San Fermo to Como – in the footsteps of Garibaldi

garibladi statue Piazza Vittoria

Giuseppe Garibaldi, in Piazza Vittoria, Como

This walk follows the path taken by Garibaldi’s victorious guerrilla army following their defeat of the Austrian garrison in a battle centred on the Sanctuary of Saint Fermo and Saint Lorenzo on May 27th 1859. This is the easy one-way and downhill version allowing you plenty of time to take in the site of the battle and read the various informative signs placed along the start of the route by the Comune of San Fermo. Como was the most strategic town in Northern Lombardy for the Austrian administration so the defeat of its garrison and the retreat of its army to Monza was a significant victory for the forces of the Risorgimento in what came to be called the Second war of Independence.

sanctuary san ferm battle garibladi

Sanctuary of Saint Fermo and Saint Lorenzo – the scene of the battle of San Fermo

Take the No. 1 bus out of Como and stay on until reaching the terminal. Then walk up the slight hill to the Sanctuary whose bell tower is clearly visible. This same bell tower was on the morning of May 27th 1859 occupied by Austrian rifleman positioned to prevent the further advance of Garibaldi’s Cacciatori degli Alpi along the line of the foothills of the Alps. You are now on the site of the battle.

Painting San Fermo Battle Angelo Trezzini

Painting of the battle scene, Battle of San Fermo by Angelo Trezzini who was himself a soldier in Garibaldi’s Cacciatori degli Alpi.

Trezzini sergeant in the cacciatori degli apli

Sergeant in the Cacciatori degli Alpi, attributed to A. Trezzini

The Cacciatori degli Alpi was a regiment of volunteers recruited from across a whole range of occupations and classes but primarily consisting of Italian patriots from either Lombardy or the Veneto. Many had previously made their way to their base in Cuneo with the help of Como’s smugglers who aided their clandestine passage across the Swiss border so as to reach Piedmont which, under the political guile of Count Cavour and the military command  of Giuseppe Garibaldi, was spearheading the Risorgimento. Garibaldi had crossed into Lombardy from Piedmont at the base of Lake Maggiore (Sesto Calende) on the 22nd May 1859 with his guerrilla army of around 3000 volunteers and was now making his way to Como having already defeated the Austrians at a battle in Varese on the 25th.

On the morning of the 27th, Garibaldi himself did not lead the attack but divided his army into three sections with the main group leading the attack under the command of Captain Carlo de Cristoforis who was unfortunately an early mortal casualty. CristoforisThere were fourteen mortal casualties amongst the Garibaldini with a further sixty wounded. De Cristoforis thus became a local hero of the Risorgimento and the main army barracks (now disused) in Como are now named after him – as is the street you should now take to follow the signposts for the ‘Percorso Garibaldi’ – a brief but informative diversion from the main route.

caserma barracks de cristoforis como

Caserma Capitano Carlo De Cristoforis, Como

Santuario looking east

View looking east from the spot where De Cristoforis led his column against the Austrians in the Sanctuary.

Print Battle of san Fermo

Print depicting the attack on the sanctuary at San Fermo by the column led by Carlo De Cristoforis who fell mortally wounded during the engagement.

As you walk away from the Sanctuary, look back towards it to orientate yourself to the first line of attack where De Cristoforis fell. Dell'Orto.pngYou will also see another street sign named after one of the other victims in the conflict – Angelo Dell’Orto from Cernobbio. He was the only local man in the Cacciatori Degli Alpi and his local knowledge was of considerable value on that day. His subsequent family members were all accorded honorary citizen status on the back of his exploits at San Fermo. Just recently I saw the artwork of his descendant Graziano Dell’Orto, also from Cernobbio, at an exhibition in Como.

portrait young girl Graziano Dell'Orto descendant of risorgimento hero

Detail of a portrait in oil by Graziano Dell’Orto, a descendant of local resident Agostino Dell’Orto, killed in action at the Battle of San Fermo

Now turn back along Via De Cristoforis to follow the route taken by Garibaldi towards Como. Turn up Via Diaz at the Piazza and then take the second turning on the right when you reach the small roundabout. Here you will see the last of the ‘Percorso Garibaldi’ signs and as you descend Via Garibaldi,may27 turn left at the junction to enter the Comune of Como where the road changes name to commemorate the day of the battle. Here the Cacciatori degli Alpi would have been confronted with a marvelous view looking out over the lake, down to Como itself and across to Brunate.

Brunate Como Valfresca

View from the top of Via Maggio 27 in the Valfresca looking across to Como, the funicular and Brunate.

You are now descending the Valfresca, a route now popular with cyclists for testing their hill climbing potential. A number of footpaths cut off some of the corners and limit the time walking on asphalt but the road is rarely busy here. The valley cuts a channel through the hills that now form the Parco Spina Verde which is now traversed by the motorway whose viaduct we pass under.

Palazzo Valfresca

One of the beautiful buildings as you descend the Valfresca.

Garibaldi’s army had to deal with a minor skirmish with the Austrians when they reached the lakefront but their way was now clear to march down Via Borgo Vico and then to enter Como at what was known as Porta Susa, subsequently renamed as Via Garibaldi. As the patriots entered Como on its western side, the Austrian garrison retreated on the south side from Porta Torre down Via Milano to Monza where they regrouped.

statue and porta torre

Porta Torre and Piazza Vittoria – the Austrians left Como on this route south to Monza.

According to most accounts, Garibaldi’s entry into Como was greeted by rejoicing, the ringing of bells and triumphant processions through the town. However this was not a final act of liberation and Garibaldi’s army was not equipped to stay as an administrative alternative to the Austrians with the numbers necessary to maintain an army of occupation. Many citizens recognised this and had some concern for future reprisals once Garibaldi and his guerrilla force moved on. However, the campaign had certainly been a great propaganda coup, and as in the other great revolt against the Austrians staged by Como in 1848 – the Cinque Giornate – it did go to show how vulnerable the Austrian regime was, pointing to the inevitable granting of independence and the unification of Italy officially recognised as occurring on March 17th 1861.

Porta Susa Via Garibaldi

Via Garibaldi previously Porta Susa – the way Garibaldi entered into the city.

If this patriotic jaunt was not energetic enough for you, then avoid taking the bus out of Como and take Path no. 4 behind the Basilica di Sant’Abbondio to climb to Pianvalle where you turn right onto Path No. 1 to take to San Fermo. You will come out just at the point where the Via Maggio 27 turns into Via Garibaldi on the border of the two communes. Walk uphill to Via Diaz where you can then turn left to go to the sanctuary. The first part of this route is described when following this link.

Piazza Volta night

The plaque denoting where Garibaldi stayed in Como on the night of his victory at San Fermo. The building is in Piazza Volta.

Much more information, artifacts, uniforms, armory and images relating to the Garibaldi campaign are on display in the Museo Storico Giuseppe Garibaldi at Como in the Piazza Medaglie d’Oro.

See Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy? for more information on Como’s smuggling tradition.

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Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day


Ines Figini

Ines Figini

Ines Figini’s testimony of her time served as a slave labourer in the Nazi concentration camps has usually been recalled on Holocaust Memorial Day. This year I used that date to tell the story of the Sormano village priest, Don Carlo Banfi, who aided the escape in 1944 of Jewish migrants from deportation to Germany, by leading them to safety across the Swiss border on Mount Bisbino. With reference to the Holocaust, Ines’s story rewards the retelling as a reminder of how the most unsuspecting Italian citizens could also become victims of the Nazi-Fascist regime. Additionally the qualities of humanity and decency displayed by Ines, alongside her fortitude and her survival instinct that saw her through a set of intolerably stressful situations, are equally worth celebrating on this particular anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Via Grossi Como

Via Grossi, Como looking east as it climbs towards Brunate.

In March 1944 Ines Figini, the 4th of 5 children, was 21 years old and living in the modest family home in Via Tommaso Grossi, Como. She had started work at 16 in the Tintoria Comense after completing elementary education. The Tintoria Comense was one of the largest silk thread and cloth weaving factories in Como. It would later take on dyeing, printing and finishing and combine under the name Ticosa. As the saying went before the war, if you worked at Comense you could guarantee to put bread on your table.

industrial archeology Como silk chimney

Chimney of the steam room that powered the Ticosa factory – the largest silk factory in Como.

