Aristocratic villas, sumptuous gardens, and historic sites surrounding picturesque northern Italian Lakes Garda, Iseo, Como, Orto, and Maggiore were autumn destinations on the annual tour of the American Friends of Versailles. Organized to help support preservation projects at the celebrated chateau, the group welcomed the chance to study derivative and similar vernal settings in Italian regions, which were intermittently ruled by the dynasty of Marie Antoinette who was born a Hapsburg princess.
Assembling on a late September evening at Sirmione overlooking Lake Garda, international AFV participants from New York, Boston, Texas, Chicago, Nantucket, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Cape Coral, Lake Forest, Vail, Washington, DC, California, France, Italy greeted each other for a sunset dinner on the terrace of the Villa Cortine Palace Hotel.
The next morning the AFV boarded a launch to Isola Gardafor a private tour of the Venetian-influenced Palazzo Borghese Cavazza where they were greeted and guided by charming hostess Alberta Cavazza dei Conti Cavazza who described how she and her siblings have been restoring the villa and grounds.
After lunch on the terrace, the group proceeded by boat to sightsee at Vittoriale degli Italiani, the monumental property, which was home until his 1938 death to infamous Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian poet, writer, army officer, aristocrat, and “Decadente.” Back to Sirmione, a seaside dinner was served at Michelin star La Speranzina Restaurant, highlighted by the menu’s acclaimed “ Riso, oro e zafferano” risotto topped with a square of edible gold leaf.
Sheltered from Alpes winds, with a mild climate and rich glacial soil, Italy’s lake area is emerging as a major wine region known for its Franciacorta sparkling wine, made using the same method and some of the same grapes as Champagne. Hosted by owner Vittorio Moretti, the AFV visited Bellavista, the family winery he has expanded overlooking Lake Iseo.AFV members sampled three Bellavista vintages at lunch.
Proceeding to Lake Como, the group gathered at the historic neo-classical Theatro Sociale Como for an elegant cocktail dinatoire before attending a charming “in the round” production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Exploring Lake Como, the AFV set off in the rain to tour astounding Villa Balbianello. Originally a 13th-century Franciscan monastery it has evolved into a site famous for elaborate terraced gardens and art and artifact collections amassed by Standa department store heir Guido Monzino, who led Italian Mount Everest and North Pole expeditions and collected reverse glass paintings, Beauvais tapestries, antique maps, French boiserie. It has been used as a setting for scenes in films such as Star WarsEpisode 2and the James Bond’s Casino Royale.
Crossing to Bellagio, “the most beautiful city in Italy,” for memorable fettuccini at renowned Restaurant Suisse, the group wandered along the lakeside promenade and enchanting gardens of 19th-century Villa Melzi, then returned to a dinner party hosted by Patrick and Francesca Premoli Droulers. Patrick is a brother of AFV French Board Member Nathalie, Comtesse Serge de La Bédoyère — both siblings of a family that once owned and managed the renowned hotel Villa d’Este, known as Italy’s finest five-star hotel.
After a morning excursion to the picturesque museum and botanical gardensof Villa Carlotta, the AFV group boated to the summer residence of Nathalie de La Bédoyère, whose Villa Silva perches directly on Lake Como. After admiring the swimming pool, which disappears under a retractable stone terrace, the group was welcomed to the elaborate buffet luncheon by “George Clooney” — alas merely an impersonator.
There was time for shopping and a Como city tour, then the group dressed for a formal dinner served in a private salon of Villa d’Este.
Responsible for the splendid greenery of the Borromeo gardens, Maestro Giardiniere Gianfranco Giustina, proclaimed the 2014 Best Gardener in Europe by the Royal Horticultural Society, guided the AFV through a recent project, the gardens of the Villa Lorello overlooking Lake Orta created for the Spadoni family, friends of Princesse Béatrice.
A sunny buffet lunch served on the terrace was followed by a bus trip to Italy’s second largest lake, Maggiore, where the group checked into the lavishly decorated, luxury, five-star Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees and Spa, then boated to the historic gardens of Isola Madre for sunset aperitifs before dinner at elegant Ristorante Milano where chef Agostino Sala’s dishes are savored “like creative works of art.”
A highlight of the final day was an excursion to Isola Bella, where a villa, lush gardens, and vistas created by the Borromeo banking family adorn what was originally not much more than a large rock in the water. After admiring huge plaster heraldry decorations, walls lined symmetrically with paintings, a room where Napoleon had slept, and the massive open air ampitheater, the group boated to Villa Intragnola, where owners Dott. Gian Luca and Donna Giovanna Rusconi Clerici Sarto led a tour through gardens with international plantings and hosted a delicious poolside luncheon.
Back across Lake Maggiore, L’Ermittagio, Donna Giovanna’s Rusconi Clerici family lakeside villa was the setting for the closing night dinner. Raising toasts commemorating Princess Béatrice and AFV Founder Catharine Hamilton, the group concluded another elegant, edifying, and memorable journey.
Founded a quarter century ago by Catharine Hamilton, the AFV has been supporting restoration projects at Versailles — the Bosquet des Trois Fontaines, the Pavillon Frais, the baroque fresco on the ceiling of Marie Antoinette’s Queens Guards Room, and the Queen’s Bosquet.
This coming June 9-12 they will be celebrating with another Grand Dinner Gala at Versailles.
People interested in participating in the 25th Anniversary events are invited to consult the website HERE or to contact the Chicago office at 312 943-0173.
Photo Credits: Francis Hammond, Michele Fiesci-Fouan, Kristin Smith, Sharon King Hoge