Even with the Valentine’s day buzz making long distance relationships seem longer and single people feel even more single, I couldn’t be more content after being charmed by the lake side village of Castel Gandolfo. There were breath taking moments in the landscape and the hillside city, but what really made my heart melt was meeting my aunt, Sister Charito.
An amazing quality of my mom’s Filipino family is, no matter how extended the relation, family is family and you’re always eager to be together. In Italy I had the honors of meeting my mom’s second cousin Sister Charito (since she’s my aunt, I get to call her Tita Cha.) Tita Cha and I exchanged messages and video chatted to organize a day to visit her current hometown, Castel Gandolfo, which is also where the Pope’s summer home is. Seven of my classmates joined in on the adventure, and we all returned beaming from the beauty and the sweet company.
After all meeting at the Termini Station Moleskin store, a time crunched ticket validation fiasco, and a forty minute train ride, all eight of us made it to Castel Gandolfo. Sister Charito was waiting by the platform with a big smile and open arms. Hellos were made and awes were given at the view of the lake below us. We walked down towards the lake’s edge embracing the sunny sky that we had all been praying for. All of us enjoyed a hot drink at the only place by the shore that was open, a restaurant with endless tables set for a large wedding reception. There was also an iguana, birds, and rooms filled with heart balloons. Describing the large, empty restaurant reminds me of how it’s not tourist season right now which means some places are delightful ghost towns when we visit.
With cappuccino and tea in our systems we wandered down to the water’s edge and sketched. I had given Tita Cha a heads up about our “stop, sketch, and go” touring style, so she had planned our day with opportunities to draw. Tita Cha explained how Lake Albano was a volcanic crater and pointed out fun facts like how some Olympic events were held there in 1960. We all scattered across the shore and enjoyed our own moments. Caitlin got to dip her feet in water and not repeat the Trevi Fountain incident of getting yelled at by the police…We drew, watched dogs swim and children play, and even found a distorted soccer ball to kick around. The only unsettling part of that time was when a big swan came a little too close for comfort. Caitlin and Alex backed away as the swan neared, but Leah, unaware of how dangerous swans could be, stayed on the small dock. The swan got about an arms length away from her. We all watched nervously and yelled contradicting instructions to both move away and stay perfectly still. Leah got the wildlife close up and stayed clear of any injuries.
When our lake side sketches were done we all gather and walked up towards Castel Gandolfo to meet the rest of Sister Charito’s community. The walk was on a scenic cobble stone street that was completely up hill. We stopped at “stations” to take in the view and discreetly catch our breath.
Reaching the gates to the Sisters of Presentation of Mary’s convent was magical. The outside of their home had a beautiful garden overlooking Lake Albino with staircases winding through and even caves to explore. As soon as we walked into the home we were greeted by seven sisters. Warm introductions were made and we learned how their congregation has sisters from all over the world from Japan, to Africa, with roots in France. They led us through their home and showed us their balcony views, quaint chapel, and “museum” displaying mementos from all the countries the Sisters of Presentation of Mary are in. We learned the story of Blessed Anne-Marie Rivier and how the congregation was formed. All of the sisters who lived at the convent had been teachers, and they were so happy to meet with us. We were pampered with a tray of perfectly made sandwiches and other treats. There were even dried mangoes from the Philippines which made me wish I was at my grandparent’s home where I eat fresh mangoes obsessively. The sisters and my classmates swapped stories over sandwiches. We showed them our sketchbooks and it was exciting to see the sisters recognize places of Rome from our drawings. After our relaxing meal we were given time to wander and sketch around the hillside garden.
Later walking towards the Pope’s vacation residence, we could see glimpses of Lake Albanio and the Mediterranean through the tight streets on either side. All of us were mesmerized, but Sister Cha pushed us to keep moving. She had to tell us not to sketch because we had a train to catch and gelato to consume before calling the trip complete. The piazza before the Pope’s vacation residence was delightful, and Sister Cha told us stories of classical concerts and crowds within the space. The sky was turning a deep blue and the nearly full moon lit our way down to the train station. Sister Cha didn’t make the whole walk down to the platform, so we parted on an overlook near the top of the hill. She named everyone in the group and gave everyone a hug goodbye. Then her advice to us, as young architecture students, was, “Remember not just to build buildings, but also build your lives… The silent moments sketching are also precious.”
All of us were swooned by the sights and the hospitality of the Sisters of Presentation of Mary. So for February 14th, can I be that strange girl who picks a village and my aunt as my Valentine? Be mine, Castel Gandolfo (Tita Cha included).