Visiting Como

Our third day in the Lake Como area was set aside for a ferry ride down to Como itself at the end of the western arm of the Lake. The journey from Bellagio to Como is just as impressive as the destination itself as the views of the mountains and the lake side scenery along the way are stunning. Just as the two Plinys in Roman times built their villas on the shores of this lake, so contemporary famous and wealthy types are also keen to get some of Lake Como’s shoreline real estate.

Not far down the lake from Bellagio is the small village of Lenno on the right-hand side of the lake where there is a famous villa called Villa del Balbianello. While a Franciscan monastery was built here in the 13th century, the land was purchased 4 centuries later by a Cardinal (not one dedicated to poverty as a lifestyle) who converted the old monastery into a villa. The two towers that can be seen in the image on the left were part of the original monastery. The villa belonged to a Count in the 20th century and his villa has become famous over recent times as a set for various movies, one being the James Bond movie, Casino Royale

The other villa that our ferry captain and commentator pointed out to us along the way was the Villa Oleandra (on the right), located on the shoreline of the small village of Laglio. Whilst constructed in the 18th century, this villa has become famous in the 21st century due to its new owner, George Clooney; he is a famous American actor who has a large portfolio of worldwide real estate. Some local tourist websites explain that the Villa can’t be seen properly from the road so it is a great idea to hire a local boat and cruise along Lake Como for the possibility of spotting the Hollywood star strolling in the gardens. We spurned such a crass idea!

The image below is from the 1890s and appears to be a colourised photo taken from a boat approaching the enclosed harbour of Como. The most significant building in Como, the Duomo, can be seen clearly on the skyline. Another important tourist attraction of the town can be seen marked by the line in the trees going up the mountain on the left. It is not clear what year the photo was taken but the Como Funicular was opened in 1894 and this attraction still operates today and leaves every 30 minutes to take visitors to check out the panoramic views of the lake and its city from the village of Brunate.

We didn’t have a long day in Como but we had sufficient time for a slow walk down Via Vittorio Emmanuele II, admiring the Duomo and other features of this wonderful street in what was the centre of Roman Como. In the first century CE, Julius Caesar himself directed that the swamp at the southern tip of Lake Como be drained and a typical Roman walled town be built to a grid pattern that is still evident today. In 2018, an amazing find of hundreds of Roman gold coins was dug up under the basement floor of an old theatre a couple of streets away from Via Vittorio Emmanuele II as a reminder of Como’s ancient Roman heritage. The coins were dated from the late fifth century CE at the time that the Roman Empire was collapsing under the barbarian invasions. Como itself was conquered by the Franks under Charlemagne in the 8th century but its Roman walls lasted another three centuries before they were destroyed by envious neighbours from Milan. We were able to have a look at some of the defensive towers that were rebuilt in the 12th century at the end of this interesting street we were strolling down.

The construction of Como’s Duomo began at the end of the 14th century over the remains of a previous church. Like so many of these huge cathedrals built in Europe, it wasn’t finished for another four centuries, in 1740. One of the fascinating curiosities about the façade of this amazing building is the two statues that flank the front door of the Cathedral. They are of two famous Roman identities who had visited or built villas on the shores of Lake: Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder. There is no question that these two individuals are both of great significance in European history but neither of them were Christians. They lived in the late first century CE and both were heavily involved in recording the history of those times. Pliny the younger himself is specifically famous for the first surviving references to the burgeoning Christian presence in the empire. He was appointed by Trajan as the Governor of the Roman province in modern day Turkey and was attempting in a fair-minded way to deliver justice to the Christians who were anonymously accused of breaching the law. He wrote to Trajan seeking guidance as he clearly believed these ‘Christians’ were reasonably harmless. His letter is one of the first historical references to the growing Christian movement. Thirteen hundred years later his statue, along with his uncle’s, is given pride of place beside the front door of Como’s cathedral. They both clearly had local fans that enabled them to bypass any rules about saints being the only possible statues adorning local Catholic churches.

Pliny the younger on left above.

Pliny the elder on the right above.

After contemplating the statues of the two Pliny’s, (perhaps a little suspicious that the images may not be based on any real evidence of the appearance of these two famous Romans), we went for a stroll around the ornate interior of Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. After leaving the Duomo, we progressed along the street and noted the Museo Civico on the left, but without the time to visit.

Como’s 2000 year history has been one formed by its position on the Italian side of the alps where it became a powerful trading post between the European powers on the other side of the Swiss alps (eg. the Holy Roman Empire) and the ambitious northern Italian cities like Milan. Thus it was deemed necessary that it had city walls for most of its existence; the first walls being built to surround the Roman town of Como. The Roman city walls were torn down by the Milanese army that eventually conquered Como after 10 years of war in 1127. Como’s trade taxes on goods moving into the city and then heading north were the main complaint of the Milanese. Como was dominated by Milan for the next 30 years before the Holy Roman Emperor, Federico Barbarossa finally forced Milan to lift trade restrictions on Como. Barbarossa ordered Como’s walls to be rebuilt between 1158-92. It was the surviving towers on the southern line of this wall that we were able to inspect when we arrived at the corner of the old Roman section of Como. The image on the left below is of Torre S.Vitale taken from inside the city where Via Victor Emmanuelle II becomes Via Serafina Balestra. The photo on the right is taken from the other side of this tower on Viale Cesare Battisti, also showing some of the remaining city wall attached to the tower.

The photo below illustrates where we walked out of the old Roman area of Como at Torre S.Vitale and turned right along Viale Cesare Battisti towards the second tower still standing in this southern wall, Porta Torre. This tower was finished in 1192 and is in fact the main entrance to the city, particularly for those traders that used to travel from the south from places like Milan.

A little further along and opposite ‘Tower Gate’ is Piazza Vittoria. In this public square in front of the main entrance to Como is the almost compulsory statue of one of the heroes of 19th century Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882). He has a great view of Porta Torre as well as being able to see up the mountain to the village of Brunate where the Funicular ends. Further down this street is the third tower in the south wall of Como, Torre Gatoni.

By now we were well past our lunch time and it was time to plunge back into the Roman maze that is Como. Referring back to the map of our walk around Como from earlier in this blog, it can be seen that we turned in through Porta Torre and headed back in the direction of the lake shore. On the way we admired one of the other major churches in town, the Basilica of San Fidele dedicated to a martyr of the early church. This is an old church dating from 1120 but like so many other Italian churches, replaced an earlier building .

On our walk back to our ferry, we passed through another very busy Como square, dedicated to one of the town’s favourite sons, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827). Volta was born in Como and was a pioneer of electricity and power. He is credited with the invention of the battery among many other scientific achievements in his life. In the image to the right below is a section of the piazza named after him and on the left is an image of the Tempio Voltano (from a 1000 lire bank note), a museum dedicated to his work that stands at one end of the lake-side dock, not far from our ferry terminal.

Como is a beautiful city as the photo below reveals as it looks across Tempio Voltano, takes in the centre of town and then upwards to the mountain where the town of Brunate sits. We had a very enjoyable day here, finished off perfectly by the beautiful trip back to Bellagio by ferry.

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