Como’s winter falls into two parts as in most other western countries in the northern hemisphere. The first half is taken up in the preparation for and celebration of the holiday season. Once that is out of the way, it is then a case of adopting coping strategies to deal with the onset of true winter. In Como, the first part is marked by the frantic exuberance of ‘Città dei Balocchi’ whilst a common way of confronting the second part seems to be to join the bears in deep hibernation.
Città dei Balocchi
In recent years the scale and breadth of the events under the ‘Balocchi’ banner have increased markedly. The goal of this initiative, financed by local businesses and the council, is to attract the maximum number of visitors to the city and so compensate for the seasonal nature of tourism on the lake. The results? In one sense, they may have proved too successful this year as the crowds, crammed into Piazza Duomo at the weekend to view the light show on the wall of the Broletto, exceeded safety limits. However, apart from the special lighting effects which get more adventurous each year, Città dei Balocchi organises a number of great events for both adults and children. The special lighting, Christmas market and ice skating all give the city a festive feel that complements the rich variety of cultural events on offer. Christmas time at Como is enchanting.
Consumerism and Concerts
I tend to doubt whether the great majority of visitors who flooded into Como during the weekends prior to Christmas actually spent much money. Yet it would only have taken a small percentage of them to purchase a bit more than a slice of pizza to have made the whole ‘Balocchi’ exercise commercially viable. The price they definitely pay though is the time spent searching for a parking space and then queueing for the free-ride buses to and from the car parks on the city’s periphery. Como’s Piazza Cavour becomes as crowded and stressful as London’s Oxford Street, but here at least there is the beautiful natural setting and the relatively quick means of escape for when it all becomes too much.
Beyond the streets, stalls and shopping, the origins of the holiday season are not forgotten. The special lighting on the churches and religious buildings remains in keeping with the season. Free Christmas concerts are organised in the Duomo, the Basilica di San Fedele, Villa Olmo and elsewhere. The Opera season has its grand opening at Milan’s Scala on 7th December- that city’s saint day. Como’s Teatro Sociale follows a different calendar but with plenty on offer over the holiday period.
The restaurants meanwhile have survived that dip in demand through autumn, even if the gastronomic festivals may not have brought in as many clients as wished. Now there are all those avid shoppers who need refuelling, or the groups of varying sorts who wish to celebrate the season together in that atmosphere of shared conviviality which many restaurants in Italy manage to achieve so artlessly.
This is the season of fixed menus offered primarily by those restaurants who have a reputation to maintain. Dining out on New Year’s Eve, in Como as elsewhere, carries a premium. As an example, the Navigazione offer a New Year’s Eve dinner aboard a lake cruise taking in Como’s midnight firework display and ending at 2 in the morning – at a cost, but with a voucher for a full day’s travel in the summer season thrown in with the deal.
And then, once the Befana has flown down from the Broletto on her broomstick to distribute sweets to the children in Piazza Duomo on Epiphany (6th January), the pace all changes.
No-one has yet devised a marketing plan to fill the dead period in Lake Como’s tourist season. In particular the super luxury hotels mostly close after 6th January until the start of March. These include Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este, Blevio’s Casta Diva, Torno’s Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana and Tremezzo’s Grand Hotel. In Como, the Hilton seems closed until the end of March, Villa Flori until 8th March and the Albergo Terminus closes for a brief two weeks in January. Of the luxury hotels, both the Palace and Vista Lago remain open. So, even though the seasonal closures may be diminishing, lakeside hibernation is still a reality.
The rest of the commercial world does however carry on undiminished, and since Como’s industry is derived only half from tourism, those hotels catering to business travellers cannot hibernate. The wily visitor might well choose this as a good moment to spend a few days on Lake Como – and profit from some of the undoubted advantages of off-season travel.
In my opinion, January and February are good months to visit Como assuming you don’t mind the cold, you aren’t looking to swim in the lake and you appreciate avoiding large numbers of fellow visitors and paying less for travel and accomodation. The downside is the short length of daylight but even this becomes less marked in February. The winter here is often dry and sunny. You are unlikely to get the periods of prolonged rain that are more common in November or Spring. The restaurants that remain open are those that were never dependent on tourist traffic in the first place and, perhaps as a result, are often of good quality. There are days even in mid-winter when the midday sun allows for a pleasant meal outdoors. Its true that some of the main lakeside villas and gardens are closed until March but, assuming you stay in or near Como itself, there are other attractions and of course, easy access to Milan once you have exhausted Como’s cultural delights.
The lake retains its beauty and displays a greater variety of moods than during the hot season. Small changes in temperature, wind speed or direction can alter its appearance. The mountains may well remain snow-capped from one thousand metres and above but you will walk the Greenway or the Strada Regia uninterrupted.
When visiting the small towns on the lake, you will be eating or drinking where the locals eat. When out in the woods, you will hear the occasional lizard rustling through the dry leaves prompted by the rising sun to venture abroad. On such days the sun’s heat brings out a feint earthy odour from the undergrowth as a precursor to the flavours of Spring. On the water you will see cormorants jump off from their watch posts to skim a metre above the lake surface on their forays for fish. In other words, the lake modifies or retains its charms even off season.
Festa della Giubiana
By the end of January, the appeal of the crisp chilly winter days begins to pall as winter moves into its coldest period. It was during these bleakest days in the natural cycle that pagan worshipers in Ticino and across Northern Italy celebrated what is now called the Festa della Giubiana or Giobia.
The festival lives on in many towns close to Como, such as Albavilla, Alzate Brianza and Tavernerio. In both Cantù and Canzo, the celebrations are more extensive. The centrepiece of the festa is a large communal bonfire upon which is burnt a female effigy known as the Giubiana. She represents the spirit of the old year and her sacrifice symbolises the death of the past to make way for the birth of the new in anticipation of spring. The origin of the Giubiana is obscure but the ceremony certainly reaches back into pagan times with some suggesting that the alternative name of Giobia derives from the Roman God, Jupiter or Jove (Giove in modern Italian).
The ceremony may well also have been the inspiration for another tradition celebrated with a large communal bonfire – Saint Anthony’s Saint Day or the Festa di San’ Antonio. This is celebrated with a large bonfire in both Barni and Varese where locals can also take their pets into church for a blessing. Saint Anthony is associated with the care of animals and is usually depicted with a pig at his side. The Festa di San Antonio is another example of how the early Christian church appropriated or radically adapted pre-existing pagan ceremonies to fit the new system of beliefs.
By mid-February, the scent of spring is ever more prevalent on the hillsides as the earth warms up and the days grow longer. Mid February is also carnival time. This too is another celebration with origins going way back into pagan times representing a joyful welcome to the coming of Spring. In Como we are lucky to have one of the most entertaining and original carnival celebrations in Italy – in Schignano. Whilst Venice’s carnival has characters dressed up in luxurious finery assuming genteel postures, Schignano’s characters dress in rags, make raucous noise, lounge about and harass the onlookers. It is truly and originally anarchic. Children love it but it also affects us adults no matter for how long our anarchic spirit may have lain repressed. Schignano’s carnival has the true spirit of liberation and is perhaps the best possible way of marking the end of Como’s winter!