Varenna, Italy

Many consider Varenna, Italy, to be the most beautiful town on Lake Como. The charming town of rustic houses interlaced with cobbled streets huddles on the lakeshore beneath the foothills of the Alps that rise behind the town. Just an hour north of Milan, Varenna is an idyllic retreat from the bustle of the city that has drawn visitors for centuries.

Varenna is built upon a point of rock that juts out into the lake, and sits at the foot of a mountain that rises high above it. The skeletal ruins of an ancient castle called Vezio commands the height, poking its cracked ribs to the sky. The community dates back to at least to Roman times, and the earliest historical reference for the town dates to 493, where it is mentioned by Corius in his History of Milan. Its next mention is from a will drafted in 769 by the Deacon Grato of Monza.

After the turn of the first millennium, things really started to heat up for Varenna. In 1126, the town was defeated and sacked by an army from Como when Varenna chose to fight under the flag of distant Milan, which lost that particular war. On two more occasions, in 1224 and 1228, Varenna again went to war with the town of Como and was razed to the ground on both occasions. The survivors took refuge in the nearby castle of Vezio where they were able to wait out the wrath of the soldiers of Como.

After the excitement of the 10th and 11th centuries, Varenna settled down to the sleepy lakeside existence it has enjoyed ever since. It was subjected to various feudal aristocratic families, and a tyrant or two, until finally Varenna’s infeudation passed to the family Serbollini, who kept possession of Vezio’s tower until the 19th century.

More recently, Varenna has best been known for the fine black marble that was quarried nearby, which kept the town prosperous for many years. Her most famous son is industrialist G.B. Perelli of Perelli Tire fame, who was born in Varenna in 1848.

Today Varenna is best known as the seat of many scientific conferences held at Villa Monastero, an old monastery that has housed a Hydrobiology Institute since 1925. The gardens at the Villa are open to the public, as is a portion of the main building that is designated as a museum.

Another point of interest at Varenna is the medieval castle of Vezio, where legend says the last Lombard Queen Theodolinda died in the 7th century. Parts of the ancient castle have been restored, and today house an exhibition of birds of prey and a school of falconry.

Perhaps most interesting of all, besides Varenna’s beautiful lakeside promenade and the sunsets viewed from her shores, is the lovely parish church of San Giorgio whose gray bell tower pokes above the picturesque terra cotta roofs of the town. The church was consecrated in 1313 and contains many precious works of art.

Varenna, Italy is an ideal place for romantics and those seeking an authentic rustic charm that is not contrived or commercialized.


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