Apr 4, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Ravello & Zurich.
If you’ve ever seen or heard Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal, and even if you haven’t, you may be surprised to learn that it was composed not in Munich or Bayreuth or Berlin, but in Italy. Noted for his brilliance, his creativity, his obsessions, his passionate Germanophilia, his pathological antisemitism, Wagner depended on the graciousness of aristocrats who housed his wife Cosima and him, as the master composed. Act One of Parsifal was written in Sicily, the final act in Venice, but Act Two was created at the Villa Rufolo in the hamlet of Ravello, high above the Amalfi Coast.
In 2022, Ravello remains a hamlet, home to just 2,500 inhabitants. Visited by thousands during the day, it is tranquil and calm in the evenings after the hordes and their buses have lumbered back down the mountain, navigating terrifying hairpin bends, to hotels in Sorrento, Amalfi, or Positano, or to massive cruise ships in Naples’ harbor.
This month, after a stay in Lausanne and Sorrento, it was time for Ravello. The trusty Laura Blair of www.invillas.com drove me up the winding road in her small Mercedes through mist, pouring rain and sweeping winds to Ravello. We parked in the municipal lot, because there is no space for cars in the pedestrianized village. Flaviano Pinto, the custodian of the villa in which we were to stay the night, awaited us in his KN95 mask and holding a handful of umbrellas. Our overnight bags were loaded into an electric wagon to be driven to the villa. We trudged through the rain into the main square of Ravello. A group of American tourists – presumably on a cruise ship shore excursion - were tramping through the piazza beneath umbrellas, chilled, chatting, with that look of dutiful cruisers not particularly interested in the surroundings, especially in a downpour. They followed their guide and I imagined each would have been much happier back on the boat...but, as we well know, checking entries off the bucket list takes precedence. You can’t really blame them for their lack of enthusiasm. Their vaunted ride along the exquisite Amalfi Drive had been obscured by fog. And now they are in a rainy village whose inhabitants seem to be waiting out the storm at home. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Sightseeing can sometimes be a grim chore.
The piazza is dominated by the 11th-century Cathedral, somehow incongruously vast for so tiny a community. Its doors look firmly shut, but, anyway, we’re not here to visit churches. I am here with Laura Blair, her sidekick Julia Waller, and a noted novelist, who has been commissioned by a major American society magazine – actually THE American society magazine – to write about the stay in the village and, in particular, about the villa in which we are to sleep tonight.
To call La Rondinaia a “villa,” is like calling Radio City a “movie-theater.” Built in 1930 by British aristocrats, it has six floors that are built to cascade down the side of the mountain. It has 6,500 square feet of interior space all of which faces the Mediterranean. It is set within ten acres of gardens that cover seven ancient terraces reached by stone staircases, simply navigable in summer, but more than a touch challenging during an April storm. One of the six floors is a vast living room and study. Another floor has two massive bedrooms, each with its own dressing room and capacious bathroom. Another has two bedrooms – including the “master” guest bedroom.
La Rondinaia means “swallow’s nest,” an ideal name for a house reached ideally from the air. In all truth, it is just a short and easy stroll from the center of the village, but it is that stroll that ensures the house’s utter privacy. And it is its seclusion that explains why, in 1972, it was bought by author Gore Vidal and his platonic lover, Howard Austen. They spent thirty summers here until Austen’s death in 2003. A vast number of Vidal’s masterpieces were written here, and it was here too that the pair entertained Greta Garbo, Princess Margaret, Rudolph Nureyev, Hillary Clinton, Tennessee Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. And, that is, of course, why we are here, because Gore Vidal’s La Rondinaia is now available for rental exclusively in America by Laura’s company, In Villas Veritas. And what a vacation home it is. Six bedrooms, acres of living space, vast terraces for sunning and al fresco meals, and the surprisingly immense swimming pool, sun deck and sauna added by Vidal in 1984. One can cater for oneself – but most renters don’t, opting instead for a fleet of servants to cook, clean, buttle and serve.
Almost every room and bathroom in the house has been renovated and renewed since the ailing Vidal sold the house after Austen’s death in 2003. It was bought by a real estate developer from nearby Salerno who saw it as his mission to retain one room of the house exactly as it was when Vidal sold it – the study where the author wrote. The writing table is still there. Vidal’s typewriters. His phone book. His notebooks. His ink bottles. His photographs. His shelves of his own books in several languages, shipped to Ravello by their publishers. His half-empty (or is it half full?) bottles of gin and scotch, tumbler at the ready. Even to renters, the study is not freely open: Flaviano has the only key, and he unlocks it only for guests whose behavior he closely monitors. The shrine must be preserved.