At the start of the war in 1938 there were 318 silk spinning and weaving businesses in the Province of Como employing up to 30,000 people with a further 22 businesses specialised in fabric dyeing and printing who employed a further 6,500. But the war deprived these businesses of their markets in USA, UK and France so that by August 1940 8,000 employees had been dismissed and a further 14,000 had their work suspended (what is known in Italy as Cassa Integrazione). This had risen to 13,000 and 20,000 respectively by the end of 1940. By this time, the Italian industrial economy had, to all intents and purposes, been put to the service of the German wartime one. The first Italian workers had left Como in 1939 to work for Volkswagen and this figure had risen to 5,000 by 1941. These were mostly voluntary labourers but Germany was to rely on up to 20% of its workforce consisting of slave labour with the majority coming from  Russia and Poland.

Industrial archeology silk political scandal

Heart of the old Tintoria Comense (Ticosa) Silk Factory

By 1943, resistance to the Fascist regime was building up – on May Day of that year, a red flag was unfurled provocatively above Como at Brunate and then on 25th July, following the arrest of Mussolini, the fascist authorities left Como and the opposition political parties were able to meet openly for the first time. This euphoric period was however very brief since the Nazis moved to occupy Italy and to establish the illegitimate fascist puppet state known as the RSI.

Paolo Porta

Paolo Porta

By 14th September Paolo Porta had re-established the Casa del Fascio in Como and by 18th September, martial law had been introduced with a black out and curfew from 8.30pm to 6.00am. The first calls were made for armed partisan resistance.

Conditions of life and work deteriorated markedly over the following period with industrial unrest and resistance growing. The clandestine labour unions tried to organise a general strike for the 1st March 1944 but plans were thwarted by the network of spies and informers set up by the Nazi-Fascist state. Workers were even further taunted when the local fascist boss Paolo Porta was believed to have declared that workers only needed a single slice of bread and an apple a day to live on.

 ‘O tutti, o nessuno!’ (All or No-one)

So on the 6th March 1944, as Ines arrived at the gates of the Comense factory at the start of her 8.00 am shift, the word went round to stop work at the blast of a whistle at 10.00 am. When the whistle sounded, Ines and the  majority of her co-workers duly stopped work. Police were summoned and when Ines and the others sought to leave the factory at 12.00 for the lunchtime break, they found the gates locked against them. Before the gates were allowed open, the police commissioner read out the names of those who were believed to be the strike organisers and told the crowd that these people would be sent to German labour camps. The gates then opened and the workers filed out for the lunch break but as Ines passed the police commissioner, she instinctively stood up for the arrested strike leaders by declaring their arrest was unfair since they had all obeyed the strike call so they should either all be arrested and sent to Germany or else none of them should be deported. These words would determine Ines’s fate although she was unaware of any immediate repercussions. However there was a knock at the door at her family home that midnight.

Palestra Comunale Mariani detention centre for deportees in the last war

Palestra Comunale Mariani on Via Sauro – where Ines was imprisoned alongside other deportees prior to being transferred to Bergamo. The gymnasium is only about 200 metres from Ines’s family home.

That knock on the door in Via Grossi led to Ines being carried off to the local police station where she was put in a cell with two other women workers from Tintoria Comense – Celestina Tagliabue and Ada Borgomainerio. She stayed there for two nights before being transferred to the Palestra Mariani which was being used to group antifascists, Jews and partisans prior to deportation to Germany.

‘Torno subito!’ (Back soon)

On 14th March, Ines, Ada, Celestina and a further five women from Lecco who had also been imprisoned for striking, were taken to San Giovanni Station at 5.00 am and put on a train for Bergamo where they were housed in army barracks for the next three days. Here Celestina, who suffered from a serious kidney ailment, was returned home since she was deemed unfit to undertake the onward journey to Germany – a consideration not extended to any of the Jewish deportees. Ines, Ada, the strike leaders and the other Jewish and anti-fascist detainees were then marched in a column five wide through the streets of Bergamo to the railway station, with  the local population passing food and clothing to them. They were then placed in goods wagons to set out for an unknown destination and an uncertain future in Germany, although Ines was still convinced she would just be employed like all the other voluntary workers who had previously left Como.

Concentration Camp Map

Ringed are the three concentration camps where Ines was imprisoned, from south to north Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbruck.

Little did Ines know that she was not destined to be employed as a regular employee in a German factory but that she would be imprisoned as a slave labourer in some of the most notorious ‘lager’ within the German Reich. She was not to return back home to Como until 25th October 1945 having traveled across the Reich as follows:

  1. By train from Bologna to Vienna on 17th March 1944.
  2. From Vienna on 20th March 1944 by lorry to stay one week in Mauthausen Labour/Extermination Camp in Austria close to the Czech border.
  3. From Mauthausen by train to stay 8 months until November 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau Labour/Extermination Camp in Poland.
  4. From Auschwitz-Birkenau by train to stay until April 1945 in Ravensbruck Women’s Labour/Extermination Camp, Germany.
  5. After forced marches and eventual rescue by the Russian Army on the 5th May 1945, recovery in hospital from typhoid and phlebitis at Prenzlau, Northern Germany.
  6. By train from Prenzlau to Bolzano in October 1945.
  7. From Bolzano to a centre for refugees at Pescantina and onwards by train to Milan and then to Como on 25th October 1945.

‘Ma questa è una prigione!’ (But this is a prison)

When Ines, Ada and the other women from Lecco arrived at Vienna, they were walked through the corridors of a civilian prison and left in a large room with a bowl of thin soup and provided only with some straw on the floor to sleep on. The following day they were loaded onto a lorry smelling strongly of disinfectant to set out for Mauthausen towards the Czech border. On arrival, Ines and the other women were separated from the other male detainees from Como (whom they were never to see again) and were then put through the concentration camp’s registration process. For this they were stripped naked, showered and then walked in single file for a medical inspection, with the onlooking guards passing lewd comments, before dressing again to be marched on to their windowless cells. Ines still managed to hold on to the belief that she would eventually find her workplace and that her conditions would improve. But her next transfer to Auschwitz-Birkenau left her with no doubt that she was a prisoner and that her employee status was as a slave labourer.

Number 76150

Ines Tattoo

Ines’s prisoner number at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Ines and Ada were given a slice of bread and a dollop of margarine for the day-long journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  They were locked into an actual passenger carriage rather than the goods wagons used to transport the Jewish detainees. The registration process at Auschwitz-Birkenau included the tattooing of her number 76150 on her forearm as just another act in the process of dehumanisation that had started the moment they had arrived in Vienna. Ines was set to work transporting the human waste from the camp to be spread out on the fields as fertilizer.  When the winter gave way to spring, the prisoners were set to digging channels in the clay soil to drain the marshland. Ines also became gradually aware of the truly sinister nature of this labour/extermination camp as she came to realise the source of the acrid smoke arising from the camp’s charnel houses. She also worked out the pitiful fate of the young children she saw set to marching five abreast with each clutching a toy given to them by the guards as they were led to their gruesome end. It is only thanks to the testimonies of prisoners like Ines that we can begin to appreciate the extent of the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted on the detainees in the Nazi death camps. But during this period most of Ines’s attention, energy and ingenuity had to be  spent in seeking to survive by staying out of trouble.

After eight months Ines was transferred again – this time to the labour and extermination camp at Ravensbruck which lay 90 kilometres north of Berlin. Ines had had to say goodbye to Ada prior to the journey since Ada had taken ill with appendicitis and was still convalescing in the camp hospital. Ines was loaded into the goods wagons for the long ride west. Ravensbruck was a labour camp designated almost exclusively for female prisoners who were overseen by female guards. The camp provided a slave labour force for the nearby Siemens factories. Ines and her fellow female prisoners were marched in columns to work accompanied by armed guards and Doberman guard dogs. She worked  the 12 hour stints in two shifts starting either from 6 in the morning or 6 in the evening. In spite of the long hours of work without even the possibility to sit down, the conditions were better than at Auschwitz if just because she was indoors out of the worst of the weather.

