Our ‘Passed-Over’ Easter

St. Peters Basilica in Rome
St. Peters Basilica rises majestically in Rome

How is it possible to miss the yearly Easter celebration, you may ask. Quite easily, we found, if one’s mind is preoccupied with other matters. Let me tell you just how we temporarily ‘fell off the grid.

Throwing caution to the wind and taking temporary retirements, my husband and I backpacked through western Europe for three months in the Spring of 2004. With only 25 pounds each, which allowed us two changes of clothing and our basics, we embarked upon the adventure of our lives. Flying out of Portland International Airport on March 9th, we found ourselves in Amsterdam the following day. From there we took a flight to Athens and spent the remainder of March exploring the wonderfully diverse landscape of southern Greece.

Monastery on Pelopennese
Monastery clings to a mountainside on the Peloponnese

On March 27th, Easter Sunday for the western world, we were curiously investigating all the nooks, crannies and tiny chapels of a monastery, Eloni-Chynuria, north of Kosmas on the Peloponnese. Sitting on a mountainside shelf, it was nearly hidden from a distance. A winding road through desert country took us up to the monastery, where I donned a skirt over my jeans (requirement for modesty) and absorbed the Greek Orthodox ornate Byzantine decor. Panoramic vistas of low valleys and rugged mountains dominated the landscape from the rock walls above.Taverna in KosmosTaverna in Kosmas

Continuing our drive down the rocky Peloponnese, we had lunch in a lively, down-home taverna in Kosmas run by a local family. We enjoyed a simple but tasty dish of chicken and spaghetti, cooked spinach and rose wine. Next to us an elderly woman sat at a table in a traditional black Greek dress, quietly enjoying her own thoughts. The warm open friendliness of these local people transformed a simple lunch into fond memories.

Throughout the day we enjoyed the panoramic and visually stunning view of the Aegean Sea. Thoughts of Easter day back home were far from us. EUROPE04 152

A few weeks later we were at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when it dawned on us that Easter had come and gone while we were in Greece. What a surprise! On May 5th, while dining on the glistening sun streaked water of Lake Como, it never occurred to us that Easter was happening in the East.

Easter had ‘passed over’ us unnoticed. Explorations of the multi-layered Peloponnese with its Byzantine fortresses, mystic monasteries and homey tavernas kept our thoughts far from home. Italy intoxicated us with the ruins of Pompeii, vineyards of Campania serving ancient wines of the Greeks and Romans, the Eternal City with its multiple layers of history, and the richness of the north. Although surprised and a bit saddened by it, we knew it was probably a once in a lifetime occurrence. At least we hope so. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Villa d’Este, Hollywood on Lake Como

I recall gentle breezes, cool linen sheets, satin, silk, and silence “   Pamela Fiori, Town & Country

Villa d'Este on Lake Como
Villa d’Este on Lake Como

“I had expected the Villa d’Este a place where you have to keep your voice down; but rarely have I seen ease and formality so happily married. The Villa d’Este is not a hotel at which you merely stay; it is a hotel at which you settle.”                                                              David Leavitt

There is something thrilling about visiting a place that has a whole lot of history tucked away behind the old walls and under its lofty rafters. The Villa d’Este on Lake Como, a Renaissance patrician residence in Cernobbio, is as enchanting and beguiling a place as you can imagine. It also boasts no lack of real-life drama since it was built in 1568.

Up for a Swim at the Ville?
Up for a Swim at the Villa?

Alfred Hitchcock was so in love with Villa d’Este that he spent every summer there. In fact, he filmed his first movie, “The Pleasure Garden” on the hotel grounds in 1925. He thought it was the most beautiful place on earth.

Did you know that in September of 1948, the Countess Pia Bellantani shot her lover Carlo Sacchi, a famous silk manufacturer from Como during a fashion show at the Villa? She was kept in an insane asylum afterwards, writing a note to the court “I shot Sacchi with my husband’s pistol. I shall always remember Carlo. I loved him dearly.”

