Tourism on Lake Como – Then and Now

Argegno

Argegno and the start of the Val D’Intelvi

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

Now – The Figures

Bell tower

Towards Lezzeno

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

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

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

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

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

Then – The Origins of Tourism

Towards Bellagio

Bellagio from Lezzeno

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

Lakeside and mountain

From lakeside to mountain – Lake Como’s contrasts

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

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

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

Villa D'este

Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio

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

Giambattista Giovio

Giambattista Giovio, author (1748-1815)

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

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

Then – From Spectacular to Sublime

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

Villa Pliniana

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

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

Milano and Sublime

Sublime Lake Como

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

Torno

The ancient northern Roman gateway into Torno

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

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

View of Menaggio JMW Turner 1842

View of Menaggio from the sketchbook of JMW Turner, 1842

Now – From Sublime to Serene

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

Romance on the lake

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

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

Churchill Val D'Intelvi July 1945

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

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

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

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

Rezzonico

Rezzonico in the Comune of San Siro

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

The Future

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

Brienno to Argegno - sheer mountainside

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

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

Christo Floating Piers

Bulgarian artist Christo’s Floating Piers on Lake Iseo

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

Villa del Grumello

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

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

Airbnb

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

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

Villa Platamone

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

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

Related Articles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Como’s Pope and other Odescalchi

Via Vitani

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

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

Statue Odescalchi

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

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

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

Stemma Odescalchi 2

The heraldic shield of the Odescalchi family.

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

 

Pope Innocent XI 2

Pope Innocent XI

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

Villa Odescalchi

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

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

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

Luchino Visconti di Modrone

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

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

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

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi

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

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

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi with arms

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

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

Castello Odescalchi a Bracciano

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

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

Castello Odescalchi a Santa Marinella

Castello Odescalchi at Santa Marinella in Civitavecchia

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

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

Grazia: Sofia, must I address you as Princess?

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

Grazia: How come?

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

Grazia: Do you live by yourself?

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

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

Sofia: Yes, I find them exhilarating.

Grazia: What’s your dream?

Sofia: To work in the fashion industry.

Grazia: Have you got your own style?

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

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

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

Sofia and Lucia Odescalchi

Sofia with her mother Lucia Odescalchi

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

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

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

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

Passeggiata

A reflective moment on the lakefront passeggiata in Como.

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

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

Funicular

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

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

 

Lakeside restaurants

Lakeside restaurants entice passersby along Viale Geno, Como

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

Hortensias in Villa dell Grumello

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

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

Ferragosto 2

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

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

Inviting waters Careno

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

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

Canadian Choir

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

corpo musicale

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

Villa D'este

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

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

Isola Comacina

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

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

Lake

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

Orion

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

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

Duomo

The interior of Como’s Cathedral

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

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

Storm clouds Baradello

Storm clouds gather by the Baradello Tower

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

Lakeside passeggiata

The lakeside park in Como

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

Marching Bands

Marching bands form part of the summer’s musical entertainment

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Palanzo on Show: A Pilgrimage to Serenity

Palanzo

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

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

Palanzo 5

Ancient portico in the heart of Palanzo

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

Il Torchio

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

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

Terracing

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

terracing 2

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

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

Cascata Palanzo

Waterfall on the walk towards Pognana.

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

Palanzo 3

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

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

 

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

Sentieri Palanzo

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

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

lavatoio

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

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

Madonna del Soldo

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

Palanzo 6

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

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

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Exercising Outdoors – Some Options

Total Fit 3

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

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

Total Fit

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

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

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

Total Fit 4

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

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

MammaFit logoMammaFit

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

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

Mammfit 7

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

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

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

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

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

Pratiqiamo logoPratiqiamo

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

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

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

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

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

Row-In-Fit

Gerosa Twins Provincia di Como

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

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

vascavoga

The Vasca Voga at Canottieri Lario

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

Summer Activities for the Young

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

Horse Riding

Red House Horses

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

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

Football School

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

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

Varied Sports

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

Contact Details

Total Fit

Website: http://totalfit.it/ 

Facebook: @totalfit.it

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

MammaFit

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

Facebook: @MammaFit

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

Pratiqiamo

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

Facebook: @pratiqiamo

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

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

Row-In-Fit

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

Facebook: @canottierilario

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

 

