From even before Julius Caesar established Como (known then as Novum Comum) and right until the mid-twentieth century, Lake Como provided the principal means of local communication as well as forming a vital section of a transalpine communications network.
Its geographic position close to Milan and in the foothills of the Alps made it a strategic point of departure for an onward journey up the Val Chiavenna and across the Splugen Pass to join up with the river systems of the Rhine going north or the Danube to the east. So for centuries traders, pilgrims and leisure travellers have had reason to journey on the lake. And the peculiarities of its geography have meant that no other means of transport was able to diminish that importance until relatively recently.
Nowadays we are accustomed to see the lake used as a playground for pleasure and recreation. Currently it’s only the boats of the Navigazione Laghi that seem to set out with definitive purpose on its waters and then primarily for the advantage of seasonal visitors with time to admire the scenery. Try to imagine how different the lake would have appeared even up to eighty years ago when it provided the principal means for both passenger and commercial traffic.
Looking out from Como’s lakefront you would have seen a host of transport ships making their silent balletic progress propelling their heavy loads through the calm waters driven by the wind in their single sails. These were the stately ‘gondole lariane’, built by craftsmen originating from Venice but designed uniquely for transporting animals, building materials, agricultural products and goods of all sorts across the lake. A larger version of these gondolas, similar in shape and design, were called ‘comballi’. They were single masted boats propelled by a single sail, often as tall as the boat was long. They were assisted travelling north by the regular midday wind called the Breva or, when travelling south by the wind known as the Tivano. In the absence of the Breva, Tivano or any other wind, the boatsmen resorted to using up to four oars.
Como’s ancient port established in Roman times was later filled in to form Piazza Cavour. The photo shown above from 1866 shows the two gatehouses guarding the entrance to the port marking how it formed one of the four defended entries into the city. The photo shows on the left an arc of ‘Lucia’ boats with some gondolas to the right. The port was however silting up over time and so towards the end of the 19th century, it was decided to fill it in and pave it over to form the piazza.
The main commercial port had always been in the Sant’Agostino area marked out and protected by the mole that runs off the lakefront on the way to the funicular. Here the gondolas would tie up to the iron rings still used today and load or unload their goods onto ox-drawn carts. The gondolas were flat-bottomed and so retained an advantage even over steam-driven shipping due to their easy access to the shore line for loading or unloading their cargo. The steam ships instead required specially designed docking platforms. The port at Sant’Agostino retained its importance for the transfer of goods from land to lake right into the twentieth century.
The Arrival of Steam and Industrialisation
The first steamship entered service on the lake in 1826 using the port at Villa Olmo as its embarkation point. The first iron steamship followed in 1841. Those early companies were the ancestors of the current Navigazione Laghi and they managed a major increase in both passenger and goods traffic on the lake. However these boats, as previously mentioned, could not make use of the existing port facilities. One solution was to develop a goods yard on the other side of Como’s lakefront from Sant’Agostino. The yard was located on the lakefront towards the Tempio Voltiano.
The exploitation of steam power did not just herald the introduction of steam ships but also gave birth to the railways. Back in 1836, the son of Como’s famous physicist Alessandro Volta had been proposing a railway line from Milan to Como to facilitate trade and tourism, However it was 1840 when the first railway line in Italy was built from Milan to Monza. This line was extended to Camnago by October 1849, finally arriving at Ca’Merlata on the southern edge of Como in December 1849. The steep gradient down from Ca’Merlata to the lakeside prevented any further development until Como’s San Giovanni Station was opened in 1875. Prior to that, goods and passengers would disembark at Ca’merlata and take a horse-drawn carriage down to the city and the lake.
Further development of a railway to carry goods and passengers beyond Como into Switzerland and beyond was delayed considerably for both geological and political reasons. Geologically Monte Olimpino stood in the way of reaching Chiasso. The first tunnel under Monte Olimpino was opened in 1881 but was initially only used by horse-drawn trams. The rail link to Chiasso and on to Lugano was not made until 1926 only to be swiftly abandoned two years later since the fascist government took exception to the fact that it had been developed using foreign capital.
So the railway was far from being an immediate threat to the ascendancy of sail and oar in transporting goods north. In fact, rather than compete, rail and sail developed more of a partnership by laying track line that linked the goods yards at Como’s San Giovanni Station with the new port facility on the site of the current Public Gardens. The remains of part of this line can be seen in the dismantled bridge crossing Via Borgo Vico. One of the locomotives that plied its way from San Giovanni to the lake is on display in the public gardens.
Back over at the port in Sant’Agostino, another railway line was being developed by a rival company to that managing the line via Monza. This was the precursor company to the Ferrovia Nord who built their line out of Milan’s Piazza Cadorna, through Saronno to Grandate where it met with their line from Varese to end up at the present-day Como Lago station. This line was officially defined as a railway in 1898. They too recognised the importance of linking up with the lake transport and the current third platform originally ran beyond the station to meet up with the port at Sant’Agostino and the funicular up to Brunate.
Back in 1898, if you had arrived on the lakefront at Como Lago station, the only way you could continue an onward journey to Bellagio or any town in between would be by boat. Theoretically you could have travelled by foot or mule following the Strada Regia – an ancient mule path linking the towns along the eastern shores of the Como leg of the lake. It makes for a delightful recreational walk but is hardly an efficient means of transport. The map below printed in 1907 shows no road whatsoever linking Como to Bellagio. The current road was built between 1911 and 1917. The town of Palanzo had to wait until after the Second World War before a road linked it to Como. On the western shores of the lake there was the Ancient Strada Regina, which, as with the Strada Regia, makes for a delightful recreational walk but was not designed to meet the commercial needs of local industry and tourists.
