A GAY Italian flag flutters expectantly at the stern of the saloon steamer, which is moored to the dock and seems impatient to be off, to round the little jetty and be out of the harbour. Once in awhile the boat’s whistle blows or the machinery gives a sudden turn and churns the blue water into white, like a restive steed pawing the ground and champing the bit.
These Como boats have an air of special fitness and importance. They are altogether the best of any to be found on the Italian lakes. Indeed they are no mere pleasure craft, designed for picnics on summer days. There is nothing amateurish about them. They mean business and they look it, for they really serve as the regular means of communication between almost all points on the lake. Without them many a village would be dependent on some narrow bridle-path for its only connection with the out-side world. It is a distinctive charm of Lake Como that whole stretches of its shores seem almost cut off from landward approach, and must turn to water transportation for their chief traffic.
These considerations add special bustle and activity to the coming and going of the second-class passengers who crowd the lower deck. These people act as though they were going on an ocean voyage, although they are only bound up the lake to their homes in various little lakeside and mountain nests. The farewells are melodramatic, the last messages to friends on the shore are shrill with intensity. Considerable freight also is carried at the bow and along the sides. Probably it is this freight which frequently interferes with the schedule time of these boats.
As we take our places on the saloon-deck, and look about us upon the unique scenery, we wonder where the steamboat is going to find an outlet among the converging hills for its trip up the lake, to explore the famous windings of Lake Como, unravel its surprises, and take us to bask in its open bays. The breeze, blowing through the gaps, seems to come from pretty much all points of the compass at once.
Among the spectators on shore, watching the departure, stands a Brianza nurse with baby in arms, a silver aureole about her head. Hotel porters, clad in the vivid green aprons of their profession, hurry up with baggage or loiter near by for their fees, busy about nothing. Omnibuses full of tourists arrive at the landing. Some belated peasants scurry aboard, carrying nondescript linen bags containing their all of worldly goods. There are some last violent gesticulations to friends on shore, the whistle blows a final blast, the gangplank rattles, and the boat moves off dramatically and proudly for its superb journey upon the lake waters, which are now glittering joyously under the action of sun and breeze.
The extraordinary variety of the scenery on Lake Como, which, after all, is only some thirty miles in length, almost passes belief. It is theatrical in the sense that one situation develops surprises from another. Every corner reveals sudden vistas, every valley that finds its way to the water’s edge opens up a new world. The tropical touch of Italy reaches out for the Alps. The Lake of Como is at the point of contact. Its waters of shifting colours reflect flat-topped houses which might be in Greece or in some Oriental country, and at the same time these waters also duplicate the lofty peaks of summer snow. North and south blend in an atmosphere of limpid balm freshened with the breath from the mountains.
The moment the boat has found its way out of the basin of Como, beyond the Punta di Geno, a view never to be forgotten leaps into sight. You are ready to exclaim that there is only one Lake of Como after all. If at that moment you were asked to pick your choice among the Italian lakes, no matter how impartial you might wish to be, one look at the shores lined with villas, the villages clustering in horizontal lines on either side, the headland just ahead thick with dwellings, the many tints on house walls, the gardens, the mountain backgrounds, the colour, and the atmosphere would doubtless quickly decide you to break your reserve and vote for Como. But it is not necessary to compare, sufficient is it to enjoy what there is where we are. Then let us see. how matters stand.
Many villas succeed each other on either shore, converting the outskirts of Como into veritable parks. On the western shore the suburb of San Giorgio is seen to give place to the famous Villa dell’ Olmo, the princely property of Duke Visconti-Modrone. It is generally conceded to have been built upon the site of a Roman villa which belonged to Caninius Rufus, friend of Pliny the Younger. Its beautiful park is open to visitors.
At Cernobbio there is the famous Villa d’Este, now turned into a hotel. The remarkable gardens, cascades, hillside fortifications, and especially the noble forest at the back, are full of interest. The place has kept much of its original architecture and ancient woodland beauty. Built in 1568 by Cardinal Gallic), a native of Cernobbio, it passed at the beginning of the nineteenth century into the hands of the unfortunate Caroline, wife of George IV. of England, who enlarged it and renamed it Villa d’Este, living there five years and maintaining a species of court.
