Varenna

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Varenna is probably the most visited spot on the eastern side of the Lake. Situated in the mid-lake area it forms one corner of a ‘golden triangle’ with Bellagio and Menaggio, three locations so popular with tourists that they’ve been given their own dedicated ferry service*.

Varenna has a long, shaded lakeside promenade, like [post=36]. But it also resembles [post=33] in the narrowness of its lakefront and the way in which the waterside is linked to the old centre higher up by steep, narrow alleyways. But what distinguishes Varenna from both of the other towns – except on a Sunday – is a calmer, more peaceful atmosphere. The pace of life in Varenna is somehow slower and more relaxed, especially at its lakeside cafes and restaurants. While Bellagio is the favourite of many American visitors and Menaggio is the major town in the most British part of the Lake, Varenna attracts a lot of Italian visitors from Milan, with which it has a rail connection.

Varenna is built on a rocky outcrop below an almost vertical mountain face, on top of which sits the thirteenth century Castello Di Vezio. It’s a very popular tourist attraction because of the birds of prey kept and trained there. The falconer who looks after and flies the birds is called Nicola Castellano and the birds are named Artu, Ginevra, Linda, Regina and Semola. Apparently, the displays provide an opportunity for audience participation (you might get the chance to hold out an arm for one of the birds to land on). Other features of a visit to the castle include crossing a drawbridge to get to the top of a tower with 360 degree views of Lake Como, and access to the vaults.

The castle is open every day, between 10 am and 6 pm, from 22 March to the end of September; and between 10 am and sunset on Saturdays and Sundays in October and November. However, the castle does close in the event of (undefined) bad weather. Entry costs 8 Euros per adult, with a number of discounts. The only remaining issue is how to get there, but we can’t comment on that with authority because we failed twice.

When we tried to reach the castle by car we found the car park full: and when we tried to get there on foot (a forty minute to one hour walk) we got lost. In that situation, we would normally get help from the tourist information office, but on this occasion we couldn’t find that either. But don’t worry. You can get detailed instructions from the Castello Di Vezio’s official web site.

As for the tourist information office, according to the map, you can find it on Via 4 Novembre, near the church of S. Giorgio.

There is an attraction on the way to the Castle that seems to deserve more publicity than it receives. It’s a shop selling ceramics made on the premises, in a traditional Japanese style called ‘Raku’. The history and technical detail of Raku are both complex but you don’t need to be an expert in the art form to enjoy the end products. These include groups of dancers and jugglers, ornamental pots, fish and land animals, decorative boxes, plates and even urns. The word ‘decorative’ is important. This is not naturalistic art. It can reach a significant level of abstraction, but not to the point where it ceases to be a representation of a recognisable object. You can find out more about this on the Ceramiche di Vezio website.

The most important building in the old town centre is the church of S. Giorgio, which contains a precious coloured stone Deposition from the Cross.

On the opposite side of the town centre from the road and pathway to the castle, the route out of town passes the Villa Monastero and the Villa Cypressi. The former is now a conference centre, though its gardens can be visited between 9 am and 6 pm from April to October. But in fact you can get an overview from the road above the garden, and a more detailed look may be most relevant for the keen botanist. Villa Cypressi is a public building but managed as a hotel and congress venue.

Continuing on the road, or taking a left turn just after Villa Monastero to join a parallel footpath, you soon reach the ‘smallest river in Italy’, the ‘Fiumelatte’. It’s just a short, powerful torrent of grey green water but it’s a very welcome sight on a hot day. (Of course, if you didn’t walk there to see it, you wouldn’t be so hot.)

When we reached the Fiumelatte we were the only people there and it took us a little while to find the small amount of evidence available – a tiny sign – to be sure of where we were. This absence of any kind of ‘song and dance’ was a contrast with our experience of the ‘Orrido’ in Bellano, a similar natural feature spoiled for us by an ugly viewing structure and an entrance that would be more at home in a fairground. Having said that, there were lots of visitors there.

*The ferry service includes car ferries between the three mid-lake towns and Cadenabbia, as a result of which traffic in Varenna can be pretty heavy, especially on Sundays and bank holidays.

Go to map of [post=30]

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