Plinio, Patria, Concordia: History of Ferries and Steamers of Lake Como

Image by  Valerio Carletto

I know the boats that go into group

to face the strong wind beyond the fear.

[…]

I know boats who never stopped going out once again,

every day of their lives.

[…]

I know boats overflowing with sun,

because they shared wonderful years.

I know boats that always come back when they sailed.

Until their last day,

and are ready to spread their wings of giants

because they have a heart to measure ocean.

 

Jacques Brel


Lake Como is almost 180 km long, and its ferries sail tirelessly: they generally do from 1.000 km in the less busy months, up to 2.600 km in the days of touristic turnout.

Steamers, ferries, hydrofoils, catamarans: in this article we’d like to let you discover more about the history of these giants. Because we like the idea that when you take one of those massive ships, you also think about their glorious past, when they were considered an elegant and even luxury way of transport.

A bit of history

story

Public transport on Lake Como has a long history behind. A story that began in 1826, when Compagnia Lombarda launched the Lario steamer. Fun fact: it was equipped as a precaution with a mast for sailing!

At the end of 1826, the Compagnia commissioned another steamer, Plinio, that used to go from Como to Colico with boarding and adventurous landings.

Just four years later, a new connection was opened with Falco steamer: this boat sailed regularly for 28 years.

At the beginning of the 1900, Società Lariana had 17 steamboats.

Gradually, propellers replaced the wheel, diesel replaced steam and tourism became the focus of the service

On August 21, 1952, navigation on the lake was assumed as governmental management by the Ministry of Transport. The newly state-run enterprise added traghetti, or car ferries, to the fleet in 1958, and launched the first aliscafo (hydrofoil) “Freccia del Lario” in 1964.

Today the fleet is made up of about 30 ships. 

Plinio, the elegant giant sleeping UNDERWATER

Originally there were six steamers on Lake Como: Patria, Concordia, Bisbino, Plinio, Milano and Balilla, all built between 1885 and 1926. 

Let’s talk a bit about the one that has always been considered the most elegant (as well as the fastest) steamer of the whole fleet: Plinio.

Internally, Plinio was just stunning: his first-class living room had oak-paneled walls in mahogany, Indian walnut backgrounds with vivid and very refined flower inlays mirrors. It was capable of carrying up to 750 passengers.

After a century of history, for almost a decade the steamer Plinio has been sleeping sank on the bottom of Lake Mezzola, at the mouth of Valtellina: it sank in 2010 after a thunderstorm on a cold December evening. The Compagnia Lariana had abandoned it and put up for auction in 1968. Since that time, a slow decline began: it’s been used as a breakwater barrier in Colico, then as a floating bar, and finally brought to Verceia village and moored next to a restaurant where it remained for a long time before being swallowed by the waters.

Since 2008, three associations have been fighting for Plinio’s preservation; in 2009, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage declared it "a good of particular historical-cultural interest”, saving it from demolition.

A good news is that Plinio recently came to the attention of the chronicles, because a group of young students from Politecnico University in Milano proposed to recover the wreck and return it to new life. Their brilliant project will be presented to the community on September 27: fingers crossed!

Patria, the last fully original steamship

Image by Valeria Maino

Image by Valeria Maino

The Patria - “born” in 1926 - is the last surviving example of half-saloon steamer in Italy, and one of the last three Europeans (along with "Howentiel" on Lake Constance, and "Thalia" on the Worthersee). At the bow there’s a large open deck with benches, under which is a small room with a skylight and portholes, and furnished with tables and chairs. The deck area is characterized by the central balcony from which it’s possible to see the steam engine in operation. This area also has two beautiful windows in the side walls from which one can observe the wheels with moving blades.

The first class salon features stunning tobacco leather sofas, beautiful wooden paneling interspersed with mirrors and windows, wooden columns, and a spectacularl bronze ceiling. The command bridge is dominated by the funnel and by the air intakes of the engine room, and limited to the bow by the helm station.

The Patria is currently the last Italian steamship preserved intact in the original style.

Concordia, a timeless icon 

Image by Eugenio Gottifredi

Image by Eugenio Gottifredi

How not to talk further about the historic “Concordia” (also called “vaporetto”), that together with its twin Patria has always been considered one of the best symbols of Lake Como

Built in 1926, Concordia was also used in Tinto Brass’ movie Paprika (Italy, 1991), in which the leading character, a prostitute from the Istria region in Italy played by Debora Caprioglio, finally finds a rich and elderly husband who takes her to live on Lake Como, at Villa Sola Cabiati (formerly La Quiete) in Tremezzo. After inheriting her husband’s fortune, she buys the “Concordia” as a gift for her lover.

Concordia is equipped with a steam engine (still the original one, with the only change in power supply, passed from coal to diesel) and wheel propulsion that is used for particular tourist purposes (this ship knows how to recreate vibes of other times!). 

With 435 seats, Concordia can sail at a maximum speed of 23.4 kilometers per hour. Getting on board is like going back in time with the brass trim, the benches, the armchairs, the red leather sofas, and the charming wooden bridges. Going down into the main hall, the wide Art Nouveau windows are flush with water. The original proof sheet dated 1926 is still affixed to the walls.

On the bridge there are still the big rudder and the old brass instrumentation: the compass, the control levers, the tachometer and also the intercom; with the addition of modern electronic tools like a radar.

The rest of the fleet

Alongside this “pieces of history”, there are the new and modern catamarans and hydrofoils, which can carry almost 200 passengers.

Among the latest arrivals there are the Bisbino and Orione cruise ships: they have more than one covered bridge, stairs and elevators, and restaurant rooms illuminated by large side windows.


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