Strolling the Backstreets of Rome

Shades of yesterday still chatting today
Shades of yesterday still conversing today–seen in some windows as I explored Rome’s back streets.

Sunday afternoon in Rome is a bustle of activity. Families, friends, tourists, and every conceivable group of people can be found roaming the cobbled streets and piazzas in search of good food, shopping, museums, fountains, or just enjoying the presence of good company. In the rush of activity I found it so easy to miss my surroundings and the intriguing sites that Rome has to offer.

Last September, as the days began to stretch into October, I found myself rambling away from the old familiar piazzas and landmarks. The bustling crowds had enveloped me and, like a river, taken me away with them in their enthusiastic and lively banter. It was all nice, but I needed a refresher. Moving away from the crowds was the perfect solution to really see some of the easily missed charms of Rome.

Gluten-Free, what a relief for many
Gluten-Free, what a relief for many

Outside restaurant menus flourished everywhere with a list of mouth-watering meals, often accompanied by photos. This pizzeria offered gluten-free pasta which was the first I had seen it advertised here. The outdoor seating and ambience of the ancient surroundings was very charming. Combined with a delicious plate of pesto pasta and a good local red wine, it was the perfect recipe for a leisurely meal that could easily have lasted late into the afternoon.

A quiet street...unusual in Rome
A quiet street in Rome

A turn down this momentarily vacant street was a nice break from the maddening crowds. Hemmed in by cars and tall buildings, I could see greenery on the rooftops and beyond to distant hills. Voices from open windows that I passed brought up visions of sumptuous Sunday repasts leisurely shared with families and friends.

A gorgeous entry along the street.
A gorgeous entry along the street

Geraniums, flowers and vines embellished this doorway in the most attractive manner, the results of a generous green thumb. What a burst of pleasure it offered to those passing by with its ambrosial display of vibrant whites, purples, reds and greens. Someone cared enough to bring life and color into a stone and stucco environment. Even a small bird house was attached to the wall with a little bird perched on it. It was all very captivating.

The Presidential Palace

Before long I had found the Quirinal Palace, known also as the Presidential Palace, elegantly placed on the highest of the seven hills of Rome. Pope Gregory XIII had it built as a summer residence for the papacy in 1573. After the unification of Italy in 1870 it became the royal residence and later the Presidents palace.

In the middle of the Piazza del Quirinale is an ancient obelisk next to the Dioscuri fountain. Nearby are 18 foot sculptures of Castor and Pollux, Roman replicas of the Greek originals from the fifth century BC.

Rocking Sculpture
Rocking Sculpture of Castor and Pollux. Pollux stands unseen on the right side.
Presidential Guard
Presidential Guard

This palace guard was very serious but a good sport when I asked to take his photo. The guards are very watchful and appear to be quite aware of their surroundings.

Roman skies
Roman skies peak between tall elegant buildings toward the end of my meanderings.

My afternoon had been greatly enriched and I was ready to get back into the mainstream. Rome, I discovered, has many faces, more than I had previously thought. A verse written by Mark Twain came to mind just then. I challenged it….

“What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.” From Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

What did I discover? Many things, wonderful things, all of it ready to share their wonderful stories if one just stops to listen.

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