 

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Swimability 2019: Lake Como’s Clean Water

Bellagio

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

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

carena

The inviting water at Careno

Overall Results

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

Laglio

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

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

Canottieri 2

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

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

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

Portale

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

From Como to Griante

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

carate urio

The beach at Carate Urio

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

 

brienno 1

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

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

 

brienno 2

Brienno

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

From Como to Bellagio

 

carena beach

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

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

 

carena restaurant

Trattoria del Porto – specialises in lake fish at Careno.

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

careno beach 2

Leaving Careno beach on the boat back to Como

The EU’s Bathing Water Directive

Rezzonico Beach

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

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

Detailed results

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

Table 1

Table 2

swan

 

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Villa Platamone – An ‘Aristocratic’ Bed and Breakfast

Portico and park

Villa Platamone Portico and Park

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

From the dining room

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

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

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

Villa Ciani

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

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

Villa Bignami

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

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

Great Room Fireplace

The Great Room

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

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

Terraces

Private terraces with views over the villa’s park

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

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

Beams

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

Suite

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

Marble bath

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

Winter Garden Ceiling detail

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

Winter Garden statuary

Winter Garden Statuary

Winter Garden Ceiling fresco

Winter Garden Floral frescoed ceiling

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

three hundred year magnolia

The park includes this 300 year old magnolia

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

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

Swimming Pool

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

 

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Torno’s Santo Chiodo & Conflicts with Como

Torno from P di Stefano

Torno seen from Piazza santo Stefano, a district of Cernobbio

This Sunday, May 5th, will see the annual blessing and evening procession through the town of its ‘Santo Chiodo’ or sacred nail – no less than one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus. You may well ask how come this small lakeside town with a present day population of about 1250 should boast within its church of St. John the Baptist, one of the four nails from the cross. You may well not believe the story I am about to tell – we are after all dealing with folklore here – but many ‘Tornaschi’ do and they, joined undoubtedly by other more sceptical folk, will nevertheless take part in this annual celebration starting off in the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, the second of Torno’s churches lying to the north of the port.

Interior 2

Interior of Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista. The Santo Chiodo is kept in a chest behind the altar.

Campanile 1

Bell tower of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista

The maths around the number of known crucifixion nails does not exactly add up – but some of the nails may well have been subdivided. The original nails were appropriated in 327 to 328 from the Holy Land by Elena, the mother of the future Emperor Constantine.  Apparently there were four and not three as was established in Christian iconography by Giotto. However, once Elena had returned to Rome, she only made direct use of two of them by incorporating one within the diadem surrounding her son Constantine’s helmet and the other for the bit in the bridle of his war horse. Both nails were intended as a charm to protect her son in battle.

 

The four Santi Chiodi are nowadays most commonly believed to be in Rome, Milan. Monza and in the Cathedral of Colle di Val d’Elsa in the Province of Siena. The one in Rome is said to be part or all of the nail used as a bit in the bridle of Constantine’s horse. It is housed in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem which was built on Empress Elena’s original residence. The one in Milan is said to have come from Rome at the time of Saint Ambrose. It is now kept in a tabernacle high above the altar in Milan’s Duomo. It used to be brought out for possession every 3rd May but the procession now takes place annually on the Saturday before September 14th.

Corona Ferrea Monza

Corona Ferrea, used in the coronation of Kings of Italy up until the nineteenth century.

