The city on the lake
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From Como, it is possible to reach the village of Brunate by the famous Como-Brunate cable car, inaugurated in 1894 and soon became the symbol of the development of public transport at that time. Brunate, known as “the balcony of the Prealps” for its splendid position overlooking Como, the lake, the plain and the Western Alps, is also famous for its numerous villas and for the Faro Voltiano, the lighthouse built in 1927 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Alessandro Volta. Going back up the Western shore (the most frequented) and proceeding beyond Cernobbio, you come nearby Moltrasio, where the musician Vincenzo Bellini and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once stayed. After Laglio, an old town of Roman origins, most famous as the residence of the actor George Clooney, Brienno is one of the most characteristic towns of the lake. It has been practically unaltered over time, with old lanes, balconies covered with flowers, narrow stairs called “alleys”leading to the “oven” square and the old spinning mill near the pier.
The only island on the lake is Isola Comacina. Even if it is small, it has a rich history. In the Middle Ages it was an independent stronghold that allied itself with the municipality of Milan during the ten-year war against Como (1118-1127). Como was defeated, but with the aid of the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and going against all the municipalities of the Lombard League, the people of Como got their revenge, destroying the stronghold in 1169. The remaining buildings are the 17th century little church of San Giovanni, the inn with restaurant attached (famous for the director Alfred Hitchcock’s stays here) and the small rationalist constructions of the architect Pietro Lingeri. The ruins of the old Basilica di Santa Eufemia symbolize the history of the lake, commemorated every year at the Feast of San Giovanni. Isola Comacina looks onto a bay known as “Zoca de l’oli” (place of oil), so called because of the calm waters of the lake and for the olive trees that grow wild here.
The bell tower of Santa Maria Maddalena di Ossuccio has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, together with the Sacro Monte above it. A little further on is the peninsular of Lavedo, which borders the Gulf of Venus and culminates in Villa Balbianello, owned by FAI (Italian Environment Fund). Some of the scenes from films such as Piccolo Mondo Antico (Old Fashioned World), Star Wars and Casino Royale were filmed here. Going up the Western shore you come to the towns of Tremezzo, Cadenabbia and Griante. The last one was formerly the holiday place of the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and a traditional tourist location for English and Americans. You have to visit the gardens of Villa Carlotta and make an excursion to the little church of San Martino.
The Northern part of the lake has a decidedly more solitary feel. After Rezzonico you come to Dongo, known as the place where the final act in the history of Fascism was carried out, with the capture of Benito Mussolini and his execution at Giulino di Mezzegra. A little further on, Gravedona is the site of one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Lombardy, the Church of Santa Maria del Tiglio. At the Northern end of Lake of Como, where the Mera and Adda rivers flow into it, is the nature reserve of Pian di Spagna, a flat area of great natural interest surrounded by lakeside campsites.
The itinerary proceeds along the Eastern shore, beyond Colico, with the small lake of Piona and the nearby Cistercian abbey of the 11th century, a real gem and a haven of peace and serenity. Behind it is the mass of Monte Legnone, while just a little to the South is the picturesque town of Corenno Plinio, a hamlet of the municipality of Dervio, famous for its sports, particularly sailing and windsurfing. From here, you go down to Bellano, a flourishing tourist and industrial centre, famous for its gorge. This natural ravine formed 15 million years ago from the waters of the river Pioverna, which hurtle into a narrow passage between high rocks, and can be visited by means of hanging footbridges. Varenna, on the other hand, is known for Villa Monastero and the Castello di Vezio. Built around 1100, the last one was an ancient military stronghold linked to Varenna and used from the time of Queen Teodolinda as a watch tower.
Now you can continue towards Lecco, going beyond Mandello del Lario, an important tourist centre dating back to Gallo-Roman times and home of the prestigious motorcycle firm Moto Guzzi since 1921. Take the car ferry at Varenna and disembark at Bellagio, leaving the Eastern branch (less frequented) on your left, or take the main road that goes up to Esino Lario and the Grigne mountains. .
If you take the ferry, it is worth making a stop at Lezzeno, preceded by Villa Lucertola and the Grosgalli cliff, largely uninhabited and still a cradle of ancient beliefs in witchcraft, and at Nesso, known especially for its gorge and the mediaeval Civera Bridge. Quite another matter is the mysterious Villa Pliniana in Torno, whose guests once included Napoleon, Manzoni, Foscolo, Stendhal, Byron, Verdi, Bellini and Rossini. Leonardo da Vinci studied the intermittent source springing from a rock, today enclosed in the interior courtyard of this building. Italian novelist Antonio Fogazzaro set his novel Malombra here, which gave rise to the scenes from the film of the same name by Mario Soldati. Going down the main road of the lake past Blevio, Como suddenly reappears..
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