Varenna & Lake Como

Day 1

Rick Steves’ Best of Italy Tour starts in the beautiful, small, lakeside town of Varenna. This is often confused with Verona, even by Italians who know of Lake Como! Mom and I flew into and stayed in Milan a few days before the tour started to see the city and recover from jet lag – something I highly recommend or else you’re in a brain fog for the first couple days of the tour. AirBnb is an awesome site to find lodgings, wherever you want to stay. We traveled from Milan via train (~1 hr ride for €6.70) and arrived early afternoon.

Arriving in Varenna, I totally had one of those “I feel like I’m in one of those BBC TV shows I watch” moment. Outside the train station, the town was peacefully quiet as we walked down towards the water and on to find our hotel.

On packing: Don’t even think about anything bigger than a carry-on on this trip. It will tire you out and you just don’t need that much. We used packing cubes to organize our bags. I used the Osprey Fairview 40 backpack and my mom used a Travelpro. Know that you’ll be traveling on a lot of uneven surfaces and there are stairs, especially in Venice!

We stayed at the Royal Hotel Victoria and certainly felt like royalty. The hotel was in the center of town and was clearly a major establishment of the area. It was beautiful and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful. We visited the local tourism office to grab a few maps and spent the afternoon exploring town.

At 4 pm, our group of 27 gathered on the back terrace of the hotel to officially start our tour and get the low down on how the logistics would work. Our tour guide was Sarah Shortreed and I couldn’t have imagined a better informed, more entertaining or engaged tour guide. I had been on guided trips before and knew that there was a range in guides – how helpful/involved/strict they could be. Sarah was our mother goose, but she was also one of the flock. We all introduced ourselves and shared what we were most looking forward to on the tour while enjoying prosecco and appetizers provided by the hotel. Another important piece of our meeting was picking our buddies – someone we would check in with every time we were leaving somewhere as a whole group. The buddy check system works great, just don’t choose someone you already know or think you’ll hang out with a lot, then you both might get lost!

To keep us informed of the days events, Sarah wrote up the itinerary (and any important details) on a sheet of paper and passed it around the bus or posted it in the hotel lobby for everyone to see. **Take a picture with your phone of these itineraries!** While the cities where we stayed each night were decided, the schedules for each day and even the order of stops between cities was flexible and sometimes had to be adjusted due to things out of our control.

Day 2

After breakfast at the hotel, everyone took advantage of the included all-day boat pass and headed off to see a bit of the surrounding area. There are a number of towns nearby, easy to visit by boat, as well as a trail that traverses the hills above the towns. We chose to visit Villa Carlotta, known primarily for its extensive gardens, and then to Bellagio, a town that made its wealth from producing fine silk. Villa Balbianello was another popular choice among the group.

The icing on the cake that was this beautiful day was dinner at Ferruccio Castelli’s house, a world renowned, award winning chef and friend of Sarah’s. Talk about a special treat you can’t quite buy! Everyone in the group went so they had to move their living room furniture against the wall and pull out extra tables and chairs. Ferruccio and his family set the bar extremely high with the multi-course dinner they made us. Appetizers came first: cooked garden veggies with a bit of cured meat, a bit of what they call Russian salad (potato salad), and a caprese skewer. So delicious right off the bat. Then came the pasta dish: freshly made buckwheat pasta with lots of parmesan. Definitely a comfort food for the cooler months of the year. Next came Ferruccio’s take on sushi and a bit of polenta. And finally, a beautiful fruit dessert followed by digestivos. Plus all the wine we could want. Ferruccio even demonstrated how to make the buckwheat pasta (and made it look so easy)!

Sarah assured us that Italians don’t eat like that everyday, it’s more of a special occasion/go all out kind of thing.

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