The Monza nail is incorporated into the Corona Ferrea, an early medieval crown used from the time of the Lombard Queen Teodolinda to crown the Kings of Italy. It is now housed in the Museum of Monza Cathedral. There are two conflicting stories of how it came to Monza in the first place. The one version states that the Corona Ferrea is none other than the diadem mounted on Constantine’s helmet. When the western empire collapsed the diadem was carried over to Constantinople but was then claimed by the Ostrogoth King Theodoric who went on to become the second ‘barbarian’ King of Rome from 493 to 526. His summer residence was in Monza which is to where the byzantines duly sent it. The less colourful version is that Pope Gregory I gave it to the Lombard Queen Teodolinda whose palace was in Monza as thanks for establishing Monza Cathedral and for converting the local population to Christianity.

Alleys Torno

Torno’s ancient alleyways

The fourth nail in Colle di Val d’Elsa, near to San Gimignano, is twenty two centimetres long and is described with confident precision to have been used to pin down Jesus’s left foot. It was in the ninth century and in the hands of a French priest who, having made his pilgrimage to Rome and been given the nail by the Pope, died on his return journey at Viterbo. On his deathbed he entrusted the nail to his secretary or travelling companion, a priest from the Colle area.

However, up until the end of the nineteenth century, pilgrims from across Europe would travel to Torno to venerate the Santo Chiodo. Torno gained its nail from a German bishop named within Italy at least as Alemanno. In 1099 Alemanno was travelling back from a crusade in the Holy Land and seeking to pause his journey at Como. That was not possible since Como was embroiled at the time in a civil  micro-conflict reflecting the macro-conflict between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.

Romweg 1500

Detail of the ‘Romweg’ (Rome Road) map published in 1500 orientated south to north with Como boxed. It showed the pilgrim routes across Europe from Edinburgh to Rome

Lake Como formed part of the medieval super highway back to Germany known as the Romweg and Alemanno needed to set sail.  He therefore took the shortest diversion possible by making his way to Torno. He was travelling with one of the nails from the cross and also with a limb from one of the victims of Herod’s slaughter of the first born.

Stucco ceiling

Detail of stucco decoration and frescoes within the church

Alemanno’s onward journey the next day had to be postponed due to a heavy storm. Similar storms hampered his progress over the following days such that he took this to be a divine sign that the nail had found its natural home. He thus entrusted it to Torno and then, with storms abating, travelled on to Germany. No further mention is made as to what happened to the baby’s limb.

The story or fable of Torno’s Santo Chiodo was not verified in writing until 1677 when  Domenico Rusca, a Cistercian monk and member of Como’s powerful Rusca dynasty, cited how his ancestor Lamberto Rusca passed by Torno in 1126 before proceeding on to give battle against Isola Comacina. This was again part of a larger conflict but this time between the Holy Roman Empire and the Lombardy League led by Milan. Como supported the Emperor; Isola Comacina supported the Lombardy League. Lamberto went to Torno to gain protection in battle from the nail – just as Elena had hoped for her son Constantine. The nail worked to Lamberto’s advantage on this occasion even though Torno was actually allied with Isola Comacina during this conflict.

Sagra di San Giovanni

Sagra di San Giovanni, Isola Comacina. An annual firework display re-enacting the sacking of Isola Comacina by Como in the 12th century

The nail crops up again in the difficult history between Torno and Como. Back in the fifteenth century, these two towns were intense rivals. Torno had a population of 5000 (down to 1250 nowadays) and Como was slightly larger with 7000 (more like 70,000 nowadays). Both owed their prosperity to the wool trade. Torno was also strategically placed at the neck of the entrance to the ‘primo bacino’ on the lake. They used this location to demand duty and tolls from those wanting access to Como. So once again in a micro version of a macro European conflict, Como went to war against Torno and sacked it in 1515. They returned in 1522 to totally destroy the town. The townspeople were dispersed up the lake. During this destruction, a soldier stole the nail and carried it off to his home town of Bergamo. However he soon sought to return it when his family began to suffer a whole series of serious mishaps.

