The Villa Monastero was originally a Cistercian convent dedicated to S. Maria. The establishment dates back at least to 1208, when the first documentary mention occured. In the mid-sixteenth century the last six sisters transferred to a convent in Lecco and the buildings were sold to the Mornico family. The Mornicos owned the villa for the next three centuries, during which time considerable restructuring took place. It is now used as a conference centre.
The house itself is now a museum, open on Saturdays and Sundays (and daily in August). Unfortunately I wasn't able to visit as I was there on a Tuesday in July. A combined ticket for the house and gardens costs €8.
The grounds are open daily to visitors between April and October from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. (7.00 p.m. between May and September). Admission costs €5. The gardens stretch along the side of the lake. Species represented include cypresses, oleanders, citrus fruits, American and African palm trees, agaves, yuccas, dracaenas.
Varenna has a pleasant lakeside walkway that leads round the lake edge from near the ferry terminal to the another area that is filled with restaurants and shops.
This walkway offers great views of Lake Como, including to the north and the Alps in the distance.
Varenna is an interesting village to explore on foot. From the train station, it's a downhill walk. There is a pleasant pathway around the lakeside (pics 3-5) with interesting views, reached from the ferry port - part is on the flat - suitable for wheelchair users/prams etc, but then there are steeper parts
I enjoyed seeing the narrow lanes winding from the lakeside (pics 1-2)
I would have liked to explore further, but we had other places to visit -I've seen enough to give me 'a taster' and hope to return one day.
The passarella, the lakeside path from Olivedo to Varenna, is really very pretty indeed.
It meanders its way between cliff and shoreline, under overhanging branches, across a little bridge, through restaurant patios and past little (very expensive) shops towards the main square. Numerous stepped and cobbled alleyways lead from it up to the road.
It gives excellent views of Varenna, the lake and the mountains beyond and (despite being obviously popular with both dogwalkers and other visitors) it is a most pleasant way to approach the village. And very romantic too, I imagine, at the right time and with the right person.
A 'must-do', either on your way to Varenna or on your way back to the station.
The church of S Giorgio presides over the main village square (named after the church).
It was started in around 1200, although it has no written mention until 1313, and has obviously undergone many changes over the centuries. But you can still see fragments of its earlier incarnations in the form of frescoes which have been uncovered and one or two chunks of carved stone.
It is probable that the whole church was frescoed between the end of the 1200s and the beginning of the 1300s, and some of these frescoes are still visible. There are saints on the pillars, their narrow faces staring gravely down at the congregation, decorative patterns o the arches and, on the wall facing the altar, a barely-visible depiction of either Hell or the Apocalypse, its dismembered bodies reminiscent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting.
The bell tower dates from the 1600s, when the church building was also extended.
You could so easily miss this very ancient church.
It's tucked away in the corner of Piazza San Giorgio, almost on the lakeside. No tower, and nothing to see from the piazza apart from a curving grey wall.
S Giovanni dates from at least the 1100s, although was probably built on the site of an earlier Christian building.
It's a small church, and you can only see it by poking your head through the open doorway. There's no access to the interior. But you can see the remnants of some lovely ancient frescoes, one of which (St Christopher) is thought to date from the very early 1300s, more being slightly later and one or two from the 1500s.
If you are feeling energetic you could spend a lot of time going up and down the numerous stepped and cobbled alleyways which are indicators of Varenna's fishing-village past.
I didn't feel very energetic on my visit, I'm afraid, but did very much enjoy exploring one or two and having a quick look up (or down) several more. I liked the glimpses of real life which they offered..people's washing, people's pot plants, piles of logs for the fire and so on and so forth.
It was nice to see that the vast majority of alleyways were not defaced by graffiti (that is not always the case elsewhere in Italy).
A good way to spend the day on Lake Como is to get the all day ferry pass and hop around the lake, visiting the other towns. Bellagio is a short ride away, as is Menaggio and Lenno. At each place you will find opportunities to shop, eat, or visit villas.
One of my favorite stops was seeing the Villa Balbianello. I took the ferry to Lenno and from there walked to it. It is a fairly long walk, along the waterfront of Lenno, then a hike up thru the hillside and out to the Villa on the point. Very picturesque. You can pay to just wander the grounds, or pay for a tour of the Villa itself. You may recognize it from some scenes filmed there for Star Wars and Casino Royale Movies.
Situated along the eastern side of Lake Como, the garden is the result of age-long work which transformed the steep slopes into a scenic design.
A very peaceful and relaxing place to wander or sit under the arbors and picnic.
Please refer to my Lago di Como travelogues for more photos.
Varenna is easily walkable from end to end, and the main square is home to Hotel Olived (pictured), and the ferry dock where you can catch a boat to Bellagio (regular departures several times a day). It's a quaint, old-fashioned town that doesn't shout touristy, but caters well to those who are lucky enough to stay here.
There is no shortage of magnificent villas along the shore of Lake Como and there is also probably ample opportunity to argue which is the "most magnificent". I'd have to say though, that in regard to structure and setting this one ain't bad! The Villa Monastero was built starting in the 19th century. Located in Varenna just down the road from the Villa Cipressi, this is definitely the star if only based on size. Whereas the gardens of Villa Cipressi are beautiful and charming, the gardens of Villa Monastero are spectacular and somewhat daunting.
Today the villa is owned by the National Counsel for Research (how's that for sounding important and undefining all at once) and provides conference space. The gardens are open to the public and extensive. If you want to see it all you will need to set aside at least half a day. Even then it will likely be difficult to absorb all the formally developed terraced gardens, sculptures and the many peaceful seating areas.
The village of Varenna is worth visiting merely for the joy of enjoying the town and the vistas it offers. If, however, you need more specific attractions you will find several options. This photo offers one of those views that is so ideal that it could easily be confused with the work of a Hollywood matte artist. It is definitely worth a click to enlarge.
The picture is taken from Villa Cipressi. The villa itself has now been converted into a hotel and as such is not open to tour unless you are a guest. The gardens, however, are open and wonderful. Not quite as extensive as its sister 80 meters down the road, the Villa Monastero, but still charming in a more controllable manner. Large enough to become engulf but not so large as to be overwhelming.
If you have arrived in Varenna by ferry boat, as we did, you will see before you a very pretty town ... but not the best part. If you walk along the waters edge to the right you will naturally be led to the lakeside promenade which is cantilevered out of the rock face of the shore. Apparently the bequest of a wealthy benefactor, the promenade was constructed to connect to the main part of town by way of the water's edge.
The effect is similar to a trick used by landscape architects in which they heighten the surprise of a spectacular hidden feature by providing an obscure pathway to its location. In this case the promenade leeds you along the lake, under the arched supports of several second story balconies to the center of the town's shoreline. While we enjoyed the morning light from this vantage, I understand that this a favorite evening stroll for many romantics.
The Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista is a small Romaneque church with some fourteenth century frescoes.
Look out for the rather macabre skull and crossbones memorial in the floor.
Varenna is a pleasant enough little village right on Lake Como. There is a nice walkway along the edge of the lake that takes you past shops and cafes.