Let me start by saying that this vacation started and ended with complete chaos. By now, many people are aware of the airline strikes that are affecting international travel throughout the World. Hundreds of flights have been canceled or disrupted. Travelers have arrived at destinations or returned home to find their luggage has been lost or delayed. Unfortunately, we were among the many that were affected. There were 21 of us going on this trip. The majority were from Arizona, with myself coming from California, and my brother and his family coming from Missouri. Every single one of us experienced a canceled flight. Mine was canceled the day before I flew out of San Francisco and rebooked automatically to a flight 4 days later. (cutting my vacation from 10 days to 6) After spending hours in the airport and on hold with British Airlines, I finally was able to get a flight leaving a day late. Unfortunately, many of those in our group were not as lucky and ended up arriving 3-4 days after originally scheduled. We had no way of knowing this would happen when we booked our flights 6 months in advance.
Tips for canceled/delayed/rebooked flights:
Keep all your receipts from any hotel, meal, and transportation costs incurred due to the canceled/delayed fight. This is the only thing the airline legally has to reimburse you for. They are not required to reimburse you for lost time, missed hotel stays, etc.
Research your layover destination You may end up stuck in a city you had not planned to visit. Look up places to stay, transportation, and attractions in case you have some unexpected time on your hands. (Ex. A few of our party ended up stuck in London for a day. They ended up leaving the airport to do some sightseeing.)
Pack 1-2 changes of clothes in your carry-on bag. Keep all medications in your carry-on bag.
I am going to fast-forward through the nightmare that was the 5 days leading up to the trip and begin the real story with my arrival at Heathrow after a ten-and-a-half-hour flight from San Francisco. For me, that is when the trip actually began.
Heathrow Airport, London, Terminal 5
It was not shocking, with all the canceled/delayed flights that Heathrow Airport was insanely busy. Amazingly though, they have customs and the security checkpoint process down to a science. I barely
had to wait any time at all to get through the connections security passport control to the shopping mall waiting area of Terminal 5.
I had been looking forward to my layover at Heathrow, as I had been excited to visit Fortnum & Mason's Tea Shop. I went straight to their store and purchased a commemorative Platnum Jubliee Musical Cookie Tin that played "God Save The Queen" and a beautiful Fortnum & Mason Tea Towel.
By this time, I needed to find some lunch. There are a number of restaurants in Terminal 5, however, due to the overwhelming number of travelers, each restaurant was crowded. I opted for a Tuna & Cucumber sandwich from W.H Smiths (the British version of Hudson News) and a hot sausage roll from Pret A Manger, an organic cafe with hot and cold food and drinks to go. After I had eaten my lunch, I walked around the Harry Potter shop and Harrods.
One of the annoying things about Heathrow is that your departure gate may not be provided to you until 20 minutes before boarding. So more often than not, you won't really be able to go sit at your gate right away. There is central seating, some with power supplies and charging stations, but this area is the busiest in the terminal due to people waiting to find out their gates. Since I didn't want to be where the crowds were, I found a closed gate tucked away in a corner where not many people were. Once my gate was displayed, I moved and by the time I got to my correct gate, it was almost boarding time.
Tips for Heathrow Airport:
If you know in advance that you will have a long wait, you could reserve space in one of the paid lounges or spas Heathrow offers. The private paid lounges range from £30 -35. They offer complimentary food, power supply, quiet comfortable seating, runway views, and shower facilities (an additional cost).
Consider downloading the Heathrow App. You can preorder food from restaurants, shop, and book lounges.
Heathrow offers free Wi-Fi.
Keep in mind that the United Kingdom is no longer in the EU. Therefore, Euros (€) are not accepted at Heathrow shops and Restaurants. If you plan to spend money while there, order British pound sterling (£) from your bank in advance or use a credit card.
Do not wait to order currency at the airports. The fees are exorbitant. Contact your banking institution in advance of your trip to order currency.
Don't waste money on water. Take an empty water bottle in your carry-on and fill up at one of the many water stations.
Arrival In Milan, Italy
Arriving in Milan, I was directed through passport control and got my Malpensa stamp. Lake Como is about 1 hour and 30 minutes outside of Milan. Due to all the flight changes that our group had, our original transport to Lake Como, a hired shuttle bus, was canceled. Nervous that I would not be able to find a taxi (also on strike during this vacation) I prebooked a private car transport before leaving the US that would take me from the airport to the hotel. This cost me €122. I met my driver, Giorgio, at the arrivals lounge, and off we went.
