinelli Mozzate

300 workers went on strike at Ceramiche Piccinelli at Mozzate in January 1944 prior to the General Strike in March.

The PCI (Communist Party) organised strikes in Milan, Genoa and Turin in December of that year seeking wage increases and more generous rationing provision. January 1944 saw a massive increase in prices and a couple of strikes in the Como Province – the first involving 300 workers at Conte Piccinelli Ceramiche in Mozzate and the other involving 600 workers at Filatura di Turate. These were both factories whose workers lived in Milan but were transported out to the Province in a daily commute.

Carabinieri at the Memorial to European Resistance, Como Liberation Day, 2018.png

Carabinieri at the Memorial to European Resistance, Como – Liberation Day, 2018

The PCI and the CLN then started to combine the PCI-led industrial action with the CLN’s more general civil and military resistance. They agreed to organise a general strike commencing 1st March 1944 across Liguria, Piedmont and Lombardy. The theme of this agitation was anti-nazi but based on demands for higher wages and better provisions. The welfare of workers and their families was linked to their continuing employment since ration cards were issued through work as well as clothing allowances and, most importantly, one or two meals a day at the factory canteens. Loss of employment did not just mean a loss of wages. The worsening economic situation and the ongoing increase in temporary and permanent redundancies went to fuel increasing militancy within the factories encouraged by the clandestine cells set up by the PCI. The authorities for their part responded with a mixture of repression and a bogus anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois campaign known as ‘pacificazione sociale’ claiming they would put worker representatives on to management boards. Paolo Porta, the chief fascist ideologue based in Como, made the following press statement in Cantu:

Paolo Porta

Paolo Porta

Fascism will show that it is not the armed guard of wealth and privilege and that the traitors and saboteurs who think themselves invulnerable because they feel protected by wealth, will instead be hit where they are weakest – in their wallets and bank accounts.

However the campaign did not win over the working class. Fascism had lost any form of credibility by this stage and Mussolini’s attempt to restyle himself and his regime as militantly socialist fooled very few.

1st to 8th March 1944

Salmoiraghi e Vigano

HQ in Milan of Salmoiraghi and Vigano, the inheritors of Filotecnica Salmoiraghi which moved out of Milan in 1943 to avoid allied bombing

The strikes began on 1st March and continued until the 8th with their epicentre in Milan where the PCI were at their strongest. The first factories to follow in Como Province had direct links with colleagues back in Milan – such as F.A.C.E. at Grandate where 150 workers stopped work at 14.00 and took the train back to Milan. The next day 400 workers who lived in Milan but worked at the Filotecnica Salmoiraghi in Cantù stopped work. On the same day at the Seriche Italiane at Mariano Comense 700 workers went on strike in solidarity with Milanese colleagues.

Ex-partisan Associations

Ex-partisan Associations, Memorial to European Resistance, Como – Liberation Day 2018

General Strike Activity in and Around Como

On 3rd March 1944, 180 workers at the Cartiera Burgo in Maslianico went on a strike organised by a communist cell that had first led a strike at the factory on 26th July 1943 when they wanted the workers to be free to join a mass rally in Como celebrating the dismissal of Mussolini from government. Two of the March strike organisers were later sent to German labour camps. A division of the factory was later closed down and its machinery moved to Poulz in Austria with the workers told either to move to Austria or be dismissed.

Cartiera Burgo Sit In

‘We leave with heads held high’ – workers abandon a 130 day sit-in against redundancies in October 1969 at Cartiere Burgo

The strikers’ demands, submitted to the fascist authorities against the advice of the PCI organisers, reveal the concerns of the workforce. They were as follows:

  • A 50% increase in wages
  • Preferential ration amounts
  • 500gm of bread per employee
  • An increase in the ‘minestra’ ration
  • A ‘second’ course at the company’s canteen
  • Distribution of the rice allowance
  • Distribution of work clothes and soap
  • No further redundancies particularly of older workers
  • A guarantee to keep the factory open.
Site of Tintoria Castagna

Ex-site of the Tintoria Castagna on Viale Varese

On 6th March 1943 there were stoppages at two silk factories in Como. The first involved 200 workers at the Tintoria Castagna. Leaflets had been circulated the day before advising of the strike and that it was supported by the CLN. The strike started the next day. Three non-communist workers who were found with the leaflets were deported to the German Labour camps of Gusen and Mauthausen. None of them returned alive. The Communist strike organiser was imprisoned for a year.

Chimney of Tintoria Comense Ticosa

Chimney of the ex-Tintoria Comense, subsequently renamed Ticosa and now a derelict site off Viale Roosevelt.

The second strike involved 1500 workers at Como’s largest fabric factory – the Tintoria Comense, later known as Ticosa. This was organised by a communist cell but also with internal assistance. The fate of some of the workers including Ines Figini is told in our article about Ines and her time in Auschwitz Labour Camp. Most of those deported to Germany died in the labour camp of Mauthausen. The two women deportees, Ines and Ada Borgomainerio, both managed to get home. One other worker returned home only to die shortly after due to his poor state of health brought about by the prison regime.


There was also a failed strike in the fabric factory Bruno Pessina off Via Borgo Vico. Again leaflets were brought into the factory by a communist cell member, Enrico Caronti and he initially got a unanimous agreement to strike the next day. However a fervent fascist in the workforce so frightened colleagues with stories of the reprisals that would follow – mass deportation to Germany, imprisonment, loss of rations etc – that the workforce changed its mind.

Tintoria Bruno Pessina

Chimney and site of the ex-Tintoria Bruno Pessina off Via Borgo Vico

Other strikes in the Province included 600 women strikers at Cattaneo Luigi in Rovellasca, at the Orsenigo iron foundry in Mariano Comense and 1000 workers were on strike for five days at Taglietti in Figino Serenza.

