Lake Como, Italy

With travel restrictions, American independence felt more like isolation…”

Lake Como, Italy
“Postcard pretty” Alessandro, Andrea and Silvio on Lake Como. (Photo courtesy: IC Bellagio)

I awakened in America having only dreamed of returning to Europe. International travel restrictions made that impossible just after “July 4th” – the holiday upon which United States citizens celebrated their historic independence from England.

Now being pandemically barred from entering Great Britain and greater Europe, the independence felt more like isolation for those like me who embrace cultural intrigue and exploration. I was landlocked in the Land of the Free’s great 48 for the foreseeable future – which was nothing to complain about but something to consider.   

When Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, in the film Casablanca, pounded the table in Morocco and groused, “I bet they’re asleep all over America,” he would have been correct about my present position in the percales until that summer sunrise when I heard my phone start chirping like a sparrow. I rolled over and reached onto the nightstand to peek at the pings.

Spain Sends Sentimental Message of Memories

The first message I spotted came from Francisco Glaria Baines, who was writing me from Pamplona, Spain:

“My friend today is the NO opening ceremony. Get a big hug from Pamplona!! VIVA SAN FERMIN!!”

Francisco is a native Pamplonan tour guide I’d met three years earlier when I worked with MadeForSpainAndPortugal.com to commemorate my 50th birthday by participating in the ancient “Running of the Bulls” tradition, which begins each summer on the “seventh day of the seventh month.”

While the madcap mayhem has literary magic to it, it is only part of the astonishing, week-long Fiesta San Fermin, the opening ceremony for which is equally emotional and dramatic in its way.

I vividly remember seeing tears streaming down Francisco’s cheeks as he proudly sang with the thousands of Spaniards who stood, sangria-soaked, in the midday sun of the square in celebration. 

Luckily for me and Francisco, we viewed the teeming, thirsty throngs from the comfort of a balcony one story above the square where we’d secured invitations to a private family party thanks to the expertise and connections of MadeForSpainAndPortugal.com’s founder Virginia Irurita who built it into my itinerary.

San Fermin’s opening ceremony, which I otherwise would not have known about, was a phenomenal pageant not to be overlooked if you’re going to the Running of the Bulls. It takes place every July 6 at noon…well…except in 2020 when Fiesta San Fermin, like so many other global traditional events, was cancelled.  

The point is that dear Francisco and Virginia, on a disappointing day in Pamplona, reached out across the Atlantic Ocean to me to recall our time together in a virtual toast of sparkling Cava and an embrace of hearts in commiseration.

Francisco and Virginia meet countless tourists and travelers, so I was deeply touched to be thought of on what was the anniversary of our friendship in that vaunted venue on that would-be special day.

“I have been thinking of my family…so many friends…in Pamplona all day today,” wrote Virginia in a message to me from her home headquarters in Madrid. “It is so sad but also truly proud of everyone in Pamplona. They got organized so there were no crowds in the city and the social distancing worked great. We are looking forward to life going back to normal and we are truly working on it. Sending tons of love.”

Fiesta San Fermin
Francisco lives for Fiesta San Fermin. (Photo courtesy: Francisco Glaria Baines)
Pamplona
Pamplona’s message of hope translates to “next year.” Photo courtesy: MadeForSpain&Portugal)

Moments Later, Another Astonishing Missive from Europe

As my mind was recalling the cobblestone collisions of the crowds in Pamplona ,the next middle- of-the-night message came in from Andrea Grisdale, the founder and CEO of ICBellagio.com, Italy’s premier international travel advisor. Andrea, who had also become a friend from afar, was writing from her home headquarters in Lake Como.

In her missive she first shared some a sensitive situation and then broke happier news certain to set the Como di Lago social scene alight:

“Alessandro and I have decided to marry on 28 November as this will be our 10-year anniversary together. You mean a lot to us and we would love to have you join us – world permitting,” she wrote. “The wedding will take place at Palazzo del Vice Re and be more of a fun party than a sit-down eight-course wedding lunch. Silvio Vettorello at Grand Hotel Tremezzo is our ‘wedding planner.’ P.S. You are one of the first to hear the news…”

Again, I was overwhelmed to receive such a message, especially in the same early hour. Alessandro Pertusini, now Andrea’s fiancée, is a wonderful fellow from Lezzeno on the lake near Bellagio.  

Grisdale, I reveal at being disinvited to the nuptials, was to celebrate, I shall say on second thought, a “birthday of significance” in March by scaling, along with her beau, up to Mount Everest’s base camp.

For once, the Englishwoman who had moved to Italy and arranged astonishingly authentic travel experiences for visitors to Italy for 20 years was going to enjoy an adventure of her own. She, following in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hilary, and Alessandro trained for a year via climbing and hiking trips to their beloved Dolomite Mountains in Northeastern Italy until, alas, at the last minute, the world health situation prevented such travel. 

The message I wrote back immediately to Andrea that morning made reference to the fact that she and Alessandro had now scaled the mountain of marriage and will celebrate at the summit in November. I, of course, was honored to not only be notified, but also invited.

Andrea and Alessandro Grisdale
The newly betrothed: Andrea and Alessandro. (Photo courtesy: ICBellagio)
Piazza Del Vice Re
The Piazza Del Vice Re wedding site. (Photo courtesy: IC Bellagio)

Irish Eying Smiles Again

Ruth Moran is the face of Ireland in America…and yet it was my mug that the charming, beautiful, and esteemed professional was referring to:

“I look forward to seeing your smiling face,” she wrote me when I confirmed I’d participate in a “Zoom virtual meeting” Tourism Ireland had arranged to update travel journalists on the Emerald Isle’s reopening plans.  Moran, based in New York, is the organization’s manager of publicity and communications.

The Zoom virtual meeting was lively and helpful, as Tourism Ireland’s CEO Niall Gibbons and Alison Metcalfe, executive vice-president of North America, displayed optimism and enthusiasm that travelers are seeking exactly what Eire has plenty of: wide-open, outdoor spaces, solitary walks, and varied lodging opportunities which allow families to rent homes and stay secluded together if they wish.

“Research shows an increased demand in connecting with nature in wide-open spaces and the familiar: clean air, naturally socially distanced settings,” Metcalfe explained. “And people are looking for private villas with truly separate, private entrances. People want to control their own environments. Ireland has castles and unique properties.”

And it seems those spaces she referred to, the golf courses, the Wild Atlantic Way, the Cliffs of Moher and more, may be more wide-open than usual.

“We have a plan in place at Tourism Ireland. People will want to travel in smaller groups and so a coach tour that normally carries 50 passengers might be scaled down to 17,” Gibbons said. “Ireland has published its health and safety guidelines and training has been put into place, so people feel safe visiting.”

While the opportunity to hear the lilt of Irish voices warmed my heart and the information I received about Ireland “fully” opening before summer’s end was encouraging, the most mirthful message I received independently came via Facebook message from a friend from afar: Peadar Hegarty, a legendary piper who is something of a fixture playing for pints in Dingle’s pubs. Peadar sent an update on the status of our favorite old pub:

“The Dick Mack’s adult daycare for the disaffected has not yet reopened!”

Dick Mack's Pub Ireland
Peader the piper inside Dick Mack’s Pub in Dingle. (Photo courtesy: Harrison Shiels)
Dingle Ireland
Dreaming of returning to Dingle. (Photo courtesy: Harrison Shiels)

Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected] 

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2 Comments

  1. Fabulous and uplifting article.
    As the British guy based in Antibes France running a luxury travel DMC like Andrea in Italy.
    We miss our American friends this year.