Travel /
Liguria /
Food /
Flavors of Italy /
Where to go

Varese Ligure: An Eco-Friendly Oasis in the Ligurian Hills

“but the town’s careful conservation of the past isn’t the only thing that makes it interesting: Varese Ligure is reaching towards a sustainable future.”

There are plenty of adorable medieval villages nestled in the hills of Liguria’s entroterra, a remote inland countryside oft overlooked by travelers. I have explored many of them and, while each has something to offer the curious visitor, there is one dynamic, brightly-colored town that especially caught my attention. Varese Ligure boasts an immaculately preserved medieval historic center, imposing castle, and the colorful facades typical of Liguria, but the town’s careful conservation of the past isn’t the only thing that makes it interesting: Varese Ligure is reaching towards a sustainable future. The town is famous for being one of Italy’s earliest proponents of sustainable energy and organic agriculture. The focus on an eco-friendly future has breathed fresh life into an otherwise sleepy village, offering a high quality of life and new work opportunities for younger generations. Along with the classic artisanal shops you would expect from a small Italian town suspended in time, you’ll also find micro-breweries; young, local cheesemakers; and a disproportionate number of organic farms.

At the end of the 1990s, faced with a shrinking population which crippled the town economically, Varese Ligure’s forward-thinking mayor of the time transformed the fertile Val di Vara valley surrounding the town into Italy’s first “organic district”. A coalition of local public and private entities began working together with a focus on organic agriculture and sustainable living. Varese Ligure became the first European town to receive the environmental certification ISO-14001, an international benchmark for environmental management which tracks emissions and green initiatives. With the help of European Union funding, the town installed 21 new aqueducts that sterilize water with ultraviolet technology, eliminating the need for chlorine. Today, wind turbines and solar panels not only power the town, but also produce extra energy that is sold at a profit, raising money for other public projects. New jobs were created, and young people began to stay or move back to the area. In the early 1990s, the population of the municipality, comprising 27 rural hamlets, had dropped from over 6,000 to 2,200 and was shrinking rapidly. Within a decade, tourism tripled, birth rates increased, and population stabilized. In 2004, the European Commission honored Varese Ligure as the “most eco-compatible rural community in Europe”.

The region is famous for dairy and meat cows, which are sustainably and ethically farmed, and over a hundred certified organic farms make up the local cheese and meat cooperatives. Every Tuesday, the weekly market bustles with visitors from neighboring villages, locals, and a growing number of tourists who travel from far and wide to buy locally produced, organic, high quality products. The booths overflow with honey, homemade jams, meats and cheeses like fresh ricotta, soft Borgotondo and creamy Bacicca.  

Local farmers claim they’re not doing anything different than their grandfathers, that they’re using the same techniques that have always been implemented in the region–far before “organic” became a buzzword. These farmers respect and care for the animals, and let them graze in open pastures for most of the year, resulting in better meat and milk. It is that simple. Although the organic farmers don’t think they’re doing anything particularly innovative, they’re certainly happy for the attention the term has brought to the region, especially the younger generations who hope to take over their family farms.

Beyond excellent meats, charcuterie, and cheeses, Varese Ligure boasts an exceptional pasta culture as well. Corzetti (also known as croxetti) is a coin-shaped pasta embossed using an intricate, hand-carved wooden stamp, part of an ancient Ligurian tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. The two-part, handmade wooden mold used to emboss the pasta is a work of art itself, but few woodcarvers still practice the craft. Here, the tradition is alive and well in the sawdust-carpeted workshop of the renowned woodworker Pietro Picetti. Unfortunately, Pietro passed away in 2020, but his workshop lives on in the care of his daughters, who proudly continue to make the stamps in his memory today.

If you’re looking for a delicious destination this summer, something off-the-beaten-path, consider exploring Varese Ligure and the beautiful valley of Val di Vara and supporting the hard-working locals that are steadily building a better future:

Azienda Agricola l’Antica Fornace – Visit this working farm and try some of their homemade salumi and other organic products. Tasting room and restaurant are open only Friday through Sunday.

Albergo Ristorante Amici – This historic hotel and restaurant has been run by the same family since the 1700s, and they still make some of the best traditional food in town. Don’t miss the croxetti con battuto di pinoli, stamped pasta with creamy pine nut sauce.

L’Osteria Du Chicchinettu – Nestled in the historic center of town, this cozy restaurant offers great local food and wines, and friendly service. Make sure to try the antipasto misto and the gnocchi with local cheese.

Cooperativa San Pietro Vara – This cooperative is composed of many small, organic cattle producers in the area and is famous for its high-quality, ethically farmed beef. You can buy meat and salame directly from their shop or request information about their resellers in other cities. 

Cooperativa Casearia Val di Vara – This cooperative, founded in 1978, is comprised mainly of small dairy farmers from the valley. At their shop, you can buy their famous organic yogurt, milk and cheeses, as well as salame, pasta, oil, wine, jams and fresh produce from neighboring organic farms. 

Taverna del Vara – This craft brewery sits in the heart of the Vara valley. You’ll find their beers in many local restaurants and pubs, but you can also buy direct from their facility and take a little tour of the beer making process while you’re there. Their beer recipes use organic, locally grown hops, chestnuts, and honey.

Alimentari Blenci – This well-stocked grocery sells fresh and dried pasta, as well as a variety of local cheeses and products.

Laboratorio di Pietro Picetti – This is the workshop of the legendary woodworker Pietro Picetti, famous for his hand-carved corzetti stamps. You can meet his daughters who have picked up the trade and carry on the tradition in his memory. Buy a handmade stamp to make your own corzetti at home!

Risveglio Naturale – This charming stone farmhouse is surrounded by a chestnut forest, 9 km from Varese Ligure, in the heart of Val di Vara. When you book a room, you can choose to add on a homemade dinner or an Ayurvedic massage (the owners studied holistic medicine, massage, reiki and herbal remedies). You can also buy their homemade products: jams, syrups, essential oils, and bath salts

Antica Fornace

Albergo Ristorante Amici

L’Osteria Du Chicchinettu

Cooperativa San Pietro Vara

Cooperativa Casearia Val di Vara

Taverna del Vara

Alimentari Blenci

Laboratorio di Pietro Picetti

Risveglio Naturale