Varzi, the Oltrepo’ Pavese and the origins of Italian Delights Tours.
Sometimes life deals us a most obvious winning hand. My winning hand came in the form of my dad’s gorgeous medieval town called Varzi, in Italy’s richest region, Lombardy. Varzi cannot help but be a genuine slice of Il Bel Paese, unadulterated by the masses of mainstream tourism. It is what it is - a charming and totally unpretentious hamlet nestled in the lush Staffora Valley in SW Lombardy. Despite the fact that nowadays the locals enjoy a very high standard of living, in many senses time stands still here. On our tours guests experience this directly through my interaction with my family and friends, and by simply wandering through the ancient narrow alleys of the medieval town. They also get to see the local farmers gather on market day when they catch up with their friends and converse in Varzese - the dialect of this proudly parochial town. Talking about the Varzi dialect, one evening whilst enjoying aperitivi with guests at a local Agriturismo (farmhouse), I was regaled by a local chap, who lamented the fact that Varzese was fast becoming extinct amongst the young. He recounted a story about a local who moved to Australia in the 1950’s. The man he was talking about returned to Varzi every now and again, and yet was known by the locals to speak Varzese better than anyone else in the whole town. “Do you mind telling me this man’s name?” I politely asked the chap. “He was a man called Luigi Romagnesi, a real Varzese through and through”. The man he was talking about was my dad.
Lynette at the Varzi market.
Varzi is nestled in a lush valley in the Apennine mountain range in south western Lombardy, within a few kilometres from the collective borders of Liguria, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna. It is very close to the unheralded, yet fascinating, Oltrepo´ Pavese wine region, which accounts for over 70% of Italy’s total pinot noir grape production. However, within Italy, Varzi is most famous for its delicious Salame di Varzi, which was one of Italy’s first food products to receive the privileged DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) appellation. The DOP appellation is designed to protect the history and integrity of unique local food products such as the Salame di Varzi. Despite a truly ancient history, Varzi’s charming medieval town-centre has its origins dating back to the 13th century. It is now primarily a popular holiday spot for the Milanesi, who visit every year to escape the oppressive summer heat in Milan. It has a small but lively population of around 3500 people (which incidentally allows for rumours to travel at lightning speeds!
Varzi's historical town centre.
Despite numerous visits to the town during my childhood and younger adult years, it was in 1996, whilst on honeymoon with my wife, Lynette, that I truly fell in love with Varzi. We used it as our base and hub, pretty much fattening ourselves up during our eight month long, very low budget backpacking honeymoon of Northern Africa, the Middle East and Western Europe. It was our experience at that time which led to Lynette and I musing that one day we would come back with our future young family to live there. We did this some nine years later in 2005 when we packed our bags and headed off with our two young boys, Jason and Marcus, who were 7 and 5 years old at the time.
My boys - Marcus and Jason.
I initially fell in love with the beauty of Varzi and its surrounding countryside. But what really brought this charming little hamlet to life for me and my family were the great friendships we made whilst there, and learning about my family’s connection to the town.
One of our favourite and most entertaining times whilst living in Varzi was picking up the children after school. It was something akin to waiting for a kettle to boil! As a prelude, the laid back and affable local policeman (who was a spitting image of American actor John Cusack!), would patrol the school crossing whilst endlessly chatting to any and all who passed by. Straight after the peal of the bell a riotous cheer would erupt as the children yelled the school down and came hurtling out of the front doors.
The school had a free bus service that came straight to the door!
Another favourite time of the day for us when living in Varzi was walking through the narrow cobblestone streets just before lunch time. It was a great way to work up an appetite for lunch, as it wasn’t long at all before we would start salivating for minestrone, or some sort of pasta, be it al pomodoro or ai porcini! The degree to which we salivated depended upon which glorious scent curled out of the houses as we passed by! In the mornings there was another problem - resisting the temptation of the sweet aroma of freshly baked cannoncini emanating from the local pasticceria. We found this especially challenging because this quaint pasticceria was strategically located on a main pedestrian route through the old town! It only took one weak moment between the two of us and the excuse 'We will never find them as good as this in Australia ', would draw us straight into the shop for yet another one! Once inside, along with the heady smell of the buttery pastries we would marvel at the immaculate arrangement in the shop’s glass display. The owner would welcome us with his warm and gentle manner, and proceed to whip up the fresh crema pasticcera for us and each customer in turn. Every purchase was then meticulously packaged on a tray, wrapped with lovely paper, tied with ribbon and then handed over with consummate pride.
Lynette at the Pasticceria.