As industrialisation developed, lake transport and the gondolas or comballi became ever more important. In 1839 a major investment went into developing mining and steel production in the lakeside town of Dongo. The plant would become part of the Falck enterprise, a major Italian steel producer whose largest site was in Sesto San Giovanni – on a site that had developed alongside the railway line from Milan to Monza. There had been a factory on the Dongo site from the eighteenth century exploiting the iron and other minerals that can be found in the local valley as also generally in the Val Chiavenna and Valtellina. The production of iron had always benefited from the ease of transport on the lake. Now, with this major expansion in production, lake transport down to Como and onwards via rail proved indispensable. Road transport was irrelevant at this time.
End of an Era
The gondolas loading and unloading at the port of Sant’Agostino and the crane transferring goods from train to boat on the other side of the lake continued on until the 1950s. It was only then when the goods yards started to be dismantled and the area they occupied turned into the current Public Gardens. The mayor who oversaw these works was Lino Gelpi. He was the leading light in converting all of that lakeside area and developing the passeggiata along the lakefront towards Villa Olmo.
Lake transport of goods at least, if not of passengers, had after centuries finally become less important. This was down to the development of that other umbilical-like ribbon connecting Italy to Transalpine Europe – the autostrada. The A8 Autostrada from Milan to Varese, the first motorway in Italy, was opened in September 1924. The section branching off at Lainate to Como was completed in June 1925. However it was only once the section to the border in Chiasso opened up in December 1971 that the motorway offered a viable alternative for international freight transport.
It also took some time for the rail network to provide an effective international link. In spite of the early development of the San Gottardo tunnel, the rail link from Milan through Como and on to Zurich faced the major obstacle of the sharp gradient down to Como’s San Giovanni station. This obstacle was eventually overcome in 1989 by bypassing San Giovanni by opening up another tunnel through Monte Olimpino at a higher altitude. This allowed goods trains to avoid the descent to Como by branching off the main line from Milan at a junction called the Bivio Rosales just after Como’s Albiate-Camerlate station. This finally provided a viable modern day alternative route from Milan into France and Germany putting Como once again alongside (but not directly on) one of Continental Europe’s main commercial arteries.
With the second tunnel through Monte Olimpino and the new 57 kilometre rail tunnel at San Gottardo, all is set to develop a high speed high velocity network linking the ports of Rotterdam and Genoa – gateways respectively for shipping to Scandinavia and the Northern Atlantic and via the Mediterranean to Asia and North and West Africa. The prediction is that by 2025, following further upgrade of the Monte Olimpino tunnel and the track from Como to Milan to match work already done in Switzerland, there will be 98 passenger trains per day passing through Como Camerlata compared with 37 in 2015. Even more significantly there will be 170 goods trains per day compared with 44 in 2015. So there will be over 250 trains per day passing through our territory with travel times from Milan to Zurich reduced from three hours forty five minutes down to two and a half hours. However, few of these trains are likely to drop down to Como San Giovanni. International travellers will have to alight at Como Camerlata, and like those early rail travellers in 1849, take the coach down to the city centre. We might also assume that the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 if not before will see a relative decline in the importance of the motorway network and the complex freight customs infrastructure supporting it around Como and Chiasso.
As for transport on the lake, its heyday as a principal means of goods transport has long gone leaving its use solely for local passenger connections. Como has lost the bustle around its three port areas and the pleasure of looking out onto the balletic grace of its tall-masted gondolas. Even the pedalos have abandoned the port area at Sant’Agostino but the dock is still used by water taxis and the small harbour now houses the limited number of local fishermen’s boats. All signs of the port and goods yards in the Public Gardens are gone except for the one locomotive left as a reminder of days past. In summer months the Navigazione Laghi still offer a viable alternative for passenger travel avoiding the snarl ups that occur particularly on the lower stretches of the lakeside roads. However buses, still known locally as ‘corrieri’ – a name adopted from the original horse drawn carriages, still provide the most economical and swift option for out-of-season travellers. Unfortunately Dongo’s steel mills closed down entirely in 2009 (as did the huge Falck and Breda factories in Sesto San Giovanni) so there is no longer the need to transport their products. Much agricultural production has also stopped and the old mule paths are no longer needed to bring produce down to the lakefront. Instead the Antica Strada Regina and the Greenway on the west bank and the Strada Regia on the east bank now provide well signposted recreational walking paths through some of the most beautiful scenery to be found in Europe.
Two examples of ‘gondole lariane’ can be seen in the small port area in the district of Bellagio called Loppia. This delightful port area is just at the southern entry to the Villa Melzi and its gardens. Another good reason for visiting is the marvellously located restaurant called ‘Alle Darsene di Loppia’ which receives good reviews and has a lovely terrace overlooking the lake and the small port.
The Museo Barca Lariana, or to give it its full English title, the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats, has a collection of all types of boat used on the lake. The museum is open during the tourist season at weekends but it’s worth giving a call to +39 0344 87235 to check on opening times. They are at Via Regina 1268, Pianello del Lario. Check their website for more detail.