Who needs a Fiance to scout out their perfect Dream Destination Wedding? Just grab a girlfriend and go on a European Road Trip Adventure!
Walking into the BMW factory in Munich, Germany, is like walking into something from the “Jetsons” cartoon. The entire building is all different shapes of glass and steel twisted together to look like a cyclone, and you are in the eye of it. They greet you, serve you beer, let you climb into a simulator to “test drive” your new car, and then reveal your new car on a spinning platform with spotlights on it. This was how my girlfriend, Melissa and I picked up our new ride to go on our epic European road trip. We picked up a shiny, new, space gray 5 series that had a European license plate and made us look and feel like spies in a James Bond film. Thus our adventure was born.
The idea for our road trip started months ago. Melissa wanted to have a stick shift BMW, which you have to special order from Germany. My sister, Marisa, was about to move to the south of France and have a baby. The Euro Cup Soccer matches were happening in June. And last, but not least, I had been dying to go back to Italy since I studied abroad there as a freshman in college (not to mention my girlfriend Melissa was determined to marry an Italian man in Italy someday). Now, 14 years later, I have fulfilled my dreams of returning to Italy and this trip suddenly turned into an adventure to scout out Melissa’s dream wedding location in Italy.
When Melissa first mentioned wanting to drive through Germany, France, Italy, and Austria in two weeks, I thought she was crazy. In my mind, it takes me 7 hours just to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco and I have barely even crossed the state and I have definitely not changed languages or currency, but when you look at a map and realize how close everything is in Europe and that Europeans pretty much all drive like they are on the Audubon, I started to think maybe we could actually pull it off.
I really wanted to detour a bit to go see Neuschwanstein Castle, which most of you would recognize as the castle that Walt Disney based his famous Sleeping Beauty Castle on at Disneyland. Melissa overruled my demands and said that it would take us hours off our course to get to the south of France. So, I pouted…I really wanted to see a castle. Little did I know, that we would see about 20 different castles in the next 5 hours as we drove through the mountainous roads through the Austrian alps. It was beyond breathtaking to drive through these majestic mountains, and equally frustrating, because all I wanted to do was take photos and there is nowhere to stop and no way to shoot quality photos through the windows…I guess there are certain things in life that are meant just for memories and I had to surrender to that fact.
It’s hard to believe that in 8 hours from departing Munich, we were pulling into the quaint town of Menton, France, just over the Italian border. I had been to the south of France before, but I was not prepared for all that Menton had to offer. I had no idea that there were so many Medieval Mountain Villages between Nice and Italy. Most Americans think of the South of France and think of the Cannes Film Festival, P-Diddy’s Yacht parties in St. Tropez, or the Grand Prix in Monaco, but there is so much history and culture in this region that it is staggering to comprehend.
Melissa and I met my new little niece, Olivia, which was so exciting and as a family with my sisters and their husbands we all strolled along the cobblestone streets of Menton, having gelato and perusing the farmer’s markets and the many aisles of cheese..mmmm.
Everywhere around you, you heard multiple languages being spoken, one of the things that make me realize how much Americans live in a bubble…spoiled to only have to learn one language. I learned that this region, the Cote D’Azur, has always been fought over for centuries. It is no surprise to me why. One look around you at the crystal, clear, turquoise water with a dramatic mountain backdrop and views of Corsica and Italy, and you realize you are truly in paradise. So many different countries have conquered it over the years, that there is such a diverse clash of cultures, evident not only in the languages but in the architecture.
We found ourselves walking through pathways and sidewalks in the old, medieval part of town, large enough only for a donkey cart to pass through. We would happen upon a church with paintings dating back to the 1100’s and people still living and worshiping there as it was hundreds of years ago. We also hiked up to the highest point in Menton, now a cemetery for the fallen that fought to protect the castle from a siege from pirates in the 1300’s. The highest point in Menton is not the highest point in the mountain region by
We also hiked up to the highest point in Menton, now a cemetery for the fallen that fought to protect the castle from a siege from pirates in the 1300’s. The highest point in Menton, is not the highest point in the mountain region by far though. My sister told us about St. Agnes and Eze, two nearby villages high up in the mountains only 15 minutes away. So we decided to go explore them.
St. Agnes + Eze, France
Basically, these two towns were built from the people that fled the pirates and chose to live by escaping even higher into the mountains and building a new village with a new castle and church. It was like they were all trying to outdo each other….bigger, higher, safer, better.
Eze and St. Agnes took our breaths away! These towns still look and function as they did centuries ago. Their old castles have been converted into a boutique Hotel/ artist colony, where all of the tiny stone rooms of the castle have been converted into artist studios. So as you walk around and explore the narrow winding cobblestone walkways of the castle, you can stumble into a painter’s workshop or a weaver’s studio.
I felt so enchanted being there and the view of Menton below was like we were in a plane looking down on the town, because we were up so high. It was hard enough to hike around the village, let alone try to fathom what it took for people to climb up there and build these towns with their bare hands stone by stone during the Dark Ages.
After a few days of relaxing in the warm waters, hiking around, and just soaking in the sun and culture, we were off again to discover Lake Como, Melissa’s dream destination wedding locale!
Lake Como, Italy
Neither of us had never been to Lake Como and we were so beyond excited to drive there and stay for a few days. Both of us have always had daydreams of getting married in Lake Como (I mean what hasn’t?) and even though we had never been, it held a special meaning for us both.
I believe that everything happens for a reason, and one week before the trip I was asked by a wedding magazine to photograph and write about local places to get married at in Lake Como. So that request led Melissa and I to the fabulous Valentina De Santis at Hotel Grand Tremezzo, where we were invited to come stay and were treated like royalty.
