December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

As saints look on

By |2018-03-21T18:43:33+01:00February 26th, 2011|Leisure Over the Years|
Mandonico: Rustic stone buildings, orchards and meadows.

cross Lake Como, the sun reflects on snowy mountaintops. It bounces off the still water and the red roof tiles of the houses. There’s not a cloud in the sky. An unusual late winter cold snaps crisp air.

The train is more than an hour late leaving Milan so instead of starting our hike at Dervio, we get off at the next stop, the village of Dorio. Today we’re hiking an easy eight-kilometer, 500-meter climb to Colico, on the Sentiero del Viandante, the Wayfarer’s Trail that runs up Lake Como’s east side. I’ve hiked the Wayfarer’s Trail before but I never tire of its myriad sections.

Stairs behind the station lead us to provincial road 72. We walk past the local bar, onto a lane and stairs that take us to ancient San Giorgio church. St. George slays a dragon above the church’s front door. An olive tree grows in the small courtyard. From here, it’s a 10-minute climb to the village of Mandonico.

Mandonico’s church, just outside the village, is also dedicated to San Giorgio. We peek through the window at a fresco dated 1492, on the church’s north wall. St. George fights his dragon while the Madonna and a variety of saints look on.

Mandonico has no roads.

In January 2011, the Dorio town council announced a public competition for proposals to restore and rezone Mandonico, including plans for an access road. No humans have lived in the village for a century, but it’s never been abandoned. The bleating of sheep breaks the silence shrouding tidy rustic stone buildings, orchards and meadows.

In a lane, an orange symbol in the shape of Lake Como marks the Viandante trail. We follow the path past sheep, barns and the last house to a bridge over a stream. The trail rises through terraces and oak and chestnut woods with Dorio and the lake below. Farther away, to the south, Corenno Plinio and Dervio sit on the water’s edge. We pause to take in the view.

The Viandante Trail, well-marked and preserved here, is a work of art. The mule tracks we find seem casual, the work decades of people and animals tramping the dirt. Instead, they’re the fruit of an ancient path-carving technique.

Two rows of elevated large stones line the path while a low wall on the higher, mountainside protects it from crumbling soil. Smaller stones occupy the center. No mortar is used. Steps edged with long, narrow slabs of rock break the regular grade. The distance between the rising stairs, 1.2 to 1.5 meters, allows mules and laborers with heavy burdens to balance their loads. Diagonal channels for water drainage occasionally interrupt the sequence.

Along this marvel of a path, we reach the chapel of San Rocco on the rocky outcrop of Ronchi di Vesgallo. San Rocco, 14th-century French pilgrim and saint of wayfarers, is said to have protected this area from plagues. To the right side of the church, we pick up the trail, follow signs, and then climb two more steep ramps of stairs.

We hike overlooking the town of Olgiasca and the Laghetto di Piona, a bay hugged by two curved peninsulas. Piona Abbey’s tower sprouts through the bare trees. Crossing icy birch and beech woods of the Rossello Valley, we ascend to “Monte” Perdonasco on Monte Legnone. Once important for its wood, Mount Legnone (2,609-meter) is the most westerly mountain of the Orobie Alps chain.

Snow covers our approach to Monte Sparese. We cross over a stream flowing from the Valle di Noh. Sparese is still Dorio territory, though Colico fought for it violently in 1755. Here we find the tiny isolated church of the Madonna dei Monti, orderly summer houses and picnic tables. Thousands of leucojum vernum, false snowdrops, bloom by the road. These tiny bell-shaped, white flowers grow in north Europe but are somewhat rare in Italy.

The road descends to Posallo, past a tourist farm called “La Sorgente” and a busy restaurant. We cross the bridge of the Rio Perlino and turn right, following along the riverbank. We are in Colico territory and here the Sentiero del Viandante is not clearly marked. We pick up the trail about 10 meters on the left. It ascends 15 meters, and then runs along the mountainside under Legnone to another frescoed church of San Rocco (1401 AD).

After the church, we keep left and emerge onto an asphalt road to Villatico, a hamlet of Colico. We follow Via Fontanedo past the neighborhood lavatoio where, in warmer weather, women still gather to chat and wash sheets in the stone laundry basins. Vicolo Madoninna takes us to Colico’s train station.

I like Colico. It sits at the end of Lake Como, under towering Monte Legnone, on train routes and crossroads into the Valtellina and Val Chiavenna. The wind swoops down from Switzerland, which makes it a kite surfer’s paradise (Colico has hosted the Italian edition of the World Kitesurfing Championships). There are no grand villas blocking the lakefront view. Instead Piazza Garibaldi, Colico’s wide main square, opens directly onto the lake.

How to get there

At Posallo, the road descends to Piona train station, though few trains stop there. Colico is reachable from Sondrio, Chiavenna, and Lecco. The train station ticket office is open daily. See Trenitalia.

About the Author:

Andrea Smith's column on hiking in Italy ran from 2008 through 2013.