2013 marks the "Anno della Cultura Italiana", a year-long celebration of Italian culture in the U.S. While numerous festivities have been held in the States to fete the occasion, my family and I believed there was no better way to honor the U.S.-Italian friendship than to travel to Italy. We wanted to experience the country's essence, learn about its history, absorb its cultural heritage, and feel its soul. And we wanted more than the average tourist experience would give us--to explore how historic Italy is connected to modern Italy and to learn about Italy's leading scientists, engineers, technologists, and economists, who are poised to make great contributions to civilization at the beginning of the 21st century.
Giorgio Caire di Lauzet, president of Dream&Charme, and his team facilitated the experience. Our trip began with a flight to Milan, where we stayed at Hotel Principe di Savoia and were treated to fabulous service and great people-watching (for example, business meetings in the lounge where high-powered women wore 5-inch heels and managed to look stylish and supremely competent at the same time). The next day, we were picked up at the hotel for the "Ferrari Challenge Experience"--hot laps at Modena racetrack in Maranello with a bona fide Ferrari Formula One driver.
Hot Laps at Ferrari Modena Race Track in Maranello, Italy
The price was steep, but for a performance car lover, nothing can beat this adrenaline-fueled experience. All drivers got briefed by an instructor who explained the technical features of the cars and the racetrack. There was also an F1 Simulator beside the track, for practice. Then the driving started on the track with nr.1 Ferrari F430 Challenge. Each person got four laps. A friend said, "Driving was mainly cool because of the environment and atmosphere. Given that the cars are beasts and participants strap in with almost no training, it's less of a race car driving experience than a whirlwind exposure to the high testosterone world of fast cars and fast tracks. The best part by far was observing how professionals handled the track after your turn was up. Makes you realize just how much of a sport this is!"
Back in Milan, we went to the Armani Restaurant, where everything from the napkins and chairs to the lamps and saltshakers were designed by Armani himself. While anyone can make a reservation, we had the privilege of dining with a few of Armani's global design leaders. Each Armani representative was elegant, modern, and interesting--a living example of the style and class that the brand is world-famous for. Our dinner companions were also very astute; they knew right away that my Valentino summer dress was from the 2013 collection and that my platforms were Gucci. I learned all about Armani's shades of grey, which was a nuance I had never picked up before.
Next, we visited Palazzo Arese Lucini in Osnago an hour outside of Milan. The owners, Count and Countess Arese Lucini were there to welcome and spend the evening with us. Dream&Charme organized it all. The count and countess are aristocrats, but they made us feel right at home. Their Villa was splendid and majestic, but also charming. Our hosts, joined by their beautiful daughters, spoke wonderful English. With Count Arese giving us a tour, we found ourselves continually in awe. While the American frame of reference can be measured in decades, theirs stretches across centuries, dating back to 1500. The Villa is truly a secret treasure.
Count Marco Arese took us to the chapel where he was married--and where perhaps his daughters will wed. The chapel was built with the house in the first half of 1600 and frescoed by Storer in 1650 with scenes from the Bible, the Four Evangelists and, over the altar, a painting from Carracci with a depiction of Jesus on the cross. Our hosts were married here with special permission ("consecration") from the Holy Pope for this specific wedding. For several centuries, women were not allowed to attend mass in chapel, but had to view the proceedings from their private quarters through small windows overlooking the chapel. Looking up and seeing them, you can imagine all the faces peering down on the service below.
The Villa's library houses over 20,000 rare books, including the 1480 Bible, the "sacrilegious" Luther Bible, rare incunables, original first editions of Galileo and Newton's works, the first edition of the French Encyclopedia, and reports and other documents from the American Revolution.
Count Arese spoke about the family being close to Napoleon and actively supporting him during his Italian campaign to free Northern Italy from the Austrian empire's domination in the late 1700's and early 1800's. The family holds in its archives numerous letters from the Emperor together with the Imperial seal, the camp bed said to be used by the Emperor during the Russian campaign (which they politely asked their guests not to sit or jump on), and the Légion d'honneur awarded to the family by the Emperor in exchange for the services rendered. The camp bed is in one of the guest rooms. Napoleon's bed, can you imagine?
To have the family share their treasures and stories was extraordinary, and made us feel close to history. As an American, I was continually reminded of the youth of our democracy.
Then there is Castello di Brazzà, in Friuli Venezia, near Venice--an extraordinary Villa and property almost like an American country club with two swimming pools, a tennis court, 11th century castle, chapels, and a museum exhibiting the family's history.
Upon arriving, we were warmly greeted by owners Counts Corrado and Cecilie Pirzio-Biroli. Villa Brazzà has been in the Venetian Pirzio-Biroli family since the 10th century. Countess Cecilie Pirzio-Biroli comes from a noble Belgian family with five family crests, Cornet d'Elzius. Two cosmopolitan families with centuries of history.
They had the Villa manager take our luggage to our rooms. We were offered tea and then set out for a tour given by Count Corrado. The landscape from the Dolomite mountains to the Adriatic Sea is spectacular and serene--no traffic, no airplanes, just birds singing and our questions. We trekked around the property, learning about its history as we headed towards the family museum. Count Corrado regaled us with stories of his ancestors from centuries ago.
Castello di Brazzà, Friuli Venezia, Italy. Kelsey, Count Corrado Pirzio-Biroli, and Christina on the tennis court! The Count was just recently awarded the Commendatore Della Repubblica decoration by the Italian government.
The Pirzio-Biroli and Kemper Valentine family standing in front of the 11th century castle ruin where Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is documented to have taken place.
