Moltrasio is a small town on the western shores of Lake Como 10 kilometres north of Como itself. It nestles within a valley carved out by two mountain streams, the Pizzalo and Arbusel, which come together at the town’s centre.
The town lies on the old Roman Via Regina that ran from Cremona to Chiavenna via Milan. The same road also formed the later medieval Via Francigena Renana, a route from Rome that crossed the Alps into Northern Europe by the Splugen Pass. A roman bridge, known locally as the Ponte del Pasett, still stands where the Via Regina crosses the Pizzallo. With a mere population of 1,600 people, but with an abundance of cultural, architectural and archaeological interest, Moltrasio plays way above its weight in the welcome it extends to all visitors.
So many communities on the lake are vying with each other to attract the attention of visitors. Bellagio is undoubtedly the winner and clearly justifies its title of jewel of the lake. Bellagio is a beautiful town but to my mind, its attractions stop there. Moltrasio is not so perfectly groomed as Bellagio but its charms are more varied; its atmosphere is more relaxed and its welcome more sincere. Bellagio’s combination of exclusivity and magnet for day trippers runs the risk of it becoming a living museum or a rich man’s ghetto like Portofino. Moltrasio runs no such risk – it is a living community of all ages and, what is more, a proud community committed to the well-being of their town.
The work and commitment of voluntary associations is of primary importance in supporting the quality of everyday life in Italy – maybe more so here than in other developed countries due to the limited funds, functions and efficiency of state organisations. ‘Pro-Loco’ associations that promote the social, cultural and economic life of their communities thrive in many small towns. Moltrasio is fortunate to have a particularly active ‘Pro-loco’ working to attract sustainable tourism to the town. They have achieved some considerable success and can boast a great bi-lingual website that provides visitors with a mass of information and suggestions on what to see and visit.
The recent success of the FAI Open Day in Moltrasio is just one illustration of this group’s effectiveness. FAI (the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano) is an equivalent organisation to the United Kingdom’s National Trust. Their bi-annual Open Days offer the general public the opportunity to visit sites of special cultural or historic interest guided by local experts. The latest FAI weekend was on the 26th and 27th March and in the case of Moltrasio, there was no specific villa on show but the whole town itself. Over the weekend groups of up to 15 people departed every 15 minutes from Piazza San Rocco alongside the Imbarcadero on a round tour of the town taking about two hours. This called upon a mass of volunteers to either guide the groups around the town or to provide information at any of the key points of interest along the route.
Stone and Water
Even those driving through Moltrasio on the direct road (rather than the lakeside route) to Argegno will notice the massive waterfall alongside the viaduct that goes over the heads of the houses below. This is the Cascata Pizzallo named after one of the town’s two main mountain streams. Further down in the town, the waters of the other stream, the Arbusel, tumble down precipitously toward the lake. Moltrasio in the past made good use of these streams to power up to eleven separate mills.
Moltrasio’s other gift of nature is stone. Moltrasio stone is used in construction all across Lake Como. It is a hard sedimentary rock that is relatively easy to separate out into slabs of differing thickness. It is the stone used in Como’s city walls, in the terracing that covered the hillsides around the lake, in numerous buildings and with the waste shards used to pave the old mule tracks and mountain paths.
The mountain path that links Moltrasio to Rovenna above Cernobbio – the Sentee di Sort – takes you past many of the old quarries. The old ways of working stone were demonstrated on the FAI Open Day by Pro-Moltrasio members at the disused quarry at Cavirolo. Householders whose properties backed on to the mountainside would also have profited from their location to quarry the stone in their back gardens and use it either for their own building or for the use of others.
From Stone and Water to Food and Culture
Stone and water provided the basis for Moltrasio’s economy in years past to which must be added the profits made during the romantic era of smuggling with the Swiss border running right by the Rifugio Bugone above the town. It has also been a popular tourist destination for many years with visitors from Como and beyond coming out in the summer months to enjoy an ice cream at La Vecchina right by the Imbarcadero.
The range of dining options in Moltrasio matches the range of its social classes – and as elsewhere on the lake, the town’s social strata tend to follow the geographical layout. So, you can dine in exclusive and more costly circumstances on the lakefront itself at the Ristorante Imperialino with its magnificent terrace directly on the lake or move up the valley to dine equally well but in more modest surroundings and at less cost in the long-established co-operative La Moltrasina just behind the town’s main church.
The Moltrasina co-operative was established in the 1900s with the aim of providing food and wine to the town’s residents at reasonable cost. It, like the Association Pro-Moltrasio, is a living example of the civic pride of Moltrasio’s citizens in that the co-operative still boasts over 280 active members still committed to its original aims. It continues to provide a social and cultural centre for the locals as well as being open to everyone to come and eat well at a modest price.
