Ferdinando Viti and Ulisse Soncini, the two founding partners of ‘Oro di Scozia’ at the Orticolario Show 2018
‘Oro di Scozia’ – a non-profit cultural association – was established in 2015 to recreate a Scottish atmosphere in Como and ‘to spread the tastes and flavours of that country with its rich historical background’. So writes Ferdinando Viti, Como born and raised, who has developed such a strong affinity with the culture and legends of the Highlands that it has led him to take on the mantle of a Celtic apostle in the town of his birth.
Mel Gibson plays William Wallace in ‘Braveheart’
But how did this passion originate? Partly it seems thanks to Mel Gibson and his depiction of rebel William Wallace in the film ‘Braveheart’. A more profound explanation was his almost spiritual response to setting foot on Scottish soil and his growing appreciation of the local culture. This response seemed entirely natural when Ferdinando discovered he actually had a close family connection with Scotland and had Scottish blood coursing through his veins. It was Ferdinando’s great-grandfather, Lorenzo Viti, who emigrated to Glasgow in the 1890s from the Tuscan town of Seravezza in the Province of Lucca. His original intention was to make his way to the United States. But like many other compatriots, he went no further once on Scottish soil. He set himself up selling ice cream, and soon went on to marry his Scottish bride.
Barga, a Tuscan town in the Province of Lucca not too far from Seravezza, happens to describe itself as the most Scottish town in Italy, boasting a ‘Fish n’ Chips – Scottish Festival’ held during the summer for the last thirty five years. The story goes that early immigrants to Glasgow from Barga, like Lorenzo, encouraged other friends and relatives to join them. Subsequently, some who had made a decent living working in the catering industry (hence the ‘Fish n’Chips’) returned back to Tuscany wanting to retain memories of their former home and share aspects of the Celtic culture which they had appreciated so much. That same instinctive appreciation that Ferdinando feels for Scotland – from the lowlands, through the islands and into the highlands – may well derive from that bloodline from his great-grandmother. As he himself has written, ‘From the moment I stood on Scottish soil, I had the feeling that I had been there before and everything charmed me to the extent that I thought I had seen the remains of a certain castle in my dreams and the legend of William Wallace and his fight for freedom enthralled me and moved me to tears.’
The Orobian Pipe Band from Bergamo priming the bagpipes for the piping of the haggis on Burns’Night 2019 at the Villa del Grumello. An event organised by Oro di Scozia.
Ferdinando and Ulisse’s passion has become Como’s gain with the Oro di Scozia Association coordinating a series of Scottish resources to stage a full range of events and activities.
The Oro di Scozia shop on Via Zezio, 32
Thanks to these two, Como residents and visitors can now celebrate Burns’ Night and a full range of other Celtic events here on our lake. They also run the ‘Oro di Scozia’ shop on Via Zezio, 32 assuring access to some of the most iconic Highland products obviously including Scotch but ranging also from knitwear and jewellery to smoked salmon from that culinary hotspot – Loch Fyne. Their mission is to permeate Como with the essence of Scottish charm and romance by organising cultural events, dance classes, whisky tastings and more.
Established for some time now, Oro di Scozia’s courses of Scottish dancing take place twice a year with each course consisting of ten sessions. Both courses are led by Milan-based Scot, John Murphy. The autumn course starts in October and leads participants up to a performance and exhibition on Saint Andrew’s Day (30th November) and at the annual Burns Night celebration traditionally held on or around January 25th. The Winter/Spring course starts in February and its participants work towards a similar dance exhibition at the Gaelic celebration of Beltane, a celebration with pagan origins held around the start of May. They may also appear at the Milan Highland Ball, an annual event also in May normally held at Monza’s Hotel de La Ville in front of the Villa Reale. The venue for the classes has changed over the years but they are currently hosted by the Officina della Musica in Via Giulini, Como.
John Murphy, Scottish dance instructor
View towards Como from the Villa del Grumello where Oro di Scozia hosted this year’s Burns’ Night celebrations.
The association seeks to celebrate the principal cultural events in the Scottish Celtic calendar. Mention has already been made of Burns Night held this year in the delightful setting of the Villa del Grumello with its glorious view over the water to Como’s lakefront. For this, as tradition requires, a haggis is flown in from Edinburgh to be piped ceremoniously into the dining hall by members of the Orobian Pipe Band from Bergamo. Next comes Beltaine followed by another celebration with pagan origins – Samhain. Saint Andrew’s Day rounds off the annual events although who knows if there may well be a future Scottish Independence Day in the calendar or at least a ‘Staying in the European Union Day’! I would certainly down a dram or two to celebrate that alongside Scotland’s sixty two percent of referendum voters.
62% of Scots voted to stay in the EU – this Scotch includes 62 different single malts.
Oro di Scozia, Scottish Gold, is Scotch. So it should not come as any surprise that the association organises regular monthly whisky tasting evenings called ‘Salotto di Oro di Scozia’ and held in the shop on Via Zezio. This part of the Association’s activities is the responsibility of Ulisse who is an official ‘Whisky Ambassador’ – the first in Italy having followed the appropriate courses in Glasgow. The shop on Via Zezio offers a range of single malts. The ‘salotto’ (sitting room) concept is intended to provide an informal atmosphere for both amateur or expert whisky lovers to meet and exchange information and opinions. Dates and details of the tastings are published on Oro di Scozia’s Facebook or internet page.
Tony McManus and Julia Tuaspern at the Officina della Musica in 2018 – an event organised by Oro di Scozia.
Oro di Scozia seeks to promote both new and well-established Scottish musicians bringing artists like guitarist Tony McManus and the young singer, Iona Fyfe, to the attention of Como’s audiences in venues such as the Officina della Musica.
The Cd cover of one of Iona Fyfe’s recent albums. Oro di Scozia organised a concert with Iona hosted at the Museo della Seta last year.
Sir Red McSquirrel
Oro di Scozia is a non-profit association so, once costs are deducted for staging the various cultural events, all money raised is donated to charity. Their favoured charity is ProTIN (Pro Terapia Intensiva Neonata) – in support of the neonatal and premature baby unit at Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital. The money raised in 2017 went to provide heating equipment for preparing the supply of natural maternal milk. Maternal milk is the best source of sustenance for the premature babies in their care. It is to this end that Sir Red McSquirrel was invented. Sir Red was born out of a collaboration between author ‘Viber’ and illustrator Carlo Pozzi. The McSquirrel adventures are published by the association with all proceeds from sales going to charity.
Presentation in 2017 by Oro di Scozia of one of the maternal milk heating devices to the Premature Baby unit at Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital.
One incident of local interest in the richly varied life of Sir Red McSquirrel sees him falling into Loch Ness after his ascent of Ben Nevis. Inevitably he encounters Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, who so happens to be entertaining his Italian cousin from Lake Como, Lariosauro (Lario for short). (Lariosauro may not be as well known as Nessie but he or she did actually exist, as described in one of our previous articles.)
Sir Red McSquirrel witnesses Nessie in the company of his cousin from Como, Lario. Lario is rowing a Lucia – the traditional gondola-style boat of Lake Como.
Clearly Oro di Scozia has a well-defined goal which, thanks to Ferdinando, Ulisse and the association’s members, is pursued with passion and enthusiasm. A considerable number of local people have derived great pleasure from the dance classes through to the cultural and musical events organised by the association. No matter how vibrant local culture might be, we can all profit from the enriching exposure to what may initially appear alien to us. But in fact, the similarities between the socio-economic and cultural aspects of Scotland and those of our own Insubria region (the Pre-Alp borderlands of Switzerland and Italy) are numerous. And even if geographically we lack the sea and so many islands, we at least can both boast our own lake monsters!
The ‘Salotto di Oro di Scozia’ – a session of the monthly whisky tastings in Via Zezio.
Villa Olmo – Holocaust Memorial Day Presentation, 29th January 2019
After Italy’s disastrous experience of fascist rule, it has never managed to entirely rid itself of that ideology but, as if to compensate, it has acquired an established anti-fascist culture – as so admirably on display at Como’s Villa Olmo on Tuesday 29th January this year. For the annual Holocaust Memorial Day celebrations, the trades union CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana di Lavoro), with the support of the city’s local government, organised a presentation that included the testimony of Ines Figini (born 1922). Ines was a young worker at Como’s largest textile mill (later known as Ticosa) in 1944 when she was deported to Germany as a slave labourer alongside the organisers of a strike at the factory. She addressed a packed assembly with standing room only and a lot of young people present. Speaking with a strong clear voice full of conviction, she described her time in the Nazi extermination and labour camps of Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbruck.
Ines Figini, 96 years, addresses the audience at Villa Olmo, Como on Tuesday 29th January 2019
Ines was twenty one years old when, out of conviction, generosity and maybe a touch of youthful naivety, she stood up for the organisers of the strike at Ticosa in March 1944 – a strike directed at improving working conditions but also part of a wave of resistance in Northern Italy to the Nazi-fascist state. She paid dearly for pointing out to the authorities that they should either arrest all or none of the strikers since they were all in it together. She was arrested that same night, imprisoned locally, and then transported from Bergamo to Vienna and on to Mauthausen. She did not return home until 25th October, 1945.
