Steep mountains surround the long, narrow surface of Lake Como, carved out long ago by a glacier at the foot of Alps, in northern Italy.
As I moved along the national highway through the resort area, catching the cool breeze from the lake, I spotted a sign saying: "the site of an historical event on April 28, 1945." It was referring to the town where dictator Benito Mussolini (see below) died.
On a narrow side street, the wall in front of the gate of the Villa Belmonte mansion features a black cross. It was here that Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were executed by partisans fighting against his fascist regime toward the end of World War II. The two had been trying to escape to Switzerland.
"This place not only indicates the death of Mussolini but is also a symbol of the end of the regime," said local historian Giuseppe Calzati, 68.They say every time local residents remove the cross in fear of the area becoming a sacred place for fascists, rightist Mussolini worshipers put up a new one.
Mussolini fell from power in July 1943 following the US-British Allied forces invasion of Sicily, southern Italy.
He escaped to the north and attempted a comeback with assistance from Germany, which resulted in Italy becoming trapped in a civil war between the fascists, who were allied with the German forces, and the partisans, who were supported by the Allies.
It is said that the government of Japan, a member of the Axis, advised Mussolini to escape to Japan, but he firmly refused.
On April 25, 1945, Mussolini came to accept defeat as he learned that ally Adolf Hitler had started surrender negotiations. He escaped from Milan in the middle of the night with his close aides, and headed north with retreating German forces.
"We'll probably never meet again alive," said one line in the letter he wrote to his wife, Rachele.
Musolini's party was stopped and inspected by partisans on April 27 in Dongo, a village near the Swiss-Italian border. Although disguised as a German soldier, he was identified immediately.
Wilma Conti, 86, who served as a liaison with the partisans at the time, watched the inspection from a public square. "As he came down from the truck, there were gasps of astonishment. 'It's the supreme commander!'" Conti recalled. "He looked pale and frightened."
Before dawn on April 28, the local partisans transferred Mussolini and Claretta to a hideout in Mezzegra, approximately 20 kilometers south of Dongo. The two were then taken outside by partisan leaders, who had rushed there from Milan, and fatally shot in front of Villa Belmonte. It was around 4:10 p.m. in the afternoon, three days after they had left Milan.
The bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were displayed to the public, hanging upside down at a service station. The hardly recognizable figure of the dictator made an impact around the world, but there was criticism that he should have been brought to justice alive as a war criminal.
The person who carried out the execution was kept anonymous for fear of retaliation by remaining fascist forces. Many people came forward after the war claiming to have been his executioners, but the truth is still shrouded in mystery.
The sound of crowing cockerels could be heard from a house neighbouring Villa Belmonte. Tourists sometimes came and pointed a camera or mobile phone at the black cross. The atmosphere was peaceful, in contrast to its depressing, bloody history.
Bullet marks still remain near the town hall
Mussolini and the rest of his party were arrested by partisans and taken to the town hall of Dongo. It was built in 1803 as a mansion for a noble family, and its architecture is stately and neoclassical. Mussolini was reportedly questioned in a basement room, while the fascist leaders who had accompanied him were taken to a second-floor hall called the golden room.
The building still serves as the town hall, and the End of the War Museum Dongo was opened on its first floor last year. The museum was established at the request of former partisans who fought for the liberation of Italy from German forces and fascists, as well as their surviving families.
The museum houses newspapers from the closing days of World War II, audio of radio broadcasts containing secret codes for the partisans and images of survivors giving testimony. Four local university students act as guides to carry the memories of the war among younger generations.
Marco Ferrante, a 24-year-old student, said: "As a child, my grandparents told me stories about the partisans and their battles, but I never had the opportunity to get to know about them well. It's important to learn about this history."
On the day Mussolini was executed, 16 of the close aides who had accompanied him were also fatally shot. Their executions followed Mussolini's and took place in the square in front of the town hall.
Bullet marks can still be seen on the steel railing around Lake Como, and signs indicating the last routes taken by Mussolini were placed in Mezzegra and Dongo as part of the opening of the museum.
Mussolini was born the son of a blacksmith in Predappio, Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. After World War I he established the National Fascist Party and garnered support through his clever speeches. In 1922 he marched into Rome, took over the government and became prime minister. In 1925 he installed a one-party regime. Mussolini, who approached Nazi Germany and pushed ahead with imperialism, invaded Ethiopia in 1935. In 1940 he entered the Tripartite Pact with Japan and Germany.
Guide to Mezzegra
The train from Milan Central Station to Como San Giovanni Station, the centre of Lake Como's sightseeing activities, takes 40 minutes.
It takes about an hour by car to reach Mezzegra and Dongo from Como San Giovanni Station.
The area around Lake Como, one of the finest resorts in Italy, was also loved by the emperors of ancient Rome. Lake Como is also known for the villas owned here by celebrities such as actor George Clooney, and for the pleasure cruisers and yachts that gracefully come and go on the lake.
Many tourists from Switzerland and Germany visit the area, which is close to the Swiss border.