Forced March West

From January and February 1945 it became obvious to Ines and the other prisoners that the Reich was on the retreat as news of the Russian advances came through. The retreat soon developed into a flight west away from the encroaching Red Army. For the prisoners life got harder. In April 1945, Ines was transferred out of Ravensbruck to a smaller nearby camp and the normal daily ration of a loaf of black bread was now shared out amongst eight or ten prisoners rather than five as previously. With the Russians advancing ever closer, the prisoners were gathered together, given minimum rations and set to march west accompanied by the Doberman dogs and armed guards. A soldier was delegated to stay at the back of the column to shoot those prisoners who could not keep up with the rest. One morning, after the march had halted for the night in a country farm, the prisoners awoke to find that their German guards had slipped away under cover of darkness. The war was over and Ines realised her survival instincts had seen her through to the end  – if she could now just get back to Como.

’tanto tu torni sempre!’ (In any case, you always come back)

The end of the war resulted in a new set of challenges to test Ines’s spirit of survival. There were about 11 million displaced persons in Germany at the end of the war,  most of whom had been employed as forced or slave labour. Many were as eager as Ines to get home but the lack of food and the damage to the basic infrastructure made for a logistical nightmare. Ines’s strong sense of survival had initially paid off well but drinking untreated milk led to typhoid fever and a prolonged period in a Russian-led hospital. Any attempt to return to Italy had to wait until her life was out of immediate danger and she had sufficient strength to walk and sustain the stresses of the journey.

Monumento ai Caduti War Memorial Giuseppe Terragni Antonio Sant'Elia

Monumento ai Caduti – War Memorial designed by Giuseppe Terragni and inspired by Antonio Sant’Elia. The two major representatives of the fascist state were executed by firing squad behind the memorial.

Meanwhile back in Como, with the collapse of the Nazi-Fascist state, there were scores to be settled. Paolo Porta, the fascist leader who had gone a long way to provoke the original strikes at the Tintoria Comense back in March 1944, had decided to accompany Mussolini in the column of German troops who had made their way up the western shores of Lake Como possibly attempting to reach the Valtellina (follow link for more detail). He was captured at Dongo by partisans and executed alongside the other fascist leaders on the Dongo lakefront. The Provincial Police Chief (Questore), Lorenzo Pozzoli, officially handed the city over to the partisans following Mussolini’s departure. He and the sadistic Head of the Political Office, Domenico Saletta, were arrested and put on trial. Pozzoli admitted he had been mistaken to put his faith in the fascists. Saletta tried to pass blame for those he had personally assassinated on to Pozzoli. Both were condemned to execution by firing squad which was carried out on the 23rd April 1945 on the lakefront behind the Terragni War Memorial. The managing director of the Comense factory, Umberto Walter – a person whom Ines had always considered respectful and caring towards his employees – was arrested and also faced the possibility of execution or imprisonment for collaboration in spite of having aided the escape of some Jews and anti-fascists.

Viale Geno evening

Viale Geno where Umberto Walter lived. His villa became the Swiss Consulate after the war.

He committed suicide on June 13th 1945. The person who had actually signed the order for Ines’s deportation, the Prefect Francesco Sforzolini, had fled Italy in April 1945 for Venezuela and subsequently returned in 1962.  He has never since been required to answer for his wartime actions in a court of law.  Ines’s parents were still alive although her father was now suffering from ill health. Ada Borgomainerio, Ines’s colleague from Tintoria Comense whom she had left in the Auschwitz Birkenau  Prison Hospital, had been liberated by the Russians from the concentration camp on the 27th January 1945 and had returned to Como. All but one of the men deported alongside of Ines failed to return to Italy – they  perished in the Nazi concentration camps with the one survivor dying shortly after his return to Como due to the effects of starvation and poor health.

Ines meanwhile was in the Russian-led hospital in Prenzlau, Northern Germany ever since her rescue by the Red Army on the 5th May and from the moment she had contracted typhoid. The prolonged stay in hospital went on to provoke phlebitis in one leg. It was only four months later in October, when her fever had abated sufficiently, that she had strength enough to join a group of Italian IMIs (Italian Military Internees) being repatriated from labour camps to Bolzano. From Bolzano she was transferred to the refugee centre (Centro di Accoglienza dei Riduci) at Pescantina just outside of Verona. Under the selfless care  and generosity of the women who ran the centre, Ines gained enough strength to continue her onward journey to Milan and then onto Como. In spite of her pitiful health, Ines would not have anyone forewarn her parents of her arrival. She wanted to walk up Via Grossi unaided and knock on the door of the home she had been deported from 18 months previously.

Ines book

Cover of the book recounting Ines’s story – the title is taken from a phrase often used by Ines’ mother.

Ines had always clung on to the belief that she would make it home and it was maybe a degree of luck but also the strength that came from this belief that saw her through the hellish experience of slave labour. But one cannot go through witnessing and living through all the inhumane horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps without suffering a profound mental impact. Many aspects of life returned to normal; Ines went back to work at the Tintoria Comense (subsequently known as Ticosa) eventually retiring as the firm’s fortunes waned.  Yet she still had to come to terms with the mental impact of her hellish experiences. After a few years of work, Ines found that the best way to deal with the mental anguish was to return to Birkenau annually for as many years as possible. She found these visits helped exorcise the damage of her painful memories. She also began to forgive those who had deported and imprisoned her – the various sadistic guards she had encountered or the distant unfeeling officers and politicians who delighted in establishing such an inhumane and cruel regime. She forgave them primarily because she could not bear to carry inside the weight of all her rancour. Forgiveness was essential for her own mental well-being.

She was also persuaded by the historians at Como’s Institute for Contemporary History to recount her experiences to groups of schoolchildren. Whilst initially uncertain about this for fear of either a lack of student interest or of  her ability to convey the true horror of life in the Nazi concentration camps,  she was soon reassured of both the children’s interest and also of the power of her personal testimony of the atrocities she had experienced and witnessed.

Ines with schoolchildren from Cantu

Ines with schoolchildren from Cantu.

Ines is still with us and still telling her story. The link here is to a video of her recounting her experiences as part of a ceremony held in her honour last year at Como’s town hall. The video is in Italian as is the book written of her experience entitled ‘Tanto Tu Torni Sempre’ written by Giovanna Caldara and Mauro Colombo and published by Editore Melampo.    Back in 2004 she was presented with the award of Commendatore by the then President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, on his visit to Como.

Maybe it was a degree of naivety that got Ines into trouble that fateful morning on 6th March 1944 but if so, it was a naivety that stemmed from an inborn sense of natural justice and humanity – qualities shown also during Ines’s prolonged incarceration as when she took a great personal risk to visit and comfort Ada Borgomainerio as she lay isolated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Hospital. Ines’s story is not a testimony to courage in confronting an inhumane ideology through political ideals, nor to the altruism of someone driven by a morality arising from religious conviction – it is though a story of personal courage, fortitude, of someone able to retain the optimistic hope of a better future, of a time when the perverted values of war and oppression would finally be replaced by a return to civility and respect for all humanity. Before long we will lose direct contact with those who lived through the Nazi concentration camps so let us take these final opportunities to express gratitude for their willingness to share what they can for the good of all of us.

Ines Figini 1

Ines receives her award from then President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.




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Lords and Ladies of Misrule at Schignano

mountain rock linea cardorna swiss border

Sasso Gordona by Rifugio Prabello and the Linea Cadorna above Schignano

What can raise folklore festivals beyond the quaint and well-intentioned in modern times? What about days of misrule, disorder, transgression, role reversal and a general set of fooling – as can be experienced through the normally tranquil streets of Schignano at carnival time.



Brutti e bello

The Mascarun parade alongside the Brut in the Schignano Carnival

Maybe it is this town’s setting below the impressive Sasso Gordona and above Argegno and Lake Como that has preserved this town’s tradition of a yearly anarchic rite with its full set of pantomime-like characters in their own set  of costumes and masks.



The Schignano Carnival is unique, and whilst well-known in Lombardy, deserves a much wider reputation since this is true interactive street theatre at its pagan best without any hint of commercialism or sanitation.

Whilst the carnival represents a spirit of true anarchy, it does have structure with the yearly re-enactment of a perennial battle between order and disorder, beauty and ugliness, the rich and the poor. The battle has its own cast of characters whose parts and costumes have been interpreted down through the years.




sapeur sigurta in Schignano.

