At the centre of Lake Como, on the bluff overlooking Varenna, the Vezio Castle has stood for more than a thousand years. It is an ancient military outpost of early medieval origin built by the Lombard Queen Theodelinda to defend and control the lake and surrounding villages.
The castle is situated in a militarily and commercially strategic location which dominates the entire centre of Lake Como and which is why it has been inhabited since the Iron Age. It was associated in the past with the town of Varenna and connected to it by two long walls that once surrounded it up to the lake shore, protecting the village and its people during the frequent wars and looting that shook the area during the Middle Ages.
Partially restored in the mid-twentieth century, the castle today includes a lookout tower with a square base, accessible through a small drawbridge and visitable up to the summit, surrounded by quadrangular walls with partial angular tower. Surrounded by one of northernmost olive groves in the world thanks to the effects of temperature of the lake’s waters, the Castle, which normally can be visited from March to November, hosts temporary art exhibitions of various kinds in the garden and, within the tower, a permanent exhibition on Lariosaurus, a prehistoric marine reptile that came to light for the first time in the world a few hundred meters from the Castle.
With its partially visitable dungeons and statues scattered about the garden along with the “ghosts” and the raptors of our small falconry, the Castle stands in surroundings of unparalleled natural beauty with the area’s art, history and culture and we hope your visit will offer you a pleasant, relaxing break in harmony with nature.
The origins of the fortification are not clear. The place name of Vezio is probably of Roman origin, as can be seen from the Roman families who also had this name who were also living in the Como area (for example, near to Agno, there is a church dedicated to Saint Lucio Vezio Macario). The general topography of the Castle and the town of Vezio shows similarities with a well-documented fortification in Baiedo, where residential areas for serfs emerged near to this castle that they were dependent on.
Various writers, such as Pensa, for example, believe that the beginnings of the Castle date back to Late Antiquity, a time that links it to being used as a strategic military hub during the late Roman period. From here, it would have been possible to keep watch over the road that went from Bellano to Esino Lario, and it was also used as a watch tower and a signalling point that overlooked the whole lake. There is not a lot that can be said about the Byzantine and Lombardic periods that followed, except for a legend about the queen Theodelinda. It is said that during her final years spent in Perledo, the renowned Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, arranged for the joint construction of Saint Martin’s Church, which has an old tower-like belfry, Castle Vezio, and the Oratory of Saint Anthony, so that she could leave a visible trace of her Christian faith behind. There are many places in Lombardy that also claimed this legend for themselves, however, we must also remember that it was imperative for the Lombards to arm themselves with the best military defences possible. In Vezio’s case, it is clear why they would have been interested in reconstructing the Castle, which had been destroyed during wars, of which we know little about, as it was strategically well located.
One of the first stories that can definitely be attributed to the Castle dates back to the arrival of exiles from the island of Comacina, after the war with Como in 1169 AD. Writing in 1559, Paolo Giovio tells us that:
The islanders built two strongholds in their new settlement: one on the right side of Lake Como, and another within the fortress high up on the mountain, where a number of buildings were constructed, which looks out over the whole lake.
The theory that the islanders were the first to build Vezio Castle is today rejected by the majority of writers. It is more likely to have been part of a massive building project, which, together with the Castle, would have also included the village of Varenna – the structure of which had completely changed, making it easy to mistakenly believe that it had been built from scratch. The Castle would have certainly been of great interest to the people of Comacina arriving into Varenna: the town’s fortified defences are now actually more focused towards Vezio, which is connected via massive walls to the village below, the remains of which can still, in part, be found and are mentioned in various documents. They were also used by the population of Varenna seeking refuge during the continual attacks carried out by the people of Como, which were a usual occurrence in this town throughout the whole of the Early Middles Ages. One of the first documents to mention Vezio dates back to 1368. It talks of land being donated to the Church of Saint Anthony in Vezio. During the 17th century, the tower belonged to the Parish of Saint George in Varenna. In 1600, there was a quarrel between the Priest of Varenna and the Duke of Monte Marcino, as the latter had occupied the tower of Vezio, despite the claims of the Parish in Varenna of its entitlement to it. The case for the control of the Castle was won by the Conte della Riviera (Count of the Riviera), who leased out his estates in Vezio to Giovanni Antonio Forno in 1619, to Giovanni Antonio de Tarelli in 1631, and Antonio Tarelli in 1656. According to two inscriptions dictated by Parlaschino, the tower of Vezio was rebuilt in 1635. However, as there is no other information available about this, it cannot be verified. Coming back to the owners of Vezio Castle, it remained under the possession of the Sfrondati family (Counts of the Riviera), and when their dynasty had died out, it was passed on to their heirs, the Serbelloni family.
