Italy’s northern lake country has seen it’s fair share of power shifts, from Napoleon to the Congress of Vienna and then back to the Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy. Interesting that an area known for its ‘untouched’ quality and powers of tranquility is the product of such turmoil. Surrounded by limestone mountains, Lago di Como is said to be the most physically beauteous and is often suggested as a starting point, although each lake has its biased fans. Landlocked residents of Brescia and Verona emulate Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who opted for castle country on Lake Garda. The largest and most diverse, stretching from the Po to the Dolomites, Lake Garda is surrounded by olives and is otherwise known for its greeny-gold olive oil. The Northern end of Lake Maggiore is rather alpine in nature while the southern end is renowned for its grand dame of resorts: Stresa, as well as its famous Isola Bella, which houses baroque palaces and gardens. Lugano’s less tamed landscape is a preferred escape for the Swiss.
We embrace popular opinion, (Rick Steves’ included) and start our lake introduction on Como. On a perfect mid-September weekend, we arrive by train at the tiny, unpretentious village of Varenna, and make our way by foot down the winding road to the town square. The air is crisp and clear, and we pass narrow stone pathways lined with sorbet-colored houses that lead down to the lake, offering glimpses of the waters edge. Varenna quickly proves to be a most romantic little hamlet. We catch lovers holding hands and stopping to explore distant vistas, ancient stone details on original structures, citrus trees and palms and oodles of other botanical growth running rampant on cobbled paths.
Bicycling is Italy’s second most adored sport, and countless cyclists whizz pass us on the curving road. We catch up to them in the square, where they take a break outside the clock tower before hopping on the ferry and heading to their homes in nearby villages. Varenna has been labeled a ‘sleepy’ fisherman’s village, but I prefer to think of it as tranquility personified, as if the historical power shifts in earlier centuries left behind an all encompassing lesson about the power of peace and the importance of appreciating each moment. It is not nearly as glitzy and crowded as its neighbors with their hotel-lined promenades and luxury resorts, but because of that, it has a much more authentic appeal. Varenna is also known as one of the most picturesque towns on all of the lakes with a stellar geographic location looking out over the central part of Lago di Como towards Bellagio, and with its pristine square, its tiny stone beach, and its two exquisite villas, I question anyone who skips over this little gem.
We wander down towards the Lake, passing narrow stone-stepped pathways which conceal more bars and restaurants. Down at the harbor, we find a few more tourists and locals having a cafe or an early lunch at one of the handful of casual cafes. A few look rather touristy, as Varenna is often nothing but a day trip for those staying in Bellagio or Cernobbio, but we find a trattoria with charming outdoor tables and wooden baskets brimming with pastries just a few feet from the lake.
Scents of freshly baked cakes and frittatas drift out onto the cobblestones. Varenna Caffe is rustic chic, designed in keeping with its lakefront location. I imagine it is a favorite for summer residents. We choose a slice of their homemade almond cake and bruschetta with taleggio, strawberries, arugula, and balsamic. Our forks go back and forth between sweet and savory as we watch a couple sitting at the edge of the stone promenade, wading their lower legs in the lake and enjoying a rather perfect September Saturday.
As clear as the air is, the mountains seem ever so lightly blurred by a thin layer of moss-like sky, as if the clouds are protecting them from the Italian sun like an SPF for the land. We take our time at the cafe before following ‘Lover’s Walkway’ past a few art galleries and craft stores towards the ferry, where we board la barca en route for Bellagio. Don’t forget to turn around as the ferry leaves the fishing village; Varenna is picture perfect from this vantage point. It’s multi-colored buildings stand cheerfully together, stone spilling out from their edges towards the lake, small boats pulled up onto the land, and people sitting contentedly at the waters edge.
Stay: Villa Cipressi
Don’t miss: Villa Monastero and its botanical diversity (more to come in a separate post)