The 2 Sapeur and the Sigurta (explained later) head the Carnival Procession through the streets of Schignano


Brut mask rags carnival

Brut – the poor, ugly, feckless carnival character in rags and wooden mask

The naughtiest of these characters, and those who seem to have the most fun, are the ‘brut’ (the ugly). They dress in rags and sackcloth with grotesque wooden masks and armed with whatever might be used to aggravate the crowds. Some carried battered suitcases which were opened in parody of travelling salesmen. One character paraded with ‘his’ own torso placed within a picture frame as a living personification of Dadaism. Another tended to lunge at onlookers’ private parts with a pair of coal tongs.

The ‘brut’ had their weaknesses though. They could not sustain their fooling, which after all required lolling about with heavy cow bells slung around the waist, without falling into the occasional catatonic torpor lying down prone on the street. After all, they do not just represent the poor as ugly, irresponsible and feckless but of course, they are also inherently lazy!


Mascarun Schignano Carnival

A Mascarun – the rich, sophisticated and beautiful players in the Schignano Carnival.

Now enter the Mascarun also known as the ‘Beii’ (the beautiful) to give a disdainful prod at the catatonic brut. Whilst the brut’s gait is a type of lollop, the Mascaroon walk in a parody of style and grace to show off their finery and sophistication, yet all also behind a grotesque mask and with their waists also ringed by cow bells.

The Brut tease and aggravate the Mascarun as well as pinching and lunging at the onlookers. The Mascarun remain aloof as befits their rich status standing proudly sporting their gargantuan girths.

As the general air of expectation increases prior to the start of the procession, the anarchy increases as the traffic police try to keep the traffic flowing. The Brut are no respecters of traffic police or for the potential danger of a moving car. What does a traffic policeman do as his efforts to clear a traffic jam are thwarted when two ‘torporised’ Brut collapse onto the road directly in front of him? What does the driver do as two other Brut open the passenger doors and blast away on the car’s horn and rub the driver’s face with a rag of wet fur? At this stage, the policeman becomes part of the performance going beyond himself by acting a person thwarted by the force of anarchy from performing his essential function.

Mascarun at junction

A Mascarun poses at the junction managed by a stressed traffic policeman.

Brut in car

A brut forces his way into a car with suitcases

reclining brut 2

A brut falls into torpor in front of a queue of cars

Such disorder cannot go on forever and so, with the start of the procession through the town’s streets, enters the figure of authority – the Sigurtà (see above).


The Sapeur provide an escort for the Sigorta, dressed in sheepskin and wielding a heavy axe.

He is maskless, with a neat moustache and beard wearing a sash denoting his role just like modern day Italian mayors (sindaci). The Sigurtà has his own escort consisting of two massive characters called the ‘sapeur’. They also are without masks but with blackened faces, dressed in sheepskin with splendid sets of sheeps wool whiskers, and armed with heavy axes.

Who has brought about all this misrule? A character (straw man) who remains propped up high on the balcony overlooking the main town square until the end of carnival. This is the Carlisepp who surveys from his vantage point all the chaos below him until he himself will be chased around the town and then burnt on a bonfire at midnight as carnival comes to an end and the forces of disorder are dispelled for another year.


The Carlisepp – the figure responsible for all the misrule who will however be put to flames at the end of Carnival.

Some of this may all be a little scary for the younger children but it’s a whole lot more fun for adults than the anodyne processions of Disney, Spiderman or Toy Story characters who meaninglessly parade through many Italian cities for Carnival.  Schignano is noisy, genuine and fun where we all can relish in the freedom offered by a few hours of true anarchy in, of course, the amazing mountain-side setting overlooking magnificent Lake Como.

Lake Como from Schignano

Lake Como from Schignano with the Sanctuary of Sant’Anna in the mid ground.

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Fables, Legends and Folklore: The 3 Days of the Blackbird


by MichalPL, Courtesy of Wikimedia

Legend states that cold weather over the ‘tre giorni della merla’ (the three days of the blackbird) signifies a hot summer to come and conversely, mild weather will lead to a cool summer. Most cultures have proverbs based on folklore of this sort. In the UK you might hear that if it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, it will rain for a further 40 days.  Unfortunately these proverbs risk being undermined by a typical ignorance as to when a day  such as St. Swithin’s Day actually falls  or more seriously, by the advance of  global warming disrupting ancient patterns of climate.  But for the record, St. Swithin’s Day is July 15th and the three days of the blackbird are the 29th, 30th and 31st January.

Via Dante Christmas lights Milan Castello Sforzesco

Via Dante, Milan, at Christmas time with Castello Sforzesco in the background and Christmas lights sponsored by Dyson and advertising their hairdryers.

However the blackbird proverb still has plenty of currency in the land of its origin, Milan and Lombardy in general.  The three days at the end of January were said to be the coldest in winter even though other folklore and the preparations for carnival on the 10th February point to expectations of Spring and new life.

Modern architecture Porta Nuova Milan

Porta Nuova new development on the edge of the medieval heart of Milan easily accessed exiting from the train station at Porta Garibaldi.

Various accounts exist for the origin of the proverb with one of the most detailed stating how the story was told of a blackbird family (mother, father and children) arriving in Milan one winter to settle in the Porta Nuova area. However the intense cold and abundant snow that year forced the family to move their nest from below the eaves of a shed closer to a chimney pot where the heat from the fireplace below offered some comfort. The father then had to fly out for 3 days to the edge of the snow covered land to find food to bring home. Yet when he did return three days later, he could hardly recognise his soot-covered family whose plumage had turned from white to black.

Green high rise accomodation Porta Nuova Milan

Vertical gardens – Porta Nuova, Milan

However the origins of the proverb may lie further south of the region towards the River Po in that one story tells of a couple of blackbirds. The male was resident in Milan and his fiancée lived in  ‘Oltrepo’ (the other side of the Po). Tradition dictated that they get married in the home town of the female. So the male set out towards the end of January but tarried on the way meeting up with other members of his family.  By the time he reached the Po the weather was now at its coldest and the river had totally frozen over. The blackbird had left it too late. He died of the severe cold as he attempted to make his river crossing. The female blackbird was devastated and it is said her cries can still be heard along the banks of the river on these last three days of January.

What may well lie at the heart of the Po-based proverb is the much more prosaic account of a nobleman in the middle ages named ‘De Merlo’ (or similar)  who perished attempting to cross the frozen Po in January. A similar version talks of trying to get a cannon called a ‘merlo’ across the frozen river.

Po Cremona with a bridge

The River Po at Cremona where choirs still gather on the shores of the river at the end of January to sing songs that commemorate the grieving blackbird.. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

These days the Giorni della Merla are celebrated in Lodi and also in Cremona in song. At Lodi choirs on opposite sides of the river, where the Adda joins the Po’ chant a traditional song based on lead and refrain. In Cremona they too chant traditional songs along the river bank around bonfires. (In the Como area many communities build large bonfires at this time of year as part of the Giubiana legend. The symbolic purpose was to burn the evil of the old year to make way for the rebirth of the new.)

This year the weather was mixed over the 3 days of the blackbird with an unpleasant damp fog hanging over the city which, whilst not registering a spectacularly low temperature, still felt uncomfortable. So, if I listen to the blackbird, this means we won’t suffer spectacularly high temperatures this summer unlike last year but we may suffer some slight discomfort from raised levels of humidity. So says the blackbird.

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Walking the Lario Triangle From Asso to Nesso

In the footsteps of Don Carlo Banfi

This is a relatively long walk that takes us from the heart of the Lario Triangle (the area between the two legs of Lake Como) in the Vallassina to Nesso on the shores of the western leg of the lake.

Sormano Muro Girolombardia Resegone Vallassina

Sormano in the Vallassina seen from the Muro di Sormano

The route follows close to that most likely taken by Don Carlo Banfi when he led 16 Jewish refugees on November 2nd 1943 from Sormano to Nesso and subsequently the following day to Mount Bisbino and across the border into Switzerland. He was one of a number of locals who either led or assisted these so-called ‘viaggi della salvezza’ leading Jews as well as other enemies of the fascist state away from capture and deportation to Nazi extermination or labour camps, as described in our latest article for Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th. Those earlier travellers would have been far too preoccupied over their safety to be able to enjoy and marvel at the tranquil sublimity of the setting for this walk as we are now free to do.


