Caspar Institute logoitinerary   < 15 September Lago di Como, Italia   19 September to Verona >

Varenna, Italia 17 September 2011

171 : 4263

Across Lake Como to Varenna

Away from Villa Marie after breakfast, dragging luggage to the Navigazione up the street, there to await the ferry to Bellagio and Varenna. Strange dreams, presaging ...what? A change in the weather? Surely long overdue. Uneasy spirits, somehow, in the annex of the Villa Marie. Sleeping in strange beds, changing every couple of nights, is one of the adjustments one must make to travel well, and after only two and a half weeks we aren't adjusted yet.

At the ferry dock, a gabble of middle aged British ladies join us, all a-twitter about their Italian experiences, mostly having to do with how nice the air is, how expensive everything is, but how wonderful the shopping in Milan! As you may know, I have been cogitating on just that – the wonders of Milan – and am glad to have their unalloyed enthusiasm to counterbalance my misgivings. After all, they're almost Europeans, and I am most surely not. (The UK is in the EU, but not the Eurozone, a nice distinction. The former is a sort of "free trade" area with reduced tariffs and controls on border crossings; the later is where the shared currency is the euro, and there is much regulation of everything from food safety to hospitality standards.)

172 : 4253

 Leaving the west side of the lake, we can see the settlement pattern: large boxy buildings close to the lake, with villages scattered higher on the slopes, and then, high above the villages, some outliers that must require special dispensation to get to. The rugged mountains tower above; is that some sort of monastery there half way up? The proximity of mountains and steep shoreline makes this lake so much more picturesque than most developed American lakes. Developing such areas requires a much longer commitment than we newbies like to make.

I apologize for the small images. I took much bigger ones, but have squeezed them because some of my viewers are on dial-up ...and anyway there are a LOT of pictures.

173 : 4248

The village of Bellagio occupies the northernmost point of the long isthmus that divides the southern half of Lake Como in two – one leg runs to Lecco on the east, the other to the silk town of Como on the west. Naturally, this point between is a favored place, and some of the most spectacular mansions are there. The large, boxy buildings, "inspired" by Austrian style of the 1800s, is essentially the same as the lamentably boxy 1950s hotels that litter the western shore, although the ornamentation is better. Here, the folly in the foreground is attached, via a long and beautifully terraced garden, to the palatial structure in the middle ground.


174 : 4246

175 : 4243

At last, we get our first close look at the little village of Varenna, still in shadow below its sheltering Alps on the eastern shore. Our ferry bumbles in and we dismount and trundle our luggage up the main road -- SO much quieter than the one across the lake. We stash our luggage with the innkeeper, but our rooms won't be ready until midafternoon, so we head out to explore the town.

Varenna started as a fishing village, a sort of service center to the upper classes across the lake. Its houses tower four and five stories above the stepped streets far below – at least they do on the lake side. The land is so steep that the ground meets the houses at the fourth level at the backs of the houses. Here, where the luxury of open space only belongs to the wealthy, families, establishments, businesses, are stacked on top of each other. Scattered amongst the agglomeration of homes and shops, over the years unrelated segments have become united, in some cases by bridges or what are effectively tunnels through the walls. The whole village is an organic growth revealing century-old patterns like the rings of trees. Our hotel room is one such – we enter one building, but end up in another with a lovely view of the bay.

At some point in the dawn age of tourism, the Varenna city fathers understood they were a diamond in the rough, and before the place got taken over built a passarella along the waterfront, and enlisted the locals in a "be friendly" campaign that continues to harvest plenty for the town -- a new form of fishing, you might say. They managed to preserve the essential flavor, and so the town is a delight for three months of the year, and then, as far as the outside world is concerned, it goes to sleep.

176 : 4241

Two grand old estates and their gardens mark the southern edge of town: the Hotel Cipressi, and the Monastero, now a conference center. We pay two euros each to enter the garden, even though the price says four; we are apparently rewarded for the kind words we said about the garden, and the fact that we asked to pay. Paths wind around and down past grottoes and shell-shaped belvederes. From one of the later, I take this picture of the boxy edifice of the Monasterio through the conscious botanical confusion of the Cipressi's 50 species of trees. A little brochure explains, in picturesquely mangled English, that the climate here, moderated by the mass of the lake, is much more clement than the surroundings might suggest, and so trees from a variety of climates are able to thrive here. There is quite a lot of charm in these centuries old gardens, clearly laid out to give residents the longest possible walk without ever having to go outside the walls. Garden values have changed over the years, and English, French, and Italian style gardens can be found variously in all of those countries. This is pure Italian, accepting guidance from the land, and adapting itself to what the land wants to be.

Two days later, waiting for the train out, we strike up a conversation with a Seattle fellow who expresses wonder at the quality of the infrastructure. "They build for centuries, don't they. What would Seattle look like if we did that?"

177 : 4239

Our wanderings take us into the fine old church, first built during the 1200s, and built again and again since. Some of the stones at the back have been in place since the first building, but gradually, over the years, the altar rail and altar have been refashioned in the 18th century manner out of green and black marble from around Italy. Frescoes from the 13th century can still be made out on the back walls and back pillars. We drop a two euro coin into the donation box and it makes an ostentatious clatter heard throughout the church. We light two candles, mindful that lighting a candle is a prayer, an emblem, and a wish. The whole notion of prayer gives Rochelle the willies, but I like it a lot. I pray that all remains well at home while we're gone, and that our travels are lively yet safe. Ah yes, and that we enjoy many more superb meals.

