Italian Lakes (2013)

VARESE

Tucked into the triangle between Maggiore, Lugano and Como, the rolling hills and fertile river valleys of the Varesotto became the back garden of the great aristocratic families who built their villas here.

Main Attractions

Villa Panza

Varese Centro Storico

Sacro Monte

Arcumeggia

Lago di Varese

Castiglione Olona

It was in quiet Varese that the warring, squabbling nobles came to find peace amidst the reedy lake beds and the rustling woodlands. It was here that they built monasteries and villas with lush gardens. Varese today still offers visitors a feeling of stillness, whether they come as pilgrims or campers, trudging up the hills on bicycles or taking the easy way up by cable car.

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Lago di Varese.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Varese

People have lived in Varese 1 [map] since the 5th millennium BC. The first town was founded here as a military garrison by the Romans. Today, it has a population of over 80,000, making a living from shoes and leatherwork, tourists and industry. For a very short while, in the mid-18th century, it was the feudal property of Francesco III d’Este, duke of Modena, who built the long, low strawberry-pink Palazzo Estense A [map] , topped with an imperial eagle, as his summer palace in 1787. The palace now houses the town hall and is not open to the public, but you are free to wander through the neatly manicured gardens, said to be modelled on those of the imperial residence of Schönbrunn in Vienna.

The Estense Palace gardens lead straight into the far larger and wilder gardens of the Villa Mirabello B [map] on the hill behind, home to some rare plants and majestic trees including a centuries old Lebanese cedar. The villa now houses the city’s main museum, the Museo Civico Archeologico (Piazza della Motta 4; tel: 0332-255 485; Tue–Sun June–Oct 10am–12.30pm, 2–6pm, Nov–May 9.30am–12.30pm, 2–5.30pm), which features local prehistoric finds and Roman remains.

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Palazzo Estense gardens.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Historic centre

In the city centre, Piazza Monte Grappa is unappealing, with great slabs of 1920s Fascist concrete at odds with the gentle city around it.

Across the main road, in the historic centre, the 16th–17th century Basilica di San Vittore C [map] was designed by Pellegrini (il Tibaldi) and built by Giuseppe Bernascone. The neoclassical facade was added later by Viennese architect Pollack. Inside, there are a number of fine paintings including a scandalously topless Mary Magdalene by Il Morazzone (1627). The free-standing campanile (bell tower) beside the basilica was added by Bernascone in the early 17th century. Next door, the 12th–13th­ century Romanesque Battistero di San Giovanni stands on an early 6th–7th century church and contains fine 14th-century frescoes and its original 7th-century font.

The war memorial arch opposite the basilica leads through to the Piazza del Podestà D [map] , where the monument Il Garibaldino celebrates a famous victory for the Risorgimento when Garibaldi and his Alpine Hunters defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Biumo in Varese on 26 May 1859. This in turn leads to the arcaded pedestrian street of Corso Matteotti , lined by upmarket boutiques and tea shops.

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The 17th-century bell tower of Basilica di San Vittore.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Villa Panza

In Biumo, on the northern edge of the historic centre, the extravagantly named Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza E [map] (Piazza Litta 1; tel: 0332-283 960; www.fondoambiente.it ; Feb–mid-Dec Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, last entry 5.15pm, guided visits on prior booking) was built in the mid-18th century by Marquis Paolo Antonio Menafoglio. It was extended in 1830 by neoclassical architect Luigi Canonica, during which time the more formal Italian gardens were also redesigned in keeping with the then fashionable softer English landscape gardens.

While the house and garden are both undoubtedly beautiful, the property is chiefly famous for its world-class collection of modern art (Collezione Panza ; for opening times, see villa) , begun by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo in the 1950s. Take the free audio guide or you won’t have a clue what you are looking at. This is art of the square-monochrome-canvas-neon-tube-and-lots-of-background-explanation variety, but like it or loathe it, it fits in fascinating counterpoint with the flamboyance of the villa itself.

Where

Tourist Offices 
Varese Via Romagnosi 9; tel: 033-228 1913.
Aeroporto di Malpensa Terminal 1; tel: 02-5858 0506.
Gavirate Stazione FNM, piazza Dante 1; tel: 033-274 4707. www.vareselandoftourism.it .