Mist rising from Lake Como looking north from above Nesso

Allow about six hours for this excursion and be warned there is one particularly arduous section walking up the renowned cycle hill climb known as the Muro di Sormano. The route follows well-established mule tracks and tarmacked road in parts but robust clothing is a must and be prepared for snow over the winter months.

I will break the walk down into four sections as follows:

  1. Asso to Sormano via Caglio
  2. Sormano to the Colma del Piano (1124 metres) via the Muro di Sormano
  3. Pian del Tivano
  4. The Valley of the Nosé leading to Nesso

If based in Como, a €3 ticket on Bus C49 will get you to Asso dropping you off at the terminal in Piazza Mercato. From here walk into the old centre and head for the Ponte Oscuro. At the drinking fountain on the other side of the bridge there is a footpath with only the left-hand fork signposted towards Monte Palanzone. This is our starting point.

Asso to Nesso Map

Taken from Kompass Map 1:50000  No. 91, Lake Como and Lake Lugano showing locations of the numbered photos in the article

Asso to Sormano via Caglio

Asso Nesso Wlak Start

Photo 1. Right hand fork from drinking fountain. Follow path to the left at this point but take all subsequent right hand forks when they occur.

You will get to Sormano eventually whether you take the right or left hand path. However the left option is signposted, is a more distinct path and passes the Agriturismo Enco and the fascinating rock formations known as the ‘Fungi di Terra’. However, as shown on the map, it is not a direct route north. The right hand option is more direct but is not signposted with a path that at times gets indistinct. If you do opt for the right hand option (See Photo 1) , your path will eventually reach the outskirts of Rezzago (Photo 2) where you should follow the tarmacked road with signs pointing to the Agriturismo Enco and the Fungi.

Asso to Nesso Rezzago

Photo 2. Outskirts of Rezzago

Whichever option taken, you will converge at a junction just before the so-called ‘Castagneto di Enco’  which is easily recognisable by the signposting and the hut maintained by the Alpine Club shown in Photo 3.

Asso to Nesso walk Castagneto di Enco

Photo 3: Junction to Caglio. Turn right if coming from Rezzago or left if from Enco and the Fungi di Terra.

Take the path in the direction of Caglio (a right hand turn if arriving from Rezzago and a left turn if coming from Enco and the Fungi di Terra.

The Castagneto di Enco (Photo 4) is a flat area totally populated by chestnut trees. As you walk towards Caglio you then pass the the Jungle Raider Park Xtreme (Photo 5)! Jungle Raider describes itself as ‘…the first extreme adventure park in Italy, with 7 stunning attractions to be addressed in sequence. Great steps with height of 60 meters and ziplines with a length of 130 meters, to take proof of your recklessness.’ This is followed by the calmer Sanctuary of the Madonna of Campoé (16th century in origin – Photo 6).

You now join the tarmacked road and enter into Caglio past the cemetery with the first clear view of Monte Grigna in front of you (Photo 7). Turn left at the junction before arriving in the town centre and then turn left again on to Via Santa Valeria which soon downgrades to an indistinct and unsignposted footpath. Head out in the direction of the church tower of Santa Valeria (Photo 8) to your right.

Santa Valeria Sormano Caglio

Photo 8. Santa Valeria outside of Sormano

When you re-emerge onto the tarmacked road, turn right and descend down by keeping to the left into Sormano. The turning for the start of the next section (the gruelling climb up the Muro di Sormano) is on your left before you enter the town centre.

Sormano to the Colma del Piano via the Muro di Sormano

I’ll describe this section as if you are starting from Sormano (or have decided to enter the town for sustenance before taking on the aforementioned and dreaded Muro).

Head out of Sormano on the Via Santa Valeria turning right where you see the junction shown in Photo 9. Turn off the tarmacked road onto the well-defined path following the course of a river on its left (Photo 10 and 11).

Asso to Nesso

Photo 9. Via Santa Valeria – the road out of Sormano

Muro di Sormano start of walk

Photo 10. Start of the path up to the Muro di Sormano

Muro di Sormano walk river

Photo 11. The walk up to the Muro di Sormano following the river valley

You soon rejoin the tarmacked road which crosses the river and starts its inexorable climb up to the Colma del Piano. This is the Muro di Sormano known throughout the cycling community as one of the most gruelling climbs on any cycling circuit. The statistics state the climb has an average gradient of 17% rising to a maximum of 25%. Over its 1.7km length, we will climb 280 metres with each metre gained marked on the road (Photo 12).

Mro di Sormano metres

Photo 12. Metre height markings on the Muro di Sormano for cyclists as they make this 1.7km climb.

Cyclists take a seemingly masochistic pleasure in climbs such as this and they do not even have the chance to stop and admire the views as their leg muscles burn under the unrelenting pressure of the incline. We instead are free to stop and admire Monte Grigna or to simply catch our breath (Photo 13).

Monte Grigna Muro Sormano Asso to Nesso

Photo 13. Monte Grigna seen from the Muro di Sormano

At the top we reach the Colma del Piano with its Trattoria Bar and Observatory at 1124 metres above sea level – the highest point of our walk. In fact, from this point on our walk is either downhill or on the level.

Pian del Tivano

We keep to the main road to cross the Pian del Tivano, a flat area at about 900 metres above sea level on the southern side of Monte San Primo (1600 metres). As Don Banfi led his refugees down the hill from the Colma del Piano, they would have got a first glimpse of Switzerland looking west to Monte Generoso and the promise of safety (Photo 14).

Pian del Tivano Asso to Nesso Monte Generoso

Photo 14. Descent to the Pian del Tivano with Monte Generoso in Switzerland in the far distance.

At the time of Don Banfi, the Pian del Tivano was where one of the first groupings of armed partisans gathered under the leadership of former army officers unprepared to serve under an illegitimate regime. However they soon had to retreat further into the mountains due to the vulnerability to parachute attack on such a flat terrain.

Keen potholers may want to explore this area further due to the access it gives to kilometres of underground caverns and water courses carved through the chalk rock. Others may well want to take advantage of the numerous bars and restaurants which bear testimony to the popularity of this area for visitors. In the past, when winters were more severe, there were even skiing installations on the slopes of Monte San Primo (Photo 15). Nowadays these only exist on the colder northern facing slopes of the mountain looking towards Bellagio.

Monte san Primo

Photo 15. Monte San Primo’s (1600m) southern slopes. There are still some skiing facilities but only on the colder north facing side of the mountain.

As we come to the far end of the Pian del Tivano, once having passed a road off to the right signposted to Véleso, we take the next tarmacked road to the left and start out on the last section of this walk.

Following the Nosé Valley to Nesso

This section is not signposted until you get relatively close to Nesso but you cannot go wrong if, wherever faced with a fork along the path, you always take the right hand option. Gradually the tarmac gives way to cobble and the descent towards Nesso gets steeper. All along the way, we get glimpses of the hill side settlements of Véleso and Zelbio (Photo 16) on the slopes of Monte San Primo as we walk along the heavily wooded valley.

Zelbio Veleso Pian del Tivano Asso to Nesso

Photo 16. Zelbio and Veleso seen from the other side of the valley beyond the Pian del Tivano

As the descent gets steeper, we also begin to hear the sound of the gushing torrent which has cut a deep gorge whose sides get ever steeper as the valley closes in. The climate also gets milder as the influence of the lake makes itself felt (Photo 17). Once we cross a stone bridge (Photo 18) it is not long before we reach the outskirts of Nesso (Photo 19) and continue down to the main road between Como and Bellagio at the Piazza Castello.

From here there is a good view of Nesso’s waterfalls, the Orrido di Nesso (Photo 20) or down to the lakefront and Nesso’s famous medieval bridge that spans the Nosé as it enters the lake.

Orrido Nesso

Photo 20. The Orrido di Nesso (Waterfall), seen from the bridge on the main road off the Piaza Castello.

From Piazza Castello you can return to Como by bus C30 or walk down to the lakefront to catch one of the boats from the jetty.

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Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th

Sormano Muro Girolombardia Resegone Vallassina

Sormano in the Vallassina seen from the Muro di Sormano

The Vallassina lies in the Lario Triangle between Como and Lecco, based on the town of Asso on the upper reaches of the River Lambro. From September to December 1943 this area hosted numerous refugees from the nazi-fascist state thus witnessing the humanity and inhumanity, the heroism and the disaster caused by the Holocaust.

