Third in a series on Lombardy, Italy
Ferries on Lake Como
Lake Como owes its peculiar Y-shape to the glaciers that carved it during the last Ice Age. Although many towns on its shores have bus access and a few have train stations, ferry remains the most scenic (and sometimes the fastest) means of travel on the lake. Gestione Navigazione Laghi fares are based on zones with a trip between any two stops on the lake assigned Zone 1 – 8. For an additional supplement a passenger may choose to take a “Fast Service” hydrofoil or catamaran if service is offered between both stops on the journey. Car ferries also service a handful of ports.
The journey from Como at the southwest end of the lake to Bellagio in the center is 2 hours, 16 minutes on the conventional #12 ferry. By contrast, the high speed service on SR4 is only 44 minutes. Part of the time savings comes from the speed – the hydrofoil cruises at 32.5 knots – and part of it from the fewer stops. The speed service makes as few as three stops between Bellagio and Como, whereas the conventional ferry makes as many as sixteen, frequently switching between east and west shores of the lake.
The high speed supplement is quite reasonable considering the time savings. The one-way ticket from Como to Bellagio (six zones) is €10.40 with speed service an extra €4.40 for a total of €14.80. The main ticket types are one-way and free- circulation. The latter allows a hop-on, hop-off approach within a specified zone. You may find unless you start very early in the day, infrequency of ferry service at some ports may limit how useful it is. I determined that a free-circulation ticket and one-way tickets were exactly the same cost for a Como – Bellagio – Lenno – Como itinerary, whereas a Como – Bellagio – Como itinerary would have been cheaper with one way tickets. I did purchase the free-circulation ticket to give us flexibility in case any other intermediate stops caught our eye. With the free-circulation ticket, you may purchase a supplement for fast service for one or more segments if desired.
There are five main ferry routes (timetables here).
- Como – Colico, covering the southwest and north arms of the lake. Despite the route designation, only one conventional ferry per day (at least under the spring schedule) goes all the way from Como to Colico, a journey taking almost four hours. Many ferries from Como terminate at Verenna. Some ferries also run just a short portion of this route, such as Como – Urio or Lenno to Varenna. Confused yet? The takeaway point is advanced planning is a must since many ferries have totally different stops and you may find yourself stranded for a few hours if you get off at a less frequented spot.
- Como – Colico (fast or speed service), covering the southwest and north arms of the lake with limited stops. Presumably the powers that be realize most people would rather spend 1:37 getting from Como to Colico than 3:44 on a conventional ferry. A lot more high speed ferries make it all the way to Colico, but some routes originate or terminate at Varenna or Menaggio.
- Car Ferry, covering specific major towns such as Cadenabbia to Bellagio, with an intermediate stop on some routes.
- Midlake shuttle, covering a triangle shaped route where the three lake arms meet. Most ferries are Menaggio to Lenno although one starts at Bellano. Combined with other longer distance ferries covering the same stops, this area has very frequent service.
- Lecco – Bellagio, covering the southeast arm of the lake. As best I can tell, this route only runs on Sundays (at least in spring 2015).
The leisurely way to see the lake is by conventional ferry (motonave – lit. motor ship). It’s also the only choice for at least part of the journey if your destination is not serviced by high speed hydrofoils or catamarans. The conventional ferries seem to come in a few shapes and sizes (although I may be confusing some sightseeing boats with ferries!). The ones we experienced had limited open air seating on the bow in the sunshine and a great many seats under a canopy on the upper deck stern. Even on a warm day, the open air seating is quite cool when the ferry is in motion and a jacket is advisable. There is table seating in the stern below decks out of the wind. A handful of ferry routes operate snack bars.
By virtue of its lower speed and open air seating, the conventional ferries are the best way to photograph the lake. With an open itinerary and a free-circulation ticket you may also find the conventional ferry provides opportunities to explore. For example, you may be intrigued by the sight of Villa Erba or the sight of the Roman bridge in Nesso and decide to stop off until the next ferry. Approaching Lenno on the conventional ferry, we got a long, detailed look at the spectacular Villa del Balbianello; the hydrofoil on the return trip zoomed by in seconds.
