Varese, at the base of the Alpine Foothills, is a Province marked by water, valleys and castles: it is an exemplar of harmony between man and nature. The history of local human settlement has not threatened the landscape; if ever, it has worked to enrich it.
Seen from above, the terrain is a palette of colors - a patchwork of mountains, valleys, woods and rivers. Approximately ten lakes of glacial origins make up Varese's environs: they include Lake Varese, Lake Maggiore, Lake Ceresio and Lake Verbano, fed by a myriad of rivers and streams, such as the Olona and Ticino.
Mountains dominate the north, giving way to hills and valleys and, eventually, flatland in the south. The landscape is embellished with beautiful villas and lovely gardens in the Italian and British styles, as well as parks, bell towers and sheltered villages.
The valleys are traversed by ancient trails and pathways that should be discovered unhurried, on foot, horseback or by bike, especially in spring and autumn.
Corso Matteotti is regarded as Varese's “drawing room,” with its elegant buildings and a delightful pedestrian quarter filled with city center shops. The Basilica of San Vittore is also worth a visit, with its famous bell tower and Baptistery of St. John.
The garden city of Varese features an urban plan all its own, due to the fact that, unlike other Lombard cities, its heart is not a collection of connected centers, but a series of castles that gradually sprang up around it. The green of vegetation fills in the space between them, while from the 18th Century onwards, beautiful villas and gardens were developed, and today they are still one of the city’s greatest attractions. Among these is the marvelous Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza in Biumo, part of the Italian Environment Fund (FAI); the Villa hosts a collection of contemporary, African and Pre-Colombian artworks. Nearby are Villa Ponti, with its park and small lake created by a natural spring; Palazzo Estense, boasting one of the most beautiful 18th-Century gardens in Lombardy; Castello Castiglioni Mantezza in Masnago and the Tower of Velate.
The promenade favored by natives of Varese is that which leads to the Sacro Monte, located a few miles north. Along its slopes is a Via Sacra (sacred road) that passes 14 chapels and ends at the hilltop Sanctuary, where the hamlet of Santa Maria del Monte is located.
In Bisuschio, the Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, built in the 15th Century, boasts an enormous 19th-Century park, while another FAI property, the Villa della Porta Bozzolo, lies in Casulzo. Then, those taken by castles will appreciate the Rocca Borromeo in Angera - overlooking a wide stretch of Lake Maggiore - and the Castelli Viscontei in Cislago, Fagnano and Induno Olona, all privately-owned. Still, visits can be made to the Visconti Castle in San Vito a Somma Lombardo (open weekends April to September, upon guided tour).
Indeed, Lake Maggiore became home to Italian noble families (you might recognize such names as Borromeo and of course, Visconti), that erected majestic, imposing castles with Italian-style 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, the voyage continues towards the Borromean Islands, incorporating Isola Bella with its Palazzo Borromeo, Isola Madre with its stunning plant life, and Isola dei Pescatori with its characteristic village. Other fine historical monuments that must be seen are the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno, perched atop a rock overlooking the lake. The Voltorre Cloister, in Gavirate, hosts the Museum of Modern Art. In Busto Arsizio, the Church of Santa Maria in Piazza and the Basilica di San Giovanni are worth a visit.
Saronno boasts the Sanctuary della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli, first 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). Among the noteworthy Medieval villages are the settlement of Castelseprio with its small church of Santa Maria Foris Portas and, nearby, the Castiglione Olona.
Finally, Campo Dei Fiori, located between Lake Varese and Val Cuvia and furrowed with little-explored caves and grottoes, is veru captivating. The most famous of these caves are the Grotta Marelli, with its vast system of tunnels and caverns with tiny lakes inside; and the Frassino and Remeron Grottoes.
Sports and athletics are an element of everyday life in Varese Province; basketball is the most popular, but tennis, target shooting and clay-pigeon shooting are not far behind. The various rivers and lakes are ideal for rowing, canoeing and kayaking. Even beaches are not lacking, creating opportunities for windsurfing and water-skiing. Valleys and woods are ideal for trekking and horseback riding, while the more adventurous can take on hang gliding, paragliding and rock climbing or, in winter, ice skating and skiing.
In Busto Arsizio, Varese, Gavirate and other locations, the age-old tradition of the Gioeubia takes place every last Thursday in January: the “old woman” (an effigy of a witch), symbolizng the dry season, is set afire to bring on the advent of spring. The risotto with luganiga sausage represents fertility, and thus is obligatory fare. January also brings a festival known as the Sagra di Sant'Antonio, complete with bonfire and foodstands in the Church of Sant'Antonio Abate. This sagra or food fair is also unique for its annual pet blessing that takes place in the churchyard.
The Province of Varese offers a wide range of local produce. Typical cheeses are Gorgonzola P.D.O., produced in Varese, while in the Luinese Valleys, the Formaggella, a semi-hard mild cheese made from whole goat's milk, should be tasted. The typical produce of the mountains of the Val Veddasca includes the famous Violino di capra, made from goat's or sheep's milk and shaped like a violin. In Gavirate, the small handmade cakes known as Brutti e Buoni are "ugly but tasty," as their name implies; they are made of egg whites, almonds, nuts and vanilla.
Three types of honey are produced here as well, under the supervision of the Varese Honey Consortium: millefiori (thousand flowers), acacia honey and chestnut honey, often consumed as an accompaniment to goat cheese.
A typical, ancient tradition involved giving Mustazzit, small focaccia, to pilgrims on the way to Varese's Sacro Monte Sanctuary, as an exchange for their offerings. While the Lombard Cazouela is a delicacy made of cabbage and pork, the Rusticana, a symbol of friendship, is a dish offered in gratitude to all those who helped with the most recent harvest. One should also mention the asparagus of Cantello, a town sitting on the Swiss border; an important festival here celebrates the vegetable every May.
The area of Angera, then, is known for its production of the Ronchi Varesini, the white, red and rosé wines named after the terraced slopes where they are cultivated.
Finally, try the Amaretti di Gallarate, soft pastries that are slightly bitter but sweet and flavorful at the same time.