Hotel Rusall, Rogaro, Tramezzo, Lago di Como
Located above Tremezzo is a small hamlet where my father was raised, Rogaro. In this small hamlet, you will find the Albergo Rusall (Hotel Rusall) situated on the hill overlooking the Lake. This picturesque family-owned hotel would be my home for the duration of my trip. It was around 7:30 pm when i arrived I was immediately greeted by the staff upon entering and checked into my room, a small yet quaint single room with a private patio and a Lake view.
You know you are in European when you are handed a real key for your room that you must return to the front desk whenever you leave the hotel grounds. I personally love this. Some people may be taken back by this, but never once did I have to worry about a lost hotel room key card. I never once feared for my personal belongings. (all rooms come equipt with safes and locking cupboards). This custom also helps the hotel staff know when housekeeping can clean a room. This is just one of the ways to embrace the tradition of Europe. Tip: You will be asked to provide your passport for documentation at check-in. Again, this is totally normal throughout Europe.
Something I quickly learned about Italy; the days are much longer than in California. The sun set around 9 pm, with dinner not being even started until 8 pm. After dropping off my luggage, I said a quick hello to two of my family members that had arrived the previous day, then took myself off to bed. Unlike chain hotels, most European private hotels do not employ a night porter. By midnight, the hotel was locked up and all guests expected to be in their rooms. Remember, they will know if you are or not by your key hanging in the box. (wink wink)
The Rusall also has a restaurant that serves some of the best food that I had during the whole trip. Each morning a cold breakfast buffet is served at 8 am. A selection of cured meat and cheese are on offer alongside the most amazing Italian torta and an assortment of Fruit Juice. For those needing their morning coffee, order a Cappuccino, Americano, or Espresso from the hotel bar. For me, a fresh-brewed English tea or Chocolata (hot chocolate). Eggs could also be ordered, in any style. My 13-year-old nephew, Case, made a point of telling me that breakfast in Italy was one of his favorite parts of the whole trip.
Italians love food. They love feeding people. So it came as no surprise that in the evening, the dinner service at the Rusall restaurant included a four-course meal; Insalata(salad) buffet, pasta, meat, and dessert. You do not have to have all four courses, but be prepared to be offered multiple servings! The Rusall also offered lunch service (except on Wednesdays). Remember this is an Italian vacation, this is not the time for a diet. Besides, there will be PLENTY of walking and hiking.
I do not drink alcohol, so I cannot tell you about the wine, only that I heard it was some of the best!
Exploring Tremezzo, Lago di Como
After enjoying my first breakfast at the Rusall, I made my way down the hill toward Tremezzo. There are a number of cobblestone paths that cut down the hill toward town that provide a quaint village feel as well as spectacular lake views.
My first stop at the bottom of the hill was the Chiesa di San Lorenzo. The original church was likely of medieval origin. The construction of a new building began in 1775- 1776 but was stopped only two years later due to a lack of funds. It would then take almost 100 years for construction to resume and be completed in 1894.
The new church was decorated in 1906 & 1910 by the painter Luigi Tagliaferri. In 1924, a War Memorial was placed and completed in the churchyard with the churchyard stairs, designed by architect Eliseo Fumagalli, completed in 1925.
After spending a few quiet moments in the chapel, I crossed the street to the Parco Civico Teresio Olivelli (Civic Park) and began my walk along the Greenway del Lago di Como. Defined as a "Sightseeing path through lakeside hamlets & wooded hills dotted with lookouts & baroque churches" (https://greenwaylagodicomo.com/en/) this 6-mile walk begins in Colonno and ends in Griante.
As I made my way along the lakefront, I ran into a few members of our travel party. They were planning to stop to enjoy a drink at the extravagant Grand Hotel Tremezzo‘s lakeside lido restaurant and cocktail bar, Giacomo al Lago. I was invited to join them. The Grand Hotel Tremezzo, with rooms starting at a whopping €1400 a night, is as iconic as it is historic. Built in 1910 by Enea Gandola of Bellagio, Grand Hotel Tremezzo is inspired by the Belle Époque period of France and Europe.
