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krisek Varenna - A travel report by Krys
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Varenna,  Italy - flag Italy
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krisek's travel reports

Perfect little village at Lake Como. Varenna.

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Lake villages around the world could aspire to be like Varenna. Lakes around the world could aspire to be like Lake Como. Extremely picturesque and infinitely spectacular! This was my first visit to Varenna and the Lake, and I was genuinely impressed.

Varenna's old part
Varenna's old part
Arriving in Varenna in the hours of darkness creates a feeling of mystery. This little town or a large village (officially - a municipality) is split. The tiny old district, which touches the shores of the Lake Como, is nicely lit at night. Its narrow cobble stone alleys stuck in my mind. They represented exactly what I imagined what a little town in the Alpine Italy by a lake would look like - the window shutters, the subdued street lighting, the tranquility, the minute bars packed with the locals catching up after the all week's work - all made sense. I almost regretted I was not colour blind. I would have sworn that young Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni could pop up from around the corner any second! It was slightly foggy, which added an extra ounce of magic. It reduced the visibility at the other hand. It was impossible to see the Alps.

In the morning, of course, I was ever so glad that I was not in fact colour blind. The old Varenna seduced me with its colours. Their shades changed constantly as the sun hit the facades at a different angle throughout the day. The best saturation was always achieved at sunsets, which luckily produced great lighting for the front of the village at its old harbour and superb views from the tiny tables of restaurants based there. Varenna is often called the 'Pearl of Como'. The old part is home to only about 900 people. The larger Varenna, incorporating the neighbouring subdivisions, like Fiumelatte and municipalities, like Olivedo and Perletto, make it feel like a small town indeed.

Favourite spots:
Varenna's old harbour
Varenna's old harbour
The little harbour in the old Varenna was my favourite part. It was complete with a tiny pebble beach used mainly by ducks. The brightly painted old houses with their balconies and wooden window shutters fit there perfectly. Regular villagers lived in them. Some opened businesses, like a gelateria, a restaurant or a hotel. But many were simply fishermen families. Actually, many guys were fishing from the pier. I saw that their catch was small. Perhaps they were fishing for a small bate later used for catching bigger fish. This part of Varenna was better viewed from the lake, but it was also greatly enjoyed from the tiny tables of the restaurants by the beach. The lake front was superb, but the little piazza San Giorgio was also atmospheric.

What's really great:
It seemed that everyone knew everyone. The locals were friendly and if not completely embraced, they accepted the foreign residents, who acquired holiday flats around the village. Many Varennese, mainly those working in restaurants, bars, hotels and shops learnt English. Varenna was still one of a few places around the lake, which felt more local rather than touristy. I came out of the season, so my impressions might be flawed, yet at the other hand, having visited a few other places that weekend, I think it can be still a correct observation.

In the evening, the village was so quiet and picturesque. Truly a perfect place for relaxing. And this is an understatement! The warmth of the locals combined with the perfect setting of the place would melt the coldest hearts of the most demanding travellers.

Castello di Vezio
Castello di Vezio
Varenna is a small place, and yet there a few interesting places to see. The sights include the Basilica of San Giorgio (built in 1313), small Church of San Giovanni, four little streets in the old town, the crescent harbour, and the source of Italy's shortest river - Fuimelatte. The old houses are extremely photogenic, some somewhat weathered but still showing trace of the vivid colours of the paints, which once covered the facades.

Above Varenna, there is a medieval little castle, Castello di Vezio. It is spooky-romantic with mind-boggling views over the lake and the Alps. Sometimes, there are intimate concerts organised at the foot of the main structure with gentle light put on the walls making the venue truly magical. There is even a restaurant at the feet of the castle, Li Feudo.

Of course the location of Varenna is a sight in its own right. The lake is superb, and the surrounding mountains even on misty weather make the landscape look moody and dramatic. Spectacular!

The perfect view. Varenna in the bottom left corner.
The perfect view. Varenna in the bottom left corner.
I stayed at my friends' flat with an incredible view (see opposite), but I spotted a few accommodation options in the village. The cheapest one (€50-€60) appeared to be La Beretta* with its lively bar-club open until wee hours of the morning.

The two 2* establishments: Milano Casa Gialla and Milano Casa Rossa, charging about €110 per night in a double room, are both located next to the old harbour, with great views and extreme proximity to the delightful restaurants and gellaterias.

