After a brief visit to Milan and Venice years ago, I was recently compelled to come back to Northern Italy, re-entering through Lake Como. With a few days over Thanksgiving week to spare and an urgent need for a break and some quiet time to write, a suggestion from a friend triggered the decision. Some hectic planning ensued. Suddenly, there I was, delighted, listening to the 6 p.m. church bells above Varenna, on the eastern shore of the lake, having those familiar feelings of “Oh, I wished I lived here…”
No, it was not the wine, although that helped. It was the perfect combination of peace, lake, mountain and a gorgeous historic village. Exactly what my heart needed. The quiet you cannot always count on, however. Late springs, summers and early autumns in Varenna are definitely not what you would describe that way. But the month of November is definitely the off-season. With the majority of visitors gone, Varenna is kept company by workers of the few establishments that remain open throughout the year and its equally few permanent dwellers. I enjoyed the slow passing of hours, marked only by the concerted come-and-go of mostly empty trains, busses and ferries. Life seemed to follow its course without much debate.
I wondered what it is like to live in this beautiful part of the world, to look at Como’s deep waters every day, to walk these lovely streets as you go about your chores. Have the people of Varenna found that feeling of belonging, that I envy so much, a content fulfillment with this one place, cocooning between water and mountains? I wouldn’t be surprised…
Walking the hills above Varenna was one of my favorite ways to enjoy these restful days by Lake Como. Right outside my doorstep was the trail to Castello di Vezio. A 45 minute hike starting by the side of the Montecodeno Restaurant took me to the entrance gate. The old cobble stone trail cuts through the hillside residential areas and gradually gains altitude, with beautiful views of Lake Como and Perledo, the next village.
Unfortunately the grounds were not open to the public during the time I visited, but the photo below gives you an idea of what I would have seen.
According to Wikipedia, the castle was built in the late 11th-early 12th century and was restored several times in the following centuries. The grounds contain remains of tombs from the Iron Age and dungeons built during the First World War. The tower houses an exhibition dedicated to Lariosaurus, an extinct sea reptile, named after the lake (lario) after its discovery in Perledo in 1830. Gardens and a group of birds of prey raised by a local falconer also attract people to the castle.
The next day, a longer hike starting from the same place (the trail by the Montecodeno Restaurant) took me from Varenna (elevation: 220m or 720ft) to Perledo (485m or 1591ft) and then to Esino Lario (913m or 2,995ft). Following a combination of ancient mule trails and road, I filled three leisurely hours with vast vistas of mountains, late fall colored forests and lake. And got a good workout. From Esino Lario I made my way back to Varenna by bus, resting my legs while enjoying the beautiful views from a warm and comfortable seat.
At dinner that evening, to my utter embarrassment, I found out, after finishing my meal, that the restaurant took cash only. All I had brought with me was a credit card. As I tried to apologize and figure out how to resolve that sticky situation, a couple sitting at the table next to me approached me and offered to pay for my meal, or exchange my US dollars for Euros had I had any, which I did not. I was touched by this willingness to help a perfect stranger. Well, a much less-than-perfect stranger, in this case. It is quite humbling to be the recipient of such a genuine act of kindness. In turn, the waiter was very patient, and was agreeable when I asked for a few minutes to go fetch some cash at my apartment and come back. So all in all, I did not have to take the lovely couple’s money. Except for 2.0 Euros for the tip, on which they insisted.
How I got there: I rented a car and drove to Varenna from the Milano Malpensa Airport. This should take no more than 1.5 hours (compared to a little over 3 hours if you take the train, as you need to first get to Milan and then change). The drive took me about 2 hours as I was slow figuring out my rental’s GPS. At this time of the year (November), the town is quiet enough that free street parking is plenty. I hear this changes dramatically over the tourist peak months, that is from mid-June to mid-September.
Where I stayed: I booked a small two-bedroom flat on Via Vennini, accurately advertised as “Comfortable Lovely Flat” through Airbnb. Just a few steps from the ferry and a 5 minute walk from the train and bus station, I couldn’t have found a better place for a restful writing retreat. For an amount comparable to a reasonably priced hotel room, I had much more space and lake and mountain views from every window.
A couple of things to be aware of if you visit in the off-season: Services are reduced and not all stores are open, which includes grocery stores. At the local restaurants, credit cards are not always accepted (but you already knew that).