I am not certain that I should write about Varenna. It’s not a secret by any imagination but it’s not well known either. And perhaps part of its beauty and charm is that it is a secondary or tertiary stop when visiting Lago di Como. It is not overrun by tourists (and if you have visited Italy in the last five years, you know what I am talking about), it’s laidback - two notches above sleepy, and it is stunningly beautiful and peaceful in so many ways. If you’re looking to rest and regroup, I cannot imagine a more suitable place than Varenna.
Let’s start with its scent. Beside the pure air from the nearly 1000 feet above sea level, the bouquet of star jasmine permeates the entire town. It is difficult to take a step without noticing its amazing fragrance. When you return home, you will yearn for and remember Varenna because of the Jasmine.
You’ll also fondly remember sitting at Bar Il Molo, appertif in hand, listening to the subtle waves of Lake Como breach the town shoreline or watching the ducks glide by planning their next assault on someone’s uneaten pizza. It is a place to watch time go by. Shared with a love one or friend, it’s positively, paralyzingly peaceful.
The backdrop of the majesty of the Alps, the not-to-distance towns on opposite shores, and the glass-like surface of Como itself all contribute to the serenity of Varenna. We found it remarkable that given the setting, the lake was not over run with boat traffic. When we enquired with our hotel concierge about a lake tour, she said, “if it’s a question of a boat tour or missing your reservation at Il Cavatappi, skip the boat. You can always go on a boat.” Point made.
Ahhh, Il Cavatappi....run by Giuseppe and Riccardo. It is a small restaurant with 6 tables inside and a few more outside amid the neighbors from the contrada. Everything about this restaurant was delightful and it is unquestionably the best food in Varenna. The proprietors cure their own salumi and offer 5 different types of homemade pasta adeptly served with rabbit, swordfish ragout, or infused bread crumble. The setting is intimate and perfectly married to the town it serves. This is a must stop when visiting Varenna but because of its size, reservations are nearly mandatory.
Varenna, like many of the towns on the lake, is built into the hills. This means you will be walking up and down steep and ancient stairways to get your next destination. Careful navigation is critical but somehow it adds to the charm. The town also has two Villas worth visiting. One is now a hotel and the other a Museum but both offer contrasting (one more terraced and the other more horizontal) botanical gardens that are must visits as they stretch along the lake shore.
Finally, we cannot say enough about Varenna’s Hotel du Lac. It is located prominently on (or even, in) the lake though not easily findable upon arrival. Stay patient and you will be rewarded. The rooms are modern but retain old world charm and the staff is friendly and helpful. The hotel has 16 rooms, many with the same features but we assure you that you want to ask for room 12 if at all possible. It is on the corner on the first floor (considered the 2nd by a US audience) with a large terrace overlooking the lake. It is serene and relaxing and you may not want to leave your balcony.
While Varenna’s neighbor, Bellagio, gets all the accolades, we would pick Varenna 99 times out of 100. Bellagio is swamped by tourists, has dozens of stores selling things that you will find in a drawer 20 years from now and wonder what made you buy them. And their lake front food scene is average at best. Varenna while not as large or as busy, will steal your heart with its postcard beauty and its laidback charm.