This past weekend we had our first houseguest over to visit and enjoy this past or Italy. I met Katrina two years ago while we were both studying in Florence. Since then I went to find her while she was vacationing in Cape Cod (vacation crashing?) and this weekend she took a train from Freiburg, Germany to visit us in Monza.
We spent Friday afternoon walking around the Duomo and surrounding tourist attractions in Milan. But with just two full days, I wanted to give Katrina a less-touristy tour and decided to take her to the Lake District. Saturday we woke up to gorgeous sun and packed the car for the thirty-minute road trip to Lecco. We grabbed some foccacia and ate lunch on the steps surrounding the always-beautiful Lake Lecco.
Lecco is probably most known for its lake, a beautiful body of water surrounded by mountains and great for boating. Also for its proximity to Lake Como, where Clooney occasionally inhabits a house he owns there, or so I hear.
The real event of the day, however, was the visit to the Castello di Vezio, above Varenna. The origins of the Castle aren’t known exactly, but, as always in Italy, it is entrenched in history, used by multiple populations since its existence. One explanation is that it was simply constructed to protect the village and collect tolls, like most villages of the time, however the website has a more detailed story if you’re interested.
As a tourist, you need to rent a car and have a decent GPS to find the Castle, but the extra effort is well worth it. The road from Lecco to Varenna hugs the banks of the lake, narrowing through small towns and occasional tunnels, and offers great views. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore Varenna, one of my favorite towns in Italy’s Lake District – we had a falcon show to catch!
Since 2003 the Castle has been used as a bird of prey breeding, nursing and training center. Visitors can see training sessions in process or see a show.
Winding up the mountain above Varenna, we headed to the Castello. The town of Vezio is actually a hamlet with about 50 people living in it, or 20 families. It has “kept its ancient features” according to the Castle’s website, though a walk through seems to prove it true. A very limited amount of free parking is available, and an equally limited amount of paid parking is available ahead of that. We were lucky to find a spot, otherwise we’d have to head back down the mountain and prepare ourselves for a hike.
I had been once with some friends to eat lunch and enjoy the view. Unfortunately the Castle was closed at the time, but we hiked up the side anyway, eating foccacia on a low stone wall in the sun. It was lovely, and I was excited to visit again. This time it was open and the show was starting right as we arrived. We bought our ticket at the bar, 4 euro, and walked up the gravel path to the Castle and the bird of prey exhibition.
The combination of the beautiful landscape and the great weather already made for a spectacular day, but it still didn’t prepare us for the view at the top.
The Castle overhangs Varenna, providing a clear, panoramic view of Lake Como. Cut in the middle by Bellagio (which is, by the way, not even remotely similar to Vegas’ Bellagio) to the left is the branch of the lake we came from, Lake Lecco, and to the right is the branch of Lake Como.
The falcon flight exhibition was a lovely addition to the already beautiful view. The trainer explained the differences among each bird of prey, described his work with them and let them free to fly in sweeping circles over the lake and castle.
My favorite was this little guy:
Actually, he is a much fiercer hunter than the falcon, because the falcon can easily go seven days with no food, whereas barn owls needs food daily. Also, that is borderline the only thing I heard from the trainer’s explanations, I was far too busy being completely overjoyed and taking millions of pictures.
Of course Marco’s favorite was the fat owl who doesn’t fly:
In Artu’s defense, he doesn’t fly only because he’s not trained, and would then fly away.
The day was ‘touristy’ by definition; We went to a new (for us) place, sought out new experiences and new views, bought tickets for a show and took hundreds of pictures. Still, for American tourists it’s not so well-known and not so easy to find. Italians often escape to the lakes for the weekend to enjoy the mountains and the water. Nearly everyone at the flight exhibition was Italian, pointing out the large birds to their children and soaking in the first weekend that really felt like spring. After our visit, we headed back home to have a big family dinner and then go out to a pub with Marco’s friends, doing our best to show a tourist a non-touristy Italy!