Como – the City

Second in a series on Lombardy, Italy

Flowers were in full bloom in Como, the city of about 85,000 on the southwest shore of the famous lake with the same name.  Como has a long history.  In Roman times it was known as Comum, birthplace of the Plinys.  Como’s excellent transportation links and numerous tourist facilities made it an ideal base to explore the surrounding lake region; many of the towns further up the lake have more limited choices of restaurants and hotels and are accessible only by bus or ferry.

Como-Brunate Funicular at the Brunate station
Como-Brunate Funicular at the upper station in Brunate.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Como-Brunate Funicular

Our first day we decided to take things easy since we hadn’t gotten much rest on the flight to Milan.  A one hour nap at our hotel turned into three and we finally got moving late in the afternoon.  I’d read a New York Times article about Lake Como which recommended heading to Brunate, a village on a hill 1,600′ above downtown Como.  The article recommended a hike to the Faro Volitano, a lighthouse with unparalleled views.  The road to Brunate follows a torturous route; the funicular, a cable operated railway that ascends the hillside at a steep angle is a more pleasant (and at seven minutes a journey, faster) option.  The lower station is on the north end of downtown Como.  The funicular runs are scheduled about every 15 minutes.  On Sunday the line for the funicular was out the door and around the corner, but Friday afternoon there were only a handful of riders.

We purchased tickets at the lower station (€5.50/person roundtrip – $5.88/person at the favorable exchange rates during our visit; credit cards accepted).  Brunate is a nice little village with views of Como and the surrounding mountains; unfortunately Friday afternoon was the haziest day of our visit and we couldn’t see much to the west.  It appears there is a shuttle (a military looking olive colored vehicle with bench seats in back) from the plaza near the church, Chiesa S. Andrea up to the lighthouse.  Since we hoofed it, I cannot advise on how often or late it runs or its price if any.  Signage for the footpath to Faro Volitano is generally pretty good, with distance and time estimates posted.  Google Maps labels the path as Via Mulattiera per S. Maurizio but I didn’t see any signage on the ground to that effect.  San Maurizio apparently describes the area of Brunate near the lighthouse.  We briefly wandered around before finding the start of the path near S. Andrea- look for the steep central path.

Flowers (with a lizard) growing out of the side of a wall along the path to the lighthouse in Brunate
Flowers (with a lizard) growing out of the side of a wall along the path to the lighthouse in Brunate

Faro Voltiano (Volta Lighthouse)

The path is at times contiguous with a one-lane roadway and at other times isolated with bollards.  It’s definitely not for the less physically able- it’s steep all the way and crumbling at points.  Rachel was definitely not a fan of tackling it jetlagged.  There was at least one vending machine and a restaurant or two that we conceivably could have refreshed at along the way.  I’m a big fan of the clusters of flowers growing out of old walls that seem common in Brunate as well as the Linguria region to the south.  Do Italian walls simply tend to get colonized by the loveliest plants or do locals enjoy planting them in cracks in the wall?  It probably took us an hour to get to the lighthouse, though it probably wouldn’t have taken so much time if we weren’t jetlagged.

Faro Voltiano
Faro Voltiano

The Faro Volitano is a lighthouse on the summit of a hilltop featuring a trio of crosses.  I’m rather partial to lighthouses in general although I have to say its among the ugliest I’ve visited.  The lighthouse is named after Como’s most famous son, Alessandro Volta.  Volta invented the electric battery, so in case you ever wondered where the term “voltage” comes from, now you know.  The lighthouse was opened in 1927, the centennial of Volta’s death.  There seems to be a dearth of English-language material concerning the lighthouse on the internet, but there are a few brief entries in Italian like this one…it’s easy enough to make out the essentials, but there’s always Google Translate.

Lighthouse interior
Lighthouse interior

We finally arrived at the entrance to the lighthouse at 6:58pm just as the attendant was locking up.  (It appears to be open daily from 10am-7pm).  She agreed to give us five minutes and only charged us half price (usual rate €2/person cash).  We dashed up the 143 steps to the top.  The view was pretty good, severe haze notwithstanding.  It was easy to see surrounding mountains and ferries plying the lake, although most of the city of Como was blocked by an intervening hill.