Quick Historical Background

The armistice signed at the start of September between the Italian government (which had dismissed Mussolini from power back in July) and the allies legitimated the allied occupation in Southern Italy but increased the oppression in the north. Here the Nazis immediately occupied the territory and re-established Mussolini as head of a puppet government known as the RSI (‘Socialist’ Republic of Italy). The short-lived elation created by the armistice was followed by a ratcheting up of repression and the loss of any remaining hope of safety for all of the foreign Jews who had mostly been held in internment since 1940. Now there was no barrier to them being deported to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe. And to their numbers were added all Italian Jews in the occupied zone who now also became subject to arrest and deportation following an order published by the RSI on the 1st December 1943. Thus from this date the Italian Nazi-fascist state acted out its inhuman ideology through its direct involvement in the Nazi Holocaust.

The Vallassina

San Primo Pre-Alps Lario Triangle Vallassina

Monte San Primo (1600m), the highest of the Pre-Alp peaks in the Lario Triangle

The Vallassina was a natural choice for refugees and those seeking to avoid the attention of the authorities. Firstly it was readily accessible by train from Milan (an advantage that proved short-lived since the ease of access also favoured the Nazi authorities). As a holiday destination in the foothills of the Alps, it offered a variety of accommodation in hotels or in many of the second homes owned by those beginning to form part of the active resistance to occupation. Lastly, it was on a route to the clandestine border crossing points into neutral Switzerland that were well known and frequently used by local smugglers (see Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy? for more on the local smuggling tradition).

Alongside the refugees, some initiatives of spontaneous resistance began to take shape in the area; for example the ex-army officer Colonel Gatta set up a partisan brigade based on the Pian del Tivano right by Sormano.

Partisans Alta Brianza Pian del Tivano parachute attack

Pian Del Tivano where some of the first armed partisans in Alta Brianza gathered under the leadership of Major Gatta.

Ada Tommasi Mario de Micheli Sormano 1955

Ada Tommasi and Mario de Micheli were two nationally renowned communists who sought refuge in Sormano and organised ‘viaggi della salvezza’ from there for Jews throughout the Nazi Occupation.

This group in turn connected with the partisans in the Erba/Ponte Lambro area led by Giancarlo Puecher. The CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale), the organisation responsible for coordinating resistance in the north, set up links through the Vallassina for smuggling out ex-allied prisoners of war. Others such as the communist married couple Ada Tommasi and Mario De Micheli, came to Sormano living there secretly and aiding Jews in making their escape into Switzerland.

The Catholic organisation known as OSCAR was also beginning to co-ordinate the assistance to refugees along the so-called ‘viaggi della salvezza’ offered by priests and parishioners living in the border areas.

Don Carlo Banfi

Don Carlo Banfi priest Sormano 1943

Don Carlo Banfi, Priest of Sormano 1943 – 1945.

The young priest of Sormano, Don Carlo Banfi,  was one who spontaneously set about offering help to those who had arrived on his doorstep seeking safety. He hid and housed Ada Tommasi and Mario De Micheli in the basement of his vicarage. He joined them in organising escapes into Switzerland for Jews, ex-allied prisoners of war or other enemies of the state.  These escapes were led usually by the local smugglers who had detailed knowledge of the clandestine crossing points. These clandestine routes were becoming vital since the Nazi authorities had quickly blocked off the official crossing points in Varese and Como. The Swiss authorities had also closed the border in response to the Nazi occupation.

Sormano 1940s Parish Church

Sormano and the parish church at the time of Don Carlo Banfi. Taken from a postcard in a private collection produced by Edizioni Prato Bambina, Sormano

However, as summer turned to winter in November 1943, these guides reported that the crossings were becoming dangerous due to the cold. Don Banfi wanted to check this for himself and so he decided to join the next planned evacuation. All went well. The refugees had gained safety across the border but Don Banfi was detained by the Swiss Border guards and warned that he was committing an offence in crossing the border secretly. However they allowed him to return home on this occasion. Back in Sormano, a much larger group of Jewish refugees were awaiting safe passage and they were under time pressure since the Nazi authorities were every day securing control of more of the territory. There were even rumours that they planned to parachute troops into the Pian del Tivano to deal both with the partisans forming there and the clandestine refugee traffic. Don Banfi had no time to make proper preparations for this next journey into Switzerland. Instead he left on November 22nd hurriedly leading a group of 16 Jews which included both some young children and some elderly who would face real difficulty in managing the exhausting two-day journey of mountain climb and descent by foot.

November 22nd 1943

Giro di Lombardia Muro di Sormano cycling viaggi della salvezza don carlo banfi

Don Banfi would probably have led his group up this path leading to the infamous Muro di Sormano now renowned as one of the steepest ascents on any road cycling race.

Don Banfi set off on this dangerous journey with 3 accomplices in addition to the group of 16 refugees. Along the way they received help from the country people working in the woods and, when they finally reached the border, from the Italian Customs Police (Guardia di Finanza) who directed them to avoid military patrols and pointed out where best to cross the border fencing. More detail of the heroic role played by the Guardia di Finanza in assisting refugees is reported in our article Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust.

Pian del Tivano Monte Generoso Switzerland

Pian del Tivano – the escapees would have got their first glimpse of Switzerland as they entered the Pian del Tivano after descending from the Colma del Piano at 1120m.

The route had taken them from Sormano on to the Pian del Tivano and down to Nesso. They then had crossed the western leg of the lake to get to Torrigia, staying  the night at an inn before crossing over to Switzerland along the border by Mount Bisbino – a long and arduous two-day journey which had left most of the group totally exhausted by the time they had crossed over into Switzerland.

Orrido di Nesso Waterfall

Orrido di Nesso, a welcome sight after the long climb and descent to the lake.

Most were unable to walk any further down into the valley. Don Banfi and his accomplices reported to the Swiss border police advising them to bring down the exhausted refugees to safety. He however could not avoid arrest this time but received a lenient sentence partly thanks to the intervention of the Archbishop of Lugano who also passed on to Don Banfi the advice he had received from the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Schuster, stating he should not in any way attempt to return into Italy since the Nazi-fascist authorities were seeking harsh retribution. So Don Banfi remained in Switzerland working as a chaplain in internment camps until the war ended.


Local Holocaust Victims

But back in Sormano, the retribution and repression was mounting.  In spite of this,  many of Don Banfi’s parishioners and the husband and wife team of Ada and Marco De Micheli continued to assist refugees. They were unable to save all Jews as the authorities  increased their control over the territory. A local inhabitant, Liliana Picciotto Fargion, has provided testimony documenting the names of those Jews arrested in Sormano at around this time and subsequently deported to extermination camps.  None of those listed below were to survive. Their names have been  listed here out of respect for their  sacrifice and to illustrate how the disaster of the Holocaust directly impacted Italy under the Nazi-fascist regime of the RSI.

Oliviero Ruggero Barda was arrested in December 1943, sent to Auschwitz, killed on 25th September 1944. Salamone Barda and Renata Hannuna, were arrested together also in December 1943, sent to Auschwitz and subsequently killed on 10th April 1944. Simeone Barda, also arrested in December 1943, sent to Auschwitz, with date of death unknown. The married couple Alessandro Bardavid and Violetta Pontremoli were arrested 13th March 1944, sent to Auschwitz. The date of their death is unknown. Elia Bardavid was arrested along with her parents on the 13th March 1944, also sent to Auschwitz, killed after 22nd January 1945.

The younger daughter of the Bardavid family, Graziella, was saved since she had been entrusted to a married couple living in Asso named Maria Bonaiti and Giuseppe Mazza. Both Maria and Giuseppe were awarded the title ‘Just Among Nations’ in 1998 by the Israeli organisation Yad Vashem.

Ponte della Civera medieval bridge Nesso Lake Como

This medieval bridge at the foot of the Orrido di Nesso as the river enters the lake would have marked the end of the first day’s gruelling ‘viaggio della salvezza’ for Don Banfi’s party of 16 Jewish refugees.

Reward with the title ‘Just Among Nations’ was also conferred on the communist couple, Ada Tommasi and Mario De Micheli as well as on Don Carlo Banfi.