Doorway

Bas-relief by Rodari brothers above the doorway to Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista

In time the citizens of Torno returned, restored their church and then ensured that no-one could ever again steal their nail. It was encased in a chest secured by seven locks whose keys were separately held by six local families and the town’s priest. It was only thirty years ago when the priest decided to take custody of all seven keys. The chest with its seven locks sits today behind the altar. The priest will open all locks this Sunday and the nail will be presented to the local worshippers. The nail makes another appearance on the last Sunday in June, close to Saint John the Baptist’s Saint Day. On this occasion it is immersed in water held in a copper shell.  The water is then blessed and distributed to the ill and infirm of the town. Some have said that the water has curative properties.

Altar

Right from the start, the verification of the story behind the Santi Chiodi cannot be proven so this is primarily a story of folklore which still however has relevance to some locals to this day. Torno’s claim to possess one of the four nails from the cross does not have the following it used to have. Large numbers of pilgrims no longer visit Torno for the nail.  Most modern day tourists are also probably unaware of the nail and of its importance to this small lakeside town.  Its legacy is however to have given Torno a delightful small church with beautifully rich baroque decoration on the inside. With its splendid Romanesque bell tower, renovated in 1962 and the facade carved by the Rodari brothers restored in 1999  (on the nine hundredth centenary of the nail), the church has now been designated a national monument. It is well worth a visit.

Garden of Remembrance

Garden of Remembrance behind the church leading down to the town’s cemetery.

 

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A Castle in Distress: Tiina to the Rescue

carimate 2

Carimate Castle, Province of Como

Carimate Castle has fallen upon hard times. It has been unoccupied and unmaintained since 2014. Now, long-time Carimate resident Tiina Hiekkaranta, also known locally as the (Finnish) Countess of Carimate, and her husband Timo want to save it. They have constituted a core team of professionals with a plan for restoring the castle to and beyond its former glory – but they could use some help!

Tiina

Tiina Hiekkaranta, aka Countess of Carimate

The castle is up for sale, and, given its failure to reach its reserve in former auctions, comes offered at a knock-down price. Yet even if this 7,335 square metre property with a 5.2 hectare park attached, all dating back to the 1300s, was to be sold for a penny, it might still be too risky. That is unless you have the imagination to visualise the immense opportunities, the professionalism to realise them and the commitment to sustain the vision no matter what. Tiina and team believe they have exactly what’s needed – with the help of an angel or two!

Take a look at the Castle in this video link showing just what an architectural gem it is and how it looked back in 2014 before it had suffered damage through lack of maintenance and a leaky roof.

Head and Heart

south west tower

The South West Tower seen from the former moat

Angels will have to go for this plan with head and heart. But the heart won’t need too much convincing because the charms of Carimate and its castle will soon seduce. Would you not want to rest your head for a night or two where the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I chose to stay for a week in 1493 and again in 1496? Or to walk in the castle’s forest where this avid hunter chased deer and boar? Or to consider as you climb the south westerly tower that you are occupying the same spot as Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Savoy King Victor Emanuele II when they reviewed their troops amassing for the 3rd of the Italian Wars of Independence?

The castle is sited on a rise above the plain along the Antica Via Regina which was the main medieval route from Milan to Germany via Como and over the Splugen Pass. There was a castle on this site since around 800 –  the former castle was destroyed in 1149 in the conflict between Como and Milan. The current castle dates back to 1345 when the feudal estate was acquired by the Visconti family, the lords of Milan. They built it as a form of holiday retreat, a hunting lodge and a fortification. Its strategic position on the route north was recognised by Caterina Visconti who in the 1380s  added the moat and drawbridge bearing the distinctive heraldry of the Visconti family. The small town of Carimate then developed around the fortified site.

stemme

The drawbridge carries the emblem of the Visconti family, lords of Milan throughout the middle ages. The viper devouring a human form is known as the ‘Biscione di Milano’ and can be seen on historic buildings throughout Lombardy, including at the exclusive Villa Pliniana on Lake Como.

