Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Hello, George? It's my birthday."

The weather was beautiful for our final day in Italy. We decided to take the long ferry from Como to Bellagio, "the pearl of Lake Como." The journey is a pleasant two-hour meander past charming Italian villages perched along the edges of the lake, flanked by mountains.

Villa d'Este
We shared the ferry with lots of other tourists, mostly Australians, Canadians, and other Americans. Some passengers purchased headphones so they could listen in to commentary about the villages and scenery we were passing. Villa d'Este was the first landmark of note. Its majestic facade appeared before us in the tiny town of Cernobbio. Villa d'Este was built in 1568 and continued, for many years, to be embellished in the Renaissance style. It's been operated as a luxury hotel since 1873 and its guest roster boasts many famous names including Mark Twain, Madonna, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Ralph Lauren, and Aristotle Onassis. It was also a vacation destination for the Prince of Wales and his American sweetheart (and the woman for whom he'd abdicate the throne),
Wallis Simpson.

Villa Fontanelle
Moltrasio is the next village on the route. One of its most notable residences is Villa Fontanelle, former home of Gianni Versace. It was built in 1800 and sold to the Versace family in the 1980's. Madonna was a regular summer guest, and the villa served as the location for Jennifer Lopez's 2001 wedding. Today Villa Fontanelle is owned by a wealthy Russian restaurateur.

Since we didn't have the headphones, we were relying on others to tell us about the sights we were passing. Luckily, a family of four from Minnesota or Wisconsin or some other friendly midwestern state, excitedly relayed everything. We gradually came to realize that we all took the slow ferry for the same reason: George Clooney. From the beginning, before we even pulled out of the dock at Como, some middle-aged women behind us were daydreaming about the possibility of seeing him.

"Do you think he'll be home, Shirley?"
"Well, I don't know. It's summer time and this is where I'd be if I had a villa in Italy. I'm sure the chances are good, Evelyn."
"I can't wait to meet him!!"

I freely admit that I had my camera poised and ready to capture George at Villa Oleandra. Perhaps his girlfriend and maybe even his good friends Cindy Crawford and Brad Pitt would be sipping wine with him on a veranda. They would wave happily at our ferry, filled with throngs of tourists snapping photos like paparazzi. And then, miraculously, George would signal to me. He would hold up a sign reading, "I know it's your birthday! We're having a party for you! Please, come over!" And I would jump off the ferry and swim across Lake Como gracefully, like Esther Williams. George, Cindy, and Brad would pull me up from the water and envelop me in a luxurious robe with my initials stitched onto the front. Then they would give me presents and we would have dinner at Villa d'Este.

I'm not crazy like all the other women on the ferry; I didn't put too much thought into a chance meeting with George.

Villa de Clooney
I had been snapping photos of every large and semi-large villa we passed, thinking it must be his. I thought Versace's house and a few other estates along the way might be it. I should have known that there would be no doubts when it actually happened. We were sailing along smoothly when all of a sudden the headphone-wearing female passengers collectively gasped and ran to one side of the ferry. The boat rocked precariously as the horde of women took hundreds of photos and waved excitedly at the villa. The American teenage girl we were sitting behind turned to us and breathlessly said, "The guide just said that if his boat is docked outside, it means he's either here or on his way! Eeeeeek!" And I freely admit that I "eeeked" with her and ran over to the side facing his house so he could see my birthday face.

Alas, we never saw George. I think some of the women convinced themselves that he was home but maybe he was just in the shower or grocery store. Otherwise he surely would've invited a gaggle of Canadian, American, Australian, and various European admirers into his estate. It's amazing how far-reaching his celebrity is.

Next up was Villa La Cassinella in Lenno. It's the property of Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson and reportedly rents for a cool 80,000 Euros per WEEK. But it comes with all the fancy trimmings one would expect for that price tag: a chef, concierge, English-trained butler, a hidden infinity pool, and state-of-the-art cinema. I'm considering staying there next time, if George & Co. are out of town of course.
Villa La Cassinella
The James Bond Villa, or Villa La Gaeta, lorded over us next in San Siro. Casino Royale was filmed here in 2006. The Bond lifestyle can be yours-- luxurious apartments inside the villa are available for rent.

One of my favorite properties was the Grand Hotel Tremezzo in Tremezzo. It's a 5-star property dating back to the early 1900's. Meticulously-landscaped gardens surround the palace and the lake views must be stunning. I'd love to take a dip in the floating pool!

Grand Hotel Tremezzo

After the architecture-overload, we finally arrived in Bellagio. We had several hours to spend in town before catching another ferry back to Como. It was already after noon and we were starving, so we decided to find a good place for lunch. We walked away from the tourist-lined streets and vendors selling postcards and ended up on a charming side street. As we made our way up the cobbled steps, a low-hanging wooden sign caught our attention. We glanced inside Enoteca Cava Turacciolo and immediately decided we'd found our spot.

It felt as if we were walking into a private wine cellar. The damp air smelled ancient but the dark atmosphere was lit by glowing candles and festooned with fresh flowers-- cozy and welcoming. Another reason we decided to stay was the boisterous laughter emanating from a room deep in the cellar. A large party was having a wine tasting and also, from the sounds of their mirth, the time of their lives. We sat down at a high-top for two near the entrance and were immediately waited on by a friendly woman. We decided to have a tasting of 3 reds and 3 whites, along with some champagne to start. We paired it with local cheeses, pastas, and olives.

It became evident to us that the large party in the back was a whole bunch of Americans. It sounded like they hailed from Oklahoma or Texas, based upon their accents and figures of speech. Their laughter was our soundtrack as we sipped and nibbled and, I must say, it was nice to hear my fellow countrymen having such a grand time. It reminded me of some of the positive attributes of Americans. I think (very generally, of course), we are friendly, open, inviting, welcoming, and yes- loud. But sometimes noise is appropriate, especially if it's happy noise. And the owners of the cellar were also very happy because every single American in that group spent several minutes choosing wines to be shipped all the way back to the states. It was a win-win for everyone.

Bellagio is a small resort so we kept running into them after we'd all left Enoteca Cava Turacciolo. We heard them before we saw them, their voices always animated and cheerful with lots of, "Ooooooh! Did y'all see that?!" and, "Wow, I ain't never seen a place like this in my life!" They reminded me of home, and made me miss it.

We spent a long time at the wine tasting so we ended the last hour in Bellagio with a walk around the waterfront. We cooled down with some tasty gelato as we watched ferries and boats come in and out of the harbor. The highlight of our harbor-watching was seeing a bride and groom in a taxi-boat on the way to Varenna.

We took the fast ferry back to Como. It cut the travel time down to 40 minutes so we were there in time for dinner. The concierge at our hotel recommended a restaurant close by called The Market Place. We didn't have reservations but the staff found a spot for us in the small dining room. The kitchen was open and we watched the chef carefully and lovingly prepare and inspect each dish before it went out to patrons. We chose the 50 Euros tasting menu, paired with international and Italian wines. It was amazing! The dishes were original and inventive. The lasagnette with potato and leeks was particularly delicious. All of the staff were incredible and it was a great value. All in all, a remarkable meal and one of my favorites in recent memory.

I was sad to leave the sunny shores of Lake Como. The wine, food, sights, and people made for an unforgettable vacation and birthday. Though we didn't meet George Clooney, running into all of the Americans in Bellagio was just as exciting. Who needs George and James Bond when you're already in a dream world of inexpensive wine, creamy gelato, delectable pasta, mountains, a deep blue lake, and sunny skies.

Molte grazie, Lake Como! And give my regards to George.

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