Memories of Varenna at Lago di Como
by Lu Sobredo
The air was crisp the morning after a stormy night of rain, lightning and thunder. Even being covered under thick down comforters did not shield the family from lightning lashing past the huge windows of our hotel room in Isny, Germany—a quaint little town not far from Constance, a university town we visited on our way to Italy more than a dozen years ago. A posting on social media from our long-time favorite travel guru Rick Steves compelled me to ask my husband James to dust off photographs from that trip. I felt inspired to walk through memory lane and write about it for my blog.
James had been planning a special ten-year anniversary trip to Europe for us which we delayed to coincide with my birthday in the summer. Our then nine-year old son would accompany us for his first European travel. It would not be his last. How I managed to take two-months off from work, I don’t even recall, but the summer months were ideal time for the university professor and our young son who would enter his last year in primary school that fall.
After less than a week in Munich, Germany and Salzburg, Austria we headed to Northern Italy where we hoped the presence of tourists would be thinner so we could enjoy not only the sights, but some much needed rest and relaxation by Lake Como. And that had to be foremost in my mind, the destination for the week as I struggled during the car trip across the Alps through Switzerland and the Bergamo Mountains—Italian Alps. It was summer, but one wouldn’t know it from the chill in the air, we had sweaters and windbreakers on, and there were snowy residues at the mountain peaks. I also don’t have much fondness for heights when a quick glimpse of the mountainside made my stomach queasy and my head was on the precipice of a dizzy spell. Those hairpin turns in a rented German-made Ford station wagon were no joke, although my boys enjoyed mocking my reaction, seeing my fingers clutching the armrest. My knuckles had turned blue. Other drivers were cavalier as I watched them maneuver seemingly undaunted, a careless slip could have landed them into the abyss below.
Once we reached inland away from the edges of the Italian Alps, we stopped to gather ourselves, well, for me to gather my bearings. Then back on the road. And I thought the drive through the mountains were disturbing, try the Italian freeways with tunnels.
But all was worth it in the end once I caught the sight I’ve only read about, the glimmering waters of Lake Como. Our huge hotel room had a beachfront view and our son had his own twin bed away from the balcony. The hostess, Laura (she’s gone now but the hotel is under new management) treated us well—we suspected she was bipolar. Other guests were cautious around her, but she showed her pleasant side to us. Clearly it had to be because we had Spanish names, closer to Italian names. Just my take.
The photos are precious reminders of our time together, our first family trip to Europe, and Varenna to this day still tugs at the heart. The hotel, which was likely a family home, had been in Laura’s family for more than 300 years over several generations. It had been refurbished and modernized but the bones of the structure told its history. Known for fresh seafood and the best homemade Tiramisu and lemon gelato anyone could ever have in this earthly experience, the place was special.
Hubby and I were Rick Steves aficionados, and we owed the recommendation of this town to him. Away enough from the tourists’ stream, except for Spanish and German tourists we encountered. We also looked forward to not encountering loud American tourists, something that I avoided when I was still single having been on tour groups to Europe with my best friend Donna in our youth. I’ve seen how the locals stared with disdain at American tourists; I had heard of the stereotype, but to watch it was dreadful. James and I spoke in Visayan, a Filipino language of our childhood so as not to be mistaken as Americans. How sad was that? But in Varenna, we were comfortable being Americans. We were the only ones. So we thought.
We had our first evening meal in the formal dining room of the premises. I remember dressing up. White linens, flowers and authentic Italian meal in four or five courses. It was part of the cost of the hotel stay. Yes, my husband splurged. It was for our tenth anniversary. And Laura, the proprietor, paid attention to our needs. We were not expecting English speaking guests to emerge in the dining room. The couple sat two tables or more away, so that was fine. They were there only one night, or they were on their last night I believe, Americans on their honeymoon. Laura pointed them out. We nodded in their direction. The white couple didn’t seem that friendly, so no loss to us. We had five days planned at the place.
Varenna is a quaint little town by the water, with points of interests only five or six-minute walk from our home base. Our breakfast and dinner were spent in the hotel and they were every bit as delicious as advertised. Sherbet was served at the start of dinner to cleanse our palates. Our son, then a finicky eater, was forced to try elaborate dishes, or else he would have gone hungry on bread and sherbet. The meal selections were a huge treat—grilled river trout freshly caught, organic pork from grass-fed piggies, an array of pastas throughout our stay cooked to Italian perfection and James enjoyed veal on the menu. Desserts, all homemade spoiled me forever—over the years bragging to my husband, I know how it’s supposed to taste and short of that, don’t even bother. Alright, what’s wrong with being a dessert snob?
Some of the precious times are vivid in my memory to this day: attending Italian mass on a Sunday, standing room only at San Giovanni Battista Church, a six- minute walk away; strolling the narrow paths with my young son to the center of town to pick up lunch from the local market; lunch or coffee and pastry at the little restaurants along Lake Como and taking the ferry to go shopping at Bellagio. There were fireworks every night it seemed in the distance—a town celebrating a Saint’s feast. Of course, James was occupied taking photos of the breathtaking scenery when not with us. And the most memorable of all, and how ironic it was that on our last night at the hotel, we dined alfresco facing the port while ferry commuters disembarked or lined up to take their ride home to other towns along the Lake.
The irony was at four of the tables were American guests, including our family. They were friendly, not obnoxiously loud and talking across the tables did not feel right. So, Laura’s staff pulled our tables closer and we partied all night. Though the restaurant was set to close at midnight, they kept it open for us until one in the morning. The couple from Walnut Creek were the oldest among us, he was a principal who kept ordering grappa, Greek wine or liqueur for the tables. The other couple a little older than we were, she was a professor at a local college and lived in Davis; both couples were from California. The others were a young daughter and father duo, they hailed from Michigan. He was a teacher, and his daughter was a newly-minted kindergarten teacher who was offered a job by our grappa-loving principal if the young lady was willing to move to California. We had the best time laughing, sharing stories and admitting to each other that the choice of location was deliberate thinking they, too, could avoid unruly American tourists as advised by Rick Steves in his Tour Books. As it turned out, we were all fans of Rick Steves. We had a good laugh as here we were, Americans all and celebrating life as strangers at first and friends by the time the early morning came. Towards the end of the evening, we were entertained by some Italian lunatic who kept circling around in his old, noisy putt-putt car which sounded like empty tin cans strung together dragging against the road. The hotel staff told us, the looney tune did it on purpose to annoy the hotel guests. Instead, we reimagined him as added entertainment.
Thanks to my darling husband James for the photos, although his cameras today are far more advanced resulting in kick-ass, gallery-worthy photos. These photos will do even though they may not meet his present standards. It is the feeling they evoke when I look at them that’s precious to me.
Enjoy the rest of our photo gallery. Once the pandemic eases, Varenna should be on your vacation horizon.
I end this photo essay with hopes it lifted your spirits in this time of the pandemic. I can't wait to pay the place a visit once the world is safe for travel. For now I rely on traversing the memory lanes I've been blessed to have taken in the past.
Photo ©James Sobredo
Varenna, Lago di Como, Lecco, Lombardy by the Italian Alps in Northern Italy
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