Easter 2011 was celebrated in Varenna on Lake Como with a large bag of chocolates purchased in Lucerne, Switzerland, the weather was perfect and we spent our time in this beautiful little village cruising the lake and wandering through narrow streets and well tended gardens.
In 2012 my husband’s little sister and boyfriend came to visit and we drove inland to participate in an early morning Easter egg hunt at the family home of my other sister-in-law. With three little boys and three slightly larger ones there was plenty of action in the form of backyard soccer, water fights using Nerf guns and wrestling. Later in the afternoon we played poker under the shade of a huge tree and enjoyed a glass or two of bubbles, a fire was lit as the sun set and the little boys were hypnotised by the flames. It was a beautiful time spent with our family, lots of laughter, good conversation and tasty home cooked food.
This year we’re staying home, hanging out with the dogs, doing a bit of gardening, some cooking, hopefully take a few photos and there is a huge list of chores to complete, but I’m not complaining. Since November last year I have been acting Director for our unit during a period of uncertainty and change, although the experience has been mainly positive and relatively problem free, my head was starting to hurt and I was desperately in need of a good chunk of downtime. My acting role ended yesterday, next week I start a slightly different job and I’m looking forward to the challenge but most of all, I’m ecstatic to have a few days off to do the things I love and to have the time and energy to get my hands dirty.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.