Italian Lakes – Upper Lago Maggiore

THE Romans called Lago Maggiore by the beautiful name of Lacus Verbanus, a name suggestive of vernal freshness, even though etymologists may not grant the linguistic inference. This superb sheet of water is about thirty-seven miles long, and varies from one and a half to three miles in width. The principal and regular winds are the tramontana — which in fair weather blows in the morning from the north — and the inverna, from the south in the afternoon. These winds, on the other Italian lakes, are variously called tivano or sover and breva or ora. The winds known as maggiore and mergozzo are occasional, uncertain, and frequently violent. There are many species of fish in the lake, so that fishing is one of the regular occupations of the lacustrine population. As in Lake Como, so in this lake, the little fish called agone is a special favourite for the table. The river Ticino, after busying itself in giving a name to the only Italian-speaking Canton of Switzerland, plunges into the upper end of the lake, traverses its entire length, clarifying its own waters of silt in the flow southward, and issues forth at Arona in tints of pale transparent green, to wind its way to the river Po, and thus into the Adriatic.

Historically speaking, there is not over-much to record about the ancient days of Lago Maggiore. Special incidents in modern history have been and will be mentioned in connection with certain places on its shores, as the reader is invited to visit these places themselves. In a general way, it may be stated that the Romans founded numerous settlements by the waterside, and that they were succeeded by the Longobards. Upon the destruction of the power of the latter, the usual manifestations of feudalism made their appearance. The Visconti, the Sforza, and the Borromean families of Milan played conspicuous rôles in turn and acquired control over the more desirable positions along the lake. Of these families the Counts of Borromeo have retained numerous possessions to this day, as has already been indicated in preceding chapters; and now the lake and its shores for some nine miles down from Locarno belong to the Swiss Canton of Ticino and all the rest of Lago Maggiore to Italy.

The Lake of Locarno

The northern half of Lago Maggiore has a quality of its own distinct from the lower lake. In comparison with the steamboat trip from Arona to Laveno, that from Locarno to Laveno may be styled a mighty diminuendo, dropping from the alpine heights into the lower levels of the plain. But the interest in men and things, in the beauty of the lakeside towns and their villas, gardens, trees, and flowers, far from diminishing, grows with every advance made southward toward the Gulf of Pallanza, spanning the distance from Laveno to Feriolo. The upper end of the lake is enclosed by lofty ridges, partly wooded, and is relatively alpine in its characteristics. The very colour of the water shares the spring-time freshness of the slopes, and gleams sweetly and profoundly green. The journey southward also means a political transition from the republic of Switzerland to the kingdom of Italy, as the custom-house officer will not fail to remind us. But whether the approach be from the snows of the Alps or from the plains of Lombardy, Lago Maggiore wins instant recognition as a link between the extremes of natural scenery symbolized by peak and plain; it turns its prettiest graces toward the stern mountains and its most invigorating and energetic airs to the low-lands.

It may be of interest to tourists arriving at the borders of Lago Maggiore from Lake Luzern over the St. Gothard to know that the former lake, on the southern slope of the Alps, is about twice the size of the latter situated on the northern side.

Before reaching Locarno, the traveller has doubtless already recognized the nearness of Italy, and in Locarno itself this impression is greatly enhanced. There is the clatter of women’s little wooden sandals on the cobble-stones. A donkey on the white highway emits a long-drawn he-haw — he-haw, that seems to penetrate through the stone walls, climb the terraces where repose the vine-yards, cross the river, and burst over the whole countryside. The red umbrellas of Italy make their appearance in the market-place, and the arcades are filled with a new and special kind of animation, to which the northern side of the Alps is a stranger. If it is spring, the almond blossoms and the peach-trees in bloom on the outskirts tell of warmer climes, while the exotics in the hotel gardens raise an expectancy of further wonders to come.

