“Live your novel” is the slogan on the tourism website for the town of Varenna. Sounds inviting, right? We assure you it is just that. Lovely Varenna is a lakeside village of under 1,000 on Lake Como. If strolling along a lakeside promenade with a gelato in hand to the gentle sound of Como’s lapping waves sounds relaxing to you, then read on!
Castles and Villas
Our visit begins with some magnificent historical sites. The first is the Castle of Varenna (or Castle of Vezio) which dates to the 11th century. Built by the Lombard queen Theodelinda, Vezio was an early-Medieval military outpost. Today, visitors can enjoy falconry shows as well as a permanent exhibition of a Lariosaurus (Como’s version of a Loch Ness Monster). The view from above is absolutely spectacular!
There are two fabulous villas that visitors can experience: Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero. Villa Cipressi is a formal noble residence that is now owned by the City of Varenna. Its tiered grounds and botanical gardens are stunning and host hundreds of weddings every year.
Villa Monastero’s origins date to the 12th century when it was a Cistercian Monastery. It has undergone numerous renovations and additions over the centuries and today houses a museum as well as a botanical garden containing hundreds of very rare species from all over the world.
One of the rarest sights in Varenna (and actually, in the world) lies within the Church of the Beata Vergine Annunciata. The statue of the Virgin Mary is black (actually known as the “Black Madonna”) while the Christ-child is white. The church dates to the year 1685 and the statue a reproduction of the Virgin of Loreto.
A perfect example of Lombard construction is the Church of San Giorgio. Dating to 1313, San Giorgio is a three-nave construction with black marble floors from Varenna. Its simplistic facade and belltower are symbols of Varenna.
Known as the “Mother Church of Varenna”, San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) dates to the 11th century. The frescoes on the dark brick walls date to the 16th century.
Varenna also has numerous trails that provide spectacular views while allowing visitors to get in close contact with the surrounding environment.
The Sentiero del Viandante (the “Wayfarers’ Trail”) actually dates to Roman times and is 45 km long connecting Abbadia Lariana to Piantedo. It is considered “easy” with only a few climbs of less than 350 meters in elevation difference.
A much more accessible trail for everyone, especially those with limited time, is the “Greenway of the Patriarchs” which is a 6 km walk around the hamlets of Varenna. Another trail, known as the “Ring of San Giorgio” leads from the Church of San Giorgio to Vezio Castle and only takes 30 minutes.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you can see the Fiumelatte (“milk river”) which is one of the shortest water sources in Italy at just 250 meters. Typically, the season lasts from March through October when visitors can watch in awe as the seemingly “milky” waters rush down at a steep gradient.
There are definitely a few dishes that are “musts” when you visit Lake Como. The official name for the cuisine here is “Larian” and it comprises lake fish (such as whitefish and perch) as a staple ingredient. Polenta is also very commonly served and is often made of buckwheat (polenta taragna). You may be surprised to see that salsa verde, or “green sauce” (made of parsley, anchovies, breadcrumbs, vinegar, capers, garlic, egg yolk, and olive oil) is actually more common than tomato-based sauces.
Getting around Lake Como is simple as the entire lake is well-connected with water taxis, ferries, and trains that connect from Lecco to Milan and Bergamo.