The authorities claimed the general strike was an abject failure. The Provincia di Como reported on the 8th March ‘Genesis of an aborted strike – Italian workers, with the exception of a tiny minority, have ignored the call from those agitators in the pay of London and Moscow.’ Yet Hitler was livid and demanded that the authorities send 20% of strikers to German labour camps as a general threat to the working population. This programme of deportation proved impractical due to the strains on the social order it would provoke. Hitler’s Ambassador to the RSI calculated that 20% amounted to 70,000 deportees meaning that by his estimate 350,000 workers had participated in the General Strike. Modern historians estimate the figure at 208,500. In either case, this was a significant act of defiance. In the words of the German historian, Lutz Klinkhammer:

‘it was the greatest mass protest that the occupying forces had to confront; put together without outside help, without arms but with considerable energy and sacrifice. It wasn’t just (alongwith the strikes of 43) the most important strike in Italy over 20 years of fascist rule, it was also the greatest general strike across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.’

After the General Strike

Strikes continued after March 1944 particularly against the policy of sending workers to Germany. The number of agitators in the factories grew. On 9th June 1944 a significant pact was signed in Rome between all three of the trades union groups – the communists, the socialists and the Christian Democrats.  This alliance was also intended to co-ordinate industrial action in support of the resistance. The unions organised so-called Squadre di Azione Patriottica (SAP) normally consisting of cross-party cells of 10 politicised workers organised to sabotage production, prevent delivery of goods to the Germans, pass around propaganda and in some instances, to offer military support to the partisans. Other groups organised themselves to provide medicines and provisions for the partisan groups. Strikes continued through October and November 1944 in spite of the law passed on 21st June declaring the death sentence for strike organisers. The level of civil and industrial disobedience grew from the start of 1945 with stoppages becoming ever more frequent and the authorities forced to give way more often than not. And then on April 20th, the Milanese workers started another general strike that was to signal the final insurrection against the nazifascist regime.

Festa della Liberazione - Banda Monte Olimpino

The Banda Filarmonica Monte Olimpino play at the Liberation Day ceremony, Como.

In Milan, on April 25th, Mussolini met with the CLN to discuss surrender terms mediated by Milan’s Cardinal Schuster. He abandoned the talks and fled immediately to Como.  The German army representatives had also that very day signed the armistice in Rome. Como strikers were on the streets and civilians were arming themselves to confront the remaining pockets of fascist resistance. The German army was preparing for their final retreat and surrender. On the following day, Mussolini left hidden in the column of German soldiers making their way up the western shores of the lake possibly to cross the Alps via Splugen or possibly to organise a final stand in the Valtellina. His column was stopped by a group of partisans just outside the town of Dongo. The civil and industrial alliance of communist, socialist, royalist and catholic anti-fascists with their relative partisan groups, had brought the illegitimacy of the fascist puppet-state to its inevitable end. The same spirit of collaboration would fortunately last as long as the drafting of the new Italian constitution enacted in December 1947 but as the rest of the twentieth century testified, for not long after.

schiavi di Hitler

In Memory of Hitler’s Slaves

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Going Slow on Lake Como

Mobilità Dolce

Mobilita Dolce Iubilantes initiative ex-ferrovia Como Varese

Mobilita Dolce Initiative – walking the old railway from Como to Varese encouraging its modification into a cycle path

I am not sure how to translate ‘Mobilità dolce’ other than by ‘soft movement’ in which case, we are living through a spring of soft movement – or, to use a possibly  better-known phrase, a spring of slow tourism. The AMoDo (Alleanza della Mobilità Dolce) has unilaterally declared that the period from 21st March to 21st June be known in Italy as a season of ‘slow’ initiatives. Como Companion is all for ‘slow’ as in ‘slow food’, ‘slow driving’, and whatever else we can imagine should be taken slow but above all ‘slow tourism’.

What Is Slow Tourism?

Certainly it shares some connotations with the original ‘slow’ movement for food and a common purpose in questioning the pressures of the marketplace and the negative effects of commercialisation. Slow tourism is the antithesis of fast or mass tourism in its bid to get us to spend more time to get to know the areas we visit when on holiday. Slow is more than a delightful adjective, it is an attitude!

‘Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last

Just kicking down the cobble stones

Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.’

Simon and Garfunkel, 59th Street Bridge Song

Go slow and you gather moss, you absorb, you reflect, you empathise, you connect. A slow tourist has the means and time to engage with the environment and the community he or she is visiting and so you leave with more than a few photographic records of an exotic location. Slow tourism can give you an appreciation of the economic, social, historical, cultural or  environmental elements of where you are – its the form of travel that truly does extend your experience and creates memories that will last for ever.

Super slow

On a recent walk we met an Italo-Swedish couple travelling to and from La Spezia to Sweden with donkeys. An example of super slow travel.

Why Slow Tourism?

But why the need to proselytise it? Partly to counteract the potential harm of mass tourism, and to get people to think beyond the standard tourist destinations. As fellow-expat blogger, Celia Abernethy has reported in the Huffington Post, Italy is having to deal with ‘overtourism’ with nearly 100 million people arriving by air from between January and July last year.


Inlombardia advertising holidays in Lombardy on the sides of a tour bus in front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London

If these visitors all keep to the best known sites or towns, (Venice, Rome, Milan etc.) it becomes totally unsustainable. Hence Inlombardia ( the Lombardy Region’s Tourist Agency) are campaigning across Europe to encourage visitors to go beyond Milan to Como, Lecco, Varese, Bergamo, Mantova or Pavia.   Also for economic reasons, towns like Como want to see visitors spend more time here and thus spend more money in the shops, hotels and restaurants rather than having half a day in town, the other half in Bellagio with spending limited to a boat ticket and a slice of pizza for lunch.

