Climbing up a rock at the foot of a mountain 12 mi/20 km north of Lecco on the eastern shore of Lake Como, Varenna is often called the Pearl of Lake Como.
Car ferries from Menaggio and Bellagio dock at Olivedo. From there, a scenic walkway called Passarella leads to Piazza San Giorgio, the main square. Varenna's old town is graced with colorful houses, old villas hiding behind cypresses, a picturesque fishing harbor with two pretty cafes, traffic-free alleyways, and magnificent lake views.
It does get quite busy in summer with many visitors from the U.S., Australia and Japan, so try to visit in spring, when it's most beautiful. The main church is the beautifully renovated Church San Giorgio, a basilica built around 1300 that's adorned with frescoes. Don't overlook the small chapel San Giovanni Battista on the lake side of the Piazza. It's just a short walk to Villa Cipressi, a luxury hotel, and Villa Monastero. The lush gardens of both villas can be visited. Market day in Varenna is Wednesday morning.
Next to Villa Monasterio, the Museo Civico di Ornitologia e Scienze Naturali Luigi Scanagatta presents a collection of stuffed birds, reptiles and mammals of the region (open April-September). Perched high above Varenna, the Castello di Vezio has an art exhibition, a falconry, and even dungeons, which can be visited on a guided tour. The view from the 14th-century tower is awesome (open April-September; http://www.castellodivezio.it).
Pilgrims will make their way to the Sanctuary of Lezzeno near Varenna. It was built in 1690, two years after a miracle took place in 1688, when legend says a plaster relief of the Virgin was crying tears of blood.
A short walk south of Varenna, the hamlet of Fiumelatte is famous for being the home of Italy's shortest river. The Fiumelatte (River of Milk) is a 820-ft-/250-m-long seasonal frothy torrent, which dries up in October and reappears suddenly in late March. Leonardo da Vinci in vain tried to find its source, whose exact location still hasn't been discovered, but it's fed by melted water from the Grigne.
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