Ines addresses a crowded room with young people well represented at Villa Olmo
Since then she has dedicated her time talking to schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Hers is a story of survival – in the camps, on the death march as war ended and then through severe sickness. She also tells of how she came to deal with the mental impact of witnessing and experiencing so much horror, as, for example, when she came to realise that the young children she saw being marched past her hut clutching soft toys, were being sent to the gas chambers. The only way she managed to live with these memories was by confronting them by repeated return visits to Birkenau and also by finding a way to forgive those responsible. Go to ‘Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day’ for a more complete account of her story.
Optimism and Despair
Vincenzo Guarracino , ‘saggista’ and poet, interviewed Ines and introduced Alessandro Lukacs
Ines survived – to this day her firm, clear voice recounting her experience in straightforward unequivocal phrases, reveals her inner strength and her overall sense of hope and optimism of a brighter future. Her testimony is well suited to the young who have the future ahead of them which we hope will never descend into the barbarity witnessed by Ines and so many others of her generation. However there was no hope for the millions of victims of the Shoah nor for many others who lived through it. Also at Villa Olmo last Tuesday was Alessandro Sander Lukacs, Hungarian by birth in the same year as Ines, Italian by adoption – and another long-term resident of Como. Alessandro is also a survivor from the Nazi lagers who emigrated to Italy after the war, taking up his medical profession in Milan and later moving on firstly as a consultant doctor and later as the director of Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital.
He is also a writer and a poet – but a writer of fiction since this is the way he prefers to recall the Holocaust. For him the process of testifying and remembrance is acutely painful. As he has said ‘It takes decades to learn to recount what you wanted to forget.’ His three novels are only available in Italian as far as I can establish. Alessandro’s protagonist in his latest novel, ‘The Talmudista’, longs for liberty but he has gone beyond the hope of experiencing a living freedom. For him, liberty is the annulment of the present – he can only hope for death. Alessandro’s testimony was brief but very different from Ines’s, not so immediate in its impact but profound in its attempt to convey a reality beyond our capacity to imagine. He recounted the brutality of the prison camp regime and how he only learnt the meaning of what the guards shouted at him in their foreign language by the degree of accompanying violence.
Cernobbio’s Remembrance Park
Just behind the town hall of Cernobbio, just down the road from Como, is a small area amongst sombre cypress trees dedicated to victims of the Shoah and of other atrocities. The central plaque is ringed by others citing individual acts of bravery or self sacrifice performed by some of those people with links to Como or Cernobbio who have stood up to oppression and inhumanity.
The central plaque is dedicated to ‘Ignoti Scomparsi del Pizzo’ – those anonymous victims killed during and just after the war either by the fascist authorities or the partisans seeking retribution. Pizzo is the small headland jutting out just beyond the Hotel Villa D’Este. It was a favoured spot for assassination since bodies were easily toppled over the railing into the waters below where the peculiarities of the current would then carry the victims out into the middle of the lake for their bodies never to be recovered. The memorial is to all those whose life was ended at that spot no matter what their political affiliation or, for that matter, what inhumane acts they themselves may have been responsible. It is hard to reconcile the beauty of a spot like Pizzo (where, by the way, there is a glorious villa much used as a romantic wedding venue) with the tragedy and inhumanity it has witnessed. In this instance, the motive for remembrance is to restore a bit of dignity to those killed there.
Narciso Riet, Jehovah Witness and resident in Piazza Santo Stefano, a district of Cernobbio
The plaque dedicated to Narciso Riet (originally a German citizen who had however settled in Cernobbio but was arrested, transported to Dachau and subsequently executed) serves as a reminder that enemies of the Reich included groups like Jehovah Witnesses who were forced to wear a purple triangle badge similar to the yellow one or blue and white armband forced on Jews. Narciso was a Jehovah Witness who died for his faith.
Memorial to Enrico Caronti in his hometown of Blevio
The other plaques in the circle include one to Antonio Farinatti, a marshall in the Guardia di Finanza who was executed in Croatia when Italy signed its armistice in September 1943 whilst trying to save fellow nationals caught up in the wave of ethnic cleansing directed against the Italian resident population. Two partisan members are cited, one being Enrico Caronti, battlename ‘Romolo’, captured, tortured and then shot outside the cemetery in Menaggio in 1944. The other is Ettore Fumagalli, the only partisan from Cernobbio who was killed during the war. Two citations are for people who aided Jews, anti-fascists and allied prisoners of war escape into neutral Switzerland. The first is Bruno Bossuto, from Cernobbio, who was caught, deported and died in Mauthausen on 28th July 1944. The other is Cernobbio’s local priest, Don Umberto Marmori who was imprisoned in Milan in 1944 for helping Jews and others escape. He was released in January 1945 but died shortly after due to the harsh treatment during his incarceration. There are two more general monuments to unnamed victims in addition to that for the victims of ‘Pizzo’. One is in memory of the victims of the Twin Towers outrage in New York on September 11th 2001 and the other is to the so-called ‘’Schiavi di Hitler’ (Hitler’s slaves) – the 700,000 Italian soldiers deported to Germany after the September 43 armistice as slave workers. 40,000 died in Germany as a result of hunger, illness, bombing or violence.
Plaque in memory of the victims of the 9/11 outrage in New York.
The plaque to Giampiero Civati honours a young corporal in the local Morbengo regiment of the Alpini who, when ordered to take his place in a firing squad to execute recently captured partisans, refused to do so stating he did not see how an Italian army could be shooting fellow Italians. His platoon commander summarily shot him on the spot.
It is however with particular pride that a plaque commemorates the exploits of Giorgio Perlasca, Italy’s own Schindler. Perlasca was directly responsible for saving the lives of five thousand Jews whilst living in Budapest in 1944. He later saved many others from death in the Jewish ghetto there.
Luca Zingaretti (Moltalbano) plays Giorgio Perlasca in the 2002 film
One of the plaques in his honour includes a quote from Simon Wiesenthal which states ‘Every man who has saved innocent lives or has sacrificed his own life, merits being honoured.’ Perlasca, born in Como, actually started off a committed fascist fighting for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. However he was deeply opposed to the Racial Laws passed in Italy in 1938 which discriminated directly against Jews, and led inexorably to fascist compliance with Nazi insistence on deportation to the labour and extermination camps. When in Budapest, he took advantage of a Spanish passport granted to him during the Civil War to pose as a Spanish diplomat and issue ‘letters of protection’ that ensured safe passage for the 5000 he saved.
Cernobbio’s small remembrance garden sets out to achieve many aspects of remembrance from seeking to restore dignity to unnamed victims, to honouring those who, through small or more extensive gestures, have sought to challenge the forces of oppression for which they have often paid the highest price. Ines Figini too paid a very high price for standing up for her worker colleagues. Before too long, we will not have the voices of survivors to remind us of how humanity can, if led in a certain way, reduce the most sophisticated and cultured societies to commit the worst excesses of barbarity. The danger is that the reality of the suffering and inhumanity of the extermination camps will all become a little unbelievable in our modern world without the tattooed arm of a living survivor before us as live testimony to the truth. But the most profound way to honour the victims of the holocaust is to ensure their sacrifice prevents any similar recurrences. If we can do that, then we will be able to link remembrance to hope of a humane future, to poetry and to Ines’s spirit of optimism.
This path is apparently the only one of its kind in the Lake Como/Val D’Intelvi area. The route contains a number of clearly visible yellow plaques describing the plant or tree to which they have been attached. As you can see, each tree is given its formal name, the Italian name and finally how it is known in local dialect. So walkers are not only treated to a botanical but also to a linguistic lesson. The route of the botanical path passes through delightful mountainside cut into by numerous and vigorous streams that have formed deep-sided gullies. In fact, the whole route is rather steep particularly in the early and middle stages as it climbs rapidly above Brienno and the lake. This is also the only path that attempts to climb the mountainside on this stretch of the lake from Laglio to Argegno.
As the path begins to level out and enters into a beech wood, it becomes more difficult to follow due to both landslides and fallen trees.
Walkers’ efforts are also not helped by the number of small landslides and fallen trees which throw up obstacles along the way. In fact, since I was walking here with snow and ice, I had to give up trying to reach the Alpe del Comune. In spite of having to turn back without managing the circular route I had envisaged, I can still recommend this walk for its beauty and botanical interest – and, for those who wish, it is possible to use this route as a means of reaching the Pian D’Erba and on to Posa and Schignano. At Posa, you can then either link up with the Sentiero delle Espressioni or carry on down to Schignano and then on to Argegno for a bus or boat back to Como. That would make for a complete day’s excursion whilst the Brienno section described here is from two to three hours, depending on when and where you feel it is too unsafe to continue!
The Sentiero Botanico is marked in blue. The path to Alpe del Comune is however difficult to use in poor weather. The alternative for reaching the Pian D’Erba and on to Posa is to take the right hand fork above where the map marks ‘Torbola’.
