Easter in Varenna

Sun setting over Lake Como
Sun setting over Lake Como

Summer is coming to an end, in about 6 weeks we will be celebrating Easter and it will have been 12 months since we were in the small, serene town of Varenna on the banks of Italy’s Lake Como. I am still processing all the photos I took and attempting to collate them into appealing, memorable photobooks using Blurb’s BookSmart software, it is taking forever because I am easily distracted by looking at destination websites that relate to the photos I am working on. At the moment the photos we took in Varenna are on my screen, pictures of the lake and the towns that reside on its shores and it got me thinking, I haven’t really posted many photos of our stay in Varenna and now is as good a time as ever. See, easily distracted 🙂

Varenna and the Hotel Eremo Gaudio was our home for 5 nights, we wanted to avoid larger cities during Easter and it was a good excuse for taking a relaxing break from the constant moving and sightseeing. Varenna is a small town, the shops still shut in the afternoon and the majority of visitors at this time of year appear to be Germans and Italians. Our hotel is on the edge of town, it has spectacular views of the lake and next door is a cemetery, from our balcony we can also see the gardens of the Villa Monastero. Breakfast is provided, it is a feast of cereal, bread, boiled eggs, cheese, meat spreads, fruit, yoghurt and pastries, you can dine outside on the terrace or in the breakfast room where most guests ate on cooler mornings.

During the day we would walk along the esplanade, eat gelati and enjoy a glass of wine with lunch – usually a panini with salami and cheese. We did venture to other towns, catching the ferry across to Bellagio and Menaggio where we could do some more walking, eating and drinking, it was very relaxing. One day we caught the train to Milan, we walked from the station to the Duomo, it was a long walk and we didn’t realise that in order to see all the designer shopping we should have turned left long before we reached the main piazza. Milan is probably a really great city to explore, but with limited time we only caught a glimpse and we were happy to get back to our quiet little village.

While in Varenna we dined at the Albergo del Sole Restaurant and the Victoria Grill when we had tired of picnics of salad, sausage, cheese and crackers. The food was good and simple: veal, steak or lamb and a side of grilled vegetables which was greatly appreciated plus half a litre of wine for 6 euros and it was very drinkable. The town seems empty at night, that is until you head out for dinner or a drink and you see other tourists and hear the different accents and languages, I think we were the only Aussies though. The nicest coffee we had was at the Villa Cipressi, the restaurant was closed but they were happy to serve us coffee, sitting outdoors we were able to watch as a storm rolled in over the lake, thankfully missing us completely.

Enjoy the photos 🙂

Easter decorations at the at the restaurant in Villa Cipressi
Easter decorations at the at the restaurant in Villa Cipressi
Lake Como ferry
Lake Como ferry
Varenna
Varenna
Varenna at night
Varenna as the sun sets
The cemetery on the hillside
The cemetery on the hillside
Varenna by lamplight
Varenna by lamplight
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People we’ve met while travelling

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We’ve been travelling in Europe for about 5 weeks now and have loved every minute of it, only very minor glitches in our plans and nothing drastic enough to make me wish I was at home. In addition to the amazing sights, fascinating history and delicious food we have had the pleasure of meet and/or interacting with some really wonderful people. It is true that if you make the effort to be pleasant and polite, try to say hello, please and thank you in the local language and keep the “it isn’t like this at home” attitude to yourself then people will respond positively.

In Paris it took a day or two before the staff on the front desk said more than bonjour to us and wouldn’t admit to speaking more than ‘a little english’. Eventually we were engaging in conversation with them, we learned alot about the area we were staying in and they were extremely forthcoming with information and general chatter about their lives, other destinations and what they thought of them. Marty met the manager of the bar across the road and got chatting about food, she spoke English very well and invited us to try their authentic french fries and the best burger in Paris, we did and had an enjoyable evening in the company of locals.

In Amsterdam and Germany, most of our positive interactions were based around food, either over breakfast, dinner or while buying produce for a picnic. We met the owners of a brasserie and doner kebab shop in Amsterdam and got travel tips from a shop assistant near the red light district, they were all quite happy to tell us more about themselves and the business they were in as well as provide good service. In Germany we met a terribly non politically correct waiter who told us jokes about Barack Obama, being married and whatever else he had read on his email that day. We ate there twice, the food was really good but the conversation and entertainment he provided was more valuable and had we stayed there another night we would have eaten there again. At the Hofbrauhaus we drank with an elderly gentleman who looked as though he had finished a couple of steins before we arrived, he didn’t speak much English, enough to give us his name, Patrick, and date of birth (when Hitler came to power) and a few short phrases that helped us with dinner table etiquette in Germany. Marty shouted him a beer, the concept foreign to him, when the beer appeared in front of him and told Marty that money wasn’t a problem and he could afford beer, it was hard to explain that buying someone a drink was a tradition in Australia. It was a fun evening after a long, cold day at Dachau and we were glad to have met Patrick, even though the conversation was a little hard to understand at times.

