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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.