Villa Valentina: An Italian Dream
Paola Falconer of the lovely boutique hotel Villa Valentina in Cinque Terre talks to us about her movie-like love story and life in Italy.
It may seem cliché to think the romantic love story of an American being swept off her feet by an Italian fisherman can actually happen, but it did! Ask Paula and Angelo, the loving and generous owners of Villa Valentina. While vacationing in Cinque Terre 25 years ago, Paula was struck by the Italian love bug aka Angelo, a 10th generation fisherman from Monterosso al Mare. It did not take long for Paula to realise her heart belonged in Italy, so she said good-bye to her executive life in San Francisco, threw caution to the wind, and booked her one-way ticket to the Cinque Terre. We spoke with Paola about their lovely boutique hotel, offering an unforgettable escape to the great Italian Riviera.
- Please tell us a little about your background, career history and story
Over the years, Angelo and I discussed many times how unlikely it was that we even met that evening, let alone my moving here a year later! I’ve always said, you could have gone to Las Vegas on the odds that this urban girl wasn’t moving to a small fishing village in Italy to live with an anchovy fisherman. It truly was our destiny, I am sure of it, and very romantic. Mai dire mai — never say never!
- Wasn’t moving to Italy a very big decision? Did you struggle initially?
Of course, it was a huge decision, as I would be leaving my daughter who was in college, my career, and the lifestyle that I loved. Initially, Angelo wanted to come live with me in Santa Cruz, where I would continue to work and he’d go home in the summers. I was fully on board with this, as I couldn’t imagine my moving to a small fishing village where no one spoke English. But once I returned to Monterosso and met his parents, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I took Angelo so far from his home and family. So, I made the choice to move there.
Did I struggle? Well, there were a few times that I was ready to buy a return ticket, but my wonderful mother-in-law would talk me down. She had such a calm and diplomatic way about her. She became my surrogate mother. I would also go to the lemon orchard where I would whack the wild blackberry bushes for a few hours, talking (maybe screaming a little) to myself in my head and physically exhausting myself. Then I would return home, take a lavender bath while listening to some American music; I needed to hear some English, as my head was exploding with this new language that I did not fully understand. That would do the trick. I have never regretted moving here.
- What do you like about living in Italy?
SO many things to love! I like that life is much simpler, more focused on enjoying life instead of being defined by what you do for a living or how much money you have. There is a saying here, Italians ‘work to live, not live to work’ — I think that sums it up.
Living in the Cinque Terre is a bit like being in a cocoon — my experience would have been completely different had I lived in a big city like Milan or Rome. Angelo and I considered ourselves immeasurably fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the world and we so loved sharing it with the people we met, friends old and new.
I loved that we could drop everything for someone we’d just met to make lunch or dinner and share our lives with them. And learn about theirs. So many that we’ve met over the years have become life-long friends.
Let’s not forget the food and wine, of course! I love to cook and entertain, which is so easy and appreciated here. I love our lemon orchard and gathering eggs each morning from our hens. And our summers are pretty magical, having the beautiful Mediterranean for swimming and boating.
“Life is much simpler, more focused on enjoying life instead of being defined by what you do for a living or how much money you have. There is a saying here, Italians ‘work to live, not live to work’”
- What is your favourite Italian word? And why?
I had to think hard about this, as I am more fond of phrases than just a single word. If I had to choose one word only, it would be Mamma. I love when my Italian-born daughter says this — it is music to my ears and reminds me of where I am.
A few of my favorite phrases would be, Ciao, bella gioia (‘Hello, Sunshine’), or when my mother in-law would see someone off, she would say, Tante belle cose, ‘wishing you many beautiful things’.
My husband would always say to me, Luce dei miei occhi, ‘the light of my eyes’. Almost everything sounds more beautiful or romantic in Italian— seriously, there are SEVEN ways of saying ‘I love you’. I never tire of hearing Italians conversing.
- What is unique about your hotel’s location?
We are set in the countryside just a few minutes from downtown and the beach, which provides our guests with a peaceful respite from the crowds. It’s like a little oasis with the most beautiful and tranquil garden in which to relax with an aperitivo, to read a book, or just to hang out after a busy day exploring.
