Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Varenna nel mio cuore (Varenna in my heart)

This is it: All of tiny Varenna, jutting out into the beautiful Lake Como. View from Castello di Vezio. 
We just finished another long weekend in Italy, as April 25th was Liberation day, a national holiday. This time, we visited Varenna, an adorable small town (population 500) on the Lecco side of Lake Como, Lombardy region (bordering Switzerland). Maybe it's because Rick Steves said to come here, but Varenna is full of gringos and, apparently, the tourist season doesn't even kick off until next week.

I heard more American English in Varenna than anywhere in Italy up to this point. Believe it or not, I have yet to meet anyone from the U.S. in Padua, and rarely hear English spoken around town. In Venice, the epitome of a tourist town, I have visited alone and pretty much kept to myself. However, in Varenna, we ran into English speakers everywhere. In fact, it was a place where I would speak to a local in Italian and s/he would reply in English. While I'm sure people are trying to be helpful, I am never happy when this occurs. On a positive note, it does not happen in Padua!

At any rate, I can see why tourists are flocking to Varenna. It is absolutely gorgeous. I loved it! There is plenty of amazing food, historic sites, and outdoor fun to fill a long weekend. Here are a few highlights from our trip.

1. Castello di Vezio. For the spectacular views alone, it is well worth the steep trek up to these ruins of this castle perhaps as old as the IV Century. The castle has served numerous purposes over time and its watch tower and drawbridge still stand (and you can go to the top!). It is also interesting to explore underground tunnels that were used during WWI. There is an olive grove on the property that is said to be one of the northern-most in the world (high latitude, but temperate climate due to the climate of the valley). A negative point is that the castle practices the prehistoric tradition of "falconry", the training of birds of prey. Thus, they have several birds that have been born and raised in captivity. I was disappointed to see this.

Just one amazing view from the Castello di Vezio
2. Sorgente del Fiumelatte. Another fun hike, not far from the town center, is the Fiumelatte, a very short river that surges, producing frothy, rushing water and strong waterfalls. Apparently, it is a seasonal site, only in the spring and summer, and nearly dries up in the fall.

Sorgente del Fiumelatte
3. Sentiero del Viandante (The Wayfarer's Path). Walking to the castle and Fiumelatte, you can see signs indicating the Wayfarer's Path, which follows the Lombardy hills for about 45 kilometers. Due to rain, we decided not to hike the 4 km. path between Varenna and Bellano, but visited the Orrido by train (see next point).

4. Orrido di Bellano. At the Bellano stop on the Path (or accessible by a 4-minute train ride) is the Bellano Gorge. It's actually right in the center of town, just behind the major church. It's basically a series of open caves carved out by rushing water that supplies two, hydroelectric power stations. For 3 euros, you can walk a path climbing up into the gorge and view the various waterfalls. Beware of La Casa del Diavolo (House of the Devil), a very creepy tower at the entrance that was supposedly the site of satanic rituals (according to the brochure). At any rate, today it resembles the abandoned haunted carnival setting of several Scooby Doo episodes.  

Orrido di Bellano
5. In the center of Varenna, right on the Piazza San Giorgio, don't miss the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (Saint John the Baptist Church) and Chiesa di San Giorgio (St. George Church). Both are Medieval, with St. John's dating prior to 1,000 CE. With its stone walls and ancient frescos in ruins, this tiny, cozy church is definitely among my favorite in Italy.

Love this ancient church, San Giovanni Battista

San Giorgio
Of course, be sure to take a ride on the ferry between Lake Como towns. You can get on and off at the different stops, but we opted to ride the ferry round trip from Varenna to Lenno (with a few stops in between) and back. Overall, it was about an hour and a half, with awesome views of the lake, towns, and mountains all around.
View of Varenna from the ferry
Also, all the tour books will tell you to visit Villa Monastero, a beautiful estate and botanical garden in Varenna. I visited, and it was lovely, but I have to admit I preferred the less groomed, wild nature of the hiking trails and castle grounds.

Our favorite restaurant in Varenna was Borgovino, on XX Septembre street. This tiny restaurant (about 6 tables inside, 2 outside) has an awesome Italian wine collection and amazing food, including dessert. The owner/chef is a local; her Swedish boyfriend seems to be the wine expert, and runs the front end of the place. They are excellent hosts, and we enjoyed every bite.

From Borgovino: Chocolate-caramel cake (more like a brownie) with vanilla gelato and tiramisu cream… OMG
I should also recommend our hotel, Albergo di Sole, right on the Piazza San Giorgio in the center of town. It's a bit noisy on the piazza at night, but the central location is great and the hosts are so friendly and helpful.

View of the Piazza San Giorgio, Varenna, from our hotel room in Albergo di Sole. 
English speakers or not, I left Varenna with beautiful memories of a charming and hospitable place. Now back in Padua, I am speaking Italian and realizing I have been here for almost two months. Looks like it's time for another anniversary blogpost! 


  1. Wow - this place looks amazing...story book setting with so much to see and do.