Queueing for the boat to Bellagio

Queue for the fast boat to Bellagio, Ferragosto Public Holiday, August 2017

But slow tourism also seeks to counteract the ‘productising’ tendencies of the mass tourist market. This is the tourism equivalent of the trans-fat horrors of fast food. Fast tourism deals in cliché, stereotype, stock images and easily digested non-memories – it takes these shortcuts because there is no time for true engagement or genuine human contact. And it short changes visitors, sometimes in seemingly small ways such as the restaurant on the lakefront here in Como which cannot be bothered to describe its pasta dishes accurately since ‘the visitors don’t know the difference’! But this thankfully rare disrespectful attitude betrays the sterility of fast tourism since it’s a ‘product’ based on a location whose soul or true essence is of no relevance.

Lakeside restaurant

Al fresco dining on the lakefront is massively appealing and the overall quality is more than acceptable but the temptation for the less scrupulously managed establishments is to ignore the need to be genuine or authentic.

Slow tourism instead IS about offering insights into that true essence or the soul of a location – and that is best achieved by going slow – not slow stuck behind a cavalcade of tour buses that get caught up in summer on the narrow lakeside roads around Ossuccio, but slow walking  up Ossuccio’s UNESCO-listed Sacro Monte or traversing the lakefront above the blocked roads on the Greenway or the Strada Regina following mule tracks used for centuries by our antecedents.

Sacro Monte, Ossuccio

The UNESCO-listed Sanctuary at Sacro Monte, Ossuccio behind which is a delightful trattoria.

That is why AMODO and the other associations such as Iubilantes campaign so forcefully to extend the network of cycle paths and to reopen the ancient walkways that characterise our territory, particularly  since we live on a key north-south axis used since Roman times as one of the principal pan-European routes from Mediolanum (Milan) through the Alps over the Splugen Pass and  following the valley of the Rhine.

Slow down 3

Moments of peace and reflection

Fortunately it is very easy to go slow on Lake Como. Associations like Iubilantes provide web sites and apps like CamminaCitta outlining and illustrating short city walks and longer excursions.  Their site states it is:

 A portal in which one seeks to rediscover and celebrate the cultural heritage of our cities combining, as so seldom happens, easy mobility, sustainable tourism and accessibility.

The ultimate goal is to encourage the principle of “good for everyone” and “tourism for all”, in the belief that traveling, especially in the form of slow and sustainable mobility, is a life resource that must be accessible to all, without discrimination, beginning from our territories.


slow lake comoThere is even a tour company called Slow Lake Como that incorporates all ‘slow’ principles into the tours they organise. For example, they promote visits to some of the smaller less frequented but genuinely interesting villages on the lake like Brienno with its amazing labyrinth of alleys and fishermen’s houses. This Spring they have also organised a visit to Dongo to explore the sites and stories surrounding the capture of Mussolini as he tried to make his escape up the west side of our lake in April 1945 (see our article on this). They go off the standard tourist routes to explore aspects that give a genuine insight into the area, its history and people.

In their words:

In a world where distances are erased, a true adventure is going deeply into the discovery of the true essence and distinct features of a land, experiencing with all senses extraordinary activities while being accompanied by tour guides who are first place story tellers.

This is Slow Como Lake. The initiative born thanks to the passion and enthusiasm of people united by the fusion of a “slow” way of life and the love for Lake Como and aims at the valorisation of its historical, cultural, gastronomic and environmental heritage.


Looking out on to Lake Como from the portico below the fishermen’s houses in Rezzonico – one of the many delightful locations to discover when you stray from the popular path.

Maybe the best way to engage with a community is through meeting with its inhabitants. This is the principle behind Vincenzo Pandico’s Lake Como Explore – a tour business that allows you to ‘explore Lake Como through people’s experiences – a wonderful journey made by tales and pictures’. Slow Lake Como also organises cookery classes with locals – what better way to get to understand an area than through its cuisine. Specialist tours like Lake Como Food Tours  allow small groups to get an intimate insight into the culinary traditions of the lake. Any form of physical activity breaks down barriers and introduces you to the inhabitants of the area – all walkers greet each other up on the mountain paths. Many Italians are keen cyclists and all have respect for anyone prepared to take on any of the challenging hill climbs in the Lario Triangle such as the Muro di Sormano.


Maybe above all else, the ‘slow’ tourist needs information which fortunately the Internet now offers in abundance. Como Companion tries to pass on information of interest to both residents and visitors alike and provide some useful links. Lake Como has the infrastructure to support slow tourism – accommodation options that range from mountain-top huts for hikers, hostels, standard hotels or those specialised for walkers or cyclists, luxury villas etc. Use our site to view the different transport options as well as to kickstart your Internet research.

Slow down

Time to relax

Slow tourism also aims to be sustainable in the sense that it seeks to support and maintain those factors that attract visitors and delight residents for the pleasure of all both now and in the future. In this respect it’s great to note that Lake Como is now perhaps one of the first overall tourist locations with a network of recharging posts established for electric cars. Awe Magazine in an article from June 2017 describes the initiative thus:

 Italy’s breathtaking Lake Como has become the first “electric” destination in Europe thanks to a pioneering new initiative designed to reduce pollution and facilitate the easy use of electric cars, bikes and boats for the first time. Como-The Electric Lake is the brainchild of British business woman Judith Wade.

Launched this summer (2017) by Italy’s largest historic gardens and destinations network, Grandi Giardini Italiani (GGI), the initiative covers 170kms around Lake Como and is the first in Europe to create a widespread infrastructure of 19 charging points for electric cars, boats and bikes in one location. Lake Como is the birthplace of Alessandro Volta, a physicist and nobleman who invented the first electric battery over 200 years ago – making it the ideal location for this eco-enterprise.’

So come to Lake Como where, as you can see,  there is no excuse for not going slow!

