Sailing to Varenna

We took the 10:43 ferry from Cernobbio to Bellagio, stepping carefully on the swaying metal gangplankbridging the Victorian station and the white steamer.  We headed upstairs to the top deck and sat in the stern.

The boat cleaved the deep blue waters, the sun warm upon us, the wind cool and brisk, and followed the shoreline to the many ocher-roofed villages, stopping at wrought-iron landing stations, letting folks off and others on.  The villages nestled along the water’s edge, each with its church and Lombard steeple, its yellow-painted hotels with orange geraniums trailing from windowsills, its cobbled lanes.  Beyond the shore, the villages spread up the green flanks of the lower Alps, to more churches and convents hugging the cliffs, villas with terraces and awnings, some shuttered.

Lake Como hangs from the Alps like an upside down “Y”, the western arm anchored by the main town of Como, the eastern arm ending with Lecco.  Bellagio perches on the peninsula reaching north through the center of the lake.  Byron called Lake Como the “Garden of the World.”  Many artists and statesmen have visited: Shelley, Longfellow, Verdi, Bellini, Listz, Puccini.  Winston Churchill painted; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor spent time here.

It is a blue and green landscape with scuttling clouds emerging from behind tall peaks, sudden winds ushering rain into the tranquil air with fat drops and swirling weather changes.  The beauty, the drama, takes my breath away, these sudden changes of weather.  Then, the storm gone, the sun bakes the wet grass and oleander trees.  Summer has returned.

We glide up the narrow lake bordered by the forests rising steeply on either side, passing white villas surrounded by gardens, cypress spires in rows, broad shady plane trees.  Church bells chime, echoing from village to village.

Arriving at Bellagio we take the ferry across one more stretch of water to Varenna, a quieter town, fewer tourists.  The waterfront path passes numerous restaurants, tables set in gardens overlooking the lake with awnings and umbrellas.  We finally reach the Hotel du Lac where we sit on a terrace under shade trees.  A mist has settled over the sun, and the view has been obscured, and we gaze into the whiteness as we nibble on salad and pasta.

Varenna is famous for its “Villa Monastero” and I had hopes of an interesting chapel somewhere.  It turned out the monastero was a convent of Cistercian nuns that was closed by the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century because the nuns were too lax.  The white Villa Monastero remains along the water’s edge and, having passed from owner to owner, is a Scientific Center today.

As we finished our lunch, a storm came in, and rain splattered through our leafy arbor, driving us inside to the lobby.  Thirty minutes later it let up and we ventured into the puddled town square, up steep cobbled stairs to the main road.  There we found the Church of San Giorgio.  A red candle flamed, and we prayed thanksgivings in the first pew before the Blessed Sacrament.  The Romanesque/Gothic church was lovely and well cared for, with many pieces from the closed convent, and a lovely fifteenth-century polyptych of Saint George over the high altar.

We descended along cobbled lanes to the docks and our 3:30 ferry home, full of color and sweetness, content with the day given to us.

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