The province of Varese is located in the western portion of the region of Lombardy, bordering the Piedmont to the west and Switzerland to the north. Even though Varese is just an hour north of Milan, it seems like it is a world away, where the lushness of the green forests contrast with the shimmering blue of its many lakes. Charming towns are to be found around every turn, while culture and history abound. A definite addition to one’s bucket list of Italy, the province has been popular with tourists since the 17th century.
In Roman times, the fortified settlements of Castelseprio and the port of Angera on Lake Maggiore were of high importance. The House of Visconti conquered the region in the 13th century and completely destroyed Castelseprio. It used the land for agricultural purposes and Varese became prosperous as a center of trade.
During the Second Italian War of Independence, Giuseppe Garibaldi brought a group of Italian volunteers called the Hunters of the Alps to Varese. In response, the Austrian army attempted to invade the city. The Battle of Varese was fought on May 26, 1859, leading to a defeat of the Austrian forces, which allowed the Hunters to expand eastward towards Como and ultimately to victory.
The province is a patchwork of mountains, valleys, forests, lakes and rivers, with many historic castles on offer. It contains ten lakes that were created when glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age and include (or border) Lago Varese, Lago Maggiore, Lago Ceresio and even a bit of Lago di Lugano. Mountains dominate the north, giving way to hills and valleys and eventually flatlands in the south. The most famous attraction is undoubtedly Lake Maggiore, so named thanks to its enormous size. Located between the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, part of the basin of the lake belongs to Switzerland and the entire area is dotted with small towns, hermitages and plenty of things to do. The waters of Lago Maggiore replenish naturally every two years, making it the cleanest lake in Italy and it is the second largest in the country after Lake Garda.
Lake Maggiore became home to Italian noble families who erected majestic, imposing castles with magnificent gardens and impregnable fortresses, all amidst the emerald green of the forests and the deep blue of the sky. An excursion on the lake is an experience not to be missed. Beginning in Stresa, take a voyage towards the Borromean Islands. This will include a stops at Isola Bella, with its Palazzo Borromeo; Isola Madre, with its stunning plant life and Isola dei Pescatori, with its quaint, historic village.
Once away from the water, visitors will want to experience Sacro Monte di Varese, one of the most important Sacri Monti in northern Italy. There are nine sacred mountains in Piedmont and Lombardy that have been designated collectively as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sacro Monte di Varese is located only a few miles from the city and is nestled in the park Campo dei Fiori (Field of Flowers). It consists of the Holy Road and the Sanctuary, as well as the small medieval village surrounding the Sanctuary. The Holy Road has 14 outdoor chapels, each representing one of the Mysteries of Jesus Christ’s life. The Holy Road rises up the mountain to the little village of Santa Maria del Monte and ends with the 15th century Sanctuary, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In addition, in the town are a number of museums, restaurants and places to stay. If you would prefer not to walk, the Vellone-Sacro Monte funicular operates between the first chapel and the top of Sacro Monte on weekends throughout most of the year.
The park itself, Campo dei Fiori, is filled with little-explored caves and grottoes and is a very interesting stop. The most famous of the caves is Grotta Marelli, with a vast system of tunnels, caverns and numerous tiny lakes.
The capital of the province is the stunning city of Varese. It is often called the ‘Garden City’ thanks to its abundance of nature, high quality of life, its parks, lush forests and numerous gardens. The area makes for the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of modern daily life. Corso Matteotti is regarded as Varese’s “drawing room,” with its elegant buildings and delightful pedestrian quarter filled with shops. One of the places to visit is the Basilica of San Vittore, famous for its bell tower and the Baptistery of St. John.
Varese features an urban plan unlike other Lombard cities. Its heart is not a collection of connected centers, but a series of castles that gradually sprang up around it, with woods and green forests to fill in the space between them. From the 18th century onwards, beautiful villas and gardens were built and remain one of the city’s greatest attractions. Among these is the marvelous Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza in Biumo. Nearby is Villa Ponti, with its park and small lake created by a natural spring. Palazzo Estense boasts one of the most beautiful 18th century gardens in Lombardy, while in Bisuschio, the Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, built in the 15th century, is surrounded by an enormous park built in the 19th century.
Castles to visit include Castello Castiglioni Mantezza in Masnago, the Tower of Velate and the Visconti Castle in San Vito a Somma Lombardo. The Rocca Borromeo in Angera overlooks a wide stretch of Lake Maggiore. It still belongs to the Borromeo family and is best known for its Sala di Giustizia (Hall of Justice) which contains original 13th century frescoes depicting the victory of Ottone Visconti, Archbishop of Milan, at the Battle of Desio. The castle also contains the Museo della Bambola (Doll Museum), founded in 1988, at the wish of Princess Bona Borromeo Arese. It displays over one thousand dolls dating from the 18th century through the present.
For those who are fans of Art Nouveau architecture, there are many examples throughout the province. The 19th century is really when tourism took off in the area and there are plenty of villas in this style to visit, including Villa Panza and the pink-hued Villa Ponti.
Other fine historical monuments to include in an itinerary are the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno, which is perched atop a rock overlooking the lake. The Voltorre Cloister, located in the town of Gavirate, hosts the Museum of Modern Art, while in Saronno, visitors can delight in the artwork of the Sanctuary della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli. Originally constructed in the 15th century, its interior decoration features frescoes in its apse and cupola by Bernardino Luini (16th century) and Gaudenzio Ferrari (17th century). Regardless of where one travels within the province of Varese, the beauty of nature and the works of man seem to coexist in a magical and timeless harmony.