Its location in those days was highly strategic, positioned as part of a defensive outer ring for Milan. It is equally strategic today but, thankfully, not for its defensive qualities other than as a retreat on the edge of the Milanese hinterland. It lies within one of Western Europe’s most densely populated and wealthy areas with easy access by air and by road or rail from Switzerland or along from the Veneto and through Bologna. Carimate’s strategic advantage is now strictly commercial. Yet it retains those qualities of peace and tranquillity originally recognised by the Visconti back in the 1300s when they made it their ideal holiday retreat. Nowadays that recreational quality is enhanced by being surrounded by five golf courses, one of which is directly on the doorstep – literally at the bottom of the garden – and being within striking distance of Lake Como, the Formula 1 venue in Monza, the various trade fairs held by Fiera Milano at Rho, San Siro – the home of AC Milan , etc. etc..

Making Magical Music

Moving on from the 1300s, the Visconti family finally left the castle in 1795 on the death of Ludovico Visconti who died intestate. It was then passed on to a Como family, the Arnaboldi. In 1874 Cristoforo Arnoboldi undertook extensive renovations giving the castle its current profile by adding gothic features and the crenelated roofline. That family eventually sold up in 1954 since when the castle has been through a varied set of fortunes.

Carimate 1

The rear of the Castle showing Cristoforo Arnaboldi’s Gothic renovation including the crenellated roof-line.

The height of these fortunes was decidedly between 1977 and 1987 when the castle was the site of one of the most successful recording studios in modern times – Stone Castle Studios. This enterprise was the brainchild of Antonio Casetta who had a precise and compelling vision. He set about investing in the latest technology and forming a creative environment where artists, session musicians, studio technicians could all get together to share in the production process. For him, the quality of the environment was everything – somewhere where all contributors to the creative process could come together temporarily to work in calm isolation and without negative distractions.

stone castle composite

Tony Casetta, creator of Stone Castle Studios and the album cover to Lucia Dalla’s ‘Come è profondo il mare’ – a work of genius produced in these studios.

The results were phenomenal. Practically all the great names of Italian popular music recorded here – the Pooh, Lucio Dalla, Fabrizio de André, Antonello Venditi and Pino Daniele amongst many others. The studio’s reputation and the qualities of its setting also attracted international stars such as Paul Young and the UK pop group ‘Yes’ who chose Carimate to record ‘Big Generator’. In the end, it was the financial management that let the studios down.

Tony Casetta’s formula for creative success was investing in technology and revolutionising the creative process. Tiina’s team similarly see investing in technology and revolutionising the concept of service as being the way to transform the castle into an exclusive resort.

A Return to Excellence

Front elevation

Front elevation, Carimate Castle

Tiina and her husband have put together a team of professionals consisting of hoteliers, architects, estate agents, restauranteurs and lawyers all committed head and heart to restoring Carimate Castle back to and beyond former glory. Tiina knows the castle intimately having previously worked for the former proprietors as a sales angel when it was a luxury hotel. She foresees it reopening as a hotel but with a mix of residence apartments in addition to the guest rooms. Latest technology will be deployed for air and water heat control. An excellent kitchen will be managed by the owners of the renowned local restaurant ‘Il Torchio’. Financial costings and estimates are in the hands of Tiina’s husband with his years of experience working in the financial sector. The window of opportunity is now open with the second auction scheduled for May 15th.

carimate 3

The Grand Entrance to the Castello di Carimate.

If you could be one of the angels Tiina and team are looking for, please contact her in the first instance on tiina.hiekkaranta@gmail.com . If you know of any potential angels, please do pass this article on. This gem of a building has been left unloved for far too long and both it, and its little town, deserve better.

grand hotel milano

The Grand Hotel Milano at Brunate – another luxury hotel being renovated and reopened after years of neglect as top end tourism booms in and around Como and Milan.

