Officially established as Provincia in 1927, the territory was already a well known leg of the Grand Tour during the 18th century. During the 20th century, the area descending from Sacro Monte down to the lakeshore became a constellation of Stile Liberty (the Italian version of Art Nouveau) through its villas, villini and hotels.
Slithering along the eastern border, Lake Maggiore represents the beating heart of Varese; while the lake is not as well known or fancy as Lake Como, it has nothing to envy of its cinematographic cousin. Driving along the long coast swarming with tiny shimmering towns, you fall in love at each bend: hidden bays, cute restaurants and cafés, waterfront villas and their exotic gardens growing rare plants will all take your breath away. The whole area has the magnificent air of old-fashioned vacations; it’s an elderly dame, whose vivid light blue eyes reveal an illustrious past of endearing charm. It’s still there, but true beauty doesn’t scream to gain attention… sometimes it whispers and resides in the simplest things, like the idyllic fishermen towns or the rustic peasant villages where time seems to have stopped.
The little Provincia has more to offer and a wilder experience extends to the inland. The territory is extremely varied, a constant up-and-down of leafy mountains, hills, and narrow valleys of cultivated fields. It’s plenty of trails run alongside the coast of lakes, rivers and through splendid woods.
VILLAS & MUSEUMS
Situated atop the Biumo Hill overlooking the city of Varese, Villa Panza is the place where the charme of an ancient 18th century mansion collides with a splendid international collection of contemporary art. Two worlds apparently in contrast; instead, while exploring the rooms, you’ll be surprised by the perfect harmony that pervades the villa. The 20th century art collection of Giuseppe Panza – including the widest concentration of artworks by Dan Flavin (permanently on show) and masterpieces by James Turrell and Robert Irwin, just to mention some – perfectly merge with the ancient setting and its Renaissance interiors. To complete the picture, a fabulous Italian garden where you’ll lose yourself like Alice in Wonderland among curious pieces of land art, heritage of past temporary exhibitions, and natural arcades created by the trees.
Whether it’s for an exhibition, for a visit to the permanent collection or just to spend a lazy afternoon lounging in the sun, Villa Panza is worth the visit. Because this “Villa of Light” – as we could call it in honor of the common thread that binds most of his works – owned by FAI, offers a 360° sensory experience that is difficult to put into words.
If you are walking through Biumo, one of the hills surrounding Varese, and peeking through an ancient and imposing gate you suddenly feel transported into a Wes Anderson film, it is because you have just stumbled upon Villa Andrea, one of the villas of the Centro Congressi Ville Ponti. Three villas of different eras and styles, immersed in a 56,000 square meter secular park, dominate the entire city of Varese and are the favorite place for events of all kinds from celebrity weddings to international conferences.
A corner of Japan in the heart of Varese: Villa Paradeisos. This late 19th century villa is the perfect example of cultures – oriental and otherwise – that make their influence felt in such a small province but in continuous exchange with the world outside its borders. In fact, the villa houses a small original Japanese garden within a much larger park. Nothing is missing: from lanterns, to typical plants, to the Zen garden. Whether it’s a wedding, a romantic weekend in the B&B housed in the annex of the villa or one of the cultural events that the Villa itself organizes, strolling in an oriental garden and immediately afterwards wandering over the Alps make it an unparalleled experience.
This Baroque villa located in Casbeno and reachable on foot from the Giardini Estensi is the home of the Province of Varese and the Prefecture. It boasts a past as a Grand Hotel (in the late 1800s) and already hosted many illustrious personalities from the 1700s: Verdi, d’Annunzio, Carducci and Pascoli are just a few, along with Reali of all the main families of the time and even a president of the United States of America.
A few steps from Lake Maggiore, surrounded by the fields of Valcuvia and the mountain chains that embrace this area of the province, Villa Della Porta Bozzolo has all the ingredients to make a visitor fall in love: the rustic charm of a sixteenth-century country house, the Baroque triumph of its eighteenth-century reinterpretation and the imposing pomp of an Italian garden that has nothing to envy to the Borromean Islands. Restored and preserved by FAI, this unique villa is capable of making you take a real journey through time. Walking through rustic houses, stables, kitchens, living rooms and four-poster beds, in some rooms you will identify yourself with a sixteenth-century servant, and in others as a nobleman from the Baroque era thanks to the original furnishings of the epoch. Everything seems alive, as if the villa had been inhabited until recently – or as it still is – by noble and non-noble characters who walked in those rooms.
