I love Italy. I know I say that about a lot of places I visit, but it is absolutely stunning here. And I know I’m not visiting any of the big cities like Rome or Venice, but this suits my style much better. Tiny villages where you only have to turn a corner to be away from anything even resembling a crowd. Cobblestone streets just barely wide enough for two people to pass. Italian villas tucked into hillsides. Delicious food. Who needs the sun in a place as beautiful as this?
If you didn’t guess already, the sun didn’t really want to make an appearance today. But other than a few sprinkles, it wasn’t a washout either. I didn’t sleep great last night and spent a couple of hours tossing and turning and watching Italian television at midnight. I was still up relatively early and ready to begin my first full day in Lake Como. It turns out Italian breakfasts are pretty much the same as you get everywhere in Europe: an assortment of pastries (of which the croissant seems to be a staple), watery eggs, toast with jam, yogurt, and fruit. Imagine my delight to find that my hotel has fresh made croissants stuffed with Nutella! That will be my breakfast staple for the week.
I wanted to visit Villa Monastero and Castello di Vezio today. I decided I would walk to the nearby village of Fiumelatte and stop at the villa on the way this morning, then hike up to the castle in the afternoon. I walked up to the village plaza in Varenna (Piazza San Giorgio) and stumbled upon an outdoor market. There were a variety of vendors selling everything from handmade jewelry to kitchen utensils to wine and cheese. I didn’t buy anything but got a couple of samples of biscuits while I walked. Although it’s a pretty short walk to Villa Monastero from Varenna, I kept getting sidetracked by beautiful alleys and walkways. All I kept thinking was, “This is incredible!”. Even in a village this small, it feels like there are endless passageways and cobblestone alleys to explore. Eventually I arrived at the villa. It was pretty, don’t get me wrong, but not a highlight for me. There are extensive gardens which looked they are still a few weeks away from bloom as well as the house to visit. The house itself was originally a Cistercian convent starting in the 12th century, but was eventually bought and repurposed before being donated to the public in the 1930s. Leaving the villa, I walked along the road to Fiumelatte, about a mile south of Varenna. The village is even smaller than Varenna itself, but has the same maze of cobblestone passageways and alleys. It is known for having the shortest river in Italy at about 820 feet. I have noticed several taps of water along the sides of roads and passageways and asked a woman entering her house if the water is safe to drink. She assured me it was, so I took a few sips of the water from the Fiumelatte River before heading back to Varenna.
You don’t need to worry about me going hungry this week. After my morning walk I stopped at Bar Nilus for lunch. I ordered what was easily the most fattening thing on the menu… a crepe with ham and cheese. Unlike any other crepe I’ve ever had, this was baked in its own little skillet and smothered in at least a pound of cheese. At least it seemed that way. And it was delicious. Or “molto bueno” if you will. I wish I could say I couldn’t finish it, but we all know that’s not true.
I stopped for a while to rest my legs at the hotel, then it was off to Castello di Vezio, high up and overlooking the entirety of Lake Como. It is about a 30 minute hike straight uphill to the castle from Varenna. Just before reaching the castle, you come to the tiny hamlet of Vezio, home to a few houses, a church, and a ceramics shop. I took a peek inside the church (beautiful!) then kept going. My plan was to look around the castle before the 3:30 falconry demonstration. The castle and its notorious “ghosts” were featured in the detour on the Amazing Race so it was fun to see it in person. Once inside the castle grounds, you can walk to the top of the tower and explore the basements. It turns out falconry isn’t really my thing, plus the presentation was entirely in Italian, so I watched the falcon fly for a few minutes and then quietly made my exit.
After the castle and a short rest, it was time for aperitivo. Aperitivo is a lovely northern Italian tradition whereby you order a drink and get a boatload of food to go with it (for free). The idea is that it is a teaser for your meal to come (Italians eat around 8 or 9PM) and you only eat a little. But after my huge lunch, it was more than enough to be considered dinner. My hotel serves aperitivo each day in the bar/terrace, so I decided I would give it a try. I had an Aperol spritz and a delicious spread of local meats and cheeses. My drink of choice is usually cider, but it’s not very common in Italy. (I have a 4 hour layover in Dublin going home and let’s just say I have a special fondness for the Irish Bulmers cider…) I knew going in that the spritz would look sweet but taste very bitter. It’s bright orange and did indeed appear to be sweet. But one sip assured me that there was plenty of bitter alcohol in it! I topped off “dinner” with Coppa Meringa, a dish of ice cream with meringue and whipped cream. Delish!
Tomorrow I’m off to Bellagio… the real one, not the one in Vegas!
P.S. Interesting fact : on Facebook, the little world icon for notifications in the top right corner is different in Europe (showing the European continent instead of North America).