I heard of Castello di Vezio for the first time on Instagram. Or should I say I saw? I stumbled, that’s it; I stumbled upon it as I was scrolling my Instagram feed, and I immediately looked the place up in the search bar and started marveling at what looked like one of the best views on Lake Como I had ever laid eyes on.
The origins of Castello di Vezio are somewhat obscure, but its strategic position makes it the perfect watchtower on Lake Como; which is probably one of the main reasons it was built in the first place, perched on the hillside above Varenna and Perledo. Now that watchtowers come less in handy than they did centuries ago, Castello di Vezio has become, among other things, a tourist attraction.
I’ll return to the other things that Castello di Vezio is, apart from a tourist attraction and a former watchtower, later on. Now let me go back to the day I happened to have the chance to visit such a stunningly beautiful place, so conveniently located not too far from my own doorstep.
Sunday afternoons can be extremely lazy sometimes, especially when the sky is veiled by grey clouds and the sofa is calling you with so much sweetness it’s hard to ignore it. Nevertheless, it was on such a Sunday that I was called to action: navigation maps needed to be updated on a certain car, and therefore said car needed to be set in motion for a while. A place had to be visited. But what place?
It was time. Time for me to visit Castello di Vezio, to explore it, to confirm that the view from there was truly that amazing and not just the result of a skillfully picked Instagram filter.
The castle sits on top of a nice garden, which is at the end of a path crossing a field full of olive trees, which itself waits at the exit of a maze through a charming little group of houses, which in their turn stand at the end of a steep and winding road above Varenna. As in many lake towns, parking lots are seriously scarce up there: visitors better be warned.
I have to admit I almost got lost in the maze of charming little houses, but the signs to the castle tended to be less inviting than the ones for handmade ice cream, so we can all agree it wasn’t completely my fault. I eventually reached the exit of the maze and the entrance to the castle grounds (entry fee: €4).
Now we can talk about the other things that Castello di Vezio is, apart from a tourist attraction, a former watchtower, and a very challenging place to reach if you have a soft spot for handmade ice cream.
I entered the castle garden, but before I could even spot the castle tower on my left, I found myself making the acquaintance of one of the castle guests. Artù is a 13-year-old eagle-owl with huge claws, bright orange eyes, and a thing for turning his head several degrees more than what would still look normal and not blindingly painful.
So this is one of the other things that Castello di Vezio is: a training center for birds of prey.
I met the other castle guests later during my visit, because I was lucky enough to be there just in time for the daily falconry show. Sadly the overcast weather wasn’t ideal for the birds, who need at least some air currents to glide on, but I still managed to fall in love with Semola the barn owl and his perplexed expression.
The birds of prey aren’t the only guests of Castello di Vezio; they’re not even the creepiest (sorry, Artù, but your head-turned-180-degrees trick isn’t nearly creepy enough).
Every year, some of the first visitors of the castle are used as models and wrapped up in clothes and plaster. They then sit on walls, or under trees, or on top of stairs, and they wait until the plaster has become a shell. The result creeps all the next visitors out until the end of the season, which usually occurs in October.
I knew I would find those silent, faceless, hooded figures, but I still felt some chills running down my spine when I met them. I was confirming that the view was indeed as gorgeous as seen on Instagram, even under that grey sky, but my mind kept going back to those ghastly presences, and my eyes kept searching for their empty hoods. Were they Dementors or pale Nazgûl?
The castle itself is but a tower: a tall crenelated tower circled by walls. Well, it was a watchtower, so it only makes sense I suppose. A thin drawbridge leads you into the tower, where the only way up is also the only way down, and you have to hope no noisy and hyperactive kids will decide to visit the place at the same time that you do. I had no such luck.
Inside the tower, between one narrow staircase and the next, there’s a couple of floors hosting pictures and drawings of the Lariosaurus, an extinct creature from the Middle Triassic. It is of course not to be mistaken with the mythical creature named Lariosauro that is said to still inhabit Lake Como, the main difference between the two being that one at least existed once.
If you manage to make it to the top of the tower without giving in to the temptation to kick any noisy and hyperactive kids down the stairs, you are rewarded with an amazing 360 degrees view of Bellagio, Lake Como, and the sorrounding hills.
Underneath Castello di Vezio, right in the belly of the mountain, several tunnels were dug during the First World War to become part of a defensive line known as Linea Cadorna. They are now the dungeons of the castle, and they can be easily found at the end of a steep and poorly lit staircase.
I usually have mixed feelings toward these sorts of things: I find underground passages and tunnels to be very fascinating, but I also am a bit on the panicky side when it comes to holes in the ground with no way out and no light in (so I’m not talking about Hobbit holes here). The feelings I found in the dark and damp dungeons underneath Castello di Vezio were absolutely un-mixed: I just plainly didn’t like them.
On my way out, after a last glance at the view and a last moment of wondering about the true identity of the white hooded figures, I said goodbye to Artù the eagle-owl. I crossed the field of olive trees once again and entered the maze: a homemade ice cream was waiting for me somewhere.
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