While exploring the Sacromonte di Varese make sure you don’t miss Museo Pogliaghi, home-atelier of the 20th century eclectic artist. Pogliaghi conceived it as a laboratory / museum, a place where he could retire to focus on studying and creativity, but at the same time a space to collect inspiring artworks. While exploring the seven rooms of this curious house, your eyes will be enraptured by every single detail. The lovely picturesque home is completed by the Italian garden that surrounds the villa, littered with other antiques collected by the artist.
Villa Toeplitz, Parco e Museo Castiglioni
Villa Toeplitz is a historic villa located in Varese, on the hill at the feet of Sacro Monte, in dominant position. It was built in 1901 and subsequently named after the banker Jósef Leopold Toeplitz (in Italian, Giuseppe) who bought the villa in 1914. Its vast park is considered one of the most beautiful parks in Italy thanks to its carefully designed garden (partially all’Italiana and partially following the English style) embellished with scenic fountains and water features. The villa also houses the headquarters of the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the University of Insubria, as well as the Ethno-Archeological Museum Castiglioni.
Among the oldest and most evocative brewery sites in Italy, the brewery that today belongs to Carlsberg Italia was built in Induno Olona in 1876 by Angelo Poretti. The plant is located in Valganna, an area near Varese famous for its pure water, a fundamental raw material for the production of a state-of-the-art beer and also chosen for its proximity to the caves, necessary to keep the product fresh. Poretti wanted a production site that combined functionality and art. Hence one of the rare examples of Art Nouveau industrial building, a grandiose building enriched with decorative elements inspired by naturalism alternating with festoons of hop flowers and wrought iron vats that recall the nature of the building. In a dominant position with respect to the establishment and surrounded by a wonderful park, is Villa Magnani. Today the administrative headquarters of the factory, the villa was designed in 1903 by Ulisse Stacchini (the same architect who won the contract for Milan Central Station in 1910) for Angelo Magnani, heir of Poretti.
Photo by Iris Ranzani
Home to the Varese Town Hall, Palazzo Estense and its gardens are the hidden jewel of the city. Nobody expects to see one of the most enchanting Italian parks right in the city center. My advice is to access it through the secondary entrance, a few meters next to the main one… you will be amazed. The lower part of the gardens is full of paths, galleries of trees, fountains with water features and even a pond with swans. It does not end here: going up the hill behind the fountain, you reach the Park of Villa Mirabello, where the Civic Archaeological Museum is located. A surprise inside another surprise, a large lawn full of trees, among which stands out a majestic nineteenth century cedar of Lebanon, perfect for lying down with a book in hand or for a lunch break in nature. The people of Varese live these gardens just like this: for a quick but regenerating lunch (meriggiare), for a walk with your four-legged friend, to relax reading or sunbathing on a blanket for as long as the weather allows it, and to get lost in their labyrinth of paths and trees.
Parco di Villa Mylius
Varese is also nicknamed “garden city” precisely because, in addition to the Giardini Estensi symbol of the city, there are many public and non-public parks that are hidden between the streets of the center and the residential districts on the borders of the municipal area. One of these is Parco di Villa Mylius, which houses a very wide variety of tree species, among which some specimens reach monumental dimensions. More discreet and intimate than the sumptuous Giardini Estensi, this park is the perfect place to escape from the daily chaos: to walk among ancient trees and squirrels, for a break in the shade during sunny days and to breathe the scents of its rare and ancient plants.
Parco di Villa Tatti Tallacchini
Not far from Varese, in Comerio, there is this eighteenth-century park saved by the municipal administration and loved by its citizens. The location of the annual Microcosmi cultural festival – where music, art and cinema merge with strings of white lights suspended between the architecture scented by early summer grass – the park is public and accessible at any time to discover its characteristic corners and Italian architecture, including stairways, water features, statues and bas-reliefs sculptures. The view of the lakes and mountains is extraordinary: on clear days, you can admire the Alpine chain from Monviso to Monte Rosa. Perhaps the best time to appreciate it is the golden hour, waiting for the sunset and capturing the magical atmosphere given by the late afternoon light on trees and architecture, while the tops of the mountains are on the verge of being tinged with pink.