As well as the monumental tower of Vezio, other pieces of evidence that point to the presence of military structures can be found along the first section of the path that joins Vezio together with Ortanella, and the road that links Vezio with Fiumelatte. There are the remains of a massive wall, the ruins of buildings, a farmstead that appears to have been derived from a fortified tower, and the ruins of a farmhouse whose door and window openings look as if they were built for defence. According to Pensa, these constructions can be attributed to the war between the Duchy of Milan and Venice. What is more, these constructions are more in line with the military strategies of the time, rather than being linked with the Castle itself. In 1647, the estates belonging to the towns of Perledo and Varenna were assigned to the Valtellinese estate belonging to Count Giulio Monti. In 1778, the Varenna enfeoffment was handed over to the Serbelloni family, with the Crivelli Serbelloni branch of the family holding possession of the tower of Vezio until the 19th century. Ownership was then passed on to the Greppi Di Robilant family, who are still the owners of it today.
Nowadays, although it is still private property, the Castle can be visited by the public during most of the year, usually between March and the beginning of November. The Castle is run by the Associazione Turistica Castello di Vezio (Vezio Castle Tourist Association), a non-profit organisation that is entrusted with its upkeep, restoration, and promoting art exhibitions and various types of events inside the Castle grounds.
How to get there
By train or ferry, on foot from Varenna:
From Milan, take the direct train to Sondrio/Tirano, alight at the Varenna/Esino Lario stop.Exit the train station and turn left, a staircase will take you to the main road, walk along the river towards the lake to the stop sign, cross the bridge going to the left up to the Montecodeno restaurant. Arriving by ferry, from the Varenna landing you will find a street straight in front of you between the “Cavallino” restaurant and the pub “L’Orso”, that within a few meters takes you in front of the Montecodeno restaurant.
Just to the left of the restaurant, you will find the path to go up to Vezio Castle. The climb is quite steep, but short. In less than 20 minutes you will be in Vezio. Please wear suitable footwear and in case of very high summer temperatures take some rest stops in the shade.
Once in Vezio follow the signs, go past the shop “Le ceramiche di Vezio” and once in the church square you will find the entrance to the Castle to the left of the small cemetery.
Alternatively, from Varenna you can take the “Scabium” pathway from the other side of the town. The entrance is in front of Villa Monastery, the journey is slightly longer and views are better but it is completely in the sun.
From Milan, take the SS36 towards Sondrio. After Lecco, take the first exit to Abbadia Lariana and follow the road to the lake. Once in Varenna, turn left towards Varenna and go through the village.
From Valchiavenna/Valtellina, take the SS36 towards Milan, get off at the Bellano exit and follow the signs to Varenna.
At the bridge at the beginning of Varenna turn to Esino Lario and, after a few bends, turn right to Vezio/Castello di Vezio. Continue until the end of the paved road and park. Then head by foot towards the village, downhill along the cobblestone street. At the end of this street, on the left, you will find the restaurant “Il Portichetto”. To continue to the Castle turn right and then immediately left (you will find yourself in the Piazzetta Belvedere). Continue along the narrow street to the Castle, on your right you will find the shop “Le Ceramiche di Vezio” and once in the church square you will find the entrance of the Castle to the left of the small cemetery.