THE Lake of Varese does not pretend to vie in beauty or interest with its big sisters, Lakes Maggiore, Lugano, or Como. Were it not for its situation, it might be considered a commonplace pond of largish size, somewhat more than two miles long and about half as wide, with three attendant ponds of lesser size, Biandronno, Monate, and Comabbio. The Lake of Varese is quite shallow with reedy banks; and there is next to no navigation upon it, even by rowboat. No large villages group themselves directly upon its margin, but those which may be seen in the neighbourhood have rather sought the surrounding hills. As a sheet of water the Lake of Varese is plain and uninteresting, and yet its very humility enables it to perform to perfection one of the chief functions of a lake, it reflects. It lies at the very feet of the last spurs which the Alps send southward to invade the plain, and mirrors a vast army of lesser and greater heights standing rank on rank against the western sky. In this lies its reward; here its glory and use as a part of the surpassing subalpine landscape. Indeed John Adding-ton Symonds gives this simple lake high praise. He writes in his ” Sketches in Italy: ”
” In some picturesque respects Varese is the most perfect of the lakes. Those long lines of swelling hills, that lead into the level, yield an infinite series of placid fore-grounds, pleasant to the eye by contrast with the dominant snow-summits from Monte Viso to Monte Leone.”
There may be some resemblance to the English lake region, which makes this district especially attractive to English writers, for Ruskin wrote his father in 1845: ” I wished for you sadly yesterday as I was driving from the Lake of Varese down to Laveno opposite Baveno. You cannot conceive anything so beautiful as the winding of the lakes, five or six seen at once among the mulberry woods and tufted crags. But, as I said to myself at the time, it was only the more beautiful because it was more like Windermere, or rather, like many Windermeres.”
There is a certain distinct value about those lesser lakes which lie in the plain sufficiently far to admit of a panoramic view of the Alps. One always feels this special beauty about Lake Neuchâtel in Switzer-land. It is as though, like the painter, one had stepped back from the easel, leaned his head on one side, and gained the general impression so much desired. There are days, times, moods, and seasons when these humbler lowland members among the lake family, though they seem somewhat distant connections of the Alpine lakes, display a unique beauty by the self-effacing method of reflection.
The country district in which the Lake of Varese lies goes by the name of the Varesotto. It is fertile and populous, a smiling region where rows of mulberry-trees, care-fully trimmed, grow in the open fields, and vineyards clothe the slopes.
Somehow the Varesotto seems to have more than its share of those days of grateful and gracious recollection, when an extra brightness lurks in the green of the grass, the white of the road, and the blue of the sky. The sun sends down its slanting rays between the passage of majestic clouds. In rolling folds they sail before a breeze full of enterprise and balm. Indeed a special benison accompanies the lofty travel of these clouds over the earth. Wholly white themselves, they let fall grateful shadows alike upon the tillers of the soil and the men perched in the trees packing mulberry-leaves into long bags for the silkworms; upon the oxen drawing creakng wagons along the highway; and the patient donkeys trotting gingerly in front of canvas-covered carts. And when the appeal from the thirsty earth and tired humanity becomes irresistible, the clouds, overburdened with sympathy, develop an undertone of gloom and presently dissolve in rain. Such showers may fall on the fields of the Varesotto and not touch the exotic gardens of Pallanza or the palaces on Lake Como. They come and go where there is need, they refresh and beautify, they sparkle but never spoil.
Varese, the city, is equally convenient of access from Lakes Maggiore, Lugano, or Como. It lies on the railroad running from Laveno on Lake Maggiore to Como on the lake of that name. It may also be reached by rail from Porto Ceresio on Lake Lugano, and of course from Milan, the great near-by metropolis. The city in no respect approaches Lugano in importance, either as a strangers’ resort or as an international rendezvous; it is strictly provincial and but little affected by tourist travel. The Varesotto minds its own business, and that business is largely feeding the silkworm and spinning its shining thread.
The city is of great antiquity, like many of the places situated in the subalpine region. The remains of lake-dwellings on the banks of the Lake of Varese, similar to those discovered in Switzerland, indicate that the region was already inhabited in what is commonly known as the prehistoric age. Varese shared the vicissitudes of the Roman era and of the invasion of Teutonic nations with other settlements of its kind in the Lombard plain, participating especially in the varying fortunes of the adjacent cities of Milan and Como. It is interesting to notice that it was largely due to the umbrage taken by the people of the Swiss states of Uri and Obwalden to the treatment their cattle dealers had received at the hands of the authorities of Varese, that a Swiss invasion of the Valle Leventina or Ticino Valley took place in 1403. That conquered district was in later times formed into the only Italian-speaking Canton of Switzerland, the Canton of Ticino. This incident and its results are treated at greater length in the author’s work, ” The Rise of the Swiss Republic.”
In 1848 Varese was occupied by Austrian troops, and in 1859 Garibaldi with his cacciatori delle Alpi retreated through Varese on his way from Laveno to Como, success-fully eluding the efforts of the Austrian Field-marshal Urban with ten thousand troops to bar his way. Varese was one of the first places liberated from Austrian control by Garibaldi in the same year, and was actually the first Italian city to proclaim the downfall of the Austrian government and its adhesion to the constitutional government of Victor Emmanuel II. A monument to Garibaldi’s cacciatori has been erected in the city, facing the public school buildings, for the school youth of Varese fought under Garibaldi on the 26th of May, 1859.
Although Varese is an active, neat little city of today, its antiquity is very apparent in its six gates, its main street lined with arcades, columned after the Doric order, and its side streets which still dispense with the formality of sidewalks. An electric line runs directly from the station out to Sacro Monte or the Madonna del Monte, which ranks in interest with the pilgrimage resorts of Orta and Varallo. Though Orta may be more like a park and Varallo more like a fortress, yet the Sacro Monte of Varese is loftier than either, rising to a height of 2,890 feet above the level of the sea, and permitting a view of wide extent over mountain, rolling country, and plain. Viewed from the plain it looks for all the world like a small hill town of Tuscany or a mediæval robbers’ nest. There are fourteen chapels and a church and three triumphal arches, all built gradually during the course of the seventeenth century.
When the time comes for our departure to Como, we renew our acquaintance with leisurely Italian railroad travel. Once more the vestibule of the station is crowded with passengers, who are not permitted to secure their tickets until just before the departure of the train. There is the usual lack of change at the ticket-office, the invariable helplessness of third-class passengers. There is a ringing of bells, a tooting of horns, and a blowing of whistles. Deeply impressive cries of pronti or partenza rend the air. Frantic, breathless crowds surge around the doors. Heavy bags and sacks are pushed into third-class compartments, and a magnificent activity full of dramatic ardour plays up and down the station platform. There is a moment’s quiet, then the train moves off toward Como and its lake.
Presently we shall catch our first glimpse of that body of water, famed in every corner of the earth, sung by poets both ancient and modern, and cherished in the memory by many thousand visitors.