Don Carlo Banfi was also honoured with the Gold Medallion in 1955 by the Union of the Italian Hebrew Community. He returned to Italy after the war and took up the priesthood in Varese until the 1970s. He is an unsung hero whose impact went well beyond his deeds through the example of moral and physical courage he provided to colleagues and parishioners alike. Thanks to his example, other locals were inspired to maintain their humane values and to continue providing assistance to  evacuees wherever possible in spite of the threats and acts of state retribution. For me what I find the most inspiring is his willingness to work alongside whoever had a humane spirit irrespective of their political or religious affiliations. This attitude, exemplified by people such as Don Carlo, was apparently briefly but gloriously shared by many during those years of resistance and its spirit dominated the positive collaboration across ideologies in the drafting of the constitution after the war.

The sources of information for this article came from the research undertaken by the Istituto Di Storia Contemporanea ‘Pier Amato Perretta’ based in Como and to the publication issued by the Sormano Comune, the Sormano Alpine Group and the Parish of Saint Ambrogio entitled ‘Don Carlo Banfi: Un Eroe Sconosciuto’.

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Como – How Green is Our City?

If looking down on Como from any of the surrounding mountains and seeing it nestled at the end of its glimmering lake, who would ever think to question the ecological purity of such a stupendous setting?

Como Lake Como Cernobbio Moltrasio

Como in the foreground looking north to Cernobbio and Moltrasio

Yet looking south or west there is another Como – the industrial city of textile production or the city of commuters making their daily way north into Ticino or south into the Milan conurbation – a city of over 80,000 people of whom most may get to glimpse the lakefront only ‘en passage’ or for an occasional weekend passeggiata.

Looking down on Como city south to the Baradello Tower and the Pianura Padana

Como looking south from San Donato towards the Torre Baradello and on to the Pianura Padana towards Milan.

And in fact the latest figures released last October by the Italian NGO, Legambiente, detailing the environmental performance of all the provincial capitals in Italy, show that Como is an ecological curate’s egg –that is, good but only in parts!

The report from Legambiente entitled ‘Ecosistema Urbano 2017’ places all provincial capitals such as Como within a regional (Lombardy for us) and national ranking identifying those who fall below the standards set by the European Union. The data has been synthesised and then published by Como’s Camera di Commercio (Chamber of Commerce) with the full report available from this link. However here follows a summary of where we stand nationally and compared with fellow provincial capitals in the region such as Varese, Lecco, Monza and Milan.



Via Dante looking towards the Castello Sforzesco, Milan

Milan and other cities in the Pianura Padana, including Como, have historically fared badly in measures of air quality recording some of the highest levels of smog across Europe and on a par only with some parts of Poland. So it is of no surprise to discover that our record in this category is classified as ‘poor’ meaning we exceed the levels set for at least two out of the four measures of air quality. We fail in our average levels of nitrogen dioxide and the number of days registering high levels of ozone. For nitrogen dioxide we are ranked 91st out of about 115 cities with Milan at 95. Our average level is 46 micrograms per cubic metre, 6 points above the EU standard set at 40 micrograms. However, other cities in Lombardy and the Pianura Padana fare much better with Mantova ranking only 19th nationally. In fact, Mantova is the shining example for most of the ecological measures in the report and is by far overall the greenest city in Lombardy.

Green Como 2

How high is the ozone level on a lovely summer’s day?

Excessive ozone is another problem we share with other cities in the Po Valley aggravated by the high temperatures in the summer months and the relative lack of wind. Como had 37 days in the year when the ozone level exceeded the safety standard. It appears that for this measure at least we are not helped by the mountains that flank us on two sides since these tend to trap the air above the city if there is no wind to disperse it. Varese managed much worse than us with 70 days above safety level whilst the cleanest city in Lombardy was Sondrio with 10 days. Genoa was the worst across the nation with a staggering 155 days above safety level.

One positive aspect for us in terms of air quality is the relatively low level of small particles in the atmosphere where we score within the safety level and Sondrio again gets the cleanest score in Lombardy.



Lake Como

Sustainability requires us to reduce as far as possible the daily consumption of fresh water. The national average daily consumption per person is apparently 151 litres (although drought conditions in some parts of Italy, e.g. Agrigento, can explain some spectacularly low consumption figures in some areas). Como’s average daily consumption per person is 185 litres. The lowest level in Lombardy is Varese at 131 litres and the highest is Milan with 209 litres.

Another measure of sustainability is the percentage of fresh water lost in the system through leaks or damage to the supply network. Como has a positive record in that 21% of fresh water is lost which is below the national average. Varese loses 33% of its fresh water whilst Monza is the most efficient losing only 10.8%.

Water 1

Point where the Cosia flows into the lake having passed through the purification plant on Via Innocenzo. Villa Olmo in the background.

This last year even the beach areas around the city were deemed clean enough to allow for swimming in the lake. This was due to recent improvements in the amount of waste passing through purification plants. Most cities in Lombardy put all their waste through purification plants however Como, although showing improvements, manages only 88% – the lowest level in Lombardy. Nationally however Benevento scores the lowest with only 22% of waste passing through a treatment centre.




Concordia enters port – old methods of transport still hold good

The challenge for the future is to reduce the amount of waste generated per inhabitant and then to recycle as much as possible of what is generated. In terms of waste generation the Comaschi create a yearly average per person of 466 kilos which is well below the national average of 536 kilos. We were outdone by the virtuous Monzese with a figure of 430 kilos yet far better than the Bresciani who produced a scale-tipping 675 kilos per person.

We are also quite virtuous recyclers exceeding the government target of 65% recycling set in 2012 by achieving 66.5% last year. However the truly virtuous triumvirate of cities are in the North East with Trento at 81.6%, Treviso at 85% and Pordenone with an impressive 86.6% of all refuse sent for recycling. In sad contrast Siracusa could only manage to recycle 2.8%.


Transport 1

Como’s special form of public transport – the funicualr railway to and from Brunate

The availability and use of public transport is another effective measure of the extent to which city councils are facing up to the challenges of providing for a sustainable future. More use of public transport could be expected in large cities or those with exceptional circumstances such as Venice which naturally tops the national ranking in the average number of journeys on public transport per inhabitant. Each Venetian travels almost twice a day on public transport whilst for cities the size of Como, Brescia scores highest with 195 journeys per year. Como’s score is 75 which is a higher rate of public transport use than most other cities of a similar size in Lombardy.

However the number of journeys undertaken on public transport obviously depends on how much public transport is available. Milan has the greatest score with 91 kilometres of transport availble per inhabitant. Smaller cities would have proportionally less with Como having 28 kilometres which puts it above Mantova, Varese, Lecco and Monza. Sondrio has surprisingly few kilometres of public transport (6 km) and a correspondingly high level of private car ownership.

Transport 2

Vintage car on the lakefront

Car ownership is however unsurprisingly low in Venice with 43 cars per 100 inhabitants. Milan scores the lowest in Lombardy with 51 whilst Como has 61 cars per 100 inhabitants, amongst the highest levels in Lombardy.

How safe are our roads, or statistically, how many deaths or injuries arise from traffic accidents per 1000 head of population? Bergamo’s streets are the most dangerous with 10.7 incidents per 1000 inhabitants. Sondrio, despite its high level of car ownership, is amongst the safest cities with 3.4 whilst Como is in 39th place nationally with a figure of 7.0.

Reggio Emilia heads the national charts in the provision of cycle paths with 41 metres per 100 inhabitants. Cremona and Mantova in Lombardy are not far behind (lovely flat cycling in the Pianura Padana!). Como is unfortunately below the national average of 7.53 metres with only 2.9 metres.


The city most well-endowed with pedestrian areas unsurprisingly is Venice. They offer an average of 5.3 square metres per inhabitant. In Lombardy Cremona heads the list with 1.2 square metres followed by Mantova with 0.9 and Milan  with 0.5. Como is 12th nationally with 0.3 square metres whilst Lecco and Monza at 0.1 are two of the least pedestrianised cities in Itay.


Streets in the old town within the ZTL – or pedestrianised area

Obvious signs of ‘greenery’ are the number of trees in public spaces with Brescia leading the national chart with 59 trees per 100 inhabitants well ahead of Como with 11, the lowest level in Lombardy. We do better in the amount of public green space coming 11th nationally. At 69 square metres per inhabitant, we are the second most green city in Lombardy after Sondrio.


