Cycling with Hitchcock through “The Pleasure Garden”

Alassio Waterfront
Classy Alassio Waterfront on the Italian Riviera

Alassio’s passaggieta of cyclists, roller-bladers, hikers and joggers happens on the long promenade that overlooks the bronze-grey beach of the Italian Riviera. The charm of the old town center is hidden behind tall peachy buildings that stand sentry over its medieval charms. But Alassio has other attractions as well that make it surprisingly irresistible. Perched high an a hill above the old town center, like icing on a cake, is a magnificent villa that draws the attention of admirers from below.

Villa della Pergola sits regally above Alassio – check out those domes!

 As “one of the wonders of the Italian Riviera,” according to William Scott, the Villa della Pergola is inspiring and outstanding in natural beauty and elegance. Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes for his first movie, “The Pleasure Garden,” in the exotic grounds that surround the Villa. The two-acre garden with its Wisteria-covered pergolas, little fountains, climbing roses and quiet leafy areas provide the perfect backdrop for a movie.

Designed with a unique architectural style encompassing large balconies, luxurious verandas and a sweeping white-marble staircase, the Villa is a show-stopper. Dazzling orthodox Russian-type domes rise from the roof. A fountain near the central staircase and opulent marble floors add to the liberal taste of its origins from the 1870’s British winter holiday-goers. Alassio was the playground for sun-starved Brits before the action passed on to the French Riviera.

Cycling the Italian Riviera
Cycling the Italian Riviera

Cycling is big on the Riviera. Alassio lies on the “Ring of the Bay” cycling route that brings the sparkling blue Mediterranean up close. A long stretch of the route is on the promenade that skirts the waterfront. You then have a choice of circling up the hills above Alassio and beyond, (which is mountain bike domain), making a complete loop back down to the waterfront, or stay on the promenade and enjoy the ambience of the sea. Of course, there are always rewards for ‘going the extra mile,’ such as sweeping views of the Mediterranean. The entire route is 24.9 km with an elevation max of 482.2m.

Up for a hike? The famous Via Julia Augusta path along the water will transport you back to the year 12 BC. Built by Emperor Augustus as a link between Rome and southern Gaul, the path stretches from Alassio to Albenga and is just under 8 miles long. Starting in the square of Santa Croce in Alassio, the pathway takes you by an ancient stone arch. Cecil Roberts penned his novel, “The Portal to Paradise,” which is set in Alassio and inspired by this same arch. From there on out, the views of the Mediterranean and the Island of Gallinaria remain with you. Gallinaria is a term the Romans used for wild chickens, and evidently this island was full of them at one time.

Albenga greets you with medieval towers and an intriguing historical center. Worthy of a look-about, you then have the option of taking a bus back to Allasio or regrouping for a hiking rondez-vous back.

Did Alfred Hitchcock actually bicycle the promenade? Who can say for sure. But for a lover of the exotic and beautiful, it’s very likely. Besides, wasn’t he notorious for making surprise appearances when least expected?

Additional Information Links 

* Ring of the Bay Bike Path

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitc...
 Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. 

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