‘That branch of Lake Como which extends towards the south, is enclosed by two unbroken chains of mountains, which, as they advance and recede, diversify its shores with numerous bays and inlets. Suddenly the lake contracts and takes the course and form of a river, between a promontory on the right, and a wide open shore on the opposite side.’
With these words, Alessandro Manzoni opens his famous novel I Promessi Sposi or The Betrothed which is set in Lecco and Lombardy in the 17th century. For most Italians – in fact for anyone educated in Italy – this may bring back unhappy memories of school. All Italian teachers and intellectuals feel a deep affection for this author and this book, while students don’t. To be fair, it is a wonderful novel full of pathos and no Italian writer, myself included, can resist the temptation to quote the first lines of the novel when talking about Lecco.
From Urban Sprawl to Lakeside Retreat
Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy. Shaped like an inverted ‘Y’, it lies at the foot of the Alpi Rezie, the border between Italy and Switzerland. The River Adda enters the lake from the northern point, the location of the town of Colico. Como is on the western branch of the lake while on the eastern branch you find Lecco. The city is located at the exact point where the lake flows once again into the River Adda. There are many bridges here to facilitate access to Milan, which is about 50 kilometres from Lecco. Going from Milan to Lecco by train is a strange experience. After many kilometres of built-up city, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of rich, green countryside. The railway then crosses the river and passes through an old industrial suburb before reaching the city station.
Monte Resegone rises at the city’s shoulders, its bare, grey face streaked with bright horizontal lines. On a clear day, you can even see the mountain from Milan’s Loreto square. Lecco’s skyline is dominated by the very high bell tower of the church of San Nicola. Because of its slim, rocket-like shape and the absence of other high buildings it can easily be seen from every part of the city.
A little guide to visit Lecco
Lecco is like a little mountain village. The historical centre is small and neat, its narrow streets, full of people and colours, threading through the ancient and modern buildings. At the very end of each street there is always a view of either a mountain or the lake coast. Sometimes a street leads to a little square surrounded by arcades.
In Piazza XX Settembre I sat at a table of the Caffè Commercio, eating a gorgeous ice cream and watching as people ran through the fountain to cool down. In a corner of the square is the Torre Viscontea, dating from the first half of the 14th century. The tower is all that is left of the ancient castle which was pulled down in the 18th century. A short distance away lies Piazza Cermenati, a picturesque square surrounded by ancient buildings, the steps of the church of San Nicola and, along its longest side, the lake. Despite its unprepossessing exterior the church contains some interesting features, such as the wooden ciborium dating from the 16th century and frescoes from the Giotto school.
At the right of the church is a narrow winding street which goes right through the ancient part of the city. Cross via Lungolago and you will find yourself by the lake and at the start of a very beautiful walk along the lakeside road. Sitting on the park benches in front of the lake seems to be a favourite pastime of both Lecco locals and tourists. Here, on benches shaded by large trees, you can watch little boats on the lake or simply enjoy the gentle breeze that blows even on the hottest days.
The upper part of the city is the location of many of the scenes from I Promessi Sposi and it is fascinating to see the places which inspired Alessandro Manzoni. The house of Lucia Mondella (the heroine of the book) is here, as well as the church of Don Abbondio (the priest who was threatened by thugs sent by Don Rodrigo) and Don Rodrigo’s castle. Moving from fiction to fact, you can also see the house where Manzoni spent his early childhood and where he got the idea for the novel.
Keeping Tradition Alive
There are a few charming fishing villages nearby which are well worth a visit. One is Varenna, north of Lecco. Varenna is a peaceful resort, small but very beautiful. You can admire the view from the Castello de Vezio or simply relax by the lakeside. A few kilometres south of Lecco is Pescarenico. Today it is nothing more than a handful of houses on the left bank of the River Adda. The local council has been careful to conserve the original appearance of this fishing village: its little houses are brightly coloured and lean against each other, while in the courtyard fishing nets are put out to dry. Somewhere among these buildings is the house of fisherman Francesco Ghislanzoni, known as ‘Ceko’. He comes from a long line of fishermen and is an expert at making missoltini.
This traditional dish, which most Italians have never heard of, is made with agoni, small fish that live only in alpine lakes. The alponi are in fact sea fish which were trapped in the lakes at the end of the last Ice Age. Ceko works with wife Luciana, son Massimiliano and his wife Chiara in a little shop in Pescarenico. They sell many tasty products chiefly made of fish, including the famous missoltini. At around three am each morning Ceko goes to the lake to bring in his catch of fish, then comes back to his workshop and cleans them. He makes missoltini in the traditional way: after cleaning, the fish are salted for 48 hours, and then hung up to dry for a few days on something resembling a clothes line. The fish are then placed in a container with some bay leaves and pressed for five months, after which they are ready to be eaten with a bit of oil and vinegar. It’s worth a visit to this lovely place for the taste alone!