As usually when walking on the western side of the lake, I took the C10 bus out of Como as far as Brienno. Depending on which bus you take, you will either be stopped right outside the church in the centre or have to walk from just before the start of the tunnel that by-passes Brienno. Either way, your point of departure is directly opposite the church and the war memorial on the lakefront.
Monumento ai caduti at Brienno
Follow the sign marked ‘Campo Sportivo’. The War Memorial depicting an Alpino soldier from the Morbengo regiment commemorates the occasion when the Alpini were under siege and without ammunition during the Libyan war. Their only form of defense was to throw stones.
As you walk up through the old town, you will soon pick up on the painted pathway signs for route 1. This is a little confusing since ‘Sentiero 1’ forms part of the ‘Cammini della Regina’ – an ancient route from Como to Sorico that linked Italy with Switzerland both commercially and culturally. The ‘Cammini della Regina’ have from Argegno simply followed the modern lakeside road, but at Brienno the path climbs up to about 200 metres above the lake and then follows the contours of the mountainside to Laglio and on as far as Moltrasio and Cernobbio. These sections of the walk are described in our entries ‘Intrepid Exploration: Brienno to Laglio on the Via Regina‘ and ‘From Laglio to Moltrasio‘. However the numbering seems also to have been used for the Sentiero Botanico and its diversion up the mountainside from the main path.
The Chapel dedicated to Sant’Antonio Abate
Additional signs for the Sentiero Botanico are also present. The only point where you may face confusion is at the junction by the Chapel of Sant’Antonio Abate. The effigy to the saint is true to custom in depicting him accompanied by a piglet at his feet. This one is a particularly naive and slightly comical rendering of a piglet. At this chapel, be sure to take the right-hand turn going uphill. By going straight on at this stage, you remain on the Cammini della Regina and will eventually arrive at Torriggia and then Laglio where of course, you might want to drop in on the Clooneys.
As mentioned at the start, this path does include some steep sections that can be tiring but in recompense, you gain some delightful views over the lake and also pass by a number of disused alpine baitas, many now in ruins.
And of course, there are the numerous yellow plaques to inform you of the many varied plant and tree species to be found here. In spite of being brought up in the country, my ability to recognise and name different trees remains basic and I have to admit that to me, one tree trunk looks very much the same as another. However I was intrigued by the plaque on one tree that seemed to suggest that its dialect name could be translated as the ‘tree that spits’.
The tree that spits?
The number of disused and ruined baita on the route testify to an active agricultural economy here in the not too distant past. The steepness of the gradient and the small amount of old terracing makes me think that our path was developed primarily to aid the biannual migration of animals to and from the summer alpine pastures. For example, it was clearly worth it for the inhabitants to construct the so-called ‘Scala Santa’ at one of the steepest sections of the path. The Scala Santa is a stone set of steps permitting the country people to bring their animals up onto the Alpe del Comune for the summer months. The considerable investment in time and effort in the past to construct this mule path is testimony to the previous importance of the alps to the local agricultural economy. Now that rural economy exists no longer, and unfortunately, without an economic motive, the path is no longer being maintained as previously. Further deterioration of the path is unfortunately inevitable given the number of landslides and fallen trees on these steep mountain slopes.
The Scala Santa
For those of you who do want to reach the Pian D’Erba (1171 metres above sea level), there is an alternative to battling on past the Alpe del Comune. By retracing your footsteps past the Scala Santa you will eventually come across the turning off to the north as shown in the photo below. It is not signposted but the red arrow is the direction to take. This is the only significant turning off the main path.
Apparently the views of Lake Como from the Pian D’Erba are spectacular. Also from here you can follow a broader path down to Posa from where you will see signs directing you to the Sentiero delle Espressioni – a path around Monte Comana populated by a number of wood carvings representing aspects of local folklore and displaying the talents of the Schignano wooden mask makers as deployed in the annual unmissable Schignano Carnival extravaganza.
One of the carvings along the Sentiero delle Espressioni
Alternately, those visiting Schignano at carnival (highly recommended) or at any other time, may fancy walking on to Pian D’Erba and then down to Brienno on our Sentiero Botanico as a means of descending down to the lake. The Sentiero Botanico is the only other way down to the lake along the whole stretch of mountain side from Argegno to Laglio.
Freezing cherub in the garden fountain of Villa Olmo
Como’s winter falls into two parts as in most other western countries in the northern hemisphere. The first half is taken up in the preparation for and celebration of the holiday season. Once that is out of the way, it is then a case of adopting coping strategies to deal with the onset of true winter. In Como, the first part is marked by the frantic exuberance of ‘Città dei Balocchi’ whilst a common way of confronting the second part seems to be to join the bears in deep hibernation.
Città dei Balocchi
In recent years the scale and breadth of the events under the ‘Balocchi’ banner have increased markedly. The goal of this initiative, financed by local businesses and the council, is to attract the maximum number of visitors to the city and so compensate for the seasonal nature of tourism on the lake. The results? In one sense, they may have proved too successful this year as the crowds, crammed into Piazza Duomo at the weekend to view the light show on the wall of the Broletto, exceeded safety limits. However, apart from the special lighting effects which get more adventurous each year, Città dei Balocchi organises a number of great events for both adults and children. The special lighting, Christmas market and ice skating all give the city a festive feel that complements the rich variety of cultural events on offer. Christmas time at Como is enchanting.
Consumerism and Concerts
I tend to doubt whether the great majority of visitors who flooded into Como during the weekends prior to Christmas actually spent much money. Yet it would only have taken a small percentage of them to purchase a bit more than a slice of pizza to have made the whole ‘Balocchi’ exercise commercially viable. The price they definitely pay though is the time spent searching for a parking space and then queueing for the free-ride buses to and from the car parks on the city’s periphery. Como’s Piazza Cavour becomes as crowded and stressful as London’s Oxford Street, but here at least there is the beautiful natural setting and the relatively quick means of escape for when it all becomes too much.
Beyond the streets, stalls and shopping, the origins of the holiday season are not forgotten. The special lighting on the churches and religious buildings remains in keeping with the season. Free Christmas concerts are organised in the Duomo, the Basilica di San Fedele, Villa Olmo and elsewhere. The Opera season has its grand opening at Milan’s Scala on 7th December- that city’s saint day. Como’s Teatro Sociale follows a different calendar but with plenty on offer over the holiday period.
Bishop’s Palace, Piazza Grimoldi
The restaurants meanwhile have survived that dip in demand through autumn, even if the gastronomic festivals may not have brought in as many clients as wished. Now there are all those avid shoppers who need refuelling, or the groups of varying sorts who wish to celebrate the season together in that atmosphere of shared conviviality which many restaurants in Italy manage to achieve so artlessly.
Ristorante Cucina di Elsa
This is the season of fixed menus offered primarily by those restaurants who have a reputation to maintain. Dining out on New Year’s Eve, in Como as elsewhere, carries a premium. As an example, the Navigazione offer a New Year’s Eve dinner aboard a lake cruise taking in Como’s midnight firework display and ending at 2 in the morning – at a cost, but with a voucher for a full day’s travel in the summer season thrown in with the deal.
And then, once the Befana has flown down from the Broletto on her broomstick to distribute sweets to the children in Piazza Duomo on Epiphany (6th January), the pace all changes.
Bears preparing for the long hibernation
No-one has yet devised a marketing plan to fill the dead period in Lake Como’s tourist season. In particular the super luxury hotels mostly close after 6th January until the start of March. These include Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este, Blevio’s Casta Diva, Torno’s Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana and Tremezzo’s Grand Hotel. In Como, the Hilton seems closed until the end of March, Villa Flori until 8th March and the Albergo Terminus closes for a brief two weeks in January. Of the luxury hotels, both the Palace and Vista Lago remain open. So, even though the seasonal closures may be diminishing, lakeside hibernation is still a reality.
The rest of the commercial world does however carry on undiminished, and since Como’s industry is derived only half from tourism, those hotels catering to business travellers cannot hibernate. The wily visitor might well choose this as a good moment to spend a few days on Lake Como – and profit from some of the undoubted advantages of off-season travel.
Winter view of Monte Rosa from Brunate
In my opinion, January and February are good months to visit Como assuming you don’t mind the cold, you aren’t looking to swim in the lake and you appreciate avoiding large numbers of fellow visitors and paying less for travel and accomodation. The downside is the short length of daylight but even this becomes less marked in February. The winter here is often dry and sunny. You are unlikely to get the periods of prolonged rain that are more common in November or Spring. The restaurants that remain open are those that were never dependent on tourist traffic in the first place and, perhaps as a result, are often of good quality. There are days even in mid-winter when the midday sun allows for a pleasant meal outdoors. Its true that some of the main lakeside villas and gardens are closed until March but, assuming you stay in or near Como itself, there are other attractions and of course, easy access to Milan once you have exhausted Como’s cultural delights.
