Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My Dream Vacation, Part 5: Villa Pisani and the Beach Boys

"Are you awake?" Val whispered to me at 11:30 pm. We were both lying there in the dark in our room at the Villa Pisani, listening to the dum, dum, dum of the bassline.

I said, "Sure." "Do you hear that music? What are they playing?" she continued.

"'California Girls,' I replied, absent-mindedly, since I'd been following the band over the last two hours. "'The midwest farmer's daughters really make you feel all right, and the northern girls...' I sang along.

"You hear words? I don't hear words." I could barely hear the singer, hearing instead the booming of the bass along with the upper-register twang of a guitar. But I knew all the songs. It was an Italian band doing really poor cover versions of songs from the '60's.

"You'd think Madame Scalabrin would have told us she had a party scheduled for tonight."

Indeed. But the maintenance on a huge villa dating back to the 16th century must cost a fortune every month. I was sure she was booking anything and everything she could to stay afloat. After all, that's how we became guests at a real Italian villa.

We found Villa Pisani in Vescovana, a hamlet 30 minutes south of Padua, after driving up and down highway 4 for half an hour. When we knew we were close, Val popped into a bar, and in her improving Italian, asked the bartender where the Villa Pisani was. He pointed up the road. We drove about three blocks but found nothing. We noticed that the numbers on the building, however, were getting larger, so we turned around. There was the bartender, standing outside his doorway, pointing next door. I think he was laughing...

Mariella Bolognesi Scalabrin met us at the huge gate, and welcomed us warmly. Without much fanfare or introduction to the huge estate, she showed us quickly under the grape-vined trellis of the patio to our room, which was on the 2nd level off to one side of the much larger and cooler salon.

The building was constructed in 1468, and went through several families over the centuries. When Evelina van Millingen took up residence in 1852, having married Almoro III Pisani, the last descendant of the Santo Stefano Pisani family, she transformed the villa into a showpiece by transforming the garden to a proper English garden. Evelina's villa became the base for American artists and royal visitors, among them Henry James, the Queen of Sweden, the Empress of Germany, the daughter of Queen Victoria (Frederica), Robert Browning and Lord Byron.

The garden is Victorian in taste and features a large formal garden with sculptures and boxwood hedges. The garden was reportedly inspired by "The Formal Garden in England," a book published in 1892 by Sir Reginald Blomfield. The park has centuries-old trees, old and knotted rose bushes, clipped hedges forming geometric designs, statues, fountains, a pool house, rock garden and family theater and chapel. It's a beautiful way to spend an evening.

The villa itself seems to stretch for blocks along the garden, and has an endless number of antique- and frescoe-filled rooms blending one into the other. Even our "simple" bedroom was adorned with antiques. The bed was new and comfortable, and a wooden addition within the room provided us with closet space and a small but adequate bathroom and shower. I felt like I was staying in a museum, but the only inconvenience I felt was the lack of air conditioning on a hot day.

We took our afternoon activities into the salon while waiting for the room to cool off. We sat on the cool tiled floor and played gin rummy while observing through the large open window the arrival of guests. We could also hear tables being set up nearby. Obviously there was going to be some sort of celebration tonight, but we weren't invited.

The next morning we went downstairs, and were greeted again by Madame Scalabrin, who showed us to the breakfast room. "We would normally eat outside," she apologized, "but it's so cold this morning." Cold meant that it was in the low 60's. Two menopausal women were thankful for that kind of chill.

We ate breakfast, just the two of us, in silence as we took in another breaktaking old room, filled with several sets of silver tea service and china that had obviously been in the family for many years. Breakfast was rather simple: cheese, mueslix with milk, yogurt, tea and coffee.

After breakfast, I loaded up the car with our bags while Val continued to talk with Madame Scalabrin. She related later that she told her the Villa Pisani website was lovely but lacking in information, particularly an adequate description of how charming her home was. Mrs. Scalabrin was delighted to see some of the digital photos in Val's camera and seemed to enjoy hearing that here was someone who could help advertise her home for future guests. Val left her after promising to write some copy about the estate in the near future, to be emailed directly to her.

I guess I don't have to tell you that the copy advertising the magnificent Villa Pisani will leave out the part about the Beach Boys...

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