It’s November 2016. Winter is closing in on the Italian Lakes. I am in Bellagio, the furthest tip of the Triangolo Lariano that divides the Lago di Como and the Lago di Lecco.
The season is over and the locals look pleased that they have finally got their beloved picture-postcard town back to themselves, grateful of course for the tourism ‘gold’ that washes over the Lakes like the waves kicked up by the high-speed hydrofoil that zips its way from Bellagio to Como in around 45 minutes.
Lake Como, or as the locals know it, Lago di Como, is a billionaire’s playground, but it didn’t use to be like this.
Of course, the presence of Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney who bought the Villa Oleandra at Laglio, further down the Lake towards Como might have something to do with the fact that this heavenly slice of Italy attracts the monied and the powerful, but long ago, the Lakes attracted humbler folk; artists, writers, spies, refugees, farmers, the ill and dying and those who simply had to get away from it all. It also has a very eerie and tragic past.
The Italian Lakes saw terrifying action in World War Two; its proximity to Switzerland and Germany, its mountains and high altitudes making it strategically important geographically for military missions, espionage and battles.
In the early 1940s, this slice of paradise was in the midst of World War Two. There was no escape for any part of Europe, and the picturesque lakes were not spared.
But everything was about to change. In 1943, Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – was ousted from his position as dictator in a military coup that saw his eventual demise in 1945 by firing squad in the province of Como at Giulino di Mezzegra.
Il Duce’s reign of terror was never going to stand in the way of an ultra-brave young British officer, acting as a secret agent for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who parachuted down to Lake Como, then occupied by the enemy, on a mission to deliver secret codes to the resistance fighters in Como.
This officer was called Richard Mallaby and his life is the stuff of Secret Agent 007, James Bond. His reputation for cool bravery, time and time again, made him appear immortal; his descent to Como by parachute, his arrest and the integral part he played in securing the Italy’s surrender and the eventual end of the War is the stuff of legend.
Mallaby is so loved by the Italians, they have now honoured him for the part he played in liberating Italians from the terror of the Nazis and Italian supporters of the Fascist Mussolini.
Lake Como at the time was occupied by the Germans and life was dangerous for all. Richard Mallaby spoke Italian fluently. His life was on the line many times but he succeeded in escaping his aggressor every time. The Italians have recently celebrated his bravery with a special award – a gold medal, awarded to his children in his honour at the town of Tuscan town of Asciano.
Lake Como is quiet at this time of year, eerie. The mists, the dappled skies that glide over the Swiss mountains are clear of the Richard Mallabys of this world, but if you go, spare him a thought when you’re sipping your Machiatto Latte and enjoying your Vino Rosso. Lake Como is a paradise once again because of people like him.
Fly direct to Milan Malpensa airport from Edinburgh on http://www.easyjet.com/en
We travelled from the airport to Milan Centrale station by shuttle bus – €8 – stayed the night in Milan, then caught the train from Milan Centrale station to Varenna €7, then the ferry to Bellagio €7.
Bellagio to Como city by hydrofoil ferry costs €15.
Como city back to Milan Malpensa by train from Como Stazione Trenord Nord Lago station, head for Saronno and then change there for Malpensa Terminal 1. €10 Como to Malpensa via Saronno.
Easyjet fly from Malpensa Terminal 2 but there is a free shuttle bus between the terminals.
There is currently (as of November 2016) NO shuttle bus between Como and Milan Malpensa airport, despite online confirmation that there is.
Or try the more expensive method: Como Stazione San Giovanni train station to the north of the city (€3 to Chiasso in Switzerland (5 kilometres) away, then catch the shuttle bus from Chiasso to Milan Malpensa airport – approximately €20.
The tourism office in central Como city – just opposite the ferry pier provides very helpful timetables and routes for getting to Malpensa, with company and website details. English is spoken at the tourist office.
All information is correct, as of November 2016. Always check information before you go.
All prices listed are per person.