The train station is just a few minutes from the villa and from there, the Cinque Terre is an easy 4-minute train ride. We have free parking which is a huge plus if you are traveling by car, as parking can be a challenge in the area. We also offer free bicycles to our guests — Levanto is mostly flat terrain, which makes getting around by bici a lot of fun, and a very local experience.
- What authentic local experiences will guests have access to?
There is plenty to do and nothing we enjoy more than helping our guests plan their stay here, so they can stay off the beaten tourist path as much as possible! We love for our guests to experience the best of what the area has to offer and to get the most out of their precious time here, so we have compiled an 80+ page ‘Insider’s Guide’; this is sent at the time of booking so that they can get an idea of all the things available and what would interest them the most.
There is an abundance of wonderful things to do and discover — an outdoor winery tour and tasting, a private dinner and/or cooking class at a private home overlooking the entire Cinque Terre, an intimate boat tour, riding bicycles along the coast through the old train tunnels and stopping for a swim or a spritz right on the beach, making pesto and pasta, having a local guide for the day, and so much more — and we will make it happen!
- Does your hotel have a philosophy? Would you say it is associated with the great Italian “la dolce vita” or “dolce far niente”?
Our goal is for our guests to feel comfortable and welcomed, as if they are visiting friends, from the moment they arrive until they depart. We try to think of every detail and service to assure that they can begin to relax and enjoy as soon as they arrive. From the supremely comfortable beds that ensure the best night’s rest to starting your day with a freshly-prepared breakfast enjoyed al fresco in the garden, we provide luxury amenities along with warm Italian hospitality — just like a home away from home.
- What makes your hotel memorable and unforgettable? What are you most proud of?
What our guests have shared with us over the years is that it is our family, staff, and how welcome we have made them feel that has made their time here so memorable. We have an incredible number of returning guests and this is what I am most proud of.
- What will guests rave about to their friends and family?
People often express that Villa Valentina was their favorite and most relaxing place they stayed in Italy. That we made them feel like they were visiting with friends. That every detail was thought of, that we helped them maximize their time by organizing everything, and that we spoiled them with our service and amenities. The area came alive to them in ways they would no’t have known without our help and guidance.
- How did your surroundings in Italy influence the creation of the space? What is the atmosphere (interior style) of your hotel?
I think Villa Valentina has a warm Italian farmhouse feel with the soft, warm color palette of the South of France — maybe a little shabby-chic. Very cosy and comfortable with thoughtful touches and every comfort kept in mind, not only inside but throughout the gardens as well. No matter how beautiful we make it, it would not be Italian if there was not something practical, so we have on-site chickens and a garden where we grow the best tomatoes ever!
- What types of guests does it attract?
I think we get well-traveled guests that are looking for something unique and off-the-beaten path. Affordable luxury, a warm, comfortable, and service-oriented establishment without the 5-star price. A place where they can connect on a personal level and feel less like a tourist.
- When is the best period to visit your hotel?
Each season has its own particular beauty. We are open from April through October, with Spring and Autumn being my favorite. But if you love the heat and the beach, then July and August would be perfect for you.
- Do you have any other locations within Italy on your list to open another spot?
We also have a waterfront Beach House in Monterosso al Mare, our family home originally built 400 years ago, which is a very special place to spend your holiday. It is literally the only house in the historical center directly on the beach, where you can truly experience your stay like a local — when you sit out on the terrace, it is a little window on the world of the Cinque Terre.
- Anything you would like to add..?
While traveling is wonderful, it can also be tiring — the getting-there part is becoming more difficult each year. For this reason, we strive to create an oasis of tranquility and comfort so that our guests feel rested and rejuvenated by the time they are ready to move on to their next adventure or to travel home.
I often tell our guests if they are traveling from abroad, that we are the perfect beginning or ending to your Italy trip as we will help you get past the jet-lag if you are just arriving or we will get you ready and relaxed for your trip home. With EU guests, the parking and bicycles, as well as all of our amenities, make staying with us a relaxing and easy getaway.
Ultimately, we hope you find what Angelo and I found so many years ago — romance, laughter, love, and a healthy buzz from the wine, food, and wonderful lifestyle Levanto and the Cinque Terre offers to all who visit.