178 : 4236

Like Parma, Varenna's town square is outfitted with a sundial on its sunniest wall. Wisely, the citizens of this village preserve the largest open space for fairs and gatherings, and for the sense of openness that such space provides. With the coming of cars, of course, it has become a sometime parking lot, but the century old trees don't care. Steps in front of the church keep cars off, and benches are scattered about in spaces cars cannot abuse. Here are all the necessities – a bank; a tabbachi where one also finds newspapers and magazines, postcards and puzzle books, and bus tickets; a pizzeria, a couple of bars. This is a tourist town, it hasn't lost sight of the fact that the tourists are only here for three months of the year: we are getting dangerously close to the end of the season, as the satellite pictures show us a storm system sweeping down over northern Europe and headed our way. It is still sunny, the sundial still does its work, but we can feel the end of summer in the air.

After another wonderful lunch – lamerello (lake fish that look like fat trout) barely flavored with tomato basil sugo over rocket so their flavor comes through, fresh pumpkin gnocchi in a light cheese sauce, and delicious insalata of shaved finocchio (fennel) beans, carrots, more tomatoes and basil, all so fresh they must have come from a local garden this morning.

179 : 4229

A visit to the gelateria at the bottom of the contrada finishes lunch, and finally it is time to be shown to our room. Modern comforts, the latest fixtures and wiring somehow fit inside the ancient stone building. Out the front, a wrought iron balcony is just big enough for two chairs and a little table. We sit and watch the boat traffic on the lake and the children playing in the little cockle-shell beach below us. I am so charmed by the scene that I forget to take a picture.

180 : 4219

 Out the room's side window across the valley of the contrada that seems to get narrower the higher it goes, we can almost touch our neighbor's washing. The views out the window are captivating; the light, clouds, and activity on the lake are ever changing. The weather seems to be changing as we watch, and by dinnertime it has begun to spit. At last, the African heat wave has been broken by an early thunderstorm swirling in off the North Atlantic. The early rain is bad news for us, because it means that dinner is not being served on the deck, and we will have to wait until after nine. In Italy, that is really not very late, but this is a tourist town, and Brits eat early.

The sprinkle seems to clear the air, and when we return to our room after dinner (see below) the lights of Menaggio across the lake sparkle brightly, reminiscent of the San Francisco Bay, only closer.

181 : 4217

 Dinner is a masterpiece, and we revel in it. This feels like one (presumably of several) key destinations, and so glasses of prosecco are in order. Then comes the octopus salad in the style of Calabria, meaning ever so slightly spicy: little drums of octopus, tender and smoky, with thin sliced red peppers, red onions, tomatoes, black olives, and rocket (arugula): a perfect and surprising blend of flavors. Our host, a man who clearly adores food, lovingly slices mountain ham crudo and drapes it over perfect melon slices. In recognition of the heat, the soup is lovely gazpacho with just the right blend of bread. Osso bucco (lamb shank) in hearty herb sauce served with north Italian style polenta, mixed with buckwheat. Finally, candied chestnuts in chestnut custard with whipped cream and chocolate sauce and a glass of sweet local moscato. A spree dinner, but worth every euro. (Billed to our room, so we still don't know how much it cost. Who cares?)

The thunderstorm had messed up the village's internet, and our chef Egidio came out to commiserate with our web withdrawal pains. "It is like a bad itch you cannot scratch," he explained, as he madly fiddled his iPhone. He waved his arms and explained about Italian Telecom, but I held no hope that the situation would be fixed on a rainy Sunday. I was right.

182 : 4215

 We awaken to the sound of steady rain on our little balcony. It is still warm enough to have the windows open, and the sound and coolness of the rain are welcome. Across the lake in the little valley that leads from Monteggio up to Switzerland, and Lake Lugano, clouds are playing tag with the mountains. Rain squalls come whirling in through this gap, revealing then obscuring the view. Overnight, the feeling of the town has changed, from a celebration of late summer to somber preparations for winter. After breakfast, we come back to the room and watch the captivating parade of weather. For the first time, we begin to feel a little cold, and close the windows to the balcony part way.

Let me say that again: see the little valley across the lake? Those clouds back in there are in Switzerland! Them's non-aligned clouds.

183 : 4213

We visit the lobby where the internet is working and post the last couple of days' photos and text and make arrangements for our next hotel, in Verona. The rain seems to have stopped for awhile, and so we make our way carefully down the stepped contrada to the passarella along the lakeshore, and select a likely restaurant. Almost all the tables are filled with tourists grumbling about being cheated by the weather. After we are seated, the bottom falls out of the sky, and it rains intensely for the better part of an hour.

Run your mouse over the picture at right, and if you're patient, our window and the restaurant where we were regaled so well will be highlighted.

184 : 4202

Rochelle and I sip our tisanes and enjoy the dramatic march of clouds. The rainfall becomes so intense that it saturates the warm air above the lake, causing a fog so thick that the other side of the lake disappears. Around us, the babble of disgruntled tourists continues, but most of the people sit and gaze out over the lake in wonder, fully aware that this is a magical time to be in this magical place.

We get suckered by an apparent clearing, and get thoroughly drenched (but we were in our raincoats, so no harm.) The streets are abandoned. Water courses down the centers of the shallow-V-shaped steps of the contrade.

The only real frustration here is that the internet connection can only be made, sometimes, from the hotel lobby a block away. I would have so enjoyed fiddling ith my travel pages from my nice warm nest with a view of the moody lake!

itinerary   < previous 15 September Lago di Como, Italia         next 19 September to Verona >

Search Query
website copyright © 2011-2021 by Caspar Institute
Feedback and comments welcome! Email us!

updated 24 July 2021 Caspar Time
site software and photographs by the  Caspar Institute  except as noted
this site generated with 100% recycled electrons!
send website feedback to the CI webster

© copyright 2002-2021 Caspar Institute