Villa Monastero was on the furthest shore of Lake Como, a long circuitous drive by car from Argegno where we were staying, but just ten minutes by ferry if we drove up to Menaggio. We left the car there and crossed the lake as foot passengers on the autotraghetto to Varenna.
Arrive by boat, with ancient Varenna slowly coming into view as the 13th century campanile of San Giorgio chimes a welcome and you will never want to leave. This absurdly pretty spot is not only a delight to look at, but also a wonder to look out from: standing on a rocky promontory, it has an enviable view of all three branches of the lake.
It seems the eastern branch of Lake Como, reaching down to Lecco, was known as Lake Lecco and Varenna has long been considered the jewel of its coast.
Halfway up Lake Como’s eastern shore, gazing back at Bellagio and Menaggio, Varenna is perhaps the lovliest spot on the whole lake. Free of through traffic – which is diverted around the village – shaded by pines and planes, and almost completely devoid of souvenir shops, this little cluster of attractive old houses and waterfront cafés is set around steep, narrow alleyways stepping back from the old harbour. It’s an unassuming little place which repays however much time you’re prepared to devote to it…
Sadly though we were just passing through. From the harbour we followed the passarella, the scenic walkway hugging the rocks along the lakeside until we arrived at the gardens of Villa Monastero.
…wandering here feels like a secret discovery – The Rough Guide, and it was true, it felt forgotten, a little overlooked and perhaps not so well manicured as the gardens of Balbianello, but full of its own particular spirit and grace, a place of shadows and mist and secret revelations.
It’s a long, narrow garden, snaking along the shore between the road and the water, a walk through a gallery of close-up details and long-distance views, a promenade that’s both intimate and panoramic.
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Como on a tongue of land stretching from Varenna towards Fiumelatte, the garden… transformed the steep slopes of the cliff into a spectacular design. The terracing of the land favored the division of the garden into a sequence of frames…
The layout… is fascinating: paths and staircases blend in perfectly with the surrounding area and the background of the lake. In some cases, the architectural elements seem to serve the sole purpose of highlighting landscape perspectives, like the tortile columns on the balustrade facing the lake.
This Magnolia grandiflora was one of the biggest I’ve seen, with a staircase of inviting branches to climb, a green shade of dense foliage to get lost in and the hem of its skirt trailing down to the water.
At the southernmost point of the garden, in what feels like a slightly neglected corner, we discovered this tiny octagonal gazebo with an onion dome roof perched on the edge of the lake, the perfect spot for a romantic tryst. There are two doors, two windows, four mirrors and endless reflected vistas.
Afterwards, as we crossed back over the lake, the air clouded with mist and the sky melted into the water, and on the horizon we could just make out the northern tip of the Triangolo Lariano.