Italian Lakes – From Chiavenna To Lecco

TRAVELLERS from the Engadine over the Maloja and Splügen passes find at Chiavenna their first town of any size in Italy. It is, as its name implies, a ” Key ” to Northern Italy, the Clavenna of the Romans. First impressions count for a great deal, and Chiavenna is nothing if not original. The town is dominated by a rock, a veritable citadel in appearance, which is, however, devoted to the peaceful purpose of a restaurant, called Paradiso. The unfinished structure of a great castle with staring windows lies at the foot of this rock. Chiavenna can tell tales of siege and strain and destruction, from the time of Barbarossa to the Visconti, and in more modern times bears witness to the conflicting ambitions of the Swiss Canton of Graubunden, of Spain, France, and Austria. The castle was begun by the De Salis family of Graubunden, but abandoned in 1639.

A lofty Lombard campanile rises from the town, but both that and the citadel-like rock are dwarfed by the towering heights that seem to have caught and clamped Chiavenna between their sheer steeply wooded sides. Little terraces of bright green, miniature trellises, vineyards, and white houses, pitched against forests of swelling chestnut-trees, — all these cling to the mountains like flies to window-panes.

The interior of the town is largely characterized by the rushing stream of the Mera, along which the town is built. Many of the back doors give upon the tumultuous water. Two fine bridges cross the Mera, one leading to the Maloja pass and the other to the Splügen. A few old portals catch the eye as reminders of good old days. The place is not without modern features, being lighted by electricity and connected with the great world by rail, but it gives an impression of being constantly engaged in a struggle against its alpine background and winning a right to existence only by incessant toil. There is some resemblance to Sion and Bellinzona in Switzerland. At Chiavenna, also, the big yellow diligences of Switzerland, and their drivers and guards in modest uniform, make connections with the voluble Italian trains and hobnob with the Italian customs officers and Italian carabinieri in brave array.

The journey from Chiavenna to Colico on Lake Como takes us first of all through a strange flat country which goes by the name of the Piano di Chiavenna. Here cattle and horses range over the wide meadows. Then comes Lake Riva with reedy shores and sombre gorges opening into the mountainsides, and shortly before Colico a glimpse is afforded of the entrance into the highly cultivated Val Tellina (German Veltlin), into which a branch line runs to the places Sondrio and Tirano.

Around Colico the mountains are plentifully sprinkled with villages. Here the question of rail or steamboat must be decided for the further journey, only let no travellers who have merely taken the train from Colico to Lecco imagine that they have seen the Lake of Como. Never was there a more aggravating line with such provoking frequency of tunnels. At the moment of enjoyment, when the eye, after much dodging of projections, trees, houses, or mountain spurs, has finally caught a glimpse of the matchless blue expanse, then comes with sudden fury an obliterating blackness and a mighty rumbling. The train has plunged once more into the mountainside. The peeps are fascinating, but the waits are exasperating, and this alternation of ” now you do ” and ” now you don’t” has been known to make travellers refuse to look even when there was really something to see.

In the year 1833 Ruskin, then some four-teen years of age, made his first trip over the Alps with his parents. He wrote ” A Tour on the Continent” in juvenile verses, and among sub-headings of this poem we find ” Chiavenna,” “Lago di Como,” ” Cadenabbia,” “Villa Pliniana,” and “Lago Maggiore.” In his ” Praeterita ” he thus writes of his initiation into the beauties of Lake Como :

“We took boat on the little recessed lake of Chiavenna, and rowed down the whole way of waters, passing another Sunday at Cadenabbia, and then, from villa to villa, across the lake, and across to Como, and so to Milan by Monza. It was then full, though early, summer-time; and the first impression of Italy always ought to be in summer. It was also well that, though my heart was with the Swiss cottage, the artificial taste in me had been mainly formed by Turner’s rendering of these very scenes in Rogers’s ` Italy.’ ”

The upper portion of Lake Como is not as thickly sown with travellers as the lower portion. There is less of the spectacular, less affluence and abundance of vegetation. The olive-tree gives place readily to the chestnut, and yet a place like Gravedona is not without interest. It displays a fine old palazzo, with a terrace overlooking the lake and a graceful central loggia. Many a pink house or a blue one stands out from rock or wooded pinnacle, and everywhere there is a painstaking cultivation of every scrap of ground available. The clouds, too, perform their part when the day is not absolutely sunny, as needs must be sometimes, even on the Italian lakes. In long level streaks they hang along the mountains, often leaving the peaks exposed to view. Then, when the sun does break through, these same clouds glow and cast their halos on the land beneath.