The hotel’s 152 rooms, each one distinctly different from the others in size and decor, have seen a stream of actors, poets, musicians, artists, royalty, sultans, foreign dignitaries and fashion powerhouses. Names like Sir Paul Smith, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Oscar De La Renta, Calvin Klein, Lorenzo Tiva and Bill Blass consider Villa d’Este their second home.

Villa d'Estee Front

Only an hours drive from Milan, this opulent hotel sits on 25 acres of parkland with views of the Alpine foothills. Terraced water gardens sedate the spirit as you meander the magical setting. A Nymphaeum with the perspective of the fountain of Ercole stands triumphantly, from which the water flows over 130 granite basins. It was erected by Pellegrino Pellegrini, the architect of the main villa, during the Renaissance period.

Ville d'Este Garden Entrance

As you walk about the park-like surroundings, you will see several old fortresses that provide an enchanting view of the lake. These were a gift from Countess Vittoria to her husband Domenico Pino, who was a young Napoleonic general. These fortresses, built in the early 1800’s, are exact replicas of the ones that general Pino held under siege in Spain. He partook of mock battles here with other military cadets, followed by feasting, champagne and fireworks.

Fortress Remains at Ville d'Este
Fortress Remains at Ville d’Este

Cardinal Gallios, the son of a prestigious family in Como, acquired the old cloister of Sant’Andrea and the adjacent property, where he had the Villa d’Este built in 1568. Shortly afterward, the Sultan of Morocco paid a visit with his entourage to see the legendary splendors of this villa himself.

Carolyn of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales and future Queen of England, spent her happiest years at the villa beginning in 1815, escaping a loveless marriage to her first cousin George IV. Afterwards, the Empress Maria Fedorowna, wife of the Russian Czar, rented the villa for two months but stayed for two years. She was loved by the people of Lake Como because of her charitable works.

By 1873 Villa d’Este became world-famous as a super luxury hotel. Originally, the facade of the villa rose directly out of the water, but a terrace built overlooking the lake improved the water’s edge, offering a breathtaking view of the lake and the mountains.

Gardens at the Ville
Gardens at the Villa

Today the red and cream neoclassical building is operated by a group that includes Villa La Massa in Florence and run by long-time president Jean Marc Droulers.

If you are a celebrity, writer, artist or musician, this is where you would stay unless you owned your own home on the lake. The hotel registers dating from 1873 list Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, King Leopold of Belgium, Saudi Arabia Royal family, Jose Carreras and Madonna among others as guests. Gretta Garbo, Betty Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Stone, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Mel Gibson and Woody Allen have all left their imprint. The list of Hollywood stars that have visited the villa remains endless. 

Bruce Springsteen stays at the villa often while performing for his Italian audiences. Marlene Dietrich stayed at the Villa d’Este incognito in 1949, eight years after she retired. She was seen covered under a big hat and touring the lake in a private boat.

One of the many things about the villa that the celebrities love is its discreetness regarding clientele. The staff is very tight-lipped about the comings and goings within the hotel. They refuse entrance to the Paparazzi unless arranged for previously. Today the room rates run from $1400 to $5,000 per night (top suites).

Villa d’Este is honored by Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Forbes Traveler as one of the best Super Luxury hotels in the world. It truly has an aura of palatial authenticity that is very rare to find anywhere.

*Video: Villa d’Este on Lake Como

Lake Como: Mingle with the Caesars and the Stars

Bellagio overlooking Lake Como
Bellagio overlooking Lake Como

“I love the way life is spent in Italy….It’s really nice to sit down and have a two-hour lunch, which the Italians do. I realized that I had spent 15, 20 years standing up and shoveling food down my throat. It’s not about wealth; it’s about taking time and actually enjoying things.” Anonymous

Tranquil, peaceful, serene, romantic.…these words describe one of the most beautiful places on earth; Lake Como in Lombardy, northern Italy. Tall stately cypress provides pomp to the transcendent villas that populate the shoreline and hillside. Boats seem to glide across glass suspended above fathoms of deep blue water, turning a shimmery silver as the sun sets. Lake Como, steeped in history from ancient times, has become a paradise today for the rich and famous.