Taking time to stop and stare

Taking time to stop and stare

Posted in Culture, Food, History, Itineraries, Lake, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ester Negretti One Year On – With Menaggio in Mind

It’s now over one year since my first interview with Ester written shortly after she had moved into her new studio at Via Borgo Vico 82 (Ester Negretti – Como’s Traditional Contemporary Artist). That article has proven to be one of the most popular on the blog and so, on reading about her upcoming exhibition over Easter in Menaggio, I was eager to return to talk once more to her about her recent work.

Negretti Mixed Media Canvas Menaggio

Colours at Menaggio, – Mixed media on canvas, 2017 Ester Negretti

On entering the studio I was comforted by the warmth emanating from a live flame space heater that certainly was not there on my first visit. And that heater seemed to symbolise how this space had settled down into a comprehensive display of the various facets of Ester’s creative interests. The exhibition area is now a true window onto her work whilst the actual studio, with work in progress, lies behind it. In turn the work area leads onto an equally spacious storage area. The studio stands as testimony to the range and energy of her output with the mix of canvases, objects and furnishings revealing facets that can readily be recognised as characteristic of Ester’s style.

Ester Negretti Artists Studio

Ester Negretti’s studio at Via Borgo Vico 82

Those stylistic characteristics provide the continuity – an interest in texture, movement, the use of mixed media, broken horizontals, muted shades, an autumnal colour palette that is anything other than Mediterranean  – all these aspects are still evident in her work but also there was something new. I looked around trying to identify what actually had changed. Firstly I noted that on the walls her figure paintings were less evident than on my previous visit. Landscapes had assumed a higher priority.

Como painting mixed media ester negretti

Como, Mixed Media on Canvas – 2017 Ester Negretti

Ester readily admitted that she had perhaps focused more on landscape lately. This was partially in response to public interest but also, more significantly, due to changes in how she herself had been reacting to her environment. Her more recent landscapes, whilst the subject matter of lake, community and surrounding mountains remains constant, do reflect a broader and freer use of colour.

ambientazione in studio

Ester’s Studio Environment

They still reflect her preference for autumnal and winter tones due, as she explained, to the greater variety in light and mood experienced off season, but maybe now through colour she allows the buildings a greater presence. For me, these subtle changes seem to reflect an increased degree of confidence in her treatment of her subjects, still seeking to express the sublimity and inner essence of place but confident enough to allow some externalities to shine through. Whatever the reason, the results are impressive and the exhibition of these new landscapes at Menaggio will be well worth a visit.

Painting mixed media sail boats ester negretti

Engaged aggressive sails, Mixed media on canvas – Ester Negretti 2017

I had noted in my first interview with Ester a certain ambivalence in her attitude to Como eager not to be considered solely as a Como artist, and holding back from a total enchantment with the beauty of our natural setting. It might be that the recent changes in her landscapes derive if only subconsciously from more acceptance of the role of place in her art, but for Ester the lake does not offer enough drama and movement. If only there was a way to combine the dramatic backdrop of sky and mountain with movement on turbulent water.

detail of mixed media technique used by Ester Negretti

Detail of sailing boats to show mixed media technique depicting the mountain backdrop

Her new series of studies of sailing yachts do exactly this – the physicality and layers of the mountains form the backdrop to a water surface chopped up by the graceful lines of boat hull topped by soaring masts and billowing sails.  These are not scenes from Lake Como but the Lario mountains are there in the background. In one way, these studies reproduce an idealised landscape combining the Como profile with a marine foreground.

If Ester’s landscapes have become less abstract, her figure studies have become more so – or at least in her series of three-dimensional ‘statues’ that will soon be on display at the Milan Furniture Fair. Ever in search of the inner essence, Ester had previously avoided detailing the external features of the human form. In her statues she may have retained the vertical dimensions but all human contours have been done away with leaving what she refers to as the imprints of personality. She uses her stylistic theme of stratification to create these textural vertical structures which allow for a whole range of personal interpretation.

sculpture 3-D art Ester Negretti

Essere Senziente 4 (Sentient Being), Ester Negretti 2012

Her output doesn’t stop at that and her studio includes examples of work with furniture, on fabric and with objects such as her series of rusted boxes. All in all, it was fascinating to note how this artist’s work had developed over the last sixteen months, particularly when the changes seem overall to be so positive.

Greater confidence revealed itself in various ways and not least in the broad range in the scale – the actual dimensions – of Ester’s pieces. Some of the statues are tall enough but also some of the sailing boat studies are metres tall. Yet she is also comfortable producing abstracts and landscapes no larger than 20 x 20 cms. I have already noted the freer use of colour but there is the continued bold use of mixed media and texture as well as the heightened drama of subject matter. It all adds up to an energetic output still executed with thoughtfulness and integrity but marked by a growing confidence in the development of her own particular artistic style.

Ester Negretti

The artist in her studio.

Ester’s personal exhibition at Menaggio entitled ‘Pantone Lake Como‘  can be seen at the Sala Espositiva of the Comune in Piazza Garibaldi. It runs from Wednesday 28th March until Tuesday 3rd April. Her sculptures instead will be on show at the Milan Furniture Fair (Salone del Mobile) which runs from April 17th to 22nd.

If you cannot make it to Menaggio or Milan, the full range of Ester’s output is available to view on her website (esternegretti.com)


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San Fermo to Como – in the footsteps of Garibaldi

garibladi statue Piazza Vittoria

Giuseppe Garibaldi, in Piazza Vittoria, Como

This walk follows the path taken by Garibaldi’s victorious guerrilla army following their defeat of the Austrian garrison in a battle centred on the Sanctuary of Saint Fermo and Saint Lorenzo on May 27th 1859. This is the easy one-way and downhill version allowing you plenty of time to take in the site of the battle and read the various informative signs placed along the start of the route by the Comune of San Fermo. Como was the most strategic town in Northern Lombardy for the Austrian administration so the defeat of its garrison and the retreat of its army to Monza was a significant victory for the forces of the Risorgimento in what came to be called the Second war of Independence.

sanctuary san ferm battle garibladi

Sanctuary of Saint Fermo and Saint Lorenzo – the scene of the battle of San Fermo

Take the No. 1 bus out of Como and stay on until reaching the terminal. Then walk up the slight hill to the Sanctuary whose bell tower is clearly visible. This same bell tower was on the morning of May 27th 1859 occupied by Austrian rifleman positioned to prevent the further advance of Garibaldi’s Cacciatori degli Alpi along the line of the foothills of the Alps. You are now on the site of the battle.

