Two weeks ago, our first stop in this five-day fantasy-fueled real-life attempt to reenact the American movie classics Roman Holiday was Castel Gandolfo. Also known as the Papal Summer Palace about an hour’s drive from Rome, this is where the Pope withdraws from his work in the world for his annual summer retreat.
I can see why. This is God’s country.
The minute we checked into this quaint and quiet apartment that opened right up to a full view of Lake Albano just below our balcony, I exclaimed – “Ah …Yes!”
Instinctively, I wanted to seize this moment and make it last.
While my husband Ken was pre-occupied with putting down our luggage, figuring out which side of the bed was better for me (the one closer to the bathroom!), I started obsessing over where best to position my camera. Everywhere I looked was picture perfect.
Standing face to face with this big body of blue water shimmering under the scorching sun surrounded by the mountain ranges, I felt both at home and in awe. The raw yet refined beauty of Castel Gandolfo is exhilarating and ennobling. It points to the magnitude of nature’s wonder; it also penetrates right through the human heart to lift one’s spirit.
For me, the magical moment came at the crack of dawn when the crow of a rooster woke me up the next morning; I jumped out of bed with a child-like thrill.
But as soon as I stepped out to the terrace, I became still.
“Wow, gorgeous.” I exhaled my first words of the day.
Mesmerized by the stunning tranquility yet prodded by a profound sense of temporality, I turned to my iPhone. This time, I set the camera function to video. I wanted that physical stillness I saw to move me more deeply the next time I see it in motion.
Castel Gandolfo is a tiny enough town so we found ourselves walking around most of the time and poking our heads into every souvenir shop, every little sidewalk cafes, cozy pizzeria and osteria. Local residents noticed tourists from a mile away, but without feeling their turf being invaded; they treated everyone with a consistently curious look and warm smiles. We were constantly greeted by restaurateurs ready to seat us at a table no matter how crowded they might appear.
One family-owned restaurant we dined at overwhelmed us not only by their exquisite offerings of fine wine and sizzling pastas, but also with an underground wonderland equipped with a maze of decorous themed rooms designed for private dining. The one we loved most? Here it is – the Pinocchio room!
Basking in the genuinely friendly and surreal feel of Castel Gandolfo, I walked around one morning without knowing that I had forgotten something valuable. While checking out at the Hotel Castel Gandolfo lobby before heading out to Rome, a wide-eyed waiter suddenly popped up, dangling my handbag in front of my eyes!
“Oh my God!” I gasped shamefully at the sight of it in the hands of a stranger.
“You had left it under the breakfast table…”the hotel waiter explained with a casual cheer.
“I didn’t even remember I had it with me at breakfast!”
Ken and I looked at each other in utter disbelief while laughing out loud at my absent-mindedness.
“It is easy to forget your belongings in a place like this.” Ken tried to make me feel better about myself.
I was clearly operating in a different state of mind under the spell of an other-worldly bliss, without a care in the world. But I was also visibly showing a self-imposed guilty look on my face. Seriously, I thought to myself that if my purse had been picked up by a predator, I would have lost not only my wallet with cash and credit cards, but also my passport and driver’s license.
“Don’t worry, this is Pope Country! Nothing ever happens here! You are safe!”
Almost simultaneously and harmoniously, both the hotel owner and the waiter chimed in with gusto and pride.
“Ha!” We burst out laughing.
Even though Pope Francis was out of town during our visit, we felt blessed in the presence of his flock. We were totally absorbed, absolutely happy and forgetting our sense of being in the world. That’s what makes our “Roman Holiday” a perfect vacation.