Traveling like Old Money - on a dime - in Varenna, Italy
by Shelley Puhak
"But it’s my birthday,” I whine as my thigh muscles start to burn. It is my birthday, my 30th, and instead of sleeping in, I’m not only upright, but headed uphill.
Views of Lake Como from Varenna
After a half hour on a steep mountain road, dodging the cars and neon-clad cyclists that kept careening down, we decided it was definitely not the pedestrian footpath indicated by our guidebook. We retraced our steps and found a stone path marked with a small sign to the left of the Hotel Monte Codena. We’ve only been on this path for ten minutes, and it looks like it’s leading nowhere but up. The early morning mountain fog has burned off, and the sun is straight in my eyes.
My husband, Paul, has gone on ahead, leaving me to complain to my friend Diane. “And I’m not even wearing sneakers,” I say to her, gesturing at my stiff penny loafers. Then I see our husbands waving their arms, and Paul runs back, beaming. “Your birthday present is straight ahead.”
The path plateaus off into the smallest church square I’ve ever seen. Medieval Saint Antonio Abate Church looks like it can accommodate a maximum of twenty people, and there are only a dozen markers in the cemetery. At the back of the church square is a green gate. I open it, take a few steps, and the craggy outline of Castello Vezio blocks the sun.
The short hike to these romantic ruins was well worth the effort, simply for the unobstructed panorama of the pre-Alps and the way the sun becomes liquid flame on the surface of Lake Como below. Once we’ve finished exploring these grounds, I know we’re going to head back towards the sun-washed terracotta roofs of Varenna, to our lakefront rooms in a sixteenth-century villa, and share a bottle of wine in cypress and palm-lined gardens. Rough life. And, to top it off, the one thing I won’t be able to whine about is the price.
I’ve always preferred bluebloods to Bluetooths and villas to video conferencing, but I assumed I couldn’t vacation like Old Money and pay the new mortgage too. I was pleasantly surprised when I began planning my 30th birthday trip and discovered we could swing our airfare and our aristocratic lodgings in Varenna, Italy for under a thousand dollars a person, much less than we had shelled out to visit Florence, Venice, or Rome.
Varenna combines the awe-inspiring landscape of Switzerland with the leisurely charm of Tuscany. It sits on a promontory on the eastern shore of Lake Como, a long and slender glacial lake surrounded by mountains in the Lombardy region. This area has long been the playground of the aristocracy, with wealthy villas and ancestral summer homes dotting its shores. Varenna is considerably quieter than its companion resort towns of Bellagio (where actor George Clooney owns a private villa) or Menaggio. However, both are a mere fifteen-minute away via regular and reliable ferry service.
Varenna's Villa Cipressi on Lake Como
Although there are many charming hotels in Varenna, we chose the only villa open to guests without pedigrees or personal connections. Villa Cipressi, a lakefront complex built between 1400 and 1800, has seen a variety of owners, from Italian and British nobility to a publishing company. Currently, it is owned by the town of Varenna and managed as a hotel. In addition to 32 elegant guest rooms, the villa offers vast private gardens available to all guests, even during off hours. We were able to take actual moonlit strolls and work off big lunches along the terraces and paths that lead down to the lake. The gardens offer not just exotic foliage, but secluded stone benches and Roman statues tucked away in ivy-covered grottos. That night we found the perfect stone bench down by the boathouse and sat for hours, listening to the ducks and debating which was the best dinner we’d had so far.
So what if I crossed the threshold of the big 30? It’s a pretty painless transition when I wake the next day to the sun slanting in and the lake breeze frothing the curtains, throw open my shutters to white-capped mountains and a glittering lake.
If You Go:
The town of Varenna has its own website, with more extensive listings for hotels, restaurants, and attractions, as well as photos and maps.
When To Go
Despite its alpine location, Varenna’s climate is mild, rarely dipping below 40 degrees in winter or breaking 85 degrees in summer. Official high season starts in April and runs until the end of September. The best time to visit is October or late March, as the weather is still warm but low season prices swing into effect.
How to Get There
From the East Coast, Continental and Alitalia fly nonstop to Milan out of Newark. From Milan’s Malpensa airport, take the 50-minute Malpensa Shuttle to Central Station (5 euro or approx $6)
Other options include flying into Rome, Venice, or Zurich and then taking the train to Milan. Varenna is an hour from Milan’s Central Station on the Milan-Sondrio line, a route that provides an inexpensive scenic overview of the region. You can book your train ticket
online using the station “Varenna-Esino” as your destination. Tickets range from 4,80 to 7,20 euro (approx $6-$8).
Where To Stay
It’s well worth the extra 10-20 euro charge for a lake view room, wherever you stay in Varenna.
Via IV Novembre, 18 Varenna
Phone: 011 39 0341.830.113
Villa Cipressi offers lake view double rooms decorated in muted earthtones with hardwood floors and enormous windows for 120 euros in low season (approx $145) and 130 euros (approx $157) in high season. We were able to get an additional discount with our AAA membership. Avoid the overpriced Royal Victoria directly next door, where double lake view rooms are much shabbier, but double the price.
Plaza XX Settembre, 29 Varenna
Phone: 011 39 0341.830.298
The Albergo Milano has gotten a lot of press lately in Rick Steves and other guidebooks, so be sure to reserve early. It is slightly more expensive than Villa Cipressi, with double lakefront rooms ranging from 135-140 euros a night (approx $165-$170).
Plaza Martiri della Libertà, 4 - Loc. Olivedo Varenna
Phone: 011 39 0341.830.115
The family-run Albergo Olivedo, steps from the ferry landing, is an even more affordable option, with frequent off-season packages.
What To See
Fraz. Vezio, 23828 Perledo (Lc)
Phone: 011 39 335.465.186
Castello Vezio was founded by the Romans, who first built fortifications to watch over the lakefront city below . These were rebuilt in the Middle Ages, complete with turrets and towers. Daniele Tagliaferri, the Falconer of Vezio, trains his birds in the castle garden and offers regular public demonstrations of their talents. Admission in high season is 4 euro for adults (approx $5).
Other must-sees include the old town square, featuring Saint Giorgio’s Church, consecrated in 1313. From this square, you can take the scenic promenade down to the landing stage on the lake.
Where to Eat
Villa Cipressi’s La Contrade dining room is elegant and features three-course fixed-price meals averaging 20 euros (approx $25) per person. For upscale but reasonably priced fish and seafood dishes, try Vecchia Varenna (Via Scoscesa, 10 Varenna, Phone: 011 39 0341.830.793). The menu, including prices, is available online. The menu at Il Cavitappi ( Via XX Settembre, 10 Varenna, Phone: 011 39 0341.815.349) depends upon what was caught the night before, and reservations are usually needed. For more casual dining, the Pizzeria del Sole on the main square is usually crowded with locals.