Como: The Potential for Cultural Tourism

Como Companion supports slow tourism – the sort of tourism that takes an interest in the culture and history of the places visited. This is why I started a new section under Culture called Cultural Itineraries. These itineraries suggest walks through the city following a specific cultural theme. The latest itinerary covers part of Como’s modern architectural heritage by focussing on the rationalist buildings in just one section of the city. But here I would like to expand on why Como is so well suited to developing cultural tourism with a potential that to this day remains underdeveloped.

Como RIP 2

The death of culture in Como? Before the start of the Covid pandemic, there was concern about the city council’s commitment to supporting cultural activities. Demonstrators left this coffin in front of the Teatro Sociale to symbolise the death of culture in the city. Fortunately the council now seem more supportive of the arts but we are yet to see if they can respond to the opportunities provided by cultural tourism.

Como’s cultural patrimony is immense but not made immediately obvious to any temporary visitor, or even to many long-term residents. With the one exception of Alessandro Volta, Como seems singularly reticent about celebrating the achievements of its other remarkable sons and daughters. While we all celebrate the stunning beauty of the city’s natural setting, so many other aspects of local interest can get overlooked. The city’s true potential can so easily be unlocked with a concerted and co-ordinated push to promote cultural tourism. 

What Is Cultural Tourism?

“Cultural tourism ….. enables people to experience the different ways of life of other people, thereby gaining at first hand an understanding of their customs, traditions, the physical environment, the intellectual ideas and those places of architectural, historic, archaeological or other cultural significance which remain from earlier times. (ICOMOS Charter for Cultural Tourism, Draft April 1997)”

Ca Morta Funeral Carriage

Funerary Cart, Ca’ Morta circa 450BCE, Como Museum of Archaeology

With archeological interest ranging from the Golasecca communities on the Parco Spina Verde, through the Roman remains to the ex-industrial sites associated with silk production; with architectural interest starting with the Romanesque craftsmen in the Middle Ages to Rationalism in the last century; with art represented by Paolo Giovio’s first European collection of portraiture,  Lombardy Baroque and the Astrattisti Comaschi; with a history starring Julius Caesar, Frederick Barbarossa, and Mussolini; with a musical tradition encompassing Vincenzo Bellini and Giuditta Pasta; with the scientific heritage of Alessandro Volta; with its overall geopolitical significance as a border town on a major route across the Alps ….. Como’s cultural capital lies ready for exploitation.

The Advantages of Cultural Tourism

teatro sociale

Como’s Teatro Sociale matches the splendour of its interior with the quality and imagination of its productions.

The economic challenge for local tourism is to extend the time visitors’ stay on the lake. A survey in 2018 revealed that the average visitor’s stay in Como was 3.32 days, below the Lombardy average of 3.64 days. However for foreign visitors it was a mere 2.6 days. Meanwhile Brescia and Lake Iseo achieved an average stay of 5.72 days. A longer stay per visitor means a greater return per euro spent on marketing or infrastructure. And the difference between us and Brescia just shows Como’s potential gain if it could just advertise its cultural credentials as well. Brescia’s act of inspiration was to put itself on the international cultural map by hosting the massive Floating Piers art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Caude on Lake Iseo in 2016.

Floating Piers

The Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo gained international publicity for Brescia and its province boosting the average length of visitor stays.

Cultural tourism is also a sustainable form of tourism, not requiring the development of the complex infrastructure required to cope with massive visitor  numbers –  just the investment needed to encourage the current number of visitors to extend their stay by a few more days. Cultural tourism, as opposed to mass tourism, enhances visitors’ understanding and appreciation of where they are visiting and seeks to protect the local culture and folklore. Mass tourism or purely recreational tourism tends to subvert local culture through its tendency towards simplistic and cliched presentation of local attractions. 

religious art

The local churches around the lake are mostly always open to visitors and house great works of art such as this life-sized tableau of the Last Supper in Dongo.

Additionally it is not just visitors who profit from cultural tourism since residents will also appreciate an increased awareness of their cultural patrimony while not having to suffer from the inconveniences imposed by purely recreational forms of tourism. 

Como in 5 Days

The official Como website ‘Como Lake Experience’ includes two short videos promoting visits to Como – ‘Como in 24 hours’ and ‘Como in 48 hours’. Both videos include mention to many cultural attractions such as the museums, the art gallery, the Volta memorial and some of the key architectural gems such as Villa Olmo. The 48 hour overview extends its scope to mention the city walls, the main villas on the lake, Isola Comacina and the attractions of hiking and cycling. Of course both videos  also mention the recreational delights of a trip on the lake, an evening aperitif and dining alfresco, or a trip up to Brunate – the balcony of the Alps. 

pliny younger

The naturalist Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were from Como. Pliny the Younger had a villa in the city and another on the lakeside. He dedicated a library ro the city of which no trace remains. However there is plenty of other evidence of Como’s Roman origins. The Pliny statues sit either side of the main entrance to the cathedral

Baradello

The Castle Baradello stands sentinel over the southern approaches to Como – part of the city’s defences strengthened by Federico Barbarossa in the 13th century.