Dongo is a large-ish place, and the ruins of castle Musso recorded history in their day, when they sheltered that extraordinary pirate, the self-styled Giov. Giac. de Medici.

For the historical significance of this adventurer, the reader is referred to the author’s work on ” The Rise of the Swiss Republic.”

Somebody has softened the ruins of Musso by turning the whole of the rocky height into a garden. Here are rockeries and little paths artistically and artificially traced from point to point over yawning chasms by pretty bridges. At every possible place, by every torrent that tumbles into the lake, and on every sloping bit of shore the invariable washerwomen kneel to their work. Here and there, in bight or bay, fishermen are seen drawing in their nets, and fish-hawks sail in circles on the alert.

Bellano, with its large factories, is at the entrance of the Val Sassina and opens the way to interesting excursions into rarely visited mountains, from which it is possible to emerge again at the town of Lecco.

The Lake of Lecco

A double line of rail and carriage road rather spoils the looks of the eastern bank of the Lake of Lecco, but this line renders a vast service to the country and should not be condemned for scratching the mountainside. At best the mountains hereabouts are somewhat severe in their bareness, but their forms are imposing, and the lake renders them again in majestic reflections. Noticeable are certain pathetic brown stacks of brushwood, assembled with scrupulous care on the shore-line at the feet of the hard cliffs and speaking eloquently of a constant struggle against poverty. As we step aboard the steamboat for Lecco, we are handed yellow tickets bearing the name of the station where we embark. This seems to be a habit peculiar to Lake Como. The day is warm and hazy, and a uniformity which is almost colourless broods upon the water. Great barges, with big oars acting as side boards, drop quietly astern, becalmed. On the second-class deck some recruits, summoned to the colours, sing to keep up their courage. They repeat some simple musical phrase with surprising persistence and end it finally in a long-drawn, dirge-like chant.

And since the subject of mountain silhouettes has been broached before in this book, in connection with the Lake of Lecco, it may be in order for the writer to state that, re-turning from Lecco to Bellagio by boat one evening he saw a silhouette designed upon the flanks of a mountain, probably the Corni di Canzo, which far transcended anything of its kind he had ever seen, in clearness of outline and especially in beauty. It was about sundown, and the point of view was toward Lecco. The silhouette was that of a pure Greek head with the unmistakable type of features, — straight nose, fine lips, and delicately chiseled chin. The head was surmounted by a helmet of antique pattern. As the boat receded and the sun sank, there was a gradual lengthening out of the silhouette until it vanished, but during its best moments the design was worthy of a Canova or a Thorwaldsen. It was as though one of these great modern rejuvenators of the classic antique had climbed into the heights and blocked out there upon that topmost slope, with Herculean stencil, a giant head that should epitomize admiration for the noble lines and the perennial art of ancient Greece.


After one has seen the notable beauty spots of Lake Como, — such as Bellagio and the Tremezzina, — the Bay of Lecco is perhaps not particularly impressive, nor the town especially pleasing. By contrast with those show-places, Lecco, the town, looks distinctly industrial. Indeed it is a very active centre of trade and traffic by reason of silk, cotton, and iron-ware factories and by means of its periodical markets. Every Saturday, for instance, during the silk-cocoon season there is a market at Lecco de-voted to this staple product of the country. It acts as a sort of exchange for much of the Brianza, and along with the silk cocoons many of the silver hair needles and wooden slippers of the women of Lake Como find their way to Lecco.

The water-front of Lecco is not decidedly picturesque, nor is there much of that colour which redeems so much disorder in Italy. At the same time the toothed mountain at the back, the Resegnone, is striking, and there is a pretty little village on the opposite shore called Malgrate.