As the steamer skirts the shore, the glimpses lengthen into a panorama. Here a silent cypress is thrown into relief by light green foliage behind. Olive-trees, almond-trees, and mulberry-trees grow along the terraces, where vases with brilliant flowers punctuate the horizontal lines. Ornate boat-houses and gay pavilions abound. In the very exuberance of colour-fancy, some house walls have even been painted in checker-board designs of yellow and black. A sky-blue house also gladdens the scene, it looks as though it had been in the wash and retained some of the bluing, and the mock windows painted upon the houses are so numerous that one even begins to suspect the genuine windows of being artificial. Some roofs are gray with flat stones, others red with tiles.
Our steamer does not find piers at every station, but at some places merely exchanges passengers and mails with small boats that dash up and are cleverly managed to catch the big steamboat on the fly, without making it come to a complete halt. At pretty little Torno there are a few moments of rest, while bags of mulberry leaves for feeding the voracious silkworms are trundled aboard. At this point the character of the lake is very intimate, friendly, and neighbourly. A big barge turned on its side is being repaired on the shelving shore. Another is crawling along the lee shore to escape a contrary wind. Peculiar cockle-shell boats with sharp bows and white awnings crowd the shelter of tiny harbours and mysterious archways. Arbours full of dappled reflected sunshine ‘overlook the lake, and steps lead invitingly down the walls to the water’s edge.
Not far from Torno is the large squarely built Villa Pliniana standing close to the shore in a solitary little bay. The actual building was erected by Count Giovanni Anguissola in the sixteenth century, and the villa derives its name from an intermittent spring which was noted and described by Pliny the Younger in a letter to Licinius Surra (Epist. v., 7). The spring ebbs and flows three times a day. Its waters are gathered in a species of atrium and thence flow under the villa into the lake. From the water one can catch a glimpse of the cliffs at the back, of a cascade, of gardens rising in terraces, and sombre cypresses standing thickly about. The present owner of the villa is a member of the family of Belgiojoso, a descendant of the authoress, Cristina Belgiojoso.
After the headland of Torrigia the lake widens. It deepens in colour and the shores rise higher on either hand. The tops of the mountains emerge above the timber-line and are smooth with green pastures, where little hovering clouds timidly drop their wavering shadows. Lone little villages lie white and still in rocky basins above the ravines. What must life be like up there in those eyries flattened against the mountains?
At the lakeside hamlet of Nesso there is a delightful bit ready-made for the artist. A few quaint houses have taken root there upon the precipitous shore, among the walnut and chestnut trees, the cypresses, and the rich myrtles and trailing vines. These houses cluster in haphazard fashion, where they can gain standing-room, and a romantically inclined bridle-path winds in and out among them along the shore. A dark ravine cuts the hamlet in two, and from its recesses a waterfall tumbles boisterously into the lake. When the bridle-path in its peregrinations reaches the ravine, it leaps gracefully over the seething torrent from one house to an-other by a bridge of a single span, and continues beyond to insinuate itself in and out, around and through the houses in the most natural manner, as if it had performed no unusual feat at all. As our boat passes, two men idling on the parapet of the bridge give the lonely little place life and further local interest.
But larger prospects lie before us. As the boat crosses from Nesso to Argegno, the greater splendour of Lake Como begins to assert itself and proclaim world-renowned beauties. While the view up on high becomes frankly alpine, especially if some chance flurry of snow has recently touched the mountain-tops; down below, upon the water level, in delicious contrast to the rugged quality of the heights, the fertile mazes of the Tremezzina now reveal them-selves on the western shore, and the eastern shore is seen to draw down to a point which presently discloses itself as the headland of Bellagio. But first the boat stops at Argegno, at the entrance of the Val d’Intelvi. White zigzags appear upon the mountain flank. They indicate the road which leads to Lake Lugano and thus to Swiss soil, and this road accounts for the presence of custom-house officers, who lounge around the landing-place in their uniforms trimmed with bright yellow, and for the officer who comes on board to watch for stray smugglers.