Holy Mounts

The Sacri Monti, or “Sacred Mountains”, are an unusual feature of the lakes. Linking shrines and tiny chapels filled with life-size terracotta figures and frescoes, they are devotional routes which evoke the symbolic journey through the Holy Land. At the end of the 15th century, Christians were too fearful to go on pilgrimages in Muslim-controlled territory so, ingeniously, the Holy Land, Jerusalem and Palestine were recreated at home. After the Council of Trent (1545–63), the emphasis shifted to a vigorous defence of Catholicism, which provoked a new wave of Holy Mounts dedicated to Christ, the Virgin and saints. “Sacro Monte” is a misleading term, as it is not a mystical spot found in nature, but one created there.

Next door to Villa Panza are two other grand 18th–19th-century houses, the Ville Ponti . They are used as a conference centre and are usually closed to the public but the gardens are open.

The road west from Varese towards Gavirate and Laveno passes the splendidly decorative Villa Recalcati , in Casbeno, built in the 18th century as a private residence, transformed into the Grand Hotel Excelsior in 1874 and now the seat of the provincial government and prefecture.

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Chapel IV, Sacro Monte.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

North of Varese

Just northwest of the city, the Sacro Monte 2 [map] is one of nine holy mounts in the lakes region (see box). The first chapel to Santa Maria was built by Sant’Ambrogio in the 6th century. A 15th-century convent and church was joined in 1604 by the processional way of 14 chapels, representing the mysteries of the rosary. Overseen by architect Giuseppe Bernascone, many different architects, sculptors and artists worked on the project. The result is an awe-inspiring work of devotion. Walk up past the chapels if you are feeling fit, or drive or take the cable car to the top to see the view, and visit the sanctuary and village of Santa Maria del Monte, which also has fine views and restaurants. The Museo Baroffio (tel: 0332-212 042, www.museobaroffio.it ; mid-Mar–Oct Thu, Sat–Sun 9.30am–12.30pm, 3–6.30pm or by appointment, May–Sept also Tue–Wed 3–6.30pm) displays the pilgrim offerings.

Where

The painted villages (paesi dipinti) of Varese province, where artists have painted the walls and houses for all to see, are delightful. They include San Fermo district in Varese city, Boarezzo district in Valganna town, Brunello in the Valbossa Valley, Runo (Dumenza), Olona and Marchirolo, near the Swiss border. The Associazione Italiana Paesi Dipinti (Italian Association of Painted Villages, tel: 0332-289 755) encourages and promotes this thriving modern tradition.

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Arcumeggia is like an outdoor gallery.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Beyond this, the Parco Regionale Campo dei Fiori 3 [map] (tel: 0332-435 386) culminates in Pico Paradiso (Paradise Peak; 1,227 metres/4,026ft), home to an astronomical observatory. The once splendid Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori, designed by Giuseppe Sommaruga in 1910–12 and a fine example of Liberty style, has long since ceased to be a hotel, and now makes a perfect mast for satellite TV stations and mobile-phone companies in the region. Elsewhere on the mountains, there are waymarked trails through forests of beech and chestnut, with fine views, and glimpses of the wild flowers that give the park its name.

In Casalzuigno, on the northern side of the Campo dei Fiori, Villa della Porta Bozzolo 4 [map] (20km/12 miles northwest of Varese; tel: 0332-624 136; Mar, Sept Wed–Sun 10am–6pm, Apr–Aug Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, Oct–Nov Wed–Sun 10am–5pm; www.fondoambiente.it ) is an opulent mansion now run by the Fondo per L’Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the Italian equivalent of Britain’s National Trust (see box). Originally built in 1500, it was transformed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries into an aristocratic villa. Gianangelo III della Porta planted the avenue of cypresses that links the formal parterres near the house with the more natural gardens on the hill above. There are also historic farm buildings, including stables, cellars and a wine press.

A switchback mountain road leads through the Valcuvia district from the town to the “artists’ village” of Arcumeggia 5 [map] . In 1957, a holiday home for artists was opened and since then, Italian artists, including Aligi Sassu, Innocente Salvini and Aldo Carpi, have painted over 150 murals depicting daily life and religious themes on the exteriors of the village houses.

Saving the Nation

Founded in 1975, the Fondo per L’Ambiente Italiano (FAI; www.fondo­ambiente.it ) was modelled on the English National Trust (with whom it has reciprocal arrangements), a private organisation dedicated to preserving the nation’s heritage – whether natural, architectural or artistic. Today, it has over 60,000 members, and the money it receives from sponsorship and commercial activities is used to acquire, restore and operate some 30 properties, from the medieval Torre di Velate in Varese, the wonderful Villa Panza and Art Gallery in Biumo, to a bear sanctuary in Trentino and the 1930s Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan. FAI has now founded international support groups in the US, UK, Switzerland and France.