The author will not stop here to describe Locarno at length, having already devoted some space to this delightful subject in his ” Romance and Teutonic Switzerland,” but a further word or two of appreciation may here be pardoned. Locarno is advantageously situated, not only at the head of the lake, but also at the outlet of long and populous valleys from the north and west, such as Val Verzasca, Val Centovalli, Val Onsernone, and especially the Val Maggia, rich in scenic variety, with the village of Bignasco as a favourite stopping-place. A short walk to the Ponte Brolla will initiate the traveller into the special beauties of the landward surroundings of Locarno and make him wish for more. The outskirts are plentifully sown with little villages perched on terraces amid graceful vineyards and south-ern arbours. Quaint houses, distinguished by arches and roofed with red tiles, cluster close together in these villages, as though still frightened by feudal enemies or anxious to save all available soil for growing ground and fruitful foothold.

Locarno’s piazza del mercato, or market-place, is an excellent spot for studying typical local character. Special markets are held on every alternate Thursday. The country carts by land, and the boats by water, bring men, women, children, and produce to this common meeting space. The wicker-work baskets or hods carried on the back are everywhere in evidence, — the hods which serve a multitude of varied purposes in the domestic and agricultural economy of these good people. Once in awhile an ox-cart swings lazily through the crowd with its gentle, large-eyed beasts displaying coats of cream colour or rich brown.

High above Locarno looms the church of the Madonna del Sasso, and alongshore rises the square old tower of San Querico. Down at the harbour, the sloping paved shore is lined with white awninged boats of ancient pattern and archaic model. Among them lie some black barges, with huge square sails flapping loosely in the air, perhaps to dry after the last shower. In between the boats, wherever there is a vacant spot on the shore, the family washing is being done by the women who scrub and slap their linen noisily, and call loudly to each other to over-top the clamour of their occupation. Those who have finished their work pack the wet clothing into baskets which they lift dexterously on to their heads, and with many last words to those that remain, they swing off under their loads like living Caryatides. Others carry the washing in the ubiquitous hods on their backs, and though they are obliged to bend over, they can still fire a parting verbal shot with unabated skill.

This may be interesting in its way, but there is better yet to come, so let the reader, impatient to be off, obey the musical ring of the bell, which, by some blessed provision, hangs in the bow of every steamboat on the lake, and, stepping aboard, make the trip of the upper lake.

As the boat moves out, the portion of Lago Maggiore known as the Lake of Locarno seems to be enclosed by the mountains, and all egress shut off toward the south by a projecting headland, the delta of the torrent Maggia; but further progress discloses the rest of Lugo Maggiore lying serene on the farther side, and growing more blue with the distance. The eastern shore lies cool and shaded under the great range of Gambarogno. The stations of Magadino, Ascona, and Gerra succeed each other and bring us in sight of the two islands of B Brissago, one with the ruins of a church and the other marked by a dwelling. Then comes Brissago itself, the last place of importance to be reached before the Italian frontier claims our attention with its imaginary line. At Brissago the southern vegetation becomes more pronounced, shining rich and glossy amid pretty country-houses, while a group of cypresses in sombre green point skyward near the church. It is said that it has been the custom for many men from Brissago to emigrate as cooks into the wide world, and that some of them have become proprietors of well-known hotels.

Cannobio, at the outlet of the great Val Cannobino, through which Domo d’Ossola can be reached, is another enterprising town-let on the western bank. It is at this point that the swift little steamboats of the Italian customs service are stationed, which watch the Swiss portion of Lago Maggiore for smuggling, just as similar ones perform the same service against the Austrian portion of Lago di Garda. They look to be formidable craft, these alert torpedinieri, and with their search-lights command lake and shore also at night. The boat now crosses to Maccagno, and on the way thither our first view is obtained of two further islands, variously called the Castelli di Cannero, or Isole Vitaliano, and now owned by the Borromean family. Their ruins fit the tale which is told of them, namely, that at the opening of the fifteenth century they became the headquarters of five brigand brothers, Mazzarda by name, who terrorized the whole lake district until the ducal Visconti of the day besieged and destroyed their robber castle. These rocky and sombre islands are in striking contrast with the suave loveliness of the lake shore which forms their background.