If you are looking to try out genuine local cuisine you can also head for the Crotto Val Durino to eat missoltini, risotto di pesce persico or the gut-busting cazuela when the season is right.
For those prepared to climb up to the summit of the mountain behind the town, you will also satisfy the appetite gained by eating at the Rifugio Bugone – a former border guard post with an honourable history during the war of assisting Jews, ex Prisoners of war and others escape the fascist state to reach safety in Switzerland.
Two sculptures by local artist Massimo Clerici on the lakefront highlight Moltrasio’s cultural connections with its star visitor being Vincenzo Bellini who lived on and off in Moltrasio with his lover, Giuditta Cantù, from 1829 to 1833 either in the Villa Salterio Ecker rented by her or as a guest at the nearby Villa Passalacqua. Bellini’s muse, Giuditta Pasta for whom he wrote Norma, lived across the water in Torno.
The other sculpture was erected more recently in 2019 to honour the memory of Virgilio Ranzato, the so-called Italian king of operetta. He also spent years living in Moltrasio to where he returned shortly before his death in 1937.
The lakefront at Moltrasio is as beautiful as anywhere else on the lake and a number of wealthy aristocrats or industrialists in the past have built and renovated villas along its shores. The largest and most impressive of all is the Villa Passalacqua, a neo-classical structure first erected by the Papal Odescalchi family in the late 1600s on the grounds of a former monastery. It subsequently took its current name once purchased by Count Andrea Lucini Passalacqua in 1787.
The villa is on a level with the heart of the town above the lake but with an extensive terraced garden that goes right down to the lakefront. It had a varied history throughout the twentieth century even being occupied for some time immediately after the last war by the British Secret Service. In 2021 it came under auction and was purchased by the De Santis family. De Santis has been renovating the villa and will reopen it as a deluxe hotel with its doors due to open in June (2022). De Santis is also the owner of another of the most luxurious hotels on Lake Como, the Grand Hotel di Tremezzo. The lobby of the villa boasts a sculpture at the bottom of the grand staircase by Auguste Rodin and many of the rooms on the piano nobile have frescoes by Andrea Appiani.
In addition to Vincenzo Bellini staying at the Villa Salterio Ecker, we should mention Gianni Versace who bought the Villa Fontanelle also on the lakefront. Napoleon was said to have spent some time at the Villa Passalacqua and more recently, Winston Churchill came to stay in Moltrasio after his election defeat in 1946 at the Villa Donegani – now known as the Villa La Rosa.
Churchill’s visit to Lake Como has subsequently caused a mass of speculation as to his motives for the stay. Some historians and believers in the Churchill-Mussolini correspondence conspiracy (far too complicated to touch on here) believe he was trying to track down copies of these letters to prevent any disclosures. The Villa Donegani was occupied at the time by the British Army while the British were aiding its owner, the industrialist and director of what was to become Montedison, Guido Donegani, in avoiding arrest for corroborating with Mussolini’s fascist regime. An apartment in the Villa La Rosa is available for holiday rentals so current day visitors can, if they choose, follow in Churchill’s footsteps.
There are a number of excellent reasons for visiting Moltrasio and a look at the bilingual Pro Moltrasio website outlines much better than here what there is to see and do. Above all else, it is the pride taken by the locals in their promotional work which deserves recognition given how they have so helpfully set about making so much information available to those wishing to visit. But for me what makes Moltrasio such a pleasure to visit is the sense that this is a living community determined to optimise the present and ensure the future for its inhabitants of all ages.
Their civic pride shows itself in many small ways, in the quality of the signposting of the different attractions, in their willingness to staff open days with so many volunteers and in the way they all seem to take care of their local environment. One very telling piece of evidence of this civic pride was that Moltrasio suffered no serious damage resulting from the massive rainfall that fell last July which caused mountain streams to surge downhill with destructive force. Whole buildings were destroyed in nearby Laglio by the force of the rocks and detritus brought down where two mountain streams converge. But in Moltrasio, where two equally forceful torrents converge, there was no damage and the ancient Roman bridge over the Pizzallo remained untouched. The difference was down to the fact that the Moltrasio inhabitants have always ensured they keep their water courses clean and free of rubble and their woods cleared of broken trunks and branches. Such commitment paid off then and will continue to pay off into the future as Moltrasio presents itself proudly to the world.
Moltrasio has featured in a variety of Como Companion’s previous articles.
The heroism and sacrifice of some members of the Guardia di Finanza assisting Jews and others to gain safety during the war in neighbouring Switzerland is described in Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust.
Moltrasio even features as the setting of a famous turn of the 20th century true crime in our account of the Trunk Murder.
Moltrasio’s lido is an excellent spot for swimming in the lake. A look at our data on the quality of the water for bathing in the lake confirms the positive record for this beach over the last few years.