Misty Winter Mood
The lake retains its beauty and displays a greater variety of moods than during the hot season. Small changes in temperature, wind speed or direction can alter its appearance. The mountains may well remain snow-capped from one thousand metres and above but you will walk the Greenway or the Strada Regia uninterrupted.
When visiting the small towns on the lake, you will be eating or drinking where the locals eat. When out in the woods, you will hear the occasional lizard rustling through the dry leaves prompted by the rising sun to venture abroad. On such days the sun’s heat brings out a feint earthy odour from the undergrowth as a precursor to the flavours of Spring. On the water you will see cormorants jump off from their watch posts to skim a metre above the lake surface on their forays for fish. In other words, the lake modifies or retains its charms even off season.
Festa della Giubiana
By the end of January, the appeal of the crisp chilly winter days begins to pall as winter moves into its coldest period. It was during these bleakest days in the natural cycle that pagan worshipers in Ticino and across Northern Italy celebrated what is now called the Festa della Giubiana or Giobia.
The festival lives on in many towns close to Como, such as Albavilla, Alzate Brianza and Tavernerio. In both Cantù and Canzo, the celebrations are more extensive. The centrepiece of the festa is a large communal bonfire upon which is burnt a female effigy known as the Giubiana. She represents the spirit of the old year and her sacrifice symbolises the death of the past to make way for the birth of the new in anticipation of spring. The origin of the Giubiana is obscure but the ceremony certainly reaches back into pagan times with some suggesting that the alternative name of Giobia derives from the Roman God, Jupiter or Jove (Giove in modern Italian).
Saint Anthony with Pig, Naples
The ceremony may well also have been the inspiration for another tradition celebrated with a large communal bonfire – Saint Anthony’s Saint Day or the Festa di San’ Antonio. This is celebrated with a large bonfire in both Barni and Varese where locals can also take their pets into church for a blessing. Saint Anthony is associated with the care of animals and is usually depicted with a pig at his side. The Festa di San Antonio is another example of how the early Christian church appropriated or radically adapted pre-existing pagan ceremonies to fit the new system of beliefs.
Schignano Carnival – Bruts (pictured) are often armed with something like a carpet beater to aggravate the onlookers or a passing Mascarun (see next photo).
By mid-February, the scent of spring is ever more prevalent on the hillsides as the earth warms up and the days grow longer. Mid February is also carnival time. This too is another celebration with origins going way back into pagan times representing a joyful welcome to the coming of Spring. In Como we are lucky to have one of the most entertaining and original carnival celebrations in Italy – in Schignano. Whilst Venice’s carnival has characters dressed up in luxurious finery assuming genteel postures, Schignano’s characters dress in rags, make raucous noise, lounge about and harass the onlookers. It is truly and originally anarchic. Children love it but it also affects us adults no matter for how long our anarchic spirit may have lain repressed. Schignano’s carnival has the true spirit of liberation and is perhaps the best possible way of marking the end of Como’s winter!
A Mascarun – the rich, sophisticated and beautiful players in the Schignano Carnival.
Over recent years Como has sought to exceed itself in attracting visitors to its streets over Christmas defining itself as the ‘Citta dei Balocchi’ – a phrase that might roughly be translated as the city of fun and fantasy. The most visual elements of the Como Christmas are the special effect lighting installations in the main piazzas. These installations seem to become more ambitious each year. The photo collection here hopes to give an idea of Como Christmas nights. Go to our calendar for a more complete view of the different Christmas events or visit the internet site of Citta dei Balocchi.
Como Companion wishes all readers, supporters and followers a very happy holiday season. Auguri e buon anno nuovo!
The Noir genre in film or fiction was bound to find fertile ground within Italy, given the high levels of moral duplicity, obscurantism and corruption within many of its institutions and in general public life – made even more stark when contrasted with those heroic figures who have entered into combat with these dark forces without thought to personal safety and often at personal cost. Italian society seems ready made for ‘noir’ and Como is the ideal location for appreciating it since its stunning natural location will calm the spirits after the moral turbulence provoked by this annual feast and festival of noir.
This December sees Como and its Teatro Sociale hosting ‘Noir in Festival’ for the third year since its transfer in 2016 from Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley. Half of the festival is based in Milan but from December 6th to 9th, all events go lakeside. Other than a couple of prize givings (including this year’s Raymond Chandler Award awarded to Jo Nesbo), the festival’s activities are screening original language films or tv shows in the main auditorium or having authors present some of their latest works in the Sala Bianca. The films and tv shows are international but the author presentations are all Italian this year with the exception of Lars Kepler. So there is no better place to take the pulse of current day Italian noir and for taking bets on whose works may next be translated into English.
The following Italian authors will be presenting their recent novels over the four days; Mariolina Venezia, Gianni Biondillo, Roberto Costantini, Carlo Lucarelli and Antonio Valenzi. None of these latest releases are yet available in English but both they and their authors are worth checking out for an insight into current trends in Italian crime fiction.
The first author up on the podium is Mariolina Venezia this Thursday at 17.30. She will be discussing her latest work, ‘Rione Serra Venerdi’ with Annarita Briganti. The novel is set in Matera in the heart of the southern region of Basilicata, a town embracing global tourism but still haunted by past poverty. The heroine Imma Tataranni is a state prosecutor tempted into an inappropriate relationship with a police detective into betraying her husband and jeopardising her family.
Mariolina Venezia has published poetry and both film and TV scripts as well as publishing a historical saga tracing a Basilicata family over the last 150 years. Some of her previous books are available in English, French and other languages.
Gianni Biondillo makes a welcome return to Noir in Festival on Friday in the Sala Bianca at 17.30. His novels are set in his own home town of Milan and feature the run-down Quarto Oggiaro, where he himself was raised. ‘Il Sapore del Sangue’ has Biondillo’s Inspector Ferraro investigating into why a multiple murderer seems to be out on early release from the Bollate Prison.
Gianni Biondillo has written seven Inspector Ferraro novels all located in Milan. He is an architect by training and has written an account of Como’s famous architect son, Antonio Sant’Elia as well as also writing for film, TV and theatre. Some of his books have been translated into French and Spanish.
His place is taken by Roberto Costantini at 18.30 who will be discussing his latest novel ‘Da Molto Lontano’. His detective Michele Balistreri, described as scarred in ‘both body and mind’ tries to resolve a cold case dating back to Rome in the summer of 1990. His failure to clear that up at the time now comes back to haunt him as he faces his retirement.
Roberto Costantini wrote the prize winning ‘Trilogy of Evil’ series starting back in 1952 with ‘The Memory of Evil’ (2014) giving a noir view over the previous sixty years of Italian history. The trilogy features ageing detective Michele Balistreri with this last novel offering insights into his complex character as he faces retirement. His Evil Trilogy is available in English and other languages.
Carlo Lucarelli presents ‘Peccato Mortale’ on Saturday at 17.00 and it takes us back to 1943 and the period between the overthrow of Mussolini and the armistice signed with the allies in September by the king and Prime Minister Badoglio. His detective, Inspector De Luca working in Bologna, gets embroiled in dangerous politics as he investigates the mystery of a headless corpse.
Carlo Lucarelli’s police detectives – Coliandro, De Luca and Grazia Negro – have all been filmed or televised. He himself has also directed film and made both radio and television programmes. He is a journalist and teaches creative writing in school and prison. Some of his books are available in English and French.
Antonio Valenzi appears on the last day of the festival on Sunday morning at 12.00 in the Sala Turca. He presents ‘Il Quinto Dominio’. This novel takes on the shadowy world of international corporations and their political backers as they maneuver for power and profit. As might be expected in the era of global capitalism, the noir tentacles spread out to France, South America and beyond.
Antonio Valenzi took up journalism after trying out a string of different jobs. He covered a variety of investigative topics involving the media industry and currently writes a blog on media affairs for the Huffington Post. His second novel ‘Golden Standard’ won the 2016 Casa Sanremo Writers Prize. His books have not yet been translated into English as far as I can establish.
Italian Noir presents many grey and negative aspects of Italian society, well beyond the stereotypical images of a beautiful and cultured country. This is not to say that Italy lacks culture and beauty. Far from it BUT it is also a country where many private lives get caught up in the machinations of seemingly indifferent state and morally dubious private institutions and where injustices, whether intended or accidental, may never get resolved – rich territory for our modern day noir writers.
November is a melancholy month made even more so in this centenary year marking the end of the First World War. Italy celebrates this anniversary on the 4th rather than 11th November since that was when the hostilities in the Dolomites and the Isonzo valley ended. This conflict between the young Italian state and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire registered as gruesome a rate of mortality as that on the Western or Eastern fronts. As elsewhere across Europe, most Italian towns have a memorial to their local dead from both this and the subsequent tragic conflicts of the twentieth century. Como’s Monumento ai Caduti, designed by Giuseppe Terragni and inspired by Como’s other famous architect son Antonio Sant’Elia – himself a victim on the Isonzo front, is a particularly striking example due both to its bold design and its prominent location on the lakefront.