Life Electric – Libeskind’s sculptural homage to Alessandro Volta and his city.

And finally we almost lead the way just behind Lodi in Lombardy in the generation of renewable energy from solar power. We are in 10th place nationally generating 11.6 kilowatts per 1000 inhabitants. The leader is Padua with 30.3 kilowatts.


So what can we make out of this somewhat confusing set of statistics. Can we in any way profile a city through figures of this sort? They clearly don’t give any precise indication to the heart and soul of a place although the consistently positive scoring of a city like Mantova could lead us (quite rightly I believe) to assume it’s a city well and imaginatively managed.  And as for Como? What should be our judgement? My daughter used regularly to come back from school with a report repeating the judgement ‘discreto’ over a range of subjects. Maybe this also applies to Como since we obviously need to improve on our air quality. There is also no reason why we should not be purifying all of our water waste like every other city in Lombardy and nor should we be wasting over 20% of fresh water given how supply is becoming ever more variable. No real issues with waste management but more to do on mobility particularly in the provision of cycle paths which would in any case be much appreciated by resident and visitor alike. Perhaps it is a bit disappointing that we, as a city with a worldwide reputation as a spectacular tourist destination, cannot manage to lead in at least one of these ecological measures.  And why not just pedestrianise the whole of the lakefront, if not permanently at least at weekends as happens along parts of the river bank in Paris.

Private cars

A lakefront without cars? Wouldn’t that be nice.

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Como Companion Tries Out a Social Media Strategy

The ongoing support and interest of you, the readers of Como Companion, have encouraged me to link a Facebook page to this online newsletter.


Facebook banner for Como Companion page - Hotel Vista Lago Como

Banner of the new Facebook page for Como Companion

Our Facebook presence will mainly give notice of upcoming events in the Como area that may be of interest to English-speaking residents and visitors. The newsletter has not previously covered this type of content. For example, it will be able to share details of events organised by followers of this blog like  Irma Kennaway‘s presence at the ‘I Did It’ Exhibition at the nhow Hotel, Milan.

Irma Kennaway I Did It Exhibition

Some of Irma Kennaway’s works at the ‘I Did It’ exhibition, nhow Hotel, Milan. The artworks will remain on show until April 2018.

In addition to the standard events that occur throughout the year, e.g. the Christmas activities put together by Città dei Balocchi, it will inform you of one-off events organised by local restaurants and wine bars as well as those activities organised by social and sporting associations.

Crib 3

One of the cribs on show at San Giacomo Church – this event organised by Citta Dei Balocchi is the first to be posted on CC’s Facebook page.

The newsletter will continue to post articles describing walks, aspects of local history, interviews with local artists such as Ester Maria Negretti and Mr. Savethewall, etc.. It will maintain its eclectic mix of industrial, touristic and cultural subjects. The aim of discovering and sharing knowledge of this fascinating and beautiful area remains unaltered other than possibly to align ourselves ever more firmly to the tenets of sustainability and the ‘slow’ movement – with slow food and, of relevance to residents as well as tourists, slow tourism.

Cherub in fountain at Villa Olmo Winter 2017

Freezing Cherub in Villa Olmo Fountain – Winter 2016/17

The newsletter will continue to update its calendar which tries to include postings on events of possible interest to English speakers. So we exclude items such as drama performances in local dialect (of which there are a fair few),  or more typically, presentations and discussions held exclusively in Italian. However you can turn to the CC Facebook page for greater detail on some of the more accessible upcoming events for ex-pats and visitors.


Piazza Volta Christmas lights Como Alessandro Volta statue

Latest Instagram photo – Alessandro Volta looks down from his plinth on the Christmas lights in Piazza Volta.

There is also a Como Companion Instagram account used mainly to share photos of this beautiful area where we either live or visit. The challenge is to combine the use of these three channels in a coherent self-supporting way. I foresee the newsletter content becoming more stable and less time-specific with the Facebook page taking on the more dynamic content. Instagram will hopefully alert you to what has been published on either of the other two channels as well as continuing to offer me the chance of wallowing in the visual beauty of Como, its lake and surrounding hills and mountains. However this optimistically-named strategy turns out, I thank all of the Companion’s readers and followers for your support over the last year and I hope you stay on board over the years to come.

Misty lake

Misty Lake – Winter chill



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Civiglio to Civiglio – A Circular Walk on the Slopes of Mount Uccellera

This post has now been moved to Civiglio to Civiglio: A Circular Walk on the Slopes of Mount Uccellera

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Como’s December Delights

As the nights grow longer and temperatures get lower, Como goes through another of its periodical metamorphoses – producing a set of seasonal December delights.

Piazza Duomo 2

Piazza Duomo

What better way can there be of exploiting the increased hours of winter darkness than by staging spectacular light shows? The 8208 Lighting Design Festival (see images in our Photo Gallery) has just been an artistic aperitif to sharpen the appetite for the so-called Città dei Balocchi’s lighting extravaganza across the city’s main piazzas and monuments which started last Saturday. Why not also while away the dark hours immersed in the latest ‘noir’ crime fiction and finally, celebrate the opening of a modern, well-conceived and engrossing museum in the Art Nouveau masterpiece in Cernobbio by visiting the Villa Bernasconi.

Piazza Volta

Merry-go-round in Piazza Volta

The switching on of the lights has become the symbolic start of the Christmas holiday season with Como going all out to attract as many visitors and shoppers to its streets. The Città dei Balocchi, now into its 24th year and sponsored primarily by local business, encompasses not just the light shows but also the Christmas market in Piazza Cavour at the heart of which is the outdoor ice rink, the vintage merry-go-round in Piazza Volta and the Ferris wheel in the lake gardens and much else.

Mercato 2

Christmas market, Piazza Cavour

In fact a full range of Christmas activities comes under the ‘Città dei Balocchi’ umbrella. Details of all events are available on their dedicated website  in Italian only or also on the Comune’s newsletter available also in English.

Another major seasonal attraction, hopefully on course to also becoming a tradition, is the Noir in Festival event. This celebration of crime and detective fiction moved from Courmayeur last year. It is actually held over two centres with all events between 4th and 6th December held in Milan and those from 7th to 10th December held in Como. This is a must for all lovers of ‘noir’ crime fiction.

noir in festivalAll events in the festival are free, consisting of film screenings and discussions with a variety of authors. Those films shown in Como are mainly international in original language with Italian subtitles. The live authors are mainly Italian. Como is also the location for the presentation of the prestigious Raymond Chandler Award which goes this year to the Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood.

margaret atwood

A ‘noir’ and regrettably apposite quote from a young Margaret Atwood

The auditorium of the Teatro Sociale is the location for the film screenings and the award ceremony whilst the meetings with authors are held in the elegant Sala Bianca on the theatre’s first floor.  The film  screenings at the Teatro Sociale are listed in our calendar whilst details of these and all other events are available from the Festival’s website which is available in English.

Finally, it’s great to hear of a new museum opening in Como – or at least in nearby Cernobbio. The Villa Bernasconi, a Liberty-style masterpiece built for the owner of what was the largest textile mill in Italy (see Como Silk) has been renovated internally and now opens its doors to the public as a rather unique form of museum.

There are so many good reasons to visit this new museum. Here are some of them: 1) The Building – is a masterpiece of art nouveau design and craftsmanship. The interior has been restored to show the marvelous work in stucco, wrought iron, stained glass and fresco.

2) The Story – Davide Bernasconi, the factory owner who commissioned the villa, developed the largest textile mill in Italy and his company was one of the main silk producers in the Como area. The museum provides a lot of information about the silk industry bringing it alive through the reproduction of personal testimonies. It acts as a true compliment to Como’s Silk Museum in that the Villa Bernasconi illustrates the actual lives of both the factory owners and their workers. 3) The Methods – the museum has used some effective multi-media and interactive ways of conveying its story making the the content very accessible to all including English speakers since most of the material presented (orally and visually) is in two languages.  I can heartily recommend a visit to the Villa for anyone interested in art, architecture, or the history of the local silk industry.

The museum is open from Monday to Friday from 15.00 to 18.00, and from 10.00-18.00 at the weekends. Entrance costs €8 or €5 for those over 65. Those under 14 or over 75 enter free. More information is available from their website.

Villa Bernasconi front

Villa Bernasconi, Largo Campanini 2, Cernobbio


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