It was 5PM by now, and Laura “assigned” the four of us our rooms which each, now, is named (Inspiration, Serenity, Desire, Ecstasy). The writer, of course, slept in “Inspiration,” Vidal’s room, newly furnished and upholstered in white and cream. The bathroom is totally 2020’s, but the door to the exterior remains – a memory of how a shitfaced Vidal would be wheelbarrowed home by his servants at midnight from a bar in the piazza and plonked, fully clothed and unconscious, on his bed, without the need of wrestling with the house’s stairways. Laura slept in Austen’s “Serenity.” I slept in “Desire,” a vast room with an even vaster terrace, that was Vidal’s and Austen’s principal guest room. “This was where Jackie O slept,” Faviano tells me. I was excited until I realized that Vidal and Mrs Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who shared a stepfather, fell out some years before La Rondinaia was bought. So maybe I slept in the same room as Princess Margaret. Or Mick Jagger. Or Tennessee Williams. Or Susan Sarandon. Or Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Whoever slept there twenty years ago wouldn't have had the vast Samsung flat-screen on the wall, that enabled me to watch the progress of the awfulness in Ukraine, a 1,600-mile, 28-hour drive from here. Watching it in Italian made it no less ghastly.
We drank wine with the son of the owner in the stately drawing room. He pointed out the ceiling artwork that was discovered beneath a paint-job from the 1950’s, the decade when homes worldwide were painted and Formica-ed to erase any trace of individuality. After our wine, we strolled beneath our umbrellas into the village for dinner at Vittoria, a restaurant opened in the 1930’s and where Gore and Howard often dined. Except that they were not required to show their Covid-19 vaccination certificates before being seated. After mounds of calamari, tomatoes, and fishes baked in salt, our host insisted we end our dinner with shot glasses of Cicirinella, a local and powerful liquor made from oranges and anis. After a few of these, we determined that Chichi Renella sounded like the name of a stripper, and we tipsily made our way home to bed...the writer with Gore, Laura with Howard, and me with Margaret, Mick, Tennessee, Susan, Paul, Joanne. We all slept soundly.
Back in Naples Airport, I checked in for my Swiss flight to Zurich. I made my way through vast, pre-pandemic level crowds to the second-floor pharmacy where I had prebooked my antigen test for the next afternoon’s re-entry to the United States. This whole process, including the production of an ostentatiously official looking certificate affirming my Covid-19 negative status, took six minutes and fifteen euros. And, then, as I always do at Naples Airport, I shopped for jeans and shirts at the terminal’s branch of Gutteridge, a Naples fixture since 1878, and then lunched in the VIP lounge, where I was commanded to scrutinize the buffet and tell the server what I would like to eat. If she hadn’t been grumpy, it would have been gracious. I suppose the “don’t touch the buffet” will continue for a few more weeks or months before petering out until the pandemic of 2120. I was handed a plate piled high with cherry tomatoes and small balls of buffalo mozzarella which, in Naples, is always so moist and subtly delectable, that I’m almost brought to tears.
I overnighted in Zurich at the Hotel Widder, the city’s only member of Leading Hotels of the World in which I had never stayed. It’s lovely, very “designed” and stripey, an amalgamation of several ancient houses transformed into a super chic hotel. The welcome was ultra-friendly and full of concern for my comfort because of my need to leave for the airport at 6:45 the following morning. My Leaders’ Club status afforded me an upgrade to an exceptionally large room, paneled in cappuccino-colored wood and walls of mirrors. But, as always, the highlight of visiting Zurich was dinner at my favorite restaurant in the world, Kronenhalle. Unchanged since 1924, its walls are hung with dozens of paintings, including Picassos and Chagalls given by their impoverished young painters in exchange for supper. The crowd, as always, was a mixture of arty, theatery, hip, aristocratic, grand, gay, straight, trans, and everything in between. Usually at Kronenhalle, I have been served by an ageing, good natured waiter, but that night my server was the Swiss identical twin of Carol Burnett, who, I suppose, must have been separated from her in the delivery room. The likeness and the smile were so startling that I found it hard to concentrate on my two helpings of veal in cream sauce and rösti potatoes. But I managed. After the rain of Ravello, it was novel to slide back through the April snowstorm to the Widder.
The United Airlines check-in clerk at Zurich Airport glanced with disinterest at my Naples Airport Covid-test and it was back into a mask for the ride home. The more I fly United the more I like it. It even, at moments, has the panache of the gone-but-not-forgotten Pan Am. Exiting the customs hall at Newark’s Terminal B, it annoyed me yet again that where photographs of Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump had hung, there is no photograph of Joe Biden. I need to take this up with the Port Authority.