Como Stories and Tips

An Italian City: voluptuous and romantic

The city of Como has two distinct faces: one historic, facing the lake, and one industrial, which extends into the Brianza. Como is best approached from the north, either across the lake or along one of the lakeside roads, when the town is at its most magical: green, grey and a soft ochre. Bathed in golden sunlight, the walls of the old town retain a sobriety that is distinctly Lombard.

The first craftsmen to make the town famous were the master architects and stonemasons from the region, known as Maestri Comacini; the town's industrial future was assured by the introduction of silk manufacturing in 1510 by Pietro Boldoni. Pura seta di Como (pure Como silk) is a phrase often heard, since Como is Italy's top producer of silk, though the raw fibre comes from East Asia.

Today the old town of Como - the citta murata - is largely closed to traffic, and its layout is almost identical to that of the original Roman castrum on the site. For some time now there has been a complete ban on new construction; restoration is the order of the day. Como's ancient walls and arcades are ideal for a stroll back into the centuries, and the gourmet specialities and exclusive fashions make shopping here a very memorable experience.

The best place to start a tour of the historic old quarter is the cathedral square, Piazza Duomo, in which the Duomo (Cathedral; open daily, 7am - noon and 3-7pm), the Broletto (former town hall, built in 1215) and the Torre del Comune (old city tower) form a harmonious and grandiose architectural ensemble. Both the Torre del Comune and the Broletto, with its Tuscan-style black and white patterned facade, date from the early 13th century; the cathedral was begun somewhat later, in 1396, and construction work continued - with the odd interruption - right into the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the building as a whole is exceptionally harmonious and it is one of Italy's finest examples of Gothic-Renaissance style. The 75 metre high dome above the crossing was built in 1744 by the Turin architect Juvara.

Lorenzo degli Spagli's original design was Gothic; the facade, begun in 1457, is considered a masterpiece of early Lombard Renaissance architecture. Much of its statuary is by the Rodari brothers, such as the Adoration of the Magi relief in the lunette, and the two seated figures, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, placed proudly on either side of the main portal. Tommaso and Jacopo Rodari also did the so-called Porta della Rana or 'Frog Portal' on he northern side of the cathedral, which owes its name to a rather sketchy relief of a frog.

The interior of the cathedral is rather dark, but it contains several artistic masterpieces including the enormous 16th century Tuscan and Flemish tapestries lining the nave, a fine Deposition by Tommaso Rodari in the left transept, and several altar paintings by the great Bernardino Luini (Adoration of the Magi) and Gaudenzio Ferrari (Flight from Egypt).

Just a few short steps away from the cathedral is the church of San Fedele (open daily 8am-noon and 3.30-7pm), a 10th-12th century Romanesque basilica, built by the Maestri Comacini, on the ruins of an earlier Carolingian structure - Como's original cathedral. The apse with its dwarf gallery, and the trefoil ground plan are both reminiscent of Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel in Aachen. The northern portal has some very fine sculpture work, and inside to the left of the northern apse there are several frescoes dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, thematically related to the ones in the baptistery of Riva San Vitale (Lake Lugano).

The Palazzo Giovio houses the Museo Archeologico Artistico (open Tue-Sat, 9.30am-12.30pm, 2-5pm, Sun 10am-1pm), one of Como's two municipal museums. The oldest finds here date from around 8000BC, and there are also several Roman, Romanesque and Gothic exhibits. The picture gallery documents Lombard art of the 16th and 18th centuries, and there is also a section displaying art from the various Mediterranean cultures.

The other museum, the Museo del Risorgimento G. Garibaldi (open Tues-sat, 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-5pm, Sun 10am - 1pm), inside the Palazzo Olginati next door to the Palazzo Giovio, has some interesting exhibits documenting the town's history, its 19th century liberation struggles and the two World Wars.

One of the most majestic gates still surviving from Como's medieval fortifications is the mighty Torre di Porta Vittoria, a full 40 metre high tower, with its oversized double windows.

From the Piazza Vittoria it's not far to the church of Sant' Abbondio (open daily 7am-6pm), another example of Maestri Comacini architecture, and one of the most important Early Lombard Romanesque structures in Italy, now lying between the railway station and an industrial site. The five aisled basillica, with its two bell towers, has several stylistic features in common with structures north of the Alps (e.g. Speyer Cathedral in Germany). The strikingly large choir contains Gothic frescoes dating from around 1350. The cloister to the north of the building, with its twin-storeyed arcade, was added in the 16th century.

Although silkworms are no longer raised here, Chinese silk thread is dyed and woven around Como, making it Italy's largest producer of silk. The Silk Museum (Museo Didattico della Seta), is south of the centre at Via Castelnuovo 9 (open Tues-Fri 9am-noon and 3-6pm where the Silk maker's School gives a fascinating insight into the craft.

There's an excellent view of the town and the lake from the Castello Baradello 3 kilometres south of Como, an enchanting ruined fort on the eastern slopes of the Monte della Croce (536 m). Out on the western side of the harbour is the neoclassical structure known as the Tempio Voltiano, dedicated to the famous physicist and discoverer Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), after whom the electrical unit volt is named; his personal effects and also the batteries he invented are on display here.

The western lake promenade leads from Piazza Cavour past several attractive neoclassical villas to the Villa dell'Olmo (open Mon-Sat 8am - 6pm), an estate laid out in 1782-87. Its first important visitors were Napoleon and Josephine, who arrived just after the building was completed. The Villa dell'Olmo is the most majestic of the neoclassical villas in this part of Como.

I am a great fan of the northern lakes in Italy - there is something glamorous about each and every one but I think the most glamorous has to be Lake Como. It is so Italian; voluptuous and romantic. Como being the most important city on the lake is not only filled with history and has some amazing buildings it also has a celebrity glitz to it. I think it is known as the 'Comowood' of the lakes and although I've never seen him strolling around I do believe George Clooney has a villa there. Mind you even if I did bump into him I would probably be indifferent as he's not my sort of guy but that's by the way.

I don't know what it is but there is a special aura about Como especially in the old quarter although I even like the industrial area. Since the Roman Empire this city has inspired writers, poets and musicians. Now it is awash with footballers, fashion designers and film stars. It has a similar feel to Monaco - hectic with an electrical buzz. I like it - it's up there on my list of top ten cities.

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