The local impact of the First World War is still visible in the Linea Cadorna, a line of trenches and machine gun emplacements straddling the peaks of the mountains around Como and marking the frontier with Switzerland. That defensive line was never needed. Como was however tragically embroiled in the last years of the Second World War when the town had become a favoured residence for many fascist leaders, their families, mistresses and assorted unsavoury bullies and hangers-on. The civilian population, enlarged by the escapees from the unrelenting bombardment of Milan, witnessed the dying days of the nazi-fascist regime and the blood-letting that followed its immediate overthrow. Como was at the heart of the maelstrom following Mussolini’s retreat from Milan and his attempt to seek safety in the Valtellina. Those days brought tragedy on both sides of the political divide with summary justice often meted out with little discrimination. It seems appropriate to personalise this season of remembrance by recording the tragedies that marked those horrendous days in Como – and to identify the sites and structures where various acts of horror took place, if only to remind us all that, even in locations as beautiful as ours, our recent history has been punctuated by the grossest acts of inhumanity. The cruelties of the past need sometimes to be brought to current attention in the hope that they may never be repeated.
Before the armistice of September 1943 Como seemed to have been spared the worst of war deprivation, and even later managed to avoid most of the allied bombing maybe due to its proximity to its border with neutral Switzerland. The population suffered deprivations from the strict rationing, the ongoing callousness and favouritisms of the fascist state and of course the bullying, torture, imprisonment and deportation to Nazi labour and extermination camps of its social and political enemies. But for those friends of the regime, with money or some useful connections, Como became a hedonist paradise. Luxury cars were a common sight as politicians, industrialists and media stars enjoyed the good life in casinos, restaurants and bordellos whilst the common folk struggled by on the meagre rations issued to those fortunate to be in work.
Mussolini had chosen the shores of Lake Garda for his residence but his son Vittorio, other relatives and some at the top of the fascist political hierarchy lived on Lake Como. Among these were Rodolfo Graziani – the general commanding the RSI Army who lived in Villa Crespi on Monte Olimpino and one of the Duce’s ex-mistresses, the Countess Alice de Fonseca, living in Lezzeno. The climate and the beauty were undoubtedly as appealing then as now but the additional advantage for them and also for many of the Nazi state institutions, was the proximity of the Swiss border if there was a need for a quick escape.
By April 1945, the imminent defeat of the Nazi-fascist state was increasingly obvious even to the most diehard fascist leaders such as Paolo Porta, the chain-smoking fanatic boss and chief representative of the fascist state in Como. From his headquarters at the Casa del Fascio (Giuseppe Terragni’s rationalist masterpiece), and from the barracks of his division of the Brigate Nere right by Como Borghi Station, he waged a successful war against the partisan bands operating in the hills on the western shores of the lake and those further up towards the Valtellina.
He filled up the Brigate barracks on Via Sirtori with his prisoners as well as in the town’s old prison, San Donnino. Even these facilities were insufficient to hold all his and the Questora’s detainees.
The gymnasiums of Palestra Gino Negretti in the renamed Via dei Partigiani and Palestra Mariani on Via Sauro, where Ines Figini was held prior to her deportation to Mauthausen, were converted into temporary jails. Giuseppe Terragni designed the Casa del Fascio with its glass atrium way back in the idealistic early years of Mussolini’s era with the idea of conveying transparency in local government, but instead it had become the centre of oppression over the local population and the site to where partisan leaders such as the Chief of Staff of the 52 Garibaldi Brigade, Luigi Canali (‘nome di battaglia’ Capitano Neri) and his girlfriend Giuseppina Tuissi (‘nome di battaglia’ Gianna) were brought to be tortured mercilessly by henchmen such as Enrico Mariani, who had won the European Rowing Championship in his youth but was now an ardent fascist with a perverse streak who whistled arias from Verdi’s Il Trovatore as he indulged his sadistic fantasies.
A Nest of Spies
The fascist state could only gain results against its enemies by using threat, torture and bribes to urge local people to denounce enemies of the state whether they be Italian or foreign jews seeking to avoid deportation, young ex-soldiers avoiding conscription, escaped allied prisoners of war or the increasing bands of armed partisans with their allegiances either to the communists, socialists, the Catholic Church or the Royal Family. Como was not only a magnet for the wealthy hedonists but also for these so-called enemies of the state seeking safety over the border or, in the case of some of the partisans, receiving funding from the allies and particularly from the future head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, based in Bern. However he took care to fund only the more moderate partisan bands from the OSS (American secret service) office in Lugano. Como too was full of agents, double agents, traitors and double-dealers whose loyalties became increasingly difficult to decipher as fortunes turned against the Nazi-fascists. One point of reference for those wanting to link up with agencies across the border was the Swiss Consulate on Viale Geno, still standing but as a private residence.
Partisans were under fierce pressure during the bleak winter of 1944/5, under attack from Porta, constrained to disband temporarily by the Allied leadership, facing the cruel deprivations of winter reliant on the support of a civilian population suffering from ever stricter rationing, unemployment and civil oppression. But some sites such as the shop of Remo Mentasti – the luggage maker – in Piazza San Fedele continued to provide a point of contact for all partisan sympathisers from Milan seeking contact with the groups encamped in the hills although Porta had his men spying on the shop’s entrance from the first floor of the restaurant across the square.
Opposition to the fascist state was led by the Italian Communist Party with its disciplined cadres and hardcore guerrilla leaders who had learnt their craft, and unfortunately their Stalinist intransigence, fighting against Franco’s forces in Spain. Such was Dionisio Gambaruto, a veteran from the Spanish Civil War and a hardline Stalinist in command of the Garibaldini based at the top end of the lake. He would feature more prominently after the fall of fascism. However partisans were recruited from a wide range of political backgrounds and even the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade (Communist funded like all the Garibaldi brigades) was under the leadership of a royalist ex-army captain, Count Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle, whose ‘nome di battaglia’ was Pietro. He led his group in blocking the column of German soldiers as they approached Dongo on April 27th to negotiate the surrender of all those in the column who were Italian citizens, including Mussolini who had initially tried to pass himself off as a German soldier and his girlfriend Claretta Petacci who was travelling with her brother under a false Spanish passport.
Two days earlier, Mussolini had realised that his attempts to negotiate some sort of deal with the leaders of the Milanese insurrection, the Committee for National Liberation (CLN), would get him nowhere since the German Army, without Hitler’s approval, had already signed an armistice with the allies in Rome. He and his band of fascist leaders chose to flee to Como which, due to Porta, was still under fascist control. He stayed the night in the Prefettura on Via Volta but had to leave rapidly at 04.00am on the 26th to ensure his safety.
His wife Rachele stayed at the Villa Mantero on Via Crispi and then tried to enter Switzerland at Chiasso the next day but was turned back and later arrested by partisans. His girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, stayed at the Albergo Firenze in Piazza Volta and then joined Mussolini’s ill-fated column of German soldiers.
Insurrection and Revenge
But Como was about to switch dramatically from fascist to anti-fascist. Fascist leaders such as Porta had joined Mussolini’s column seeking the safety of the Valtellina but others started to negotiate surrender seeking favourable terms for themselves. There was a sudden demand for red fabric so young men could rapidly don red scarves whilst disposing of their former black shirts. Nowhere was the contrast in fortunes greater than amongst the residents of San Donnino, the town’s prison. Overnight the anti-fascist prisoners swapped places with fascists. Some of those ex-fascists faced a summary justice similar to that meted out to Porta. He was with the fascist leadership captured in Dongo. Faced with the imminent and ultimate solution to his nicotine addiction, he begged one last cigarette before execution. His and the other victims’ bodies were then carried down for display in Milan’s Piazza Loreto alongside the corpses of Mussolini and Petacci who had been executed together on the same morning but at Bonzanigo, a district of Mezzegra now part of the newly formed comune of Tremezzina. The lakefront at Como behind the Monumento ai Caduti became the setting for the summary execution of many fascists including the Questore, Pozzoli, and his diabolical second in command, Saletta.
On the night of April 27th the American OSS, the UK’s Special Operations Executive and some of their non-communist partisan allies had to save German officers including General Wolff, the commander of the SS in Italy. On returning the previous day from secret surrender negotiations in Switzerland, Wolff had been forced by strong partisan activity to take refuge in Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio – the SS headquarters for Lombardy whose commander was ironically a double agent working for Dulles. The communist partisans had surrounded the villa but had failed to cut the telephone lines so Wolff was able to contact the Swiss and arrange allied assistance to free him. This was perhaps the first of many occasions when the allies sought to moderate the forces of insurrection and revenge. The Americans had certainly wanted Mussolini to be captured and delivered to them alive (there are some doubts about the UK’s wishes) but the communists wanted immediate justice alongside a desire to rid the area of all those connected with the fascist past.