Honestly, I don’t think even George Clooney himself could have shown us a more lavish time. We were given their penthouse, lakeview suite, with a private hot tub on the balcony. Our living room opened up completely to the balcony and our view was of their floating pool in the lake and the Bellagio beyond. It was so spectacular Melissa and I didn’t even want to leave our room!
We were given a tour of the property, the entire time Melissa was giddy and practically putting a deposit down for her wedding, because she was so in love with the place. The Grand Tremezzo is unique on Lago di Como, because it is the only hotel originally built as a hotel on Lake Como. All of the other hotels on the lake were once Villas and have been converted into hotels, so they are smaller and older.
Hotel Grand Tremezzo is more boutique, modern and chic, with colorful modern furniture modeled after 19th-century furniture and décor. It still has the “old school” charm, yet with modern luxury and amenities. They even have a private garden with a table for two, called the “Dis Moi Oui”, or “Tell me Yes” garden, where they can organize engagement proposals with a private dinner and violinists to serenade you. They even organized a private tour of the lake in their old-fashioned wooden boat, so typical to Lake Como, so we could see the wedding ceremony locations.
There are only three places in Lake Como where you can be legally married outside of the church, the Town Hall, Villa Carlota and Villa Balbianello (the location where the wedding scene from Star Wars was filmed). Melissa became obsessed with the idea of having her wedding ceremony someday at the Villa Balbianello, because it is this private estate on its own peninsula not accessible by the road that circles the lake. So the only way to get to there is by boat, which seems so romantic.
Lake Como is a microclimate and palm trees are indigenous here. This was so strange to me to come from California and still be seeing palm trees here in the mountains of Italy near the Alps. The lake is in the shape of a wishbone, so getting to the other side is deceiving. It looks close, but could take hours to drive around it, so there are ferries and water taxis to cross over to the other side of the lake. All around you are mountains and what makes Lake Como so special is that the lake is so narrow, that you feel like you are in
All around you are mountains and what makes Lake Como so special is that the lake is so narrow, that you feel like you are in canyon and have spectacular views no matter what direction you face. I had no idea that Lake Como is 45 minutes from Milan, 2 hours from St Morritz in the Swiss Alps and 4 hours from the South of France. So you have luxury relatively close in every cardinal direction. Driving our huge German car around the lake was quite frightening to say the least. Again, these roads were built most likely with a donkey cart in mind, so imagine windy curves that are one lane wide and a cliff on one side. That was an adventure.
After three days of pure luxury in Lake Como, Melissa and I sadly said our goodbyes but were excited to continue our Italian adventure in Verona and Venice. It is only 4 hours to Venice and I wanted to stop for lunch in Verona, but also go to seek out the famous balcony from Romeo and Juliet.
It is said to be good luck for couples or single people to go there to find love, locate lost loves or even to leave messages for Juliet. Years ago, you could write a letter to her and leave it in the wall, but now times have changed and for your convenience (and a small fee of one Euro) you can leave her a voicemail on the payphones provided…seriously.
I fell in love with Venice when I was 18 years old studying abroad in Italy. There is something about the energy there that is electrifying. It’s funny, because Venice, Italy is similar to Venice Beach where Melissa and I both live. Both cities have been a haven for artists over the years and its a melting pot of food, music, culture and the arts.
As touristy as it was, Melissa and I took a gondola ride through the older parts of the city and had an amazing dinner in one of the plazas where a quartet was performing, but the highlight was our orchestra performance inside of a 600-year-old church later that night. We saw a flyer for Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons, one of my favorite pieces, and I felt like we couldn’t leave Venice without seeing some type of performance in an old church. Venice is known for teaching artists their craft as it was taught centuries ago, so there was even a Harpsichordist performing. I felt like we had been transported back in time.
As we rounded the corner of our trip and had to head back to Germany to drop off our car and fly home, we decided to take a different route home through the Austrian Alps and stop for a night in Salzburg. There we did as the locals did and ordered massive beers and pretzels and watched a Euro Cup Game in an outdoor beer garden.
Watching soccer in Europe is a completely different experience than watching it in the United States. No one in our country appreciates the sport or lives the obsession as they do in Europe. That was such a highlight of our trip to pop into a different bar or pub in every country or city we were visiting in to watch a soccer match. Soccer, or Football, is the Universal language in the rest of the world. Something that transcends the language barrier and in a way you can always find friends no matter where you are.
Munich, Germany (again)
We finally returned to Munich after two weeks that felt like two months in some ways and two seconds in other ways. We had barely seen anything in Munich other than the BMW Welt and I wanted to see something memorable or photo worthy there before we flew out the next day.
Melissa’s German friend mentioned the “Endless Wave” in the heart of Munich, where people from all over come to surf. I thought he was making a joke since we came from California the surf capital of the world and I can never quite get the humor of Germans anyway, but sure enough as we neared the center of town, we started to see people in wetsuits carrying surfboards walking across the street.
It may be one of the coolest things I have seen in an urban city. It’s a water pipe that spews out water in a way that it creates this permanent, surfable wave. When people wipe out they get washed down the river and the next surfer jumps on and it’s like watching a video game where the river keeps eating surfers one after one and they just disappear and float away. I love coming across strange places like this when I travel. It is one of the reasons I am a photographer because I wouldn’t believe some of the things I have seen myself if I had not captured it with my camera.
I always feel like I can’t leave a place unless I am excited by at least one photo I have taken there. My surfers in Munich did that for me. After I took those photos I remembered feeling ready to go home.
As much as I loved every second of our European Road trip adventure, there is something to be said about going home, not living out of your suitcase, and just jumping back into your own life again. I felt inspired to learn another language better, to find a way to live in Europe for at least one month a year, and, well, to hopefully come back again soon for another epic European Adventure called “Melissa’s destination wedding.”