BRACCIANO – In this quaint town about 30 kilometers northwest of Rome sits Castello Odescalchi, a majestic medieval castle that has a magnificent view of a volcanic lake called Sabatino and green vineyards that produce the finest wines in Lazio.
The area also boasts some of the best hotels, spas and restaurants in Italy, but our local guide chooses to focus on something much more romantic, which she continually repeated during the tour.
“This is where Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes on the 18th of November, 2006,” she said proudly.
The detail is not insignificant and the locals are clearly proud that the mega-star chose their castle for his wedding.
Cruise proposed to Holmes at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and it ain’t easy to top that. But he must have felt like a king in this castle, and Katie a queen, with their baby daughter, Suri, whose name is said to come from the Hebrew word for “princess” and who was born exactly seven months earlier, on April 18.
During a four-day tour of the Lazio region with a group of journalists and travel agents last month, we were taken to a host of wonderful sites, but this was my favorite and I understand why Tom chose it for his nuptials.
The castle, with its breathtaking lookout at the luscious landscape below and the dark mystery of the candle-lit rooms inside, is a must for anyone visiting the area.
It currently features an interesting exhibition of art and fashion. A large photograph of Rita Levi-Montalcini presenting an award to artist Marta Czok caught my eye.
Zoya Levin, our charismatic guide from the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tel Aviv, tells us that Levi-Montalcini is not the oldest living Nobel laureate – and Jewish to boot.
“I once had the opportunity to meet her,” Levin said. “She’s a special woman.”
Born in Turin in 1909 into a Sephardi family, the Italian neurologist and her colleague Stanley Cohen received the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery of the nerve growth factor.
On April 22 last year, Levi-Montalcini celebrated her 100th birthday at Rome’s City Hall, and on January 17, she attended Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Rome’s main synagogue.
Later in the week, we visited another spectacular castle – Castelvecchio Villa Del Cardinale – which has been turned into a fantastic five-star hotel. This has to be the most interesting (and probably the most expensive) hotel to stay in if you’re visiting the region, although we didn’t sleep there.
It is not far from Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence 30 kilometers southeast of Rome. It also has a marvelous view of a lake, Albano, and is filled with Renaissance art and historic treasures.
Our guide showed us that the gates had hidden Stars of David, a sign that Jews once owned it. Interestingly, there are Jewish signs wherever you go in Lazio.
After a couple of days filled with tours, wine-tasting and eating, our best hotel experiences were at the luxurious old-style Hotel Flora in Frascati and the more modern Hotel Ambasciatori in Fiuggi.
The latter has exceptionally comfortable beds and seven kinds of pillows, as well as all the services you can possible want – including a flat-screen TV with 700 cable channels that turns into a computer – and a modern spa offering a wide range of treatments and massages.
Lazio is making a big play for Israeli tourists,
suggesting that it has everything an Israeli can want in a holiday: superb scenery, fantastic food, wonderful wine and countless tourist and religious sites.
“An accurate analysis of the Israeli market’s tourist flow shows that Italy ranks among the favorite destinations,” said a spokesperson for the Lazio Region Tourism Board. “The most visited locations are cultural cities, lakes and seaside resorts.”
It is for this reason, the board said, that it, together with Alitalia and the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and Industry, invited 15 journalists and tour operators for a four-day educational trip to the region in January.
Currently, an estimated 10 percent of outgoing Israeli tourism (about 40,000 a year) is to Italy – and the country is currently fifth in the most popular destinations for Israelis, following the US, France, Germany and the UK.
Last week’s exceptionally friendly visit of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi can only serve to boost tourism to Italy.
It was no coincidence that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called his Italian counterpart “Israel’s best friend in Europe.”
The writer was a guest of the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Lazio Region Tourism Board and Alitalia.