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Sarah Aller: Como’s New York Artist In Residence

Sarah

Sarah Aller in her studio on Via Ciceri, Como

Sarah Aller has been living and working as an artist in Italy for the last eight years. I only became belatedly aware of her work recently due to some publicity for her upcoming participation in the ‘Collisioni’ exhibition to be held in Genoa’s Palazzo Reale at the start of May (details below). So there was no time to lose in learning more about this talented member of our local ex-pat community.

We met in her studio on Via Ciceri – a space shared alongside a Herbal Life office where her works displayed on the walls took me directly on a visual voyage via Paris to New York – an immediate affirmation of Sarah’s international background and of her love for urban settings.

Team Mates

‘Team Mates’ Sarah Aller. A pair of trapeze artists ascend over a neighborhood street, playfully stretching the width of the canvas. This original, 3 color stencil is sprayed over a collage of digitally manipulated, image transfer photographs. The transfers are adhered over a mixed media background revealing collaged and painted textures underneath. The viewer is nearly at eye level with the pair, engaging with their movements as they hover low over the street, almost touching ground. The piece relates to team work and reliance on those around us.

Sarah was raised and educated in New York where she also attended art school. She might best be considered a New York artist given how she incorporates iconic images of that vibrant city in many of her works. However she doesn’t limit herself to any particular setting and has incorporated images of both Genoa and Como into her backgrounds in honour of one of her favourite Italian cities and of the city where she has chosen to live. Her New York connection has gone down well for her here in Italy.

The Beauty

The Beauty, Sarah Aller. Original stencil, image transfer collage, gold leaf and acrylic on canvas. Como Cathedral is shown in the background.

It provokes interest on the part of Italian clients who also frequently ask how she came to be living and working here – “Why did you choose Como?” In Sarah’s case, it was a choice made for family reasons but one she in no way regrets, although she retains fond memories of her time spent in Turin. It was love and adventure which brought her to Italy opening up a decidedly positive chapter in her life in which she feels she has discovered her unique voice as an artist.

That artistic voice is expressed in multi-layered mixed media pieces on canvas. They consist of a background (predominantly urban) overlaid by subjects – a technique which conveys a slight disconnect between the subjects and the context in which they are placed. I compare this with ‘Mr and Mrs. Andrews’, that famous ‘old master’ by Thomas Gainsborough showing an aristocratic couple posed within and showing off their country estate. The point of his painting was the total integration of subject and setting. However Sarah’s technique lightly detaches her subjects from her backgrounds. I got the fanciful idea that this might be a reflection of modern mobility or possibly of the inevitable dislocation inherent in ex-pat life. Leaving my fancies aside, the technique does allow her to objectify her backgrounds so they offer an independent element to how we the viewer wish to read them.

Mr and Mrs Andrews and Hometown Shake

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough, Hometown Shake by Sarah Aller.

Her subjects are also in a slight time warp with their retro feel revealed in costume, pose or activity. Many of her subjects are children or young people involved in activities such as dance, sport or games. They are caught in active poses with their dynamism contrasting with the static urban background. Sarah once worked as a Montessori teacher and this interest in childhood is certainly evident in her work.

Street Games

Street Games by Sarah Aller. Image transferred over collage with acrylic on board.

The urban backgrounds often complement this retro feel with Sarah admitting that she loves images of New York in the shabby 1970s or Paris in the bohemian years of the 1950s (when it so happens, the city had a sizeable population of ex-pat American writers, artists and musicians). This same spirit beyond shabby chic leads her to be intrigued by Genoa’s extensive but still mostly run-down Centro Storico or the Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples. She need only add the Ballarò district of Palermo to complete a trilogy of atmospheric Italian urban environments. The urban images used for her backgrounds are transferred from her own photographs.

James Baldwin Paris

James Baldwin, American author of ‘Giovanni’s Room’ and ‘Another Country’ in Paris in the 1950s.

