Varenna is one of the picture postcard villages that straddles Lake Como’s shores. To say it is breathtaking is an understatement; as we reached the ferry port after a short walk from the train station and caught our first glimpse of the lake with its small boats bobbing up and down and the mountains towering in the background, it was impossible not to stop and stare at its beauty. I’d expected this – you know a place must be beautiful when the rich and famous have houses in the area – but even I, with my love of lakes and mountains, was lost for words.
But, as we soon discovered, this was only a glimpse of things to come – as we made our way along a small flower covered walkway that hangs over the lake edge and turned the corner, we came across the main and arguably even prettier, part of Varenna.
Arranged around a small circular bay, there are cafés, restaurants and small boutique shops here (including several gelato shops selling delicious, including vegan, Italian ice cream), and more small boats moored along the waterfront ready for hire. People sit alongside the lake dangling their feet into the cool and pristine water and watching the families of ducks frolicking and swimming alongside. They are overlooked by beautiful rustic houses and large cypress trees that stand like sentries in the terraces above the water and can be reached by the series of steep steps that wind up away from the bay. At sunset it’s really quite magical and there are plenty of places to sit and soak up the atmosphere and watch the sun go down.
Our short break inevitably centred around the lake: walks along the shoreline, treks uphill to vantage points that offer amazing views of the lake, the mountains and the scattering of towns and villages below. This is the perfect place to slow down, unwind, adopt a much healthier pace of life and ditch your tick list of sights to see.
Even so, there are two places you must visit. The first is Villa Monastero and its botanical gardens, and the second the short ferry trip across the lake to the swish and sophisticated Bellagio.
We reached the Villa via a short stroll through the town’s winding, cobbled backstreets and the small and quaint piazza where you will find the local church. Having paid our 5 euro entrance fee, we meandered down the steep slope, lined with deep red roses in full bloom, to the lakeside and the main building (once a nunnery and now a conference centre and museum, complete with a small café). The spot is surrounded by beautiful gardens with ornate fountains, statues and pillars that are graced with panoramic views across the lake and allow you to look back on the village; take the main pathway through the gardens and you can follow the line of the water with the stone staircases that lead down to it. It’s a lovely, peaceful place to visit with plenty of areas to sit and relax and get away from the world – the fact that there seemed to be relatively few tourists made it wonderful.
We then headed to the port and took the ferry boat across the lake to Bellagio. Bellagio is bigger and more touristy than Varenna and feels much more glitzy and glamorous (you only have to take a look at the expensive, convertible cars driving around the town to realise this) and for us was maybe a little too crowded in comparison to its smaller neighbour. However, it’s definitely worth a visit and there are many more shops and restaurants to choose from here. It’s a fascinating place to wander, with its narrow cobbled streets leading away from the wide-open boulevard on the waterfront – had we been staying longer, we would definitely had hopped across for an evening meal and cocktails overlooking the lake.
Other than this, my favourite memory of Varenna was our early morning breakfast. We stayed in a small apartment in the heart of the bay, above one of the main lakeside cafes, where breakfast was served on the terrace each morning. This is a time of day when Varenna has yet to fully wake up and everything is a little deserted. Breakfast was just perfect: we had the spot pretty much to ourselves and whiled away our time listening to the water lapping onto the shore, and watching this gorgeous little village spring into life. I can’t think of a much better way to start the day.
Other things to do: Boats go from the port to a number of nearby towns around the lake, including Bellagio, Menaggio and Como. We only had time to go to Bellagio, which was 9 euros for the return boat trip, although it is possible to purchase a block of tickets for multiple trips around the lake. Some more organised boat trips also go past George Clooney’s villa in Laglio.
If boats aren’t your thing, you can catch trains or drive to other nearby towns such as Bellano and Lecco. The train station is just a few minutes uphill from the centre of Varenna and has a lovely little coffee shop if you need to while away time waiting for the train.
For a more active break, there are plenty of walking opportunities and boats and kayaks can be rented. There are also areas of the lake where people swim.
We found time to climb to the small castle (Castello di Vezio) perched high on the hill. We took the path uphill from Villa Monastero which was a strenuous 30-40 minute walk up a steep rocky hill (so would not be suitable for anyone with poor mobility). There is a small café at the top for refreshments and a comfort break. There is a small fee to enter the castle but the views are worth it.
Getting there: It’s easy to get from Milan airport – Linate or Malpensa – to Varenna; by car it’s around an hour and a half; if you’re using public transport, you need to make your way to the central train station. Linate airport is closer and takes 20 minutes via the airport bus to the centre of Milan. From Malpensa airport there is a train (just under an hour); there is also an airport bus. From the central station, the train goes directly to Varenna. This takes just over an hour, and once you hit the mountains, the scenery is stunning. A short walk downhill from the station takes you to the ferry port from where you can walk around the rocky outcrop on a flower covered pathway to the main part of Varenna.