The geological layout of Como tends to conceal the fact that it is definitely a border town. That is until political factors, such as the recent Swiss clamp-down on refugee entries, remind us of its physical location. And when those political or economic factors weigh heavy and the border offers more of a goal or an opportunity, so do the risks and challenges in surmounting it.
As experienced for example by those Jewish families escaping the racial laws introduced in 1943 or those republicans like Giuseppe Mazzini evading Austrian imprisonment or the many anti-fascists and young men avoiding being drafted into the doomed army of the Republic of Salo or sent as forced labour in the slave economy of the Nazi regime.
So, given the economic pressures during the last war, it is not surprising that local entrepreneurship turned to the opportunities offered by smuggling – sending in basic foodstuffs (predominantly rice and cured meats) into Canton Ticino which suffered massive shortages at that time in exchange for chocolate and, most importantly, cigarettes. And this flourishing contraband market lasted into the 1970s such that many Lombardy residents can recall going to Como, not just to take a pleasant lakeside stroll, but primarily to buy cheap cigarettes.
Not surprising therefore that over time these smugglers and their night-time clandestine activities took on a romantic and mythical nature. After all they went on foot through the forests, in all weathers up beyond the snow line above 1000 metres to descend down into Switzerland and then to return with a rucksack weighing over 30 kgs repeating the uphill climb and descent with the ever-present risk of injury and discovery. They endured a cat and mouse game between themselves known as ‘spalloni’ (literally ‘big shoulders’) and the border troops of the Guardia di Finanza (who were often young, disoriented and lonely young men from the warm South sent here to live from month to month in the remote mountain-top barracks to undertake their years of national service).
Both during and after the war the Guardia di Finanza occupied a string of barracks built along the mountain crests along the border. These have now mostly been converted into mountain hostels (rifugi) offering accommodation and food for trekkers. The barracks strung out between Mount Bisbino (above Cernobbio) and Mount Generoso (above the Intelvi Valley) are now known as Rifugio Bugone, Rifugio Murello, Rifugio Binate (now closed) and Rifugio Prabello. These barracks are also situated close to the First World War line of mountain defences designed by General Cadorna and which are still clearly visible at the summit of Mount Bisbino and at Sasso Gordano alongside Rifugio Prabello.
After the last war, smuggling was a tempting option given the broken state of the local economy and so spalloni would set out by foot from Cernobbio, Moltrasio and Brienno to cross over to villages such as Sagno and Bruzella to fill their rucksacks full and then return to the banks of Lake Como – all the time seeking to avoid detection or capture. A semi-fictional and possibly romanticised account of the life and exploits of a spallone are recounted in a book by Alberto Anzani whose English edition is entitled ‘On the Border’.
Documented incidents of smuggling recounted by local historian Giorgio Cavalleri include the enterprising use in 1947 of a submersible raft used to smuggle goods on Lake Lugano to and from Gandria. The raft was only detected when its means of propulsion had broken and attempts to scuttle the vessel failed. Cavalleri also reports on the use of smuggling in the last year of the fascist regime to supplement the funds of a secret special operations group based in the sequestered grounds of the Villa D’Este’s golf course on the banks of Lake Montorfano – clearly a highly duplicitous organisation!
A visit to the Swiss Customs Museum at Cantine di Gandria will give a good idea of what life was like for a border guard barracked in one of those isolated mountain locations. The museum is open from April to mid-October from 13.30 to 17.30. Entry is free. Please note that Cantine di Gandria is on the opposite bank of Lake Lugano from Gandria itself but can be accessed from Gandria by ferry.
So what is the legacy of this smuggling history? Firstly it is obvious that not all smuggling has stopped. For many years there was the regular but still illegal transfer of hard cash from Lombardy into Switzerland and into the discrete hands of the Lugano banks. I assume that particular form of smuggling has declined since the recent increase in the transparency of Swiss banking. However local press still recount the occasional stories of individuals caught at the border posts with gold ingots sown into somewhat misshapen jackets. Other than that, we have the use of the old border barracks as hostels for trekkers, we have inherited the mythology of the Spalloni, and, according to recent Guardia di Finanza data, we seem to have the highest level of tax evasion in Lombardy. So maybe old habits die hard.
Hi, a great piece, thanks so much. I wonder if you would have any information about the smuggling activities in the last two decades of the 19th century. I’m doing research for a crime novel I am setting on Lake Como around 1888. Many thanks.
Hi Pam, unfortunately I have no info relating to the 19th century. Have a look at another of my articles on smuggling entitled ‘The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse’ to see if you can trace back on people like Il Ment. In any case, please keep me informed of what you find and also please let me know when your novel is published. Best wishes Julian
Thanks Julian – thanks so much. I’ll keep digging!