Varenna, Italy: Lake Como Without the Glitz
By Wynne Crombie
Museums, opera houses and night clubs are all missing from the centuries old fishing village of Varenna on Italy’s Lake Como. Nary a one. It’s a place to relax, recharge your batteries and just be.
From the railway station…Varenna is an hour north of Milan….my husband Kent and I opted for the four- minute cab ride to our hotel, the Villa Cipressi, on the Piazza San Giorgio. Much better than dragging our luggage over all those cobblestones.
As we entered the hotel’s courtyard, a group of Japanese visitors were bowing from the waist. The Villa had just concluded a destination wedding. The wedding was over and it was time to leave.
The 14th century Villa Cipressi had belonged to the same family for centuries. In the 80’s a French firm bought the building and turned it into a hotel. From our room, we looked out at Lake Como with its muted gold, sienna and pink buildings in the foreground.
The first evening we splurged and dined at the hotel’s Restaurant Contrada probably one of the most expensive dining spots in the area. As was all our dining during our stay, this too was al fresco. White linen tablecloths with candles and a gentle breeze…looking over the gorgeous famous lake.
Every morning at seven, the church bells on the Piazza rang not seven times… but sixty-seven. The same number was repeated at seven p.m. Puzzled, I walked over and asked the priest: Why sixty-seven times? He told me it was a devotion to the Blessed Mother, the Angelus. While there, I checked out the interior of this 14th century church. Amidst the medieval art is a plaque commemorating the visit of Pope Paul VI.
Varenna started out as a fishing village centuries ago. Today it has a population of 1000 and is spread out over a series of hills. The promenade along the lakefront from the Piazza San Giorgio to the ferry landing. is a take-your-time affair…a stroll of maybe ten minutes. We got into the habit of stopping at the marvelous stone benches along the walkway just to sit and listen to the ducks and the soft lapping of the waves.
The steep routes going up from the lake have handrails. Wear sturdy shoes, some of the stones can be as large as ping-pong balls. Varenna is extremely clean. Gone is the graffiti you see in the large cities like Bologna. The strategically placed waste bins even sort the trash.
One of our favorite finds was the restaurant Cavatappi on one of the narrow winding alleyways, the Via Septembre XX. Cavatappi means corkscrew in Italian. In fact a huge collection of various corkscrews through the centuries decorate one wall.
The hands- on approach of the very animated Chef Mario is what makes this restaurant so special. He only has five tables (reservations are a must) and one sitting so you may stay as long as you like. He comes out in his toque hat and chats with his customers; it seems he is cooking just for you.
I tried lavarello, a whitefish unique to Lake Como. sautéed in extra virgin olive oil with a touch of thyme.
Cooking is simple and basic; maybe that is why it is so superb. Dinner was served on fine china on checkered tablecloths. You could even go back to the kitchen, or peek through the glass.
Much of café fare revolves around pizza, crepes, salads, and pastas. We had decisions to make… I had the roast garlic bruschetta last time, how about the pomodoro (tomato) this time?
Dawdle over a meal at one of those delightful small round tables. Basically the space is yours for however long you what it. Leisurely meals are a way of Italian life and a big part of why this country is so popular for overstressed, over busy Americans.
After a lakeside meal it was so easy to stroll over to the Fruilleria on the Via Garibaldi for a gelato cone. A couple of our favorite flavors: macadamia and fruitta pistachio.
On our third night we awoke to rain pounding on the window. The next morning the noticeable snow on the mountains added another dimension to the already spectacular scenery over the lake.
Villa Cipressi Gardens
If you are up for a little exercise take in the ornamental gardens at the Villa Cipressi.
(guests are free; for others, four Euros) It’s a steep winding climb zigzagging down the hill. Plants from all over the world, such as banana and bamboo are among the plantings.
Up for more exercise? The Castle at Vezio is a twenty- minute walk (almost straight up) or a five-minute drive. Other than a tower and dungeons, there is not that much to see.
If you must connect with the outside world, the Al Barilott Internet Café on Piazza San Giorgio is the place to do it. (three euros for 45 minutes) Across from the church, it’s mainly a wine bar where the locals get together.
Varenna is not really a shopper’s mecca; there’s not really that much to buy. However, if you are looking for paintings and art, Il Pozzo near the ferry landing has a small collection. Also, watercolorist Annamaria Rivotta has a studio at Pirelli, 6.
Shopping in Bellagio
More extensive shopping can be found in Bellagio, a fifteen-minute ferry ride across the lake. The pricey high-end shops featuring Venetian glass and Italian leather are along the lakeside concourse. I stopped to take a picture of a painting in the window of an art shop. The incensed owner ran out and stopped me.
Menaggio is ten-minutes away by ferry. It’s little bit more urban than Varenna with a traffic light and gas station. Here we found, The Trombetta Express (think Thomas the Tank Engine) It takes you on an hour’s ride up into the hills. Here is a chance to view real Italian Villas up close. Alas, some of them have become victims of the recession and fallen into disrepair.
It was hard that last morning to leave all that serenity behind and board the train to Milan. We’ll just have to make a next time.
Some practical details:
Villa Cipressi 160euros/night double Breakfast buffet is included
La Contrada via IV Novembre, 22 (expensive)
Victoria Grill Piazza San Giorgio, 1(moderate)
NilusBar (great for snacks) via Riva Garibaldi 16 (moderate)
Il Cavatappi via XX Settembre (moderate)
Vecchia Veronna via Scoscesa, 10 (moderate)
Note: Kent and I found all of the above to be very satisfactory.
Wynne Crombie has a master’s degree in adult education. She and her husband Kent met in Berlin 43 years ago and have been traveling ever since. She has been published in GoNomad.com, Real Travel.com (UK) Dallas Morning News Travel Section, Travel and Leisure, Christian Science Monitor, Air Force Times, Stars and Stripes and Catholic Digest.
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