Varenna, Italy

I’m daydreaming about Italy today, particularly the charming town of Varenna, located on the shore of Lake Como in northern Italy. If you’re enchanted by the thought of cobblestone streets, wistful accordion music, lush pink hydrangeas, and the fragrance of freshly baked bread, put Varenna on your list of must-see destinations.

Varenna is one of several tourist hotspots at Lake Como. At only about an hour by train, it is one of the more accessible lakeside towns from Milan, making it a perfect day-long escape from the big city. I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Milan in August, and we found ourselves in need of just such a getaway, so we headed to Varenna.

The short walk from the train station to the lakeshore showed Greg and I scenery that was decidedly Mediterranean, with old vine-covered villas and stately cypress trees. The lake itself was beautiful, and we could see several hillside towns across the water. We wandered along the lakeside path, noticing swans and fishing boats on our right and colorful houses built right on top of each other on our left.

We happened upon Villa Monastero, an ancient monastery-turned-residence and deliberated as to whether or not we should tour its gardens for five euros each. We decided to do it and were glad that we did! The gardens were breathtaking. For the next hour we meandered along trails of manicured shrubs and trees, admiring statues, giant aloe vera plants, and fuchsia petunias trailing from stone pots.

For lunch we located a restaurant with a cozy patio on the water’s edge. We watched the ferry travel between towns while we ate creamy gnocchi made with local cheese, nutty arugula salad, and crusty bread. Refreshed, we decided to hike to the nearby town of Vezio to see its castle. Though we walked for only half an hour on a nice, cobbled path, the climb was steep. The sky had darkened with an impending storm, and though we’d encountered other travelers in the town, we saw few other people now, adding a sense of adventure to this leg of our journey.

When we reached the castle grounds, we paid several euros to enter. From the courtyard we walked across a drawbridge to a tower. Inside the tower we climbed about five flights of rickety stairs and finally emerged to a landing, from which we enjoyed the most gorgeous view yet of the lake, Varenna, and the surrounding forested countryside. Greg remarked that he could feel the tower moving with the wind, and we had begun to hear thunder, so we relished the breeze for a moment and then began our descent.

We rested on a bench in tiny Vezio and listened to the sounds of normal life—women talking loudly, a dog barking—and this dreamy place seemed to me to be stuck in time. As we hiked back down to Varenna to catch a train back to Milan, I realized that I’d had my first real taste of Italy, and I was hooked.

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