We took ferry route 12 from Como to Bellagio aboard the Innominato. Innominato seats 300 passengers at a top speed of 13 knots (14.9mph). As much as I hate to admit it, I found the conventional ferry a bit boring after the first hour. The lake, villas, and villages are quite pretty but after a while the towns just sort of blurred together.
Since we weren’t traveling by car we didn’t pay much attention to these vehicle ferries. They seem to operate between specific city pairs like Menaggio – Bellagio rather than plying multi-stop route like other ferries, though a handful have an intermediate stop. They are by far the most unstylish way to travel the lake.
Things have certainly come a long way since paddle steamer service began on Lake Como almost 200 years ago. In comparison to the conventional ferry, the fast service is not boring- or at the very least, you don’t have time to get bored. Riding it after the conventional ferry is like switching from a SEPTA commuter train to the Acela Express or switching from RER to the TGV. High speed ferry service on Lake Como comes in two flavors- hydrofoil and catamaran. The hydrofoils have three seating decks- upper level (the most popular), bow below and stern below. It’s a sight to see the hydrofoils lift the primary hull and you can get a good view of the water flowing over the foils from the bow lower level seating.
The obvious advantage to the fast service is the time savings- take a conventional ferry from Como to Bellagio for instance and you’re burning four hours roundtrip. The seats on the fast service are also more comfortable and you avoid the wind chill of open air seating. Although plying both sides of the lake on the conventional ferry can get tedious, there’s something cool about watching the scenery zoom by at over 30 knots on the hydrofoil.
As a photography platform the high speed service are not quite as good as the conventional ferries. There are only viewpoints out to the sides, not directly ahead or astern like various seats on the conventional ferries offer. The windows, especially the aft lower level, are quite dirty and every time the hydrofoil slows down and the main hull settles into the water, it splashes a film of water onto the lower windows. The windows at the bow are much cleaner than astern and seating was less crowded than upstairs. We didn’t have a chance to ride the catamarans but it appeared there was an open air window on both sides of the passenger compartment. I don’t know if it’s possible to take pictures from there or whether it’s only accessible when boarding and disembarking.
Freccia delle Valli
Many hydrofoils (aliscafo) on the Italian lakes have a name beginning in Freccia or arrow. It seems to have a connotation of speed – the Italian high speed trains are all color-coded arrows like Frecciarossa (Red Arrow). As we went about our visit to Bellagio and Villa del Balbianello we’d seen Freccia delle Valli (Arrow of the Valley) pass several times as it traveled its route between Como and Varenna. We finally had the opportunity to catch its last southbound run of the day, SR127, as we returned to Como from Lenno. SR127 has the option of three flag stops but is otherwise nonstop between Lenno and Como; it stopped once on our journey. The Lenno to Como segment is scheduled for a mere 26 minutes, blowing away the 1 hour, 53 minute timeframe it took our conventional outbound ferry to cover the same route (albeit with 13 intermediate stops instead of one)!
Hydrofoils have been cruising the waters of Lake Como since 1964 and have defied expectations that they would be completely replaced by catamarans rather than just supplemented by them. That being said no new hydrofoils have been delivered since 1989; the Rodriquez Cantineri Navali company which built Como’s is not manufacturing any more. Freccia delle Valli is a RHL 150SL built in 1980 and delivered to Lake Como the following year. It carries 176 passengers at a maximum speed of 35 knots (cruising speed 32.5 knots or 37.4mph). Rodriquez tailored the design for Italian lake service. The large picture windows would have been ill-advised for ocean or sea service but storms are much more moderate on the lake. The prominent fenders, absent on the first hydrofoils delivered to the lakes, fulfill a practical purpose given the heavy boat traffic and frequent docking operations on the lake. Indeed, Freccia delle Valli spent over a year out of service after a collision in 2013 damaged a fender and foil.
Further reading: “100 Years with Hydrofoils” in Classic Fast Ferries, November 2014