Painting San Fermo Battle Angelo Trezzini

Painting of the battle scene, Battle of San Fermo by Angelo Trezzini who was himself a soldier in Garibaldi’s Cacciatori degli Alpi.

Trezzini sergeant in the cacciatori degli apli

Sergeant in the Cacciatori degli Alpi, attributed to A. Trezzini

The Cacciatori degli Alpi was a regiment of volunteers recruited from across a whole range of occupations and classes but primarily consisting of Italian patriots from either Lombardy or the Veneto. Many had previously made their way to their base in Cuneo with the help of Como’s smugglers who aided their clandestine passage across the Swiss border so as to reach Piedmont which, under the political guile of Count Cavour and the military command  of Giuseppe Garibaldi, was spearheading the Risorgimento. Garibaldi had crossed into Lombardy from Piedmont at the base of Lake Maggiore (Sesto Calende) on the 22nd May 1859 with his guerrilla army of around 3000 volunteers and was now making his way to Como having already defeated the Austrians at a battle in Varese on the 25th.

On the morning of the 27th, Garibaldi himself did not lead the attack but divided his army into three sections with the main group leading the attack under the command of Captain Carlo de Cristoforis who was unfortunately an early mortal casualty. CristoforisThere were fourteen mortal casualties amongst the Garibaldini with a further sixty wounded. De Cristoforis thus became a local hero of the Risorgimento and the main army barracks (now disused) in Como are now named after him – as is the street you should now take to follow the signposts for the ‘Percorso Garibaldi’ – a brief but informative diversion from the main route.

caserma barracks de cristoforis como

Caserma Capitano Carlo De Cristoforis, Como

Santuario looking east

View looking east from the spot where De Cristoforis led his column against the Austrians in the Sanctuary.

Print Battle of san Fermo

Print depicting the attack on the sanctuary at San Fermo by the column led by Carlo De Cristoforis who fell mortally wounded during the engagement.

As you walk away from the Sanctuary, look back towards it to orientate yourself to the first line of attack where De Cristoforis fell. Dell'Orto.pngYou will also see another street sign named after one of the other victims in the conflict – Angelo Dell’Orto from Cernobbio. He was the only local man in the Cacciatori Degli Alpi and his local knowledge was of considerable value on that day. His subsequent family members were all accorded honorary citizen status on the back of his exploits at San Fermo. Just recently I saw the artwork of his descendant Graziano Dell’Orto, also from Cernobbio, at an exhibition in Como.

portrait young girl Graziano Dell'Orto descendant of risorgimento hero

Detail of a portrait in oil by Graziano Dell’Orto, a descendant of local resident Agostino Dell’Orto, killed in action at the Battle of San Fermo

Now turn back along Via De Cristoforis to follow the route taken by Garibaldi towards Como. Turn up Via Diaz at the Piazza and then take the second turning on the right when you reach the small roundabout. Here you will see the last of the ‘Percorso Garibaldi’ signs and as you descend Via Garibaldi,may27 turn left at the junction to enter the Comune of Como where the road changes name to commemorate the day of the battle. Here the Cacciatori degli Alpi would have been confronted with a marvelous view looking out over the lake, down to Como itself and across to Brunate.

Brunate Como Valfresca

View from the top of Via Maggio 27 in the Valfresca looking across to Como, the funicular and Brunate.

You are now descending the Valfresca, a route now popular with cyclists for testing their hill climbing potential. A number of footpaths cut off some of the corners and limit the time walking on asphalt but the road is rarely busy here. The valley cuts a channel through the hills that now form the Parco Spina Verde which is now traversed by the motorway whose viaduct we pass under.

Palazzo Valfresca

One of the beautiful buildings as you descend the Valfresca.

Garibaldi’s army had to deal with a minor skirmish with the Austrians when they reached the lakefront but their way was now clear to march down Via Borgo Vico and then to enter Como at what was known as Porta Susa, subsequently renamed as Via Garibaldi. As the patriots entered Como on its western side, the Austrian garrison retreated on the south side from Porta Torre down Via Milano to Monza where they regrouped.

statue and porta torre

Porta Torre and Piazza Vittoria – the Austrians left Como on this route south to Monza.

According to most accounts, Garibaldi’s entry into Como was greeted by rejoicing, the ringing of bells and triumphant processions through the town. However this was not a final act of liberation and Garibaldi’s army was not equipped to stay as an administrative alternative to the Austrians with the numbers necessary to maintain an army of occupation. Many citizens recognised this and had some concern for future reprisals once Garibaldi and his guerrilla force moved on. However, the campaign had certainly been a great propaganda coup, and as in the other great revolt against the Austrians staged by Como in 1848 – the Cinque Giornate – it did go to show how vulnerable the Austrian regime was, pointing to the inevitable granting of independence and the unification of Italy officially recognised as occurring on March 17th 1861.

Porta Susa Via Garibaldi

Via Garibaldi previously Porta Susa – the way Garibaldi entered into the city.