Following the 27th April 1945, the Casa del Fascio immediately became the headquarters of the Partito Communista Italiano and Porta’s ex-director’s office was now occupied by the similarly vicious but politically contrasting figure of Dante Gorreri, renowned for his arrogance and authoritarianism. Gorreri now spent his days managing the administration of the province and his evenings in clandestine journeys personally performing summary execution of former fascist collaborators. The immediate climate for revenge and for settling the scores built up through years of oppression, betrayals and double dealing led to the formation of two bands of semi-official police. One of these, the ‘Polizia del Popolo’ led by Dionisio Gambaruto, was headquartered at the Hotel Posta on Piazza Volta, used to house prisoners whose stay there was often a brief interlude before execution.
Here the police worked in conjunction with the Questura (state police) who were doing their best to distance themselves from the former regime. The civil police or ‘Volonte Rossa’ had their headquarters in the so-called Villa Rossa, also known as Villa Tornaghi at 33 Via Bellinzona but now demolished. The leader here was an elegant but ruthless partisan called Leopoldo Cassinelli or ‘Il Lince’. There too the prisoners tended to stay for short period before their end. Around 20 to 30 ‘collaborators’ per night were rounded up by the partisan police patrols and brought to these temporary prisons. The allied authorities became so alarmed by the level of bloodletting that they threatened to attack both bases. In addition the Carabiniere under Brigadier Ettore Manzi used allied troops to assist them in re-arresting at least 74 of these prisoners thus ensuring their transfer to the official prison of San Donnino avoiding summary execution and left to be processed according to official court procedures. The modern day civil art gallery of Como, the Pinacoteca, was the site of the law courts positioned close to the San Donnino prison.
Blue Skies and Calm Waters
As civil power was gradually restored and the first democratic government since the 1920s was established, the partisan police forces were disarmed and the period of revenge, fired by hopes of a socialist revolution, faded into memory. Too many members of the PCI had failed to appreciate how the general public were fed up with any form of political tyranny and how the stalinist levels of discipline needed perhaps during times of conflict were off-putting in peacetime. In any case, the revolutionary hopes fired by the emotions of the general insurrection in April were misplaced given Russia’s lack of commitment to a Communist revolution in Italy, in reality out of the question whilst the country was still occupied by the Allied forces. Maybe the anti-communist fears of the Allies went too far. One immediate result even for hardline fascists was that, if they could survive the first six to twelve months after the war, they were likely to be given amnesty and be reintegrated into civil society with little said about their former collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. No-one was to regret the passing of those tragic days before and after the end of the war. Even though political conflict between left and right extremes remained to resurface in the terrorism of the 1970s, this hardly impacted on Como. Here the pleasures of life in such a beautiful natural setting were re-establishing themselves as the local economy, based primarily on silk production, boomed.
‘Lest We Forget’
The bullet holes on the lakefront railing at Dongo are still visible reminders of the execution of Paolo Porta and the other fascist leaders on the morning of 27th April 1945. San Donnino is no longer a prison and in fact awaits a developer to renovate it as luxury apartments. The barracks of Villa Tornaghi or of Porta’s Brigate Nere at Como Borghi have been demolished. The Hotel Posta has been renovated and is now a boutique hotel on the corner of Piazza Volta where the Albergo Firenze still offers rooms but not to the prostitutes or mistresses of the old regime. The gymnasiums used to house Jews and political prisoners awaiting deportation to Germany are just gymnasiums. The Casa del Fascio no longer houses political tyrants and torturers but is the temporary headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza (an organisation which had impeccable anti-fascist credentials throughout the Nazi occupation). In fact the Casa del Fascio is most likely to become a museum and study centre dedicated to its architect designer, Giuseppe Terragni. He had also designed the Monumento ai Caduti behind which so many collaborators met summary justice. No plaque is placed there in their memory. Instead it is a favoured meeting place during the summer months for young immigrants seeking to make their way to Northern Europe. The blood has been wiped clean, and memories of those bad times are fading but if the buildings that remain could talk, they would no doubt beg us to never again lose our sense of humanity.
Como Companion has published a number of articles relating to this sad period in Como’s history. You may wish also to read:
A gala dinner at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo last Friday (19 October) kicked off the Tremezzina Food Festival, the Rassegna Tremezzina Gastronomica.
Local cuisine celebrated at the inauguration event at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
This annual festival has now grown since its relaunch to include sixteen separate events held from mid-October to 24th November. The festival originated in the 1950s as one of the initiatives of a particularly enterprising local dentist, Gian Giuseppe Brenna. As the delegate for the Como area to the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, Brenna wished to ensure that the local traditions of hospitality and culinary excellence be preserved and celebrated. It has now been revived under the sponsorship of the newly formed local council which incorporates the previously independent towns of Tremezzo, Lenno, Ossuccio and Mezzegra – an area that encompasses the heart of local olive oil production and possibly the most upmarket tourist locations on the western shores of the lake.
Tremezzina – the new comune that combines the former autonomous lake comunes of Tremezzo, Ossuccio, Mezzegra and Lenno.
The current mayor of Tremezzina, Mauro Guerra, partly sees the festival as an opportunity to celebrate what the new unified comune of Tremezzina has to offer but also to reinforce the values and pleasures of hospitality – and to celebrate and advertise these to the world at large. Five establishments (including a Bed and Breakfast, Wine Bar and three restaurants) offer a menu based on local cuisine throughout the length of the festival.
Rifugio Boffalora, famous in partisan history as the location where Capitano Ricci gathered his partisan force prior to his ill-fated attack on the Albergo Lenno.
A further ten establishments (restaurants of renown as well as the Aquadulza brewery and the Rifugio Boffalora) offer special menus on a single occasion or over a specific short period. Details about the individual offers including price and the different establishments are available on the festival’s website.
Rassegna Gastronomica di Valle Intelvi
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Tremezzina will be delighted that their initiative is being duplicated in the Val D’Intelvi, that beautiful valley that links Lake Como to Lake Lugano from Argegno to Porlezza. This is the inaugural year for the Rassegna Gastronomica di Valle Intelvi which runs from 18th October to 18th November and involves twelve restaurants this time. As in Tremezzina, this festival’s aim is to celebrate local cuisine and to help preserve the local culinary tradition whilst advertising its qualities within and beyond the local area. The Val D’Intelvi used to be a favourite destination for local Italians to take a spring, summer or autumn break but the tourist industry has declined as growing prosperity has prompted the Milanese to seek more exotic holiday destinations. But the area is stunningly beautiful and its cuisine profits both from the lake-inspired dishes and the mountain alpine products.
Missoltino – pickled lake fish – served with polenta.
The Albergo La Torre’s Ristorante Castiglione offers an autumn menu as part of the Rassegna Gastronomica
As in Tremezzina, the twelve establishments represent a good cross section of hostelries in the Valle Intelvi. However, presumably because the organisers of the festival, the Associazione OrtiCultura, do not have the same financial resources available to them, there is no single website where you can go to see what exactly is on offer. Their Facebook page lists the restaurants and states they all offer ‘ a menu based on autumn specialities using traditional local ingredients and offered at a controlled price’. The festival runs from 18th October to 18th November.
The territories of the Val D’Intelvi and Tremezzina are both subsumed within the Province of Como and so theoretically within another gastronomic festival in October entitled GastroLario. This festival is in its first year as in the Valle Intelvi, but unlike there, the GastroLario seems to have more financial backing and is certainly much more ambitious in scope. GastroLario involves fifty eight different establishments each either offering a specifically local menu over the period from 1st to 31st October or specific ‘GastroLario’ dishes a la carte.
Polenta and pizzoccheri – two famous local dishes here together for a gut-busting feast
This ambitious initiative spearheaded by one of Cantu’s ex-mayors, Claudio Bizzozero, shares the same objectives as the other two food festivals running concurrently within Como Province but, with its wider geographic spread, it hopes to rehabilitate the culinary reputation of the entire province. It’s true to say that Como’s culinary tradition is perhaps overshadowed by Milan to its south and the Valtellina to the north east.
Local produce from the local producers section of the covered market in Como – all strictly ‘zero kilometri’
GastroLario has a comprehensive website with details of all fifty eight establishments. It does however helpfully categorise these into three distinct sections based on geographical zone. These are around the lake, amongst the hills of Brianza and finally in the mountains of the Pre-Alps. These zones neatly cover about ninety percent of the province’s geography leaving out some of the flatland of the ‘pianura’ in the south west. Each zone has its own culinary tradition based on local production and custom. Sig. Bizzozero further distinguishes the style of each establishment within each zone with a further sub-division by three. We have ‘classic’ style where recipes follow traditional expectations or ‘reinterpretation’ style allowing for greater creative scope or a ‘freely inspired’ style which takes creativity a step further from the starting point.
View from the terrace of La Fagurida, one of the restaurants within the Tremezzina inititiative.
GastroLario extends itself beyond the culinary experience with scope for diners to record their opinions of each offer on the website with all evaluations leading to Como’s ‘Gastronomic Oscar Night’ to be held at the end of the festival on October 31st. Additionally all the recipes from the fifty eight participants will be collected to contribute to a general repertory of Como cuisine.
