Varenna is a very special place on Lake Como, Italy. It is a very small village of 800 located on the central eastern shore of the lake, and, together with sister towns Bellagio and Menaggio on opposite sides of the lake, form a close knit triangle of three of the most beautiful towns on the lake, with Bellagio in the middle, all located in the area where the three legs of the lake join together. Although Varenna is very small, the entire town is mostly spread out along the lake shore, and what a wonderful lake shore it is!
The entire lake shore length almost seems like a page out of some movie script. The lake shore is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best on the lake when considering the overall ambiance of the quintessential 19th century Italian lake architecture and the spectacular views, especially at sunset viewed across the lake. This is a place where many couples come to get married or to honeymoon, or the rest of us to just come to relax and enjoy the ambiance just for the sake of it. I can see why Rick Steves considers Varenna his most favorite of the towns of Lake Como. I tell you, this place is magic, come here when you’ve had it with dealing with a lousy job, had it with hearing on the daily news how mean the world is getting, come here to at least temporarily forget all that and to regenerate, to reboot your soul.
The lake shore promenade begins on the north end where is located the main ferry docks and numerous hotels and restaurants as well as the train station. I should mention that it is only the eastern side of the lake that has direct train service. Varenna’s station links to Lecco and Milan to the south and Tirano to the north. Varenna’s train station (see photos) is a great example of small-town Italian train
stations. This one is very well maintained, has a very helpful tourist office and a cafe/bar, and most often the toilets are the old type in which you have to squat to use, and if you’ve never tried it before be forewarned, many of us non-Italians do not have the right kind of leg muscles for this!
The lake shore promenade, or passaggiata as it is called in Italian, continues south where it passes alongside a steep rocky bluff by means of a narrow passageway which literally hangs off the side of a steep stone cliff. Continuing along the promenade, you come to the picturesque harbor of the older, main part of town which is lined with cafes and restaurants all competing for the the spectacular lake views which are best at sunset.. Varenna was originally a fishing village and its harbor still retains its former character. The public promenade ends here at the old harbor but he beautiful waterfront continues with the Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero, both of which have fantastic lakeside gardens—I will cover these two villas in my next writing.
From the old town harbor, steep, narrow passages with a number of steps which seems to never stop, lead uphill to the Piazza San Giorgio, the main central gathering place of Varenna. The mostly flat large piazza is surrounded by three churches and several hotels, cafes, and restaurants. A small grove of shade trees provide relief from the heat in summer. The Church of San Giorgio is the largest on the square and proudly manifests its tall bell tower with witch-hat steeple which acts as the town square’s most prominent feature which is visible from across the lake as well across the town, making it easy for way-finding.
One food item I must mention that I discovered here in Varenna that I absolutely love is a simple plate of Bresaola Salad. Bresaola, a specialty of this part of Italy, is cure (air-dried) beef, similar to prosciutto. A Bresaola salad begins with thin slices of bresaola laid flat on a plate. On top of that is placed a helping of arugula (called “rocket” in Italy) and then it is sprinkled with shaved (not grated) Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil. To top it off, add fresh squeezed lemon of a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and my mouth is watering as I write! Unfortunately, bresaola is not very available here in the US. I just received a shipment today from an online Italian food site. I need to get to the store for some arugula, so I’ll stop writing now and do so!
Enjoy the photos.