Her attitude to her own personal setting seems to be flexible and adaptable. She would love her son to go to university here but, despite that and the fact that she loves living here for now, she foresees a time when she would prefer to be closer to her parents. Whatever the future brings, she considers this to have been a formative time here in Italy seeing her mature as an artist by becoming more certain of her artistic style, more confident in the application of technique and finding her distinctive ‘voice’. She does not attribute this to any particular local influence but more a part of the normal ageing process. She interestingly characterised her time in her twenties as the period in which she discovered what she did not want to do. Whilst now, having got rid of the irrelevancies, she can focus on what she does want to do.

Try to Take Her Out

‘Try to Take Her Out’ by Sarah Aller. Monoprint, image transfer collage, original stencil and acrylic on canvas

I asked about her particular techniques with some trepidation knowing that some artists like to keep a firm lid on trade secrets. Instead Sarah welcomed the topic stating how her clients, apart from wanting to know why she is here, are also very interested in how her work is put together. She is more than happy to tell them. Her on-line catalogue is also more expansive than most on how each piece is constructed. She uses image transfer for creating both the background and the subjects. This is done from bonded carbon photocopies (laser and not ink-jet) using solvents or gel as a medium to dissolve away the paper to leave the carbon image on the canvas. Her backgrounds may also have been previously prepared using collage. For her subjects, apart also from image transfer, she now tends to use a lot of stencils which are either produced by hand from photocopies or cut on a plotter. The stencils are also a practical way to speed up production. In all cases, the starting point is a digital image of the intended final result although the finished work may sometimes differ due to unforeseen effects of the layering process.

Big Apple Pie

Big Apple Pie by Sarah Aller. Digital collage, image transfer, original stencil and acrylic on canvas

Many of her canvases are complex in terms of actual content but, in my opinion, it is this that makes them go beyond just being ‘interesting’. She goes for contrasts. If the subject is a simple design, the background tends to be full of detail, and vice-versa. The images she selects carry their own connotations beyond their context on the canvas. Both subject and background convey the sort of iconic force often found in street art. Add the visual impact of collage to this and we get works with a dense set of implied but unspecified meanings. The layering achieves a blend of visual complexity and symbolic immediacy. I can only characterise the overall effect as being as if we the viewer are being presented with a story contained within the canvas. We are given hints about the potential protagonists in this story, the time frame in which they operate and the urban environment they inhabit. There’s enough there for us to fill in the gaps and construct the rest.

Coffee Downtown

Coffee Downtown by Sarah Aller. Monoprint, image transfer collage, original stencil and acrylic on canvas

If art can help us sort and make sense of the constant bombardment on our visual senses, then it has value. At their best, Sarah’s stories perform a function not dissimilar to the way our brains perform a subconscious ordering of experience through dreams. My theory goes that the best of her works present the viewer with elements that spark synaptic links with our individual visual memories and provoke an instinctive ordering of them within a narrative of our own making – in other words, they are therapeutic!

Why not put my crackpot thesis to the test and go and see Sarah’s work for yourselves at the exhibition in Genoa. The exhibition is organised by Bellagio-based Tablinum Cultural Management under the title ‘Collision – The Challenge of Contemporary Art’. It runs from May 4th to 19th in the Sala della Corte of Genoa’s Palazzo Reale. She is also represented by Eye Contemporary Art who will exhibiting some of her work at the upcoming Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead, London, being held from 9th to 12th May. Back on Lake Como, you can also see Sarah’s work exhibited in Menaggio from Tuesday July 16th to Sunday July 28th. Sarah is contactable through her website which also outlines the work she does on commission.

CollisioniI hope we can persuade Sarah and family to stay on in Como. It’s great to discover another talented artist within our local ex-pat community and I look forward to seeing how her work progresses. The signs are positive – she has taken up her new studio space and is already thinking of how this will give her the scope to get ‘bigger and messier’ as she herself puts it.

Palermo

A Palermo Urban Landscape – Ballarò

 

 

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