Bellagio and Varenna

Trip Start Apr 22, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2007

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Flag of Italy  ,
Monday, April 30, 2007

We bought two all-day ferry passes so that we could travel to Bellagio and Varenna today.  We hopped on a ferry around 10:00 a.m. and arrived in Bellagio at 11:15.  We wanted to try the Ristorante Barchetta or Pizzeria La Grotto based on guidebook recommendations, but neither would serve food before noon.  We walked around the quaint, narrow cobblestone streets for a bit, noting a much more touristy atmosphere than we'd felt in Menaggio.  Tourists swarmed around shops pedding silk, chess sets, commemorative spoons, and jewelry.  We stopped at Caffe Vecchio Bargo for penne all'arrabbiata and lasagna, both of which inspired me to grow a tomato plant so that I can make sauce. 

Well-fed, we went down to the lake to find a hotel.  We lucked out with the Hotel Suisse (recommended by Frommer's, and now by me).  For 95 euros, we got one of the two rooms with lakeside views and balconies, with a double bed that wasn't two twins pushed together, parquet floors, and a bathroom with a quiet toilet. 

After writing some postcards, we went out in search of pizza.  Though the guideboook and restaurant signs claimed it was closed on Mondays, La Grotta was bustling with customers.  We sat in a little alcove and ordered pizza with capers, oregano, and anchovies (me) and mushrooms (Michael).  He decided to give mushrooms one more chance, since they'd been disappointing at restaurants so far.  I thought the pizza was the best I'd had so far--thin, with an appropriately wood-fired crust, melty but not mushy cheese, and salty anchovies!

Happily stuffed, we caught the ferry to Varenna.  Inspired by the fact that La Grotta had been open, we held out hope that Vecchio Varenna might be too, as it supposedly had wonderful pumpkin gnocchi.  A street map showed that it was on the way to the tourist office, so we decided to check it out before picking up a paper map.  We did find it in a glass-enclosed terrace over the water, but it was definitely closed.  We continued on to the church, ending up on steep cobblestone streets.  We almost turned back, but ran into some Americans who confirmed that we were going the right way.  We found the church and city hall, but no tourist office.  We asked a shop owner and consulted a nearby city map twice, but still couldn't find the elusive building.  We decided to visit the Villa Monastero, as it was closer than the castle and the skies were threatening to pour down rain.

We strolled through the villa's botanical gardens, taking many pictures along the way.  The walk was extremely relaxing, and the sun began to peek out from the clouds some more.  The scenic views, places to sit and admire the flora and water, and improving weather cheered us up.  We found a small building that looked like a sultan's onion-head hat.  We took pictures around it and I wrote "Kristina + Michael 30 Aprile 2007" next to the other couples' graffiti.  We saw many statues and a temple.

After the gardens, we went to Bar Nilus (a Let's Go-recommended place) for drinks and snacks.  I had a very good red house wine and a black on white (black sambuca layered over white sambuca).  Michael's beer was as big as his head.  He was as enchanted by the glass as I was by the complimentary plates of black olives, chips, breadsticks, peanuts, and small onions.  We were entertained by the waiter's efforts to pick up a single female customer.  He refused to let her pay, asked if she was staying in town, and asked her to go out with him.

We wandered over to Vecchio Varenna again in hopes that it might have opened, but it was still closed.  However, the absence of pumpkin gnocchi on the posted menu was a sign that we'd find better food elsewhere.  We got water and grappa at the Albergo Olivedo before catching the ferry back to Bellagio.

Once there, we tried Ristorante Barchetta again.  What a find!  I definitely recommend this place for its superior service and amazing food.  The cozy upstairs was lit by candles floating in blue water, encased by delicate wooden blinds, and decorated by green plants.  We arrived at our table to find two glasses of a drink rather like peachy champagne and a small plate of crostini topped by salami, another meat, and tomatoes.  We asked our charming waiter what the drinks were (we didn't realize that they were complimentary) and he replied that it was their secret love potion and that we should not look him in the eyeball for 20 minutes.  He also mentioned that it didn't seem like we needed it! We ordered gnocchi, ravioli, angus steak, and veal with fontina and truffles.  We split a paradel (traditional Bellagio apple cake) upon our waiter's recommendation.  He was incredibly entertaining and witty, which made our dinner experience even better.  The meal was the best we'd had so far!  We also met other tourists from New Jersey. 

Stuffed and happy, we strolled through the cobblestone streets back to our hotel.  We opened our second bottle of Ticino merlot and enjoyed it while sitting on our balcony.  We fell asleep to the sounds of the lake and the few late night noises in the sleepy town.
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