After leaving Maccagno, the view toward the south broadens into a grand perspective which reaches as far as Stresa, Isola Bella, and the noble background of Monte Motterone. In the meantime the St. Gothard railroad line, which on the eastern shore has steadily flanked our progress down the lake, becomes especially conspicuous, and at Luino steamer and train meet to make convenient connections for Lago Lugano, by way of steam-tramway to Ponte Tresa, and for the Italian cities of the plains or the Swiss summer resorts north of the St. Gothard.

Indeed Luino is a sort of an international crossroads, and possesses an imposing rail-road station to emphasize the fact. The tourist who does more than pass through the place is repaid, not only by the special attractions of the water-front, including a well-shaded quay, but also by the historical and artistic associations. The very name of Luino recalls that of the gentle, idyllic fresco painter, Bernardino Luini, who was born here in the latter part of the fifteenth century.

Bernardino Luini 1470 – 1530)

It is a fact greatly regretted by Prof. Uberti Giansevero, in his ” Guida Generale Ai Grandi Laghi Subalpini,” that no one has erected a memorial to the great painter in his native town, and that writer even doubts Luini’s authorship of the few frescoes in Luino, generally ascribed to him, both in the church of St. Peter’s there and on the walls of the Albergo della Posta. Yet it is pleasant to know of the atmosphere in which a painter grows to his art. Writing of Luini in connection with Luino, T. W. M. Lund, in his charming ” Como and Italian Lake-land,” states : ” There he was born, from that little town he took his name, and in that wide scene of hill and air and water blent in such perfect harmonies, he formed his earliest inspiration and learnt the truest lessons of his art.”

In order to find Luini’s works, we must travel to other parts of Italian lake-land, to Lugano, Saronno, and Como, and farther still to Milan, where the famous Ambrosian Library has a special Sala del Luini, and the no less famous Brera gallery has hung his frescoes on the walls of its vestibules and corridor. Luini was a poet like many others of the great Italian artists, and wrote a treatise on painting. His fame has grown with time. Ruskin has expressed admiration for him in some of his most illuminating pages, and John Addington Symonds has written enthusiastically and instructively of his singular grace, simplicity, sweetness, and directness. It should be said that Luini is no longer held to have been a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, though some of his works were at one time actually ascribed to the latter.

In 1867 a monument to Garibaldi was erected on the lake-front of Luino, to commemorate his independent efforts against Austria, organized from this point in 1848, and since the shores of the region of the Italian lakes are conspicuously dotted with the statues of this great forefighter in the Italian struggle for independence and unity, and many localities resound with his name, the reader will find it useful to refresh the memory with some of the salient facts in Garibaldi’s career. With this in view, the author has furnished a brief sketch of Garibaldi in the next chapter. This sketch makes no claim to special critical research, but simply relates the story of his life as commonly recorded.

After leaving Luino the steamboat passes the Isole Cannero, already described, stops at Cannero itself, crowned with vineyards and orchards, passes Oggebbio, Ghiffa, and Porto Valtravaglia, and so reaches Laveno, a convenient point from which to take the steamboat for the tour of lower Lago Maggiore.

In curious opposition to the steamboats, we pass primitive stone barges propelled by oars with auxiliary sails. One such is moored to the shore, taking on its load. Presently this task is done, and we see the oarsmen in their places for the start down the lake. So long and heavy are the oars that their full sweep cannot well be used ; hence the oars-men are obliged to stand, then take a few steps in the boat as they catch the water, and so, with a final jerk, they succeed in putting some motion into the clumsy barge. Wind permitting, the square sails are hoisted to aid the oars. The progress is not rapid, and yet ” slow but sure ” will reach Arona in time.

Again, as the steamboat crosses over to Laveno from west to east, the splendour of Monte Rosa and the Simplon Mountains bursts into view, drawing the eye from the immediate foreground and its intense, teraced cultivation, its oleanders, myrtle-trees, cypresses, and palms,, off and up to the imperishable purity of the snow not made with hands.

Here the formal Latin sense of proportion has produced architectural gardens and roads of masonry; there the mountains, in a very exuberance of freedom, proclaim an untrammelled arrangement of forest, slope, thicket, and flower, based on the needs and the de-sires of each.