The Province of Como is spoilt for cheese with its own production matched by that from the Valtellina, Lecco and the Pianura Padana.
To my mind, the objectives of all three of these festivals are entirely laudable since all cultural aspects including local cuisine have to be made evident, recorded and reinforced so that they flourish in the face of commercial counter-trends. I hope the Lario and Intelvi initiatives also incorporate the focus on communal pleasure and the values of hospitality as made explicit in the Rassegna Tremezzina since culinary pleasures are above all, social and are always maximised when shared in good company.
Saturday 13th October saw the launch of the seventh annual Streetscape bringing street art to the four corners of the old town and beyond. Congratulations to Art Company for organising it and to the local authority entities who continue to support it. I love Streetscape – it offers an opportunity for gentle criticism, an excuse to walk around the town for an artistic treasure hunt – and most of the installations do genuinely provoke thought and reflection often influenced by their temporary urban homes. Never do my personal reactions correspond in any way to the official notes displayed at each site but neither does this seem to matter – the interplay between each item of art and its urban setting sparks off reactions that are bound to be personal. The occasional dud might leave you underwhelmed but this year, duds are in the smallest of minorities.
Il Chiostrino Artificiale with last year’s exhibit -an architectural gem worth taking every excuse to visit.
The purpose of Streetscape, as I perceive it, is to present art outside of a gallery thus exposing it to many more people and also, if the locations are well selected, allowing the location to influence how the art is perceived, and/or conversely allowing the work of art to create reflection on its location. But if this is the conceptual heart of street art, it is problematic since there are inherent conflicts between the desire for accessibility and security, between the notions of expendability or permanence, or between iconic or iconoclastic intent. These issues do impact the sense of commercial value and can result in the ultimate absurdity as represented at Sotheby’s auction of Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’ which doubled its value by being morphed via a ‘hidden’ shredder into ‘Love is in the Bin’. No such absurdities were on show or to be witnessed in Como however street art does and perhaps always should provoke a degree of controversy.
Dangerous Attraction by Rendo, exhibited within the Serre of Piazza Martinelli
‘Home – una casa nell’albero‘ by Florencia MArtinez within the Chiostrino Artificiale
Yet the polemic remains – as the works on show become less ephemeral, security issues become more critical. This year the trend established last year of staging works within secure compounds seems to have been consolidated since six out of the nine works are to a greater or lesser degree behind locked doors. This does not necessarily diminish their impact but those seeking to view Florencia Martinez’s textile sculpture ‘Home – una casa nell’albero’ will have to ensure they time their visit with the morning opening of the Chiostrino Artificio. Difficult to see this as street art, but never mind, the Chiostrino is always worth a visit if just for its architectural beauty. And in fact there is a whole series of Martinez’s other works on display inside.
Public statue – Alessandro Volta
Public statues – ‘Original Sin’
Chinese artist Lio Ruowang’s sculpture ‘Original Sin’ can be seen also out of hours through the gate enclosing the Museo Archeologico’s courtyard, but best to enter and see this work at closer quarters, positioned as it is squarely at the centre of its exhibition space. Its location made me compare this squat humanoid shape to the idealised sculptures of famous figures adorning the squares and piazzas of our cities, such as Alessandro Volta, Mazzini or Garibaldi here in Como. Equally well located in the garden courtyard of the Biblioteca Comunale is the seemingly bucolic work by Corrado Bonomi entitled ‘Roseto‘. Initially this looks like a bright red rose arbor beautiful enough to adorn the Garden of Eden – but closer inspection, only possible during opening hours, shows the vines and flowers all to be made of plastic.
The vines and roses are made of industrial plastic parts
Roseto by Corrado Bonomi
Continuing our tour of Como’s courtyards, the Pinacoteca has offered up its rather dismal courtyard space for Streetscape works over the last few years but the space is so uninspiring and confined that it usually diminishes the impact of whatever is exhibited there. Not this year, however. The monumental inflatable by Polish artist, M-City, entitled ‘Pomnik Konny’ towers high drawing the eye upwards and beyond the confined space.
Pomnik Konny by M-City in the courtuard of the Pinacoteca Civica.
Another usually uninspiring location for Streetscape works is the enclosed shed space in Piazza Martinelli featured at the start of this article. In past years, two dimensional works have been mounted against the far wall of this shed kept secure and distant behind locked bars. This year though the work by Rendo is not only staged clear of the far wall but, through optical illusion and use of perspective, creates an intriguing two and three-dimensional ambiguity. This seems to imbue the sculpture with a sense of repressed energy which is in turn reinforced by its position behind bars.
Dangerous Attraction by Rendo – in the serre of Piazza Martinelli – two and three dimensional ambiguity.
The final courtyard setting is in Palazzo Cernezzi on Via Vittorio Emanuele, the seat of local city government. The work on display here is by Matteo Capobianco aka Ufocinque and is entitled ‘La leggenda del Lariosauro e altre storie comuni.’ At the heart of this sculpture is a representation of Lariosaurus, which actually existed as a pre-prehistoric creature (see our article Myth and Reality: Lake Monsters and Political Scandal for the full story).
Detail from ‘La leggenda del Lariosauro’
The Lariosaurus myth has more recently been reinterpreted by Como’s very own street artist, Pierpaolo Perretta aka Mr. Savethewall, who used it in a publicity stunt to draw attention to the local city council’s incapacity to resolve the issue of the redevelopment of the ex-Ticosa industrial site on the edge of Como’s historic centre. So it is entirely possible that this installation is intended as an ironic commentary on the local council’s inefficiency. If so, it either means the local council were either unaware of such an intention when granting permission for the work to be sited at the town hall, or, due to a recent change in administration, they feel confident enough to ignore it. Or I may of course have entirely mistaken the artist’s intent – such is the delightful ambiguity of street art! In any case, if we leave out the potential irony, this is perhaps one of the least successful installations with the location adding little to its impact.
Moving away from the courtyard settings, there is a very obvious big blob of black plastic in the middle of Piazza Duomo – a more open and exposed location would be hard to find.
Cardiaco by Paolo Grassino in Piazza Duomo
This work by Paolo Grassino and entitled Cardiaco immediately attracts attention in its anomalous setting and also by its courageous disregard for security or of threats of vandalism. In fact it seems to invite use as a massive ashtray or refuse bin. No doubt it is hard to move and almost indestructible. It is also true street art. The artist makes the original observation that when genetic engineering takes control of our bodies, the colour of the body parts will be black. As Henry Ford might have said, ‘You can have a heart in any colour as long as it’s black.’ I am sure the town council have received complaints about landing a black blob in the middle of one of the city’s finest piazzas. If so, they are to be congratulated on ignoring them.
‘Follow your heart’ by Andrea Zamengo in the Como Lago train station.
The final installation near the old town is by Andrea Zamengo in the Como Lago station. It may be more of a symbolic representation of a heart compared with the realistic black blob in Piazza Duomo but it does restore its red coloration. The title ‘Follow your heart’ makes immediate sense of its location, and the different planes of the heart are said to represent the full diversity of those who pass through the station on their journeys that may be following their heart.
Suffering from a temporary mobility restriction, I was unable to get to the last of the open installations – Zio Ziegler’s poster installation on Via Castelnuovo. This location could well profit from something inspirational being on a featureless stretch of urban highway. The poster gets over some of those security issues since it can be reproduced and reinstalled if needs be although last year’s poster in the same location, was one of the first installations that did not last the length of the exhibition. In terms of longevity, it was great to see that the ‘unofficial’ entry to last year’s Streetscape – Pierpaolo Perretta’s ‘Great Wave’ is still in situ and remains totally unvandalised. Either through the Lariosaurus or his own installations, notwithstanding his remarkable international success over the last year, the spirit of Como’s Mr. Savethewall still pervades Streetscape.
Great Wave by Pierpaolo Perretta aka Mr. Savethewall installed last year and still in good condition in Piazzetta Pietro Pinchetti
Streetscape 7 runs until 18th November and I have no hesitation in recommending all who have the opportunity to take a walking tour around the city to see the art. You may well cross paths with others on the same venture. Alternatively if around on Saturday 20th October, there is a cycle tour of Streetscape setting out at 11.00am from the Autosilo Tribunale – a great opportunity to bring your own bike and share the artistic experience with others.
Roman Gold from 5th century AD found recently during rebuilding work at the Cressoni theatre on Via Diaz, Como. Courtesy of il Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.
The recent find in Como amounting to more than four hundred gold coins unearthed in a terracotta amphora during the redevelopment of Teatro Cressoni has drawn both international attention and significant interest from archaeologists of the Roman period. The sheer quantity and value of the coins make this a highly significant find which may reveal more about Novum Comum, as Como was called by its founder, Julius Caesar. First reactions are that this horde most likely belonged to some state or civic institution given its size. Most of the treasure will revert again to the state but representatives from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs have intimated that at least a part of it will be donated to the city of Como for display alongside the number of other Roman artifacts in the Museo Archeologico in Piazza Medaglie D’Oro. Up to a quarter of the value may be awarded to the owners of the building site, a more than fair recompense for the inevitable delays to the development to allow for further study of the site.