If this patriotic jaunt was not energetic enough for you, then avoid taking the bus out of Como and take Path no. 4 behind the Basilica di Sant’Abbondio to climb to Pianvalle where you turn right onto Path No. 1 to take to San Fermo. You will come out just at the point where the Via Maggio 27 turns into Via Garibaldi on the border of the two communes. Walk uphill to Via Diaz where you can then turn left to go to the sanctuary. The first part of this route is described when following this link.

Piazza Volta night

The plaque denoting where Garibaldi stayed in Como on the night of his victory at San Fermo. The building is in Piazza Volta.

Much more information, artifacts, uniforms, armory and images relating to the Garibaldi campaign are on display in the Museo Storico Giuseppe Garibaldi at Como in the Piazza Medaglie d’Oro.

See Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy? for more information on Como’s smuggling tradition.

Posted in Art, Events, History, Itineraries, People, Places of interest, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day


Ines Figini

Ines Figini

Ines Figini’s testimony of her time served as a slave labourer in the Nazi concentration camps has usually been recalled on Holocaust Memorial Day. This year I used that date to tell the story of the Sormano village priest, Don Carlo Banfi, who aided the escape in 1944 of Jewish migrants from deportation to Germany, by leading them to safety across the Swiss border on Mount Bisbino. With reference to the Holocaust, Ines’s story rewards the retelling as a reminder of how the most unsuspecting Italian citizens could also become victims of the Nazi-Fascist regime. Additionally the qualities of humanity and decency displayed by Ines, alongside her fortitude and her survival instinct that saw her through a set of intolerably stressful situations, are equally worth celebrating on this particular anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Via Grossi Como

Via Grossi, Como looking east as it climbs towards Brunate.

In March 1944 Ines Figini, the 4th of 5 children, was 21 years old and living in the modest family home in Via Tommaso Grossi, Como. She had started work at 16 in the Tintoria Comense after completing elementary education. The Tintoria Comense was one of the largest silk thread and cloth weaving factories in Como. It would later take on dyeing, printing and finishing and combine under the name Ticosa. As the saying went before the war, if you worked at Comense you could guarantee to put bread on your table.

industrial archeology Como silk chimney

Chimney of the steam room that powered the Ticosa factory – the largest silk factory in Como.

At the start of the war in 1938 there were 318 silk spinning and weaving businesses in the Province of Como employing up to 30,000 people with a further 22 businesses specialised in fabric dyeing and printing who employed a further 6,500. But the war deprived these businesses of their markets in USA, UK and France so that by August 1940 8,000 employees had been dismissed and a further 14,000 had their work suspended (what is known in Italy as Cassa Integrazione). This had risen to 13,000 and 20,000 respectively by the end of 1940. By this time, the Italian industrial economy had, to all intents and purposes, been put to the service of the German wartime one. The first Italian workers had left Como in 1939 to work for Volkswagen and this figure had risen to 5,000 by 1941. These were mostly voluntary labourers but Germany was to rely on up to 20% of its workforce consisting of slave labour with the majority coming from  Russia and Poland.

Industrial archeology silk political scandal

Heart of the old Tintoria Comense (Ticosa) Silk Factory

By 1943, resistance to the Fascist regime was building up – on May Day of that year, a red flag was unfurled provocatively above Como at Brunate and then on 25th July, following the arrest of Mussolini, the fascist authorities left Como and the opposition political parties were able to meet openly for the first time. This euphoric period was however very brief since the Nazis moved to occupy Italy and to establish the illegitimate fascist puppet state known as the RSI.

Paolo Porta

Paolo Porta

By 14th September Paolo Porta had re-established the Casa del Fascio in Como and by 18th September, martial law had been introduced with a black out and curfew from 8.30pm to 6.00am. The first calls were made for armed partisan resistance.

Conditions of life and work deteriorated markedly over the following period with industrial unrest and resistance growing. The clandestine labour unions tried to organise a general strike for the 1st March 1944 but plans were thwarted by the network of spies and informers set up by the Nazi-Fascist state. Workers were even further taunted when the local fascist boss Paolo Porta was believed to have declared that workers only needed a single slice of bread and an apple a day to live on.

 ‘O tutti, o nessuno!’ (All or No-one)

So on the 6th March 1944, as Ines arrived at the gates of the Comense factory at the start of her 8.00 am shift, the word went round to stop work at the blast of a whistle at 10.00 am. When the whistle sounded, Ines and the  majority of her co-workers duly stopped work. Police were summoned and when Ines and the others sought to leave the factory at 12.00 for the lunchtime break, they found the gates locked against them. Before the gates were allowed open, the police commissioner read out the names of those who were believed to be the strike organisers and told the crowd that these people would be sent to German labour camps. The gates then opened and the workers filed out for the lunch break but as Ines passed the police commissioner, she instinctively stood up for the arrested strike leaders by declaring their arrest was unfair since they had all obeyed the strike call so they should either all be arrested and sent to Germany or else none of them should be deported. These words would determine Ines’s fate although she was unaware of any immediate repercussions. However there was a knock at the door at her family home that midnight.

Palestra Comunale Mariani detention centre for deportees in the last war

Palestra Comunale Mariani on Via Sauro – where Ines was imprisoned alongside other deportees prior to being transferred to Bergamo. The gymnasium is only about 200 metres from Ines’s family home.

That knock on the door in Via Grossi led to Ines being carried off to the local police station where she was put in a cell with two other women workers from Tintoria Comense – Celestina Tagliabue and Ada Borgomainerio. She stayed there for two nights before being transferred to the Palestra Mariani which was being used to group antifascists, Jews and partisans prior to deportation to Germany.

