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Isola Comacina (Lake Como, Italy)

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Beautiful island located on Lake Como, Italy.

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      30.10.2011 17:57
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      A medieval island in northern Italy

      Lake Como is one of my favourite lakes in northern Italy and not only is the scenery spectacular there are plenty of activities for visitors to get involved in. If that's the case then why on my last trip to the Lakes did I find myself wandering off to the boat landing station at 10.30 on a Friday morning one fine day in June? Because I wanted to take a motorised fishing boat to the small, clumpy island I could see from the shores of the lake. I have always been fascinated with islands and from a distance this one looked mysterious with its huge mop of trees overlapping and so tightly packed together that they were, slowly but surely sliding into the lake.

      Isola Comacina is the only island on Lake Como and comes into view just before the town of Sala Comacina. The island is around 600 metres long and up to 200 metres wide. During Roman Times and the Middle Ages there were up to five churches constructed on the island. In 1169 the settlement was destroyed by the inhabitants of the town of Como in retaliation for its pact with Milan during the Ten Years' War (1118 -27).

      All that remains today of the original settlement are the ruined walls of the Romanesque Basilica of Sant-Eufemia and a handful of fishermen's cottages that were originally built for artists to rent while they painted picturesque scenes of the lake. Scenery around the island is fascinating and in a way very primeval, thick with chestnut trees and similar to some parts of Corsica. Tours of the island are organised and take up to one hour. They leave the landing station at 10.30 and 12.00 every day. After the tour most people head off to have lunch at the lakeside Locanda dell'Isola Comacina; a restaurant that is steeped in tradition and is still serving traditional island dishes that haven't been changed since 1947.

      Locanda is another word for Inn and originally the idea of opening up an Inn on this wild, inhospitable island was formed by two famous Italians, Carlo Sacchi (silk manufacturer) and Sandro de Col. Sadly, both guys lost their lives; Col in a bad motorboat accident which is ironic to say that he raced speedboats for a living and Sacchi, who was murdered by his jealous lover, Pia Bellentani in 1948. The would be chef at the the time, Lino Nessi, lost heart and confidence in the project for a short period but was spurred on by friends and eventually set the precedence for great traditional Italian food to be cooked on these premises. The Inn has been taken over by Benvenuto Puricelli and I'm happy to say that this charming fellow still uses the traditional menus created by Nessi, sometimes called the "Cotoletta" (meaning cutlet). The beauty of this restaurant which can accommodate up to two hundred people, apart from the food and warm welcome, is the quality of light which comes from the sun's rays reflecting on the crystal azure water of the lake.

      The best time to visit Isola Comacina is towards the end of June as this is the time for many celebrations. A festival and huge firework display takes place on the 24th June, St John the Baptist's Day. I've been lucky enough to have seen a lot of spectacular firework displays on my travels including New Year's Eve celebrations on the island of Madeira which are pretty hard to beat but I was impressed with what I saw on this small island. This festival celebrates the commemoration of the destruction of the island's city in 1169. Celebrations feature a parade of boats illuminated by thousands of twinkling lumaghitti - snail shells made into tiny oil lamps. Fireworks symbolise the battle.

      Facing Isola Comacina is Villa del Balbianello; accessible by boat on weekdays, at weekends by foot from Lenno. This photogenic villa, built in the 18th century by Cardinal Duini over the ruins of a medieval monastery, featured in the fifth 'Star Wars' instalment, Attack of the Clones, in 2002. Villa Balbianello also starred in the 2006 version of Casino Royale as the sanatorium where Bond (played by Daniel Craig) recovers after his nasty encounter with a knotted rope. As you can imagine hordes of visitors come each summer to visit and you could say business is now booming.

      So there you go - a strange little island in the middle of Lake Como. It's very popular as a day trip and I really enjoyed my visit. I loved the way the light changed rapidly. One minute the island could be surrounded by rays of sunlight streaming down on the ripples of the lake, other times the cloud would suddenly appear from nowhere creating a ghostly veil over the trees. This was when the island looked its most primitive and a bit spooky but that could just be my imagination running wild. The restaurant is a huge crowd puller with its traditional menu that hasn't been changed for decades. I found the story attached to the restaurant haunting as well as the island's general history.

      I really recommend this trip and tour of Isola Comacina. The boat landing station in Como is close to the railway station and boats leave twice a day: 10.30 and 12.00. The return boat trip leaves the island at around 5.30 in the evening. It may be earlier in low season - best to check in Como. Price of the trip across the lake to the island is 5 Euros.

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