San Fermo to Como – in the footsteps of Garibaldi

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.