West of Varese

On the edge of Varese, the Castello di Masnago 6 [map] (Via Cola di Rienzo; tel: 0332-820 409; Tue–Sun June–Oct 10am–12.30pm, 2.30–6.30pm, Nov–May 9.30am–12.30pm, 2–5.30pm) is an architectural hotchpotch, but it has a series of fine 15th-century frescoes depicting lifestyles of the period, vices and virtues included. It is also the home of a modern art collection. About 3km (2 miles) beyond this, the ruined 11th-century Torri di Velate is not open to the public, but is seen as a symbol of the city of Varese.

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Picnic on Lago di Comabbio.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Lake Varese

The main road continues along to Gavirate, the main town at the northern end of Lago di Varese 7 [map] . Laid out in a wide basin at the foot of the Campo dei Fiori and surrounded by rolling hills, this is one of the smallest lakes, measuring only 8.8km (5.5 miles) long and 4.5km (2.75 miles) wide. Fed by underground springs, it is rich in freshwater fish stock like tench, carp, eel and pike. The road dips down to the lake through the reed-beds every now and then, but it is encircled by a walking and cycling track popular with picnickers and joggers.

In Gavirate 8 [map] , the restful 12th-century Voltorre Cloister is all that remains of an old Cluniac monastery, while in the centre of the lake, on its only island, Isola Virginia , a small museum marks a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement (tel: 0332-255 485; boat service from Biandronno, Apr–Oct Sat–Sun).

A short distance to the southwest are two more small lakes, Lago di Monate 9 [map] , said to have some of the clearest waters in Italy, and Lago di Comabbio ) [map] , renowned for its floating vegetation, including water chestnuts, and for being shallow enough to freeze in winter.

South of Varese

South of the city, head across the plain to Castiglione Olona ! [map] ( www.castiglioneolona.it ), originally a Roman fortress before the Viscontis, Torriani and Castiglione families left it with a rich legacy of medieval and Renaissance art, including a masterly cycle of 15th-century frescoes on the life of John the Baptist in the Baptistery of the Collegiata (Apr–Sept Tue–Sun 10am–1pm, 3–6pm, Oct–Mar Tue–Sat 9.30am–12.30pm, 2.30–5.30pm, Sun 10am–1pm, 3–6pm; www.museocollegiata.it ) and secular scenes, in the Palazzo Branda Castiglioni (Museo Civico; Apr–Sept Tue–Sat 9am–noon, 3–6pm, Sun 10.30am–12.30pm, 3–6pm, Oct–Mar Tue–Sat 9am–noon, 3–6pm, Sun 3–6pm), both by Masolino.

The Palazzo Castiglioni of Monteruzzo (Corte del Doro) is now home to an ultra-modern and innovative Museo d’Arte Plastica (Plastic Art Museum; same hours as above).

A little further down the road, the Monastero di Torba @ [map] (Torba Monastery, Gornate Olona; 15km/10 miles south of Varese; tel: 0331-820 301; www.fondoambiente.it ; Wed–Sun Mar–Sept 10am–6pm, Oct–Nov 10am–5pm) was a late Roman outpost with defensive walls from the Goths and Longobards (5th–6th centuries) that became a Benedictine monastery in the 8th–13th centuries, and features rare 8th-century frescoes in the tower. It was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2011.

Virtually nothing remains of nearby Castelseprio £ [map] (Via Castel Vecchio 58; tel: 0331-820 438; www.castelseprio.net ; Feb–Nov Tue–Fri 8.30am–7.30pm, Sat 8.30am–7pm, Sun 9.45am–6pm, Dec–Jan Tue–Fri 8.30am–4pm, Sun 9.15am–2.45pm; free), once a Roman fort, then a significant medieval citadel until its destruction in the 13th century. Now an archaeological park, its fame resides in one little church, Santa Maria Foris Portas (Feb–Nov Tue–Fri 8.30am–7pm, Sat 8.30am–2.30pm, 5.30–7pm, Sun 9.45am–2.30pm, 5.30–6pm, Dec–Jan Tue–Fri 8.30am–6pm, Sun 9.15am–2.45pm; free) – foris portas means ‘outside the gates’. The church is thought to date from the early 9th century and is decorated with superb Byzantine-style frescoes, unlike anything else in the region. Concealed for centuries until their discovery in 1944, these unique artworks have elevated the church to Unesco World Heritage status.

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Palazzo Branda Castiglioni.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

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The Adoration of the Magi fresco inside Santa Maria Foris Portas.