Castello Baradello, enlarged by the Swabian Emperor, Federico Barbarossa, to defend Como from the forces of Milan and other members of the Lega Lombarda
Como has always been recognised for its strategic location through the ages. For Julius Caesar, Como was a port city at the end of the lake providing a staging post for goods and soldiers making their way from Milan to cross the Alps. For the Swabian Emperor, Federico Barbarossa, Como provided a gateway to his Italian territories. He developed the town’s defenses by rebuilding the Roman walls and also by extending the Baradello Castle and tower to keep sentinel across the Pianura Padana.
Extract from the Romweg or ‘Road to Rome’ published in Germany in 1498 showing the route from Edinburgh to Rome with the map oriented from South to North.
Como’s importance in medieval times is shown on the Romweg, one of the earliest maps representing a pan-European route from Edinburgh in Scotland to Rome – a route used by religious pilgrims and by merchants alike. For traders, it linked the wealthy city of Milan to the cross-Alpine routes giving access to the transport links provided by the Rhine and Danube river systems. Even in more modern days, the A9 autostrada from Milan to Como was the first super highway built by the Fascist government in the 1920s. This role throughout the ages is reflected in the historical fabric – the buildings and physical structures of the city.
View over Como showing the thin thread of the Autostrada in the background still acting as the most direct link from Milan to Basel and the Rhine Valley.
The Roman baths, medieval towers and walls, or the Baradello tower are the most obvious visual evidence of the importance and prolonged history of the town. In a less direct way, the historic fabric of the city can also be seen in the evolution of many of its buildings as they were adapted for varying uses over the centuries. Some of the more readily visible modifications include the redesign of doorways or windows.
Evidence of re-arrangements
Windows ancient and modern
Modern internal restoration of old buildings can still be quite radical in Italy where the high costs of energy and government-set standards encourage the adoption of modern insulation technologies. However the exteriors often seek to preserve as many original elements as possible. Many exteriors contain such clues as to how the structure may have looked in previous centuries.
Coats of Arms
Coat of arms of the Del Piero family in Via Del Piero
One visual element that has remained on some ancient buildings is the crest or coat of arms of the original inhabitants. These coats of arms were carved onto the keystone above the principal doorway to a noble family’s villa. The best preserved of these is the ‘Pear’ family in the street named after the most famous family member – Adamo del Pero. Adamo del Pero was a ‘condottiero’ or naval captain of the Como fleet under the warrior Bishop Grimoldi during the city’s ten year war with Milan starting in 1118. Other coats of arms can be seen in Via Balestra including the badly eroded one of the Lucini family, whose ancestor Arnaldo Lucini was also a captain of the Como forces but he took part in the later wars against Milan headed by Federico Barbarossa in the 1170s. (For Como these wars were about maintaining access to the lucrative trade routes across the Alps. For Barbarossa it was more about the ongoing conflict for domination between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy.)
This keystone carving is not a coat of arms but what is believed to be a good luck charm. This is in Via Adama del Pero but the same design can also be seen above the eastern entrance to Basilica San Fedele
Coat of Arms on the opposite side to that of the Lucini family in Via Balestra. Both are very eroded.
Roman column in a studio on Via Rodari. It descends a good metre below current ground level.
With the passing of time, the pavements trodden by those original citizens of Como have become buried under layers of earth and debris brought about by floods, earthquakes and centuries of urban development. The ground level of Roman Como is now from about one to two metres below current levels as can be seen under the Valduce car park in the ground level of the Roman Baths or again when visiting the Praetorian gates. Other proof is in the hidden columns supporting the blocked arches along Via Rodari and in the sunken level of the Roman column at the centre of the photographer’s studio also on Via Rodari.
The difference in ground level between now and Roman times is shown by these columns and arches in Via Rodari.
Fainter still, some parts of Como’s historical fabric are recorded using purely symbolical traces as with the two rings of steel laid to denote where the twin lost towers of San Giacomo used to stand. The church of San Giacomo used to be twice current dimensions with twin towers crowning its main entrance. One of these towers abutted the Broletto. Similarly close by, a small section of tram tracks remain as a reminder of former times.
San Giacomo Church in Piazza Grimoldi. The church originally had its entrance by the mulberry trees. Steel bands set in the pavement beside the trees show the location of the original twin towers.
The plethora of churches and convents that flourished in the middle ages has meant that a number of them have been converted as lay populations grew. The deconsecration and subsequent conversion of churches is perhaps the most common change of building use over the years – a trend not unknown in more recent times in UK cities. Here the conversions were undertaken much earlier and without the intention necessarily of retaining any of the former aspects of ecclesiastical architecture. The faint impression of the former triple window can be seen in the image below.
The building on the right still shows the faint outline of the triple windows above the original doorway to the church. A cloister to the right still survives within the grounds of the Valduce Hospital
An interesting form of building conversion concerns at least two former ice houses (nevere) whose original outlines are still discernible but which have now been re-purposed as a private residence behind San Fedele in one instance and as a clothes shop in the other.
This is the interior of a nevera which would have been open to the skies to allow snow to accumulate and be pressed into ice.
This nevera is at the side of the original fish market in Cortisella, behind the Banca D’Italia
The clothes shop behind the Banca D’Italia is particularly revealing since here you can freely view the interior of the nevera. Originally this structure had an open roof to allow the snow to fall in and accumulate on the floor and subsequently be pressed down to form ice. The room next to the entrance was the original shop where the blocks of ice were sold. It was located right in front of the old fish market. Clearly there has been a distinct change in climate over the years since it rarely snows in Como these days.
This last nevera and the long-lost fish market were in a quarter of the town known as the Cortisella. Little now remains of the area of Cortisella other than the nevera, Via Vitani and the fishermen’s houses that front on to Via Fontana. The area was Como’s ‘Les Halles’ or London’s ‘Seven Dials’ – an area considered unsanitary and unsafe. The fascist government particularly didn’t like the narrow alleys which defied surveillance or the undisciplined population who tended towards ‘disobedience’. It was redeveloped in the 1920s and replaced by the monolithic and now redundant Banca D’Italia building. The ‘spirit’ of Cortisella lives on though as a romanticised urban mythology dear to many of Como’s present-day citizens. Another item of lost history is the church of San Giovanni on the western side of town sacrificed to make way for the train station which at least continues to bear the church’s name.
The Banca Commerciale building designed by Federico Frigerio and completed in 1927.
In this rapid review of historical fabric, we have touched on visible and hidden traces of the past but we need also to be aware of ‘false’ history or those buildings put up in the ‘eclectic’ period of architecture that borrowed from former architectural styles. The main example of this is the Carige bank, on Piazza Grimoldi designed by Federico Frigerio and built for the Banca Commerciale from 1923 to 1927. Whatever its merits may be, it isn’t as old as it looks. Frigerio also designed the neo-classical Tempio Voltiano on the lakefront which again may well be elegant but dates from no earlier than the late nineteenth century, and to my eye at least, lacks the delicacy of earlier neo-classical architecture.
Cupola of Como’s Cathedral
Old buildings require considerable upkeep and the economic burden of maintaining Como’s architectural heritage is not inconsiderable – a burden shared across much of Italy due to its patrimony. Federico Frigerio was responsible for designing critical restoration work on the cathedral by devising a means of preventing the frontal elevation from continuing to bow out and ultimately collapse. He also redesigned the cathedral’s cupola following its partial destruction by fire in 1935. He also restored the Broletto tower and showed both technical ingenuity and aesthetic sensitivity in helping to preserve some of Como’s most prestigious architectural structures.
Pot of Gold
Back to that pot of gold lying in the mud of an excavated basement on Via Diaz – those gold coins in their terracotta amphora have certainly drawn international media attention to Como.
Part of the horde of over 400 gold coins, jewels and ingots uncovered at Il Cressoni in Via Diaz.
The find is the most significant ever uncovered in Northern Italy and exceeds that of 400 coins unearthed in 2004 in Maremma. It has now been confirmed that in addition to the estimated 400 gold coins, the treasure also includes jewels and ingots. One immediate impact of the find is to focus attention on how the city can make the most of its obviously rich archaeological patrimony to promote further cultural tourism. Alongside this, there is renewed interest in attempting to define what is known about Novum Comum. For example, was the forum actually in Piazza San Fedele and does this latest find suggest that the ex-Cressoni site was an extension of it? Was the Roman theatre close to modern day Piazza Grimoldi or in Via Vitani? Como has been built over too many times to allow for the discovery of a complete urban complex like the forum in Rome, or in nearby Brescia. What remain here are only the foundations two to three metres down below ground. All the other original building materials have been reused through the middle ages and the Renaissance. The Roman origins of the city have been incorporated into the very fabric of modern-day Como. Roman, medieval and renaissance structures all go to make up the city’s structural DNA – for which there still is plenty of visible evidence whilst no doubt more of the hidden fabric will at some time be revealed.