Varenna has a few 3* hotels, five of the most prominent are - Milano, Villa Cipressi, Olivedo, Eremo Gaudio, and del Sole. Some charging less than the 2* (about €70 for a single, €100 for a double), and some charging exactly the same for much better service (e.g. Cipressi) or more (Milano, €140). All prices rise about 20% in the high season.

The real treat is Hotel Royal Victoria****, charging c.€95 for a single, located in the heart of the old town.

Also, many foreign residents often rent flats.

Old port at night
Old port at night
Al Barilott opposite the townhall was an extremely popular bar with the local clientelle. People often used in as an apperitive stop over before their dinners. It was the most interesting local haunt I have seen in Italy. Not very bid at all. The bar ran along its depth and most of the customers stood chatting and chirping. It also had an internet spot (not free).

The other bar-cum-club was below the Beretta Hotel, the Albrego Bar. It seemed to never close. It gave an impression more as a community centre than a bar, as the local Varennese people played games, looking like everyone was friends with everyone. It had tables outside, for those who still had not managed to quit smoking. A genuinely fantastic place to mingle with locals but knowledge of at least a few Italian sentences was essential for socialising.

Restaurants and bars at the port in old Varenna
Restaurants and bars at the port in old Varenna
Nilus Bar at the lake (Riva Garibaldi 4) in the old Varenna with wrought iron chairs and tables was one of the four gellateria-bar-restorante venues by the pebble beach.. Pizzas at c.€6.50 were immaculate, and beers €4.50 cold and refreshing. The spot attracted a mixed crowd; travellers, foreign residents and the Varennese. The view across the lake towards the Swiss Alps was matchless. It fit every description of a perfect place to write long letters or a mystery and romance bound novel. The light wind would attempt to mess your hair style, and the haunt looked its best during the hours of darkness, when subdued lights of the lanterns created an unforgettable mood.

Next to it were Il Molo restaurant and Gelateria La Frulleria, both with immaculate locations overlooking the crescent beach, harbour and colourful facades of the old houses.

Varenna's narrow alleys
Varenna's narrow alleys
Vecchia Varenna restaurant right at the shore with tables under alcoves and on small terrace had a great reputation. Residents of the Lecco county, of which Varenna was part, would drive dozens of miles to have a dinner there. It offered unpredictable Italian fare and was reasonably priced (€10 antipasti, €16 mains), like fish in pistaccio crust.

Ristorante Terrazza with excellent views of the lake and the crescent harbour of the old town lured clients with its location, but it was nothing special.

Victoria Restaurant, adjacent to the 4* Victoria Hotel, opposite the main church, was perhaps the best restaurant in the village with the yummiest menu. Their appetizer pizza (dough with tomato sause) was incomparable. Gnocci with blue cheese sause (€7) were a masterpiece, and the lasagna tradizionale (€7) was the lightest and fluffiest ever. The €10 one litre of house was perfectly agreeable and the service (no English) efficient and professional. No wonder why this was so popular.

Other recommendations:
Lenno's famous villa
Lenno's famous villa
A frequent ferry (c.20 sailings a day, between 7am and 10:30pm) runs from Varenna to Menaggio and Bellagio. It costs €3.50 one way and takes 20 minutes. Views from the ferry are unforgettable and Bellagio is a great place, if little overrun with tourists, who hope to meet some of the film stars, like George Clooney, who bought villas in the neighbourhood. If anyone is so lucky? Some of the villas have truly dramatic setting.

One can also take a fast (€12.30 one way) or slow (€10.80 one way) ferry all the way to Como, which takes one or two hours, respectively. The ride offers even more breathtaking views. Slow services have better observation decks. Como is much larger than all other municipalities and town around the lake, and its only rival is Lecco.

Published on Thursday October 23th, 2008

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Wed, Nov 26 2008 - 10:39 AM rating by bineba

You seemed to have had mor luck with the weather than I did last year in September!

Thu, Nov 06 2008 - 04:50 AM rating by rangutan

I am again so pleased to read such a detailed report on a small town. Very well done!

Mon, Oct 27 2008 - 01:50 PM rating by magsalex

Another great report - you make the destinations come to life!

Sat, Oct 25 2008 - 06:52 AM rating by marianne

Very nice to read and happy memories, we were here a few years ago. This was a lovely second trip.

Thu, Oct 23 2008 - 08:53 PM rating by pesu

It's always a pleasure to learn new vocables by reading your smashing reports! You describe the Italian flair so well - I love it.

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