‘Torno subito!’ (Back soon)

On 14th March, Ines, Ada, Celestina and a further five women from Lecco who had also been imprisoned for striking, were taken to San Giovanni Station at 5.00 am and put on a train for Bergamo where they were housed in army barracks for the next three days. Here Celestina, who suffered from a serious kidney ailment, was returned home since she was deemed unfit to undertake the onward journey to Germany – a consideration not extended to any of the Jewish deportees. Ines, Ada, the strike leaders and the other Jewish and anti-fascist detainees were then marched in a column five wide through the streets of Bergamo to the railway station, with  the local population passing food and clothing to them. They were then placed in goods wagons to set out for an unknown destination and an uncertain future in Germany, although Ines was still convinced she would just be employed like all the other voluntary workers who had previously left Como.

Concentration Camp Map

Ringed are the three concentration camps where Ines was imprisoned, from south to north Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbruck.

Little did Ines know that she was not destined to be employed as a regular employee in a German factory but that she would be imprisoned as a slave labourer in some of the most notorious ‘lager’ within the German Reich. She was not to return back home to Como until 25th October 1945 having traveled across the Reich as follows:

  1. By train from Bologna to Vienna on 17th March 1944.
  2. From Vienna on 20th March 1944 by lorry to stay one week in Mauthausen Labour/Extermination Camp in Austria close to the Czech border.
  3. From Mauthausen by train to stay 8 months until November 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau Labour/Extermination Camp in Poland.
  4. From Auschwitz-Birkenau by train to stay until April 1945 in Ravensbruck Women’s Labour/Extermination Camp, Germany.
  5. After forced marches and eventual rescue by the Russian Army on the 5th May 1945, recovery in hospital from typhoid and phlebitis at Prenzlau, Northern Germany.
  6. By train from Prenzlau to Bolzano in October 1945.
  7. From Bolzano to a centre for refugees at Pescantina and onwards by train to Milan and then to Como on 25th October 1945.

‘Ma questa è una prigione!’ (But this is a prison)

When Ines, Ada and the other women from Lecco arrived at Vienna, they were walked through the corridors of a civilian prison and left in a large room with a bowl of thin soup and provided only with some straw on the floor to sleep on. The following day they were loaded onto a lorry smelling strongly of disinfectant to set out for Mauthausen towards the Czech border. On arrival, Ines and the other women were separated from the other male detainees from Como (whom they were never to see again) and were then put through the concentration camp’s registration process. For this they were stripped naked, showered and then walked in single file for a medical inspection, with the onlooking guards passing lewd comments, before dressing again to be marched on to their windowless cells. Ines still managed to hold on to the belief that she would eventually find her workplace and that her conditions would improve. But her next transfer to Auschwitz-Birkenau left her with no doubt that she was a prisoner and that her employee status was as a slave labourer.

Number 76150

Ines Tattoo

Ines’s prisoner number at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Ines and Ada were given a slice of bread and a dollop of margarine for the day-long journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  They were locked into an actual passenger carriage rather than the goods wagons used to transport the Jewish detainees. The registration process at Auschwitz-Birkenau included the tattooing of her number 76150 on her forearm as just another act in the process of dehumanisation that had started the moment they had arrived in Vienna. Ines was set to work transporting the human waste from the camp to be spread out on the fields as fertilizer.  When the winter gave way to spring, the prisoners were set to digging channels in the clay soil to drain the marshland. Ines also became gradually aware of the truly sinister nature of this labour/extermination camp as she came to realise the source of the acrid smoke arising from the camp’s charnel houses. She also worked out the pitiful fate of the young children she saw set to marching five abreast with each clutching a toy given to them by the guards as they were led to their gruesome end. It is only thanks to the testimonies of prisoners like Ines that we can begin to appreciate the extent of the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted on the detainees in the Nazi death camps. But during this period most of Ines’s attention, energy and ingenuity had to be  spent in seeking to survive by staying out of trouble.

After eight months Ines was transferred again – this time to the labour and extermination camp at Ravensbruck which lay 90 kilometres north of Berlin. Ines had had to say goodbye to Ada prior to the journey since Ada had taken ill with appendicitis and was still convalescing in the camp hospital. Ines was loaded into the goods wagons for the long ride west. Ravensbruck was a labour camp designated almost exclusively for female prisoners who were overseen by female guards. The camp provided a slave labour force for the nearby Siemens factories. Ines and her fellow female prisoners were marched in columns to work accompanied by armed guards and Doberman guard dogs. She worked  the 12 hour stints in two shifts starting either from 6 in the morning or 6 in the evening. In spite of the long hours of work without even the possibility to sit down, the conditions were better than at Auschwitz if just because she was indoors out of the worst of the weather.

Forced March West

From January and February 1945 it became obvious to Ines and the other prisoners that the Reich was on the retreat as news of the Russian advances came through. The retreat soon developed into a flight west away from the encroaching Red Army. For the prisoners life got harder. In April 1945, Ines was transferred out of Ravensbruck to a smaller nearby camp and the normal daily ration of a loaf of black bread was now shared out amongst eight or ten prisoners rather than five as previously. With the Russians advancing ever closer, the prisoners were gathered together, given minimum rations and set to march west accompanied by the Doberman dogs and armed guards. A soldier was delegated to stay at the back of the column to shoot those prisoners who could not keep up with the rest. One morning, after the march had halted for the night in a country farm, the prisoners awoke to find that their German guards had slipped away under cover of darkness. The war was over and Ines realised her survival instincts had seen her through to the end  – if she could now just get back to Como.

’tanto tu torni sempre!’ (In any case, you always come back)

The end of the war resulted in a new set of challenges to test Ines’s spirit of survival. There were about 11 million displaced persons in Germany at the end of the war,  most of whom had been employed as forced or slave labour. Many were as eager as Ines to get home but the lack of food and the damage to the basic infrastructure made for a logistical nightmare. Ines’s strong sense of survival had initially paid off well but drinking untreated milk led to typhoid fever and a prolonged period in a Russian-led hospital. Any attempt to return to Italy had to wait until her life was out of immediate danger and she had sufficient strength to walk and sustain the stresses of the journey.