Last but not least on our list of memorable Italian rituals was the time for aperitivi. The aperitivo is the social practice of meeting up with friends for scrumptious snacks and a glass of white wine, a beer or a non-alcoholic aperitif, such as a Crodino. We would often do this in the late afternoon before heading home. This was a particularly popular ritual for our boys also, because the drinks were always accompanied by a lovely selection of nibbles - Juicy green Sicilian olives, assorted small pizza slices, focaccia bread, prosciutto (even on occasions the prized culatello!) or the local salame. If we ordered more drinks more food came out - our boys were in heaven! Our regular aperitivi mates were some of the local lads. This group of men, in their 60’s, have lived in Varzi all their lives and have pretty much always been friends. In Lynette’s opinion, they must have been a very formidable force with the ladies in their younger days, and she thinks they have definitely grown older without losing their looks or charm! To draw you a picture, imagine a small group of slim and tanned men with greying, wavy shoulder length hair, cheeky smiles and glinting eyes. In between the flirts with the young waitresses, one notices their collective air of self-confidence and belonging. They are true locals and they live and breathe their home town of Varzi that’s for sure!
Historical town centre.
During World War II, Varzi was a town fiercely divided between the ruling Fascists and a very strong local partisan movement. Locals old enough to have experienced these sordid times still recount the numerous violent encounters between the two groups. Whilst my dad and his brother, Mario, were conscripts fighting for their country, interestingly, their sisters Lauretta and Luisa were simultaneously playing major roles in Varzi’s resistance movement. In fact, after the allied troops had landed on the Italian peninsula, Lauretta and Luisa regularly, and under the cover of night, took food and water to a number of allied soldiers who were hiding in the hills. Amongst these soldiers was one Australian digger from Victoria named Jim Simmons. During their risky rendezvous Zia Luisa and Jim happened to fall in love and would later get married by proxy when Jim returned to Australia! My dad and Zio Mario's job was to escort Zia Luisa to Australia, and this is essentially how the Romagnesi family came to arrive here.
Our happy, healthy boys playing in Varzi.
Lauretta’s fate, on the other hand, was a much sadder one. Soon after the townsfolk had learnt of the end of the war, Lauretta, along with a group of other local women, marched from the town centre remonstrating with white scarves and handkerchiefs to the German soldiers that the war had ended. Tragically, one of the soldiers who had taken over the town tower, fired at the group, killing Lauretta instantly. After her death she was declared a hero and martyr of the partisan movement, and a plaque was erected in her honour at the location where she was shot and killed. Proud locals also lobbied for the street that she was killed in to be renamed Via Lauretta Romagnesi. But they were thwarted by church officials who adamantly maintained that the name of the street, which is named after Pope John the 23rd, would remain. Another street just outside the centre of town was eventually renamed in her honour. The plaque in honour of Zia Lauretta reads –
IN THE FIGHT FOR ANTI-FASCIST LIBERATION
OFFERED A SAINTLY MISSION OF PEACE AND FELL VICTIM TO HER GENEROSITY
01.03.1913 to 19 -9-1944
As we were coming to the end of our year and half stay in Varzi, on a warm, breezy autumn day, Lynette and I took a walk up into the hills around the town. While looking down into the valley,we declared we would start a small group tour business, and bring other Australians here. A little over a year after returning to Australia, as our first guests on tour arrived and remarked on the beauty of the area, we knew that we weren't seeing it through rose coloured glasses and that we had done the right thing.
The view from my boys bedroom window.
Nowadays the time we spend in Varzi is primarily when we run our tours. Hence one of the main sources of present enjoyment for me is introducing our inquisitive guests to this beautiful little town, in this marvellous, yet hidden region of NW Italy. Varzi features on four of our 6 tour offerings, the majority of our guests get to experience this delightful little town that is so close to my heart. I relish the occasions when guests praise the taste of one of the local dishes, such as a hearty plate of Ravioli Brasato (a dish with braised beef sauce and stuffing, cooked slowly with the aid of one of the local reds - Barbera or Bonarda). Or another gastronomic delight of Varzi - the simple, yet delicious, local-baked focaccia (Varzi was once a part of the coastal region of Liguria), or the famous biscuity cake made at the local Zuffada pasticceria called the “Torta di Mandorle” (Almond Cake). Guests get to sample this little treat as part of their Italian Delights’ welcome pack, which also contains other local goodies!
Sunset from our bedroom balcony.
The 19th century Ukrainian poet, Anna Akhmatova, described Italy as “.....a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” My feeling is that why should it be a dream when you can make it a reality that returns for the rest of your life!