Villa del Balbianello
Villa del Balbianello

My love affair with Lake Como began the day I stepped foot off a boat and onto Como soil. A world of palatial elegance enveloped me immediately, and I imagined that I was one of the wealthy Villa dwellers, if only for a day.

Lake Como has been on the map for centuries. Julius Caesar, in the first century BC, sent 5,000 Romans to settle in Como to develop and protect the trade route between Rome and Reastia (Switzerland). In the first century Pliny the Elder and Younger both took up residence at Lake Como. Pliny the Elder is famous for his writings on natural history. He observed the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, only to get too close to the event and die in the aftermath. Pliny the Younger, his adopted nephew, wrote about the eruption of the volcano.

Dramatic hillsides and deep ravines rise and swell with the shoreline of Lake Como. Many Romanesque churches dot the landscape, bringing to mind earlier times and rulership. Two of the most powerful and wealthy Milanese families, the Sforza and Visconti, ruled Lake Como during the medieval era.

Billa del Balbianello on Lake Como
Billa del Balbianello on Lake Como

Lake Como today thrives as a modern retreat with a good supply of converted castles and lovely villa’s offering luxurious accommodations. Don’t be surprised if you happen to bump into familiar celebrity faces. The lake is scattered with their elegant lakeside villas.

Villa Oleandra
Villa Oleandra -George Clooney’s Estate on Lake Como

Carolyn of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the Prince of Wales, came to Lake Como in 1816 and claimed the huge mansion Villa d’Este as her home. Since then, the lake has seen many of the rich and wealthy come to settle. George Clooney owns two homes; Villa Margherita and Villa Oleandra, which he keeps up beautifully. Sting and Richard Branson, as well as the Versace family (Villa Le Fontanelle) keep villas on the lake as well.

Lake Como Villa

“Lake Como (Lago di Como), lined with elegant 19th Century villas, crowned by snow-capped mountains, and busy with ferries, hydrofoils, and slow, passenger-only boats–is a good place to take a break from the intensity and obligatory-turnstile culture of central Italy. It seems like half the travelers you’ll meet have tossed their itineraries into the lake and are actually relaxing.” Rick Steves, “Italy 2013”

I did toss my itinerary into the lake and found myself melting into the land, the cypress, the deep blue waters that shimmer like a silver web at eventide, the winding pathways that spring under my footstep as I pondered those who walked before me. As I sat by the water’s edge, the rythmic lapping lulled me to sleep, cradled in the arms of the timeless mountains.

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Sagra di San Giovanni Festival on Lake Como

Comacina Island, Lake Como
Comacina Island, Lake Como

 

Also called “Festival of the Lumaghitt,” St. Johns festival dates back to earlier times when the townspeople liberated themselves from hailstorms that would appear in June and destroy the harvest. According to legend, the people sought the protection of St. John the Baptist by taking a solemn boat ride out to Comacina Island where a church stood that was dedicated to him. From that time on, the hailstorms ceased to exist and the trek to the island became an annual event, followed by many festivities and nighttime luminaries.

The Sagra in full bloom
The Sagra in full bloom

During the festival, it became a tradition to eat snails and polenta. Somehow, the empty snail shells were filled with oil and a wick was added to make small luminaries. From this came the name lumaghitt.

The fires ignited on the island and floating rafts also carry another meaning. In 1160, the people of Como, as an act of revenge against the Comacinians who joined with Milan to destroy their city in 1127, burned the island and all nine churches.

The festival takes place on Comacina Island at Tremezzo on Lake Como.

The Lumaghitt begins at dusk on Saturday, June 22nd, with fireworks beginning after 10 pm.

St. John Festival is Sunday, June 23rd