But what could a promotional ‘Como in 5 Days’ include? How about a reference to Roman Como, its Praetorian Gate and the other Roman sites. Or that, in addition to the Roman carvings and mosaics, the Archeological Museum contains an impressive collection of local prehistoric artefacts. Or that the Art Gallery includes a whole series of early Renaissance portraits curated by Paolo Giovio and originally housed in a gallery which inspired the Medici to establish the Uffizi in Florence. Or that the Pinacoteca also includes fine works by the Como group of abstract artists. Or that Cernobbio once had the largest silk factory in Europe and, while this is now an archeological site, the silk industry in Como is still alive and well. Or that it was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who in the 13th century commissioned the Baradello tower and strengthened the current city walls as a defense against attack from Milan, and that his arrival in the city is re-enacted in an annual festival. Or that there are three long distance hiking trails to be enjoyed around the lake and a series of mountain-top refuges offering food and accommodation. 

The Cultural Challenge

On August 21st, 2019, local journalist and poet Pietro Berra published the following challenge in Como’s ‘La Provincia’ 

[If the problem] …is the inability to keep tourists for more than 2 days in a city that is home to 12 festivals, appears in over one hundred films, has been eternalized by another hundred internationally renowned painters and writers, is the cradle of Romanesque, Futurism, Rationalism and Abstractionism, is a candidate for Unesco Creative City for silk, has a network of over 600 km of pedestrian paths studded with natural and architectural pearls, it means that it is essential to create a system that engages the different skills of tourism operators with those of cultural experts helped by a public administration acting as facilitators and promoters. It is time to invest in the  ideas, projects and skills needed to change the current narrative, perception and use of our area, to move from the “fragmentation of the museum network” to the extraordinary uniqueness of an open-air museum city teeming with a creative energy that enhances it.

Como’s Cultural Innovators

poets way

Como’s Poets Way starts in Maslianico and ends above Brunate. Along its way you find selected quotes from many of the literary figures who have visited Lake Como.

Pietro Berra’s challenge was directed at the  local authorities to take the initiative in coordinating and consolidating the cultural offer. There are many associations and organisations contributing to that offer but their consolidation and a consistent and far-reaching promotion of that offer remains undone to this day. For example, Pietro Berra himself and the association Sentiero dei Sogni have created a Poetry Way which leads walkers along a route marked by relevant literary quotes and cultural references. This is just one example of the number of initiatives from a variety of local associations, businesses and individuals that enrich an appreciation of Como’s cultural and historical heritage.

monumenti apertiOther examples include the initiatives of  Iubilantes, a local cultural association that provides an app Camminacitta with multi-lingual guides to various walks around the city of Como. Since 2018 they have also embarked on  leading a cultural initiative in Como and Cantu called ‘Monumenti Aperti’ –  a national project that educates secondary and tertiary students, in  the knowledge and sustainable and social development of the cultural and environmental heritage of the area in which they live. As a result  these students will in turn be able to communicate their knowledge and appreciation of these local features to other interested residents and visitors, safeguarding this patrimony for years to come.

missultin

Missoltino – pickled lake fish – served with polenta.

Similar initiatives abound in most other areas of local culture. In particular, there is a growing appreciation of the area’s culinary heritage with different festivals throughout the year focussed on the traditions of individual communities. While visitors to London can select restaurants on an ethnic basis, here they can take the time to appreciate the differences in regional cuisine, and come to appreciate the influence of the lake and mountains on culinary tradition. 

Conclusion

Given all this local potential, the enthusiasm of so many local associations and the support of the Como and Lecco Chamber of Commerce,  there would just seem to be one vital coordination element missing. The city already possesses a beautiful and imaginatively managed theatre and a variety of museums. The remaining infrastructure needed is already in place. There is no reason why visitors should not be spending any less time in Como than in Brescia if they were only made aware of all there is to see and experience here. Lets hope that Como’s post-Covid renaissance includes revived eforts to promote cultural tourism.

villa olmo

Villa Olmo at dusk – a council owned property which has remained underused over recent years but which is now hosting musical festivals and art exhibitions. A hopeful sign of things to come!

About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
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