For over 100 years, this Hotel has been the holiday home for noble, aristocratic, and bourgeois families. In WWI, as with many hotels and grand estate homes, Grand Hotel Tremezzo was requisitioned for use as a military hospital. Once the war was over, the Hotel returned to offering luxurious and relaxing vacations. Even Greta Garbo called it "that sunny, happy place" in 1932. (Grand Hotel Tremezzo) .
When we arrived at Giacomo al Lago, lunch service had not yet started, so we were seated at the high-top bar. Decorated in the luxurious orange and white colors that make the Grand Hotel Tremezzo stand out, the view from the bar was 5-star. Although I do not drink alcohol, it was fascinating to listen to our bartender provide the origins and flavor notes for a number of local gins that were used in some of the cocktails. Making a note for later of one particular gin (Rivo Gin) I thought my mum would like, I ordered my virgin Pina Colada. It was just the thing I needed to cool off from the sunny (and humid) walk from the hotel to the front. To our surprise, we were given some samples of the appetizers from the bar menu. They were so yummy!
Once finished at the bar, I continued my journey through Tremezzo and made my way further along the Greenway toward Villa Carlotta Museum & Botanical Gardens. Before I left for Italy, I had made a list of must-see stops. Villa Carlotta was at the top of my list for Tremezzo.
This once private home, now a museum, was built in the late-seventeenth century by Marquis Giorgio Clerici of Milan. The villa was sold several times before being purchased by Princess Marianne of Prussia, who gave the residence to her daughter Charlotte upon her marriage to Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen (a German Duke) in 1843. During World War I, the villa was confiscated by the Italian state as it was owned by citizens of an enemy state. After much consideration, in 1927 the management of the villa was entrusted to a charitable foundation constituted by royal decree, known as "Ente Villa Carlotta". This foundation is still responsible for the villa today.
I purchased my ticket at the entrance and received a map of the grounds. Tickets to Villa Carlotta include self-guided tours of both the gardens and the house. There are three routes that you can follow on your tour. The first route, Itinerario breve, will take an estimated 45 mins to complete. This route will bypass the majority of the gardens and eliminates most of the climbing aspect of the tour. The second route, Itinerario complete, is estimated to take 90 mins and takes you through the entire gardens. The third route is an accessible path that navigates around any steps or steep climbs.
Choosing the complete route, I walked along flowerbeds of Azaleas, Camellias, and Hydrangeas making my way toward the valley of ferns and a beautiful flowing waterfall. I then hiked up the hill to one of many panoramic view spots. Making my way through the forested garden toward the bamboo garden, it was incredible how the climate changed within each garden section. I went from tropical rainforest humidity to dry heat within a few minutes of walking. Isn’t nature fascinating!!
I finally arrived at the entrance to the Villa itself and was in awe of the beauty within its walls.
On both floors, art can be found at both eye level and on the ceilings. Many of the rooms within the villa have been painted or frescoed. The Marble Room, which is the main entrance to the villa, has a ceiling completely covered with... you guessed it, Marble!
The ground floor contains 10 rooms filled with art, tapestries, and marble statues dating from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s. In the 1800s, the villa's current owner Giovanni Battista Sommariva bought a series of masterpieces by the greatest artists of the time, including Antonio Canova, Francesco Hayez, and Bertel Thorvaldsen. These pieces are the most important part of the current exhibition today.
My favorite pieces include the Shakespeare-inspired painting commissioned by Sommariva in 1983 by Francesco Hayez, The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet, and the replica of Antonio Canova’s Penitent Magdalene, commissioned specifically for the villa by Sommariva in the early 1900s.
On the second floor, the private apartments, furniture, and objects of Princess Charlotte and her husband the Duke are on display. This is also where you can access the Loggia, which provides a spectacular view of the grounds and lake. Current pricing for Entry tickets for the self-guided tour of Villa Carlotta, as of July 2022 are:
Adult ticket: €12
Over 65: €10
Kids aged 6-17: €6
Tip: Have a dog? No problem! leashed dogs are permitted in the gardens of Villa Carlotta. When I had finished touring the villa, I was exhausted and hungry. The weather in Lake Como during my trip was very hot and humid. (85-90 degrees with 40%-80% humidity). I was ready to return to the air conditioning in my hotel room. I grabbed a slice of pizza at the snack bar outside the villa and began my walk back along the Greenway and climbed up the hill to the Rusall.
All photos used for this blog were taken by Hannah Cossa Davis.
Stay tuned for Part 2 - Coming Soon