One of our favourite days ever was spent with a mate of Marty’s, Joe, he met us at the train wearing traditional Bavarian clothing and he drove us around the countryside and to Neuschwanstein for a tour through King Ludwig’s fairytale castle. The weather was perfect for being outdoors, we went for a ride on a horse and carriage and got a lift in a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain where we drank nice, cold beer at a bar surrounded by snow and mountain tops. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get better, Joe took us to meet his family, his Mum had prepared a special dinner of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Joe’s family were the most wonderful people, his Mum and sister had also dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing and we kicked ourselves for not getting a decent photo of them all together, so overwhelmed were we by their hospitality and generosity. It was very hard to hop on the train back to Munich that night and it is a day we will never forget.

In Italy we have been on the end of some truly excellent customer service and met really friendly, engaging people but we have also been on the end of some of the worst and most indifferent service ever experienced. Shop assistants prefer to maintain telephone conversations or conversations with other people rather than help you out or even take your money. Prepared to greet them with ‘buongiorno’, they always start with ‘prego’ or you’re welcome and it throws you, there is often no eye contact unless you don’t have the right change and then you get the glare and the rolling of eyes. Milan was one of the worst for service, we got bumped from place to place just trying to buy a ticket for the tram. Our accommodation in Varenna, Vernazza, Siena, Orvieto and Assisi obviously cared about their guests, helping us with the language, giving us directions and helping us find good places to eat – all with a smile and no rolling of eyes. The Sicilian brothers at the Il Pirata cafe in Vernazza were a hoot, they flatter the women, make lots of jokes, have fun with the work and their customers and the food and coffee was terrific. We went there for breakfast each morning and for dessert one evening, when you meet such good people and get treated well how can you resist going back. In Orvieto we were well looked after by the family that owned the B&B, had excellent waiters at the restaurants we went to and had a fun time drinking wine and eating nibbles with a couple of ladies from Brazil.

There are so many more instances of meeting people that I could write thousands of words, but all my descriptions would sound much the same: interesting, wonderful, engaging, helpful and funny. The people we’ve met have made our trip more enjoyable for us and it has opened our eyes to the way other people think and act, overall we’re really not that different.

The three Vs: Venice, Varenna and Vernazza

Venice

So far I have loved every place we have visited, they are all special and magical in their own unique ways but the three Vs: Venice, Varenna and Vernazza really made an impression on me and on Marty as well. Venice for the decaying beauty, brilliant colour and absence of motor vehicles, Varenna for the serenity, cheese and lake views and Vernazza for the spectacular location, village atmosphere (after day trippers have left) and tasty trofie al pesto.

We stayed in Venice for 4 nights, too many for some people however this enabled us to spend some time in Trieste, a port city on the Adriatic Sea and about 2 hours from Venice by train. Our hotel room was a cosy little room separate to the actual hotel and with views of a construction site that never seemed to be active, a little hard to find at first but not far from the vaporetto stops that lined the esplanade leading to St Mark’s Square. Breakfast was forgettable yet we won’t forget the prepackaged croissant filled with gooey fake chocolate, melba toast and bread roll, not to mention the awful coffee. A short walk away was a snack bar, we had our best Venetian coffee there when we needed a fix, pizzerias, trattorias and enotecas were also in abundance in our area, Castello or sestieri as they are called in Venice. One of the little places we ate at was run by a Bangladeshi family, the men were very chatty and one in particular was a huge cricket fan so he and Marty had plenty to talk about, the evening we ate there they presented us with a Spritz on the house. A Spritz is a bright orange drink, we had seen many people drinking it but hadn’t known what it was and as we tasted the Prosecco-Aperol cocktail, one of the Bangladeshi (sorry if that is incorrect term) explained to us that it is a drink of the Gondoliers after they have finished a long day on the canals, the drink smells strongly of sweet oranges but has a kick that was a tad too strong for me.

Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, Venice
Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, Venice
Gondolas of Venice
Gondolas of Venice

Moving around Venice is easy, except for the constant dodging of other tourists and their elbows, there is no chance of maintaining a comfortable personal space here at least not in the day time. The canals are jam-packed with tourists in gondolas and water taxis, early in the day there are also small barges that navigate the canals and carry out the daily garbage collection. At night time the day trippers, tour groups and cruise liner passengers have gone and although the square is busy it is a more enjoyable time of day to listen to the classical music played at Florians and take photos of the monuments and buildings as the light changes. Walking through the campos (small squares usually dominated by a church) and taking time to eat gelato or watch people from a shady spot while eating salami and mozarella paninis is one of the best ways to ‘see’ Venice. There are plenty of museums and galleries to explore, but Venice is such a different city to any other I have been to that I find walking the streets just as exciting as seeing the artwork, mosaics and decoration within churches and galleries. The men selling fake designer goods, toys and roses are annoying and worth avoiding if you can, it is illegal to sell and purchase fake designer goods in Italy, when the sellers get a hint of the police coming their way they pack up their goods and head into the side streets. “Hello missus, I give you special price” is their opening line, they’re nearly all dressed very well so we figure that the fake designer goods industry is bringing in good money.

Varenna on Lake Como
Varenna on Lake Como

Varenna and Vernazza don’t have the fake designer goods, there are only a few hundred residents in each town and no supermarkets, only small market shops providing a minimal range of goods and the best range of delicatessen goods you will find. Both towns are on the water, Varenna is located on Lake Como and Vernazza is one of the five towns of Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean. either of these places would be a good place to semi-retire, renovate a couple of rooms and make them available for rent during holiday seasons. Such beautiful and peaceful places even with an influx of tourists during Spring and Summer, come nightfall, most have left the towns to the locals who fill up the bars and osterias until late in the evening.

Villa gardens, Varenna
Villa gardens, Varenna

Rick Steves is a fan of Varenna and Vernazza, watching his dvds and reading his guidebooks inspired us to stay in the two towns, that and the beautiful imagery I saw on websites devoted to the two locations. At our hotel in Varenna a photo of Rick Steves with the owners of Eremo Gaudio was stuck on the wall at reception and christmas cards sent from Rick Steves and family were pasted all over the door of Il Pirata, our breakfast place in Vernazza. It is common to see travellers carrying Rick Steves guidebooks, we have spoken to a few American devotees who created their entire itinerary around his advice. Varenna is across the lake from Bellagio, home to George Clooney and popular with all visitors to the region. We spent a few hours walking around the streets of Bellagio, lunch was in the company of other tourists watching their budget, all of us eating a picnic of some sort only we had forgotten to bring a bottle of wine. Along the water front is a pretty garden and a variety of expensive shops, the restaurants are full of well dressed patrons and day trippers like us pile on and off the ferries. In the narrow backstreets you can do a bit of wine tasting, buy shoes and homewares or sit in a cafe near the church – we chose the latter. In addition to Bellagio we spent time in Milan and Menaggio, neither place thrilled us much but we were glad to have made the effort.

Vernazza is one of the best placed towns on the Cinque Terre, transport is close and the town is small enough that you don’t have to carry or wheel your bags far to get to any accommodation. There is a lovely little bay encircled by cafes, the church and tower, when we arrived in the afternoon there were children swimming and sunbathers lying all over the rocks soaking up the sun. Marty was keen for a swim, the colour of the water looked very inviting, a clear deep blue green, I was happy to sit in the shade and dangle my feet over the edge of the breakwall. This area is known for its pesto, foccacia and a sweet wine called sciacchetra, we tried all three and loved each one, we also dined on fried calamari, fresh cheese, salami, mortadella and gelati. The Sicilian brothers Massimo and Lucca that own Il Pirata offer up sicilian treats such as cannoli and frozen fruit slushies, the two of them are real characters and treat all the girls like princesses, they also claim that they can pick the nationality of customers by what they eat. Eating there is a fun experience.

Restaurants in Vernazza
Vernazza at night

To get around the Cinque Terre you can either hike between each of the towns, catch trains or do a combination of the two, you have to pay to walk the path between towns and for a little extra train and bus travel is included. We didn’t want to spend all of our time hiking so we used the train to get to Riomaggiore, from there we walked with another Aussie couple along the Dell Amore walk to Manarola and then we used trains to get from Manarola to Corniglia, Corniglia to Vernazza. Trains aren’t terribly frequent or they weren’t during our stay, so each train was packed with tired and sweaty tourists. We didn’t make it to Monterossa, a larger seaside resort town didn’t hold much appeal for us and sitting at a cafe eating nice food and drinking local wine was a much more attractive option.

The three Vs were for us, a great way to introduce ourselves to Italy and the Italian way of life, the next destination in Italy is Florence and I knew that it would be a completely different place to visit.