He spoke of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus; the explorer Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà, founder of the African country of Congo; the Grand Admiral Tirpitz of the German Imperial Navy; General Alessandro Pirzio-Biroli of the Abyssinian, Greek and Montenegrin campaigns and his daughter Eugenia, who founded a city in Chile; as well as the well-known artist and student of Canova, Ascanio di Brazzà, and his wife Giacinta Simonetti, who alone was descended from two Doges of Venice.
Soon we approached the 11th century castle ruins in the backyard, which are said to have inspired Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet! Luigi Da Porto and Lucina Savorgnan (both members of two distinct branches of the family Savorgnan) were in fact the real Romeo and Juliet.
After touring the Villa grounds, we changed into tennis clothes and played three sets of tennis, swam, took a nap by one of the pools in the shade, and relaxed, Italian style! In the evening, we joined the count and countess for cocktails on the terrace and dinner in the dining room. Our hosts had invited another aristocratic couple that owned a villa close by to join us. The pasta was fresh and al dente; the ham was thick, salty, with authentic flavors; and the fruit tasted like it had been picked that morning (indeed, it had been!) We washed it down with the fresh and bright local wine.
The conversation ranged from Italian and American politics to wine, music and Italian style and design. We felt as if we had been visiting for weeks! Federico, the heir, joined us with several of his 20-something friends for after-dinner drinks and coffee overlooking the property. Ah, the life... Aristocratic, elegant, chic, lively, and athletic!
Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square
Kathy, Kelsey, and Christina Kemper Valentine and Jim Valentine in front of St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican
The overwhelming highlight of our trip to Italy was going to St. Peters Basilica in the Square early on a hot, sunny morning, waiting for three hours, and then spending an hour with the Pope. Dream&Charme arranged the entire morning, including pick-up from the hotel and drop-off by the Square, which is tricky since many roads are closed when the Pope is scheduled to appear. We were met by our guide, Pietro, who weaved his way through the crowds and roads with us in tow. He shared many stories about his experiences in the Vatican. Pope Francis has grabbed the world's attention with his open embrace of all humans, not just Catholics. From the moment he washed and kissed the feet of a Serbian baby Muslim girl to the occasion on which he broke Vatican protocol by bowing to Muslim Queen Rania of Jordan, this Pope started remaking the church's image. He is humble and inclusive and reaching out to the poor and underserved.
As the hour grew closer, the crowd's excitement was electric and contagious. We felt a kinship with the people around us, no matter their faith. There were Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus all waiting for this holy man. Pope Francis entered on his Popemobile and slowly rode around the huge square. A band was playing, and people were cheering and singing. It was heavenly. The Pope was energized, stopping frequently to hold, kiss, and bless people. I started to wonder if he would ever get to the stage beside us for his prayers and homily...
The Pope's remarks were delivered not only in English, but in Croatian, Polish, Portuguese, Arabic, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. His theme was inclusiveness--no one is considered unworthy in the church, we are all necessary, we all can be redeemed. I so admire and love the Pope. My family is Catholic, but not devout. His enormous heart and message of inclusiveness touched our souls. Even in the heat of a Rome summer morning, sitting on hard, hot chairs, baking, I could have listened to the Pope for hours. Several tourists from Argentina were sitting behind us. Of course, they could not stop waving and cheering "Popa Popa!" The joy and exhilaration he carried with him was infectious. The Buddhist monks sitting on the platform just a row in front of us felt the same way and were waving and clapping in awe.
That was the highlight of our Italian experience. It is still and shall remain with us all.
Next stop: Lake Como!
Dream&Charme arranged for us to arrive to Villa Sola Cabiati by boat. At once, we were struck by the Villa's Baroque architecture. Upon the landing, we walked up a double staircase with an ornate greystone balustrade from the water to a wrought iron gate gilded with an "S" and a Duke's crown. This was the summer residence of Duke Gabrio Serbelloni from the second half of the 1700's.
Beyond the gate lay four parterre flower gardens arranged in the Italian style.
Dinner at Villa Sola Cabiati, Lake Como, Italy
The owners Counts Emilio and Elisabetta Gola and Marquise Slisabetta Lalatta met us at the gate and escorted us to the gardens for cocktails. It was as though we were a movie. Our hosts took us on a tour of the noble Villa and showed us magnificent rooms decorated by Tiepolo's pupil from Milan, Francesco Conegliano, 18th century tapestries, the Sevres porcelain collection, and the four black Stradivarius violins that were played at Empress Maria Luigia of Austria's funeral.
At dinner, the large doors opened up on to a view of Lake Como, with the colors on the walls complementing the lake's colors. We dined with crystal, china, silver and service fit for kings, queens, and emperors. Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte spent many nights in the Villa.
Our unique dream Italian experience was topped off with a visit to Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. As always, Dream&Charme arranged everything. La Sirenuse, overlooking the bay of Positano, was our destination. Lemon trees, peaceful, enchanting terraces, white-washed walls, vaulted ceilings, handmade tile on the floors, and the finest service possible.
Thomas van Straubenzee, Jim Valentine, Lady Melissa Percy, Kelsey Kemper Valentine, Kathy Kemper, and Christina Kemper-Valentine on the terrace of La Sirenuse, celebrating with honeymooners, Van and Missy.
John Steinbeck, who often lived at La Sirenuse, said in 1953, "Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."
Thanks to the Arese and Pirzio-Biroli families and Dream&Charme, the Kemper Valentine family captured some of the noble Italian soul, its culture of art, beauty, history, and design, and how these are connected to modern Italy's heart.