Monumento ai Caduti War Memorial Giuseppe Terragni Antonio Sant'Elia

Monumento ai Caduti – War Memorial designed by Giuseppe Terragni and inspired by Antonio Sant’Elia. The two major representatives of the fascist state were executed by firing squad behind the memorial.

Meanwhile back in Como, with the collapse of the Nazi-Fascist state, there were scores to be settled. Paolo Porta, the fascist leader who had gone a long way to provoke the original strikes at the Tintoria Comense back in March 1944, had decided to accompany Mussolini in the column of German troops who had made their way up the western shores of Lake Como possibly attempting to reach the Valtellina (follow link for more detail). He was captured at Dongo by partisans and executed alongside the other fascist leaders on the Dongo lakefront. The Provincial Police Chief (Questore), Lorenzo Pozzoli, officially handed the city over to the partisans following Mussolini’s departure. He and the sadistic Head of the Political Office, Domenico Saletta, were arrested and put on trial. Pozzoli admitted he had been mistaken to put his faith in the fascists. Saletta tried to pass blame for those he had personally assassinated on to Pozzoli. Both were condemned to execution by firing squad which was carried out on the 23rd April 1945 on the lakefront behind the Terragni War Memorial. The managing director of the Comense factory, Umberto Walter – a person whom Ines had always considered respectful and caring towards his employees – was arrested and also faced the possibility of execution or imprisonment for collaboration in spite of having aided the escape of some Jews and anti-fascists.

Viale Geno evening

Viale Geno where Umberto Walter lived. His villa became the Swiss Consulate after the war.

He committed suicide on June 13th 1945. The person who had actually signed the order for Ines’s deportation, the Prefect Francesco Sforzolini, had fled Italy in April 1945 for Venezuela and subsequently returned in 1962.  He has never since been required to answer for his wartime actions in a court of law.  Ines’s parents were still alive although her father was now suffering from ill health. Ada Borgomainerio, Ines’s colleague from Tintoria Comense whom she had left in the Auschwitz Birkenau  Prison Hospital, had been liberated by the Russians from the concentration camp on the 27th January 1945 and had returned to Como. All but one of the men deported alongside of Ines failed to return to Italy – they  perished in the Nazi concentration camps with the one survivor dying shortly after his return to Como due to the effects of starvation and poor health.

Ines meanwhile was in the Russian-led hospital in Prenzlau, Northern Germany ever since her rescue by the Red Army on the 5th May and from the moment she had contracted typhoid. The prolonged stay in hospital went on to provoke phlebitis in one leg. It was only four months later in October, when her fever had abated sufficiently, that she had strength enough to join a group of Italian IMIs (Italian Military Internees) being repatriated from labour camps to Bolzano. From Bolzano she was transferred to the refugee centre (Centro di Accoglienza dei Riduci) at Pescantina just outside of Verona. Under the selfless care  and generosity of the women who ran the centre, Ines gained enough strength to continue her onward journey to Milan and then onto Como. In spite of her pitiful health, Ines would not have anyone forewarn her parents of her arrival. She wanted to walk up Via Grossi unaided and knock on the door of the home she had been deported from 18 months previously.

Ines book

Cover of the book recounting Ines’s story – the title is taken from a phrase often used by Ines’ mother.

Ines had always clung on to the belief that she would make it home and it was maybe a degree of luck but also the strength that came from this belief that saw her through the hellish experience of slave labour. But one cannot go through witnessing and living through all the inhumane horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps without suffering a profound mental impact. Many aspects of life returned to normal; Ines went back to work at the Tintoria Comense (subsequently known as Ticosa) eventually retiring as the firm’s fortunes waned.  Yet she still had to come to terms with the mental impact of her hellish experiences. After a few years of work, Ines found that the best way to deal with the mental anguish was to return to Birkenau annually for as many years as possible. She found these visits helped exorcise the damage of her painful memories. She also began to forgive those who had deported and imprisoned her – the various sadistic guards she had encountered or the distant unfeeling officers and politicians who delighted in establishing such an inhumane and cruel regime. She forgave them primarily because she could not bear to carry inside the weight of all her rancour. Forgiveness was essential for her own mental well-being.

She was also persuaded by the historians at Como’s Institute for Contemporary History to recount her experiences to groups of schoolchildren. Whilst initially uncertain about this for fear of either a lack of student interest or of  her ability to convey the true horror of life in the Nazi concentration camps,  she was soon reassured of both the children’s interest and also of the power of her personal testimony of the atrocities she had experienced and witnessed.

Ines with schoolchildren from Cantu

Ines with schoolchildren from Cantu.

Ines is still with us and still telling her story. The link here is to a video of her recounting her experiences as part of a ceremony held in her honour last year at Como’s town hall. The video is in Italian as is the book written of her experience entitled ‘Tanto Tu Torni Sempre’ written by Giovanna Caldara and Mauro Colombo and published by Editore Melampo.    Back in 2004 she was presented with the award of Commendatore by the then President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, on his visit to Como.

Maybe it was a degree of naivety that got Ines into trouble that fateful morning on 6th March 1944 but if so, it was a naivety that stemmed from an inborn sense of natural justice and humanity – qualities shown also during Ines’s prolonged incarceration as when she took a great personal risk to visit and comfort Ada Borgomainerio as she lay isolated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Hospital. Ines’s story is not a testimony to courage in confronting an inhumane ideology through political ideals, nor to the altruism of someone driven by a morality arising from religious conviction – it is though a story of personal courage, fortitude, of someone able to retain the optimistic hope of a better future, of a time when the perverted values of war and oppression would finally be replaced by a return to civility and respect for all humanity. Before long we will lose direct contact with those who lived through the Nazi concentration camps so let us take these final opportunities to express gratitude for their willingness to share what they can for the good of all of us.

Ines Figini 1

Ines receives her award from then President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.




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