Lake Como seen from the observation point at the base of the lighthouse
Lake Como seen from the observation point at the base of the lighthouse

We relaxed briefly on benches at the base of the lighthouse.  The area is decorated with an Italian flag and three crosses. The view from this observation point is almost as good as the top of the lighthouse 95′ above.  Since the best views from the lighthouse are to the north and west, I suspect the view would be much better in the morning rather than late afternoon when we visited.  It seems we lingered a little too long since a shuttle departed the traffic circle below as we were descending the steps leading to the lighthouse. It wasn’t quite as difficult to descend, notwithstanding the zig-zagging necessary in steep areas where the path was in poor condition.

Como Duomo
Como Duomo

Como Duomo (Como Cathedral)

Como’s gothic cathedral was built between 1396 and 1770.  The stonework and dome are reminiscent of another gothic cathedral, the famous one in Florence.  Unlike the Milan and Florence Duomos, it doesn’t seem to be possible to climb for a view.  The best views of the cathedral are from the plaza around it, the funicular to Brunate, and to a lesser extent from the area around the Tempio Voltiano and the top of the Monumento ai caduti.  The impressive interior was initially closed for worship on Sunday when we visited but reopened to visitors free of charge in the afternoon.  Como’s best shopping areas are on streets in the vicinity of the cathedral.

Volta Temple
Volta Temple

Tempio Voltiano (Volta Temple)

Volta Lighthouse, Volta Square, why not a temple for the inventor of the battery?  Opened in 1928, it’s actually a museum with artifacts of Volta’s experiments with gases and batteries.  The usual admission price is €4 but they’re charging half price because the second floor is closed for structural work after a ceiling collapse last year.  I’m afraid I can’t recommend the museum.  The artifacts are interesting looking but are placed in numbered display case with no explanation at all.  Visitors are issued photocopied sheets (available in English) that identify the artifact but provide absolutely no interpretation.  On the way out, I noticed a guidebook available for €6 (also available in English) that is everything the museum should be, explaining the history of Volta and giving in-depth explanations of the artifacts.  (It also corrected a typo that had us puzzled, as the photocopy said the apparatus was designed to test the formation of nails…in reality, it was studying hail!)  I’d recommend buying the guidebook at the start or simply enjoying the building’s architecture from the outside.

Como War Memorial
Como War Memorial

Monumento ai caduti (War Memorial, lit. Memorial to the Fallen)

Como’s World War I memorial is located on the lakefront just west of the Volta Temple.  The 108′ tall granite and marble structure looks very modern, but it was actually built in 1933 at the behest of the Fascists.  The Terragni brothers designed the monument in a tribute to Antonio Sant’Elia who was killed fighting for Italy in the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo in 1916.  (I’m not sure if anything underscores the futility of World War I more than the fact that there were eight battles of anything.  Actually it didn’t stop there- there were a total of twelve battles at the river between 1915 and 1917 until the Central Powers settled the matter by crushing Italy at Caporetto.  You might remember that battle from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.)  Anyway, Sant’Elia was known for his Futurist sketches, which, though they now have a sort of Retro-Futuristic vibe, supposedly inspired the look to films like Blade Runner.  The lobby has a list of names of the fallen and is manned by a pair of old soldiers who probably fought in World War II.

Panorama from the top of the Como War Memorial
Panorama from the top of the Como War Memorial.  Click for larger view.

For a small fee (I think it was €3/person) you can climb the stairs to an observation platform where the trio of flags are mounted.  The platform probably has the best view of anywhere within Como city, providing panoramic views of the Volta Temple, surrounding park, lakefront, Torre Baradello, Duomo, and Brunate.

Como's harbor with Brunate on the hill above
Como’s harbor with Brunate on the hill above

Como Lakefront

Lake Como is shaped like an inverted Y (on traditional north-facing maps) with the city of Como sitting on the southern end of Lake Como’s southwest arm.  Much of the lakefront is a thin strip of parkland with development starting on the other side of the lakefront roads.  It’s a pleasant U-shaped walk from the fountain at Villa Geno (easily seen from ferries leaving the harbor) on the east end, to the ferry docks and Volta Temple on the south end, as far as Villa Olmo on the west end of Como.  Villa Olmo’s grounds are open even after dark when the Villa is lit up with warm lighting.

Torre di San Vitale

City Walls

Como’s ancient city walls run south from the plaza near the Duomo and then turn east-west at Torre di San Vitale.  The tower isn’t particularly photogenic, but a strip of parkland adjacent to the wall nearby has a row of cherry trees that were in full bloom during our visit.  On Saturday morning the section of wall running east-west from San Vitale was the site of a massive market selling clothes, electronics, and other wares (definitely not touristy stuff, for that, check out stalls of crafts between the Duomo and Piazza Cavour).

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