From Argegno, as far as Tremezzo, a cobbled bridle-path skirts the western shore, rising and falling according to the nature of the ground and the demands of traffic, curving in graceful lines over the little ter-races, where olives and almonds grow, an accommodating path, leisurely and friendly, full of a delightful waywardness and indirectness, knowing no hurry, but caressing the mountains as it passes, and spanning the truculent torrents and mountain brooks on great stilts of bridges, pushing its inquisitive length even into the villages by boring its way through the first floors of the houses and converting them into arcades.
This path is a sauntering Red Riding Hood. It seems to loiter once in awhile for a special outlook on lake and mountain, to listen to the songs of the nightingales in the thickets, or to smell the verdant hill-sides. At times it loses itself in mazes of myrtle and rhododendron hedges, and when we think it surely must have come to a stop at last, it suddenly reappears as debonair as ever at some point of special vantage, wearing a provocative expression which might be translated into, ” Don’t you wish you knew where I’ve been? ” The life along this path and in the villages which it serves seems as remote as the middle ages. There is no shriek nor puff of steam, not even the rattle of a carriage along the whole of its course, only the gentle clattering of patient little donkeys treading its cobbles daintily, the clicking of women’s wooden sandals, the laugh and song of people homeward bound from the vineyards after the day’s work is done, the barn-yard sounds, and, when the path dips down to the water, the usual noises of the voluble Italian lake-front.
Between Sala and Campo, separated from the shore by a sheltered sheet of water, lies the ancient Isola Comacina, the only island in the whole lake. With its name is associated much history, for upon this little wooded isle imperial Roman civilization made a last stand in its tremendous struggle against the Lombard invasion from the north. The island was heavily fortified, and, while almost the whole of Italy had accepted Lombard rule, here the defenders of the ancient order, with its allegiance to the Roman emperor at Byzantium, prepared to resist. The Italians, under a General Francioni, withstood a siege of six months, and then capitulated to the Lombards on good terms and were allowed to retreat to Ravenna. During the subsequent quarrels among the Lombards themselves, the island often served as a refuge for the persecuted or for conspirators. It was finally laid waste in 1169 by the people of Como, who carried on a relentless feud with its inhabitants. At present it is almost untenanted, a little church being the only building visible.
On the headland, known as the Punta Balbianello, stands the Villa Arcomati-Visconti, which serves to usher us into the charms of the Tremezzina district. A colonnade covers the backbone of the headland, forming a sort of a bilateral belvedere, with views up and down the lake. This villa stands as it were on the dividing line between the natural and unsophisticated scenery of the lake having Argegno as its centre, and that highly cultivated, spectacular region of astonishing scenic and artistic effects which circles around Bellagio.
After turning the corner of the Punta Balbianello, the boat glides into a nearer view of that rich country and lakeside which lie between Lenno and the farther side of Cadenabbia, stretched out upon the slope and across the feet of Monte Crocione, thickly strewn with gardens, perfumed with count-less flowers, resonant with the song of nightingales, and bright with a never-failing air of eternal spring, – in a word, the Tremezzina. The boat makes stops at Tremezzo and Cadenabbia, and then crosses to Bellagio. Lakes Como and Maggiore have this in common, that they are both divided by great headlands, Maggiore at Pallanza and Como at Bellagio. The name Bellagio is reputed to be a corruption of the Latin Bilacus (Double Lake). Indeed, the headland divides the whole lake into a shape like an inverted Y, the eastern horn of which assumes the name of the Lake of Lecco.
On this great open bay of Bellagio there are at least five favourite stopping-places, Bellagio itself, Tremezzo, Cadenabbia, Menaggio, and Varenna. The writer does not urge the merits of any one of these upon the traveller, for their virtues will speak for themselves, but points out that Tremezzo should not be overlooked in making a choice, though the place may seem to lie a little to one side, yet so short are the distances that it may be considered in the thick of the principal attractions. At least, in justice to ourselves, it is not possible to advance farther up the lake without making a stay of some sort on the shore of this superb bay. Man and nature have combined to turn it into one of the beauty-spots of earth. For the present the steamboat must set us down, for we refuse to go another mile until our immediate surroundings have been explored and satisfaction has been reached.