London, Venice, Loire, California – True stories, real lives, private homes to visit

After all these years working as a tour guide I’ve reached the conclusion that most people just want to hear stories. They want to hear stories about other peoples lives. In fact if you think about it, every time you pick up a novel, go to the theatre or even go to a museum, in what was a private home, you are learning the story of someone else’s life. Television is just the same, look at Highclere Castle, Hampshire, the setting for ‘Downton Abbey’. Demand to visit the house and see the rooms used in the filming of the TV series is always high. People love stories, real, imagined, a little bit of both, it really doesn’t matter. To learn more about these stories and these people in their original settings fascinates and attracts us.

When The Queen first opened Buckingham Palace to the general public, there was a positive stampede to buy tickets. Thousands of people were desperate to see the rooms and interiors of The Queen’s private London residence. Visitors particularly liked the family photos on display, casual snaps on coffee tables or sideboards, especially photos of the Queen’s corgis. We are all susceptible to life stories and personal histories. To see these stories played out in their original setting, a home, castle or chateau is something really unique.


My favourite museum in London is the Soane Museum. The Soane Museum was the private home of the famous British architect Sir John Soane. He designed the Bank of England, many stately homes and several churches. He also travelled extensively in Europe and amassed a fascinating collection of souvenirs from his travels; Greek and Roman casts, sculptures, shields and at least one Egyptian sarcophagus (stone tomb) are all displayed in an overcrowded room in the basement of his house. There are William Hogarth paintings on the walls and a library of books that belonged to the great man. You can see the Breakfast Room where he started each day and the Reception Rooms where he received guests. Soane negotiated an Act of Parliament (1833) to guarantee that his house and collection would remain exactly as it was after his death, and that it would be open to the public. It has remained that way ever since 1837. In fact the trustees state on the Soane website that it is their hope that people ‘enter (the house) curious and leave inspired’. When you walk into the Soane Museum you feel as if you are walking into an 18th century London house. This is exactly what John Soane intended. In fact you expect to meet Mr Soane himself, on the stairs or in the Drawing Room. A visit to this type of ‘private house’ museum is quite unique. The visitor experiences the sensation of being in a private home, being a guest or a visitor in that private space. You leave feeling as if you know a little bit about the person that lived there.


Just inland from Venice there are numerous fine country houses that were designed in a classical style by the architect Andrea Palladio in the 16th century. One of the most elegant of these houses is Villa Foscari, built by two members of the Foscari family from Venice. The Foscari family had produced several ‘heads of state’ known as ‘Doges’ to the Venetian Republic. They were a wealthy and powerful Venetian family.  However the story that fascinates visitors most at this villa is not their story, nor is it the beauty and symmetry of the villa itself. Instead it is the story of ‘La Malcontenta’ which means the unhappy one. It is the story of a lonely and unhappy woman who lived her life in this elegant house, effectively under house arrest. She was alone, isolated and thoroughly miserable. La Malcontenta was a very beautiful woman who was married to one of the Foscari brothers. It is said that she failed to fulfil her marital obligations with her husband. As a punishment she was  sent to Villa Foscari, in the countryside outside Venice. Away from the hustle and bustle of Venetian life. Here she lived a life of seclusion and isolation. A life of loneliness and sadness. I often imagine her gazing from the terrace of the house to the banks of the River Brenta, wishing for escape.

Today Villa Malcontenta remains a private home and is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The house feels like a private home too. There is a writing desk and chair strategically located by the window. There are comfortable sofas in the symmetrical reception hall. The walls are painted with exceptional 17th century frescoes. These paintings include detailed scenes of the gods on Mount Olympus, Bacchus drinking wine and numerous imagined (capriccio) scenes of classical temples, shepherds and pastures green. Many visitors comment on the homely feel of the villa, the smart lawned gardens and the wonderful location on the banks of the River Brenta. And yet it is the story of ‘La Malcontenta’ that stays with you when you leave.


There’s one chateau in the Loire Valley of France that is very special to me – it is the Chateau de l’Islette. A romantic and modest building, idyllically located on the banks of the River Indre. The sculptor Rodin came here as a paying guest in the 19th century and took advantage of its secluded location and tranquility to spend time in private with his student and lover Camille Claudel. I visited this wonderful haven of tranquility with my daughter Lucy, last summer.  As soon as we’d bought our tickets we walked into a room filled with dressing up boxes, children are invited to dress in historic costumes. There are wooden swords, shields and even capes for the adults. Next door there is a garden bench decked out with brightly coloured cushions, welcoming and comfortable. As we strolled towards the chateau we realised that the gardens were liberally scattered with old-fashioned deck chairs, thoughtfully positioned for visitors to relax and enjoy the beauty of the setting. There were wooden rowing boats for hire on the river. The ivy-clad mill was a cafe offering delicious teas and cakes.

An elegant gentleman on a bicycle welcomed us to the chateau. Later we realised that this was the owner. He and his wife were both in the garden, greeting visitors and thanking them for visiting. The chateau is open to the public from May to September each summer. The tour of the house was a very personal experience. We were able to see the bedrooms, sitting room and even the kitchen. Rooms filled with family photos, books and the day-to-day paraphernalia of life. I particularly liked one of the children’s bedrooms. It had a blackboard on the wall and the usual occupant of the room had written in chalk ‘Welcome to my bedroom’……The kitchen too was warm and inviting, with a seating area by the fire as well as ovens, cooking range and all the usual domestic appliances.

Next came the Great Hall where visitors and important guests would have been entertained in the past. Today it is the Michaud family’s elegant drawing room. We wondered if this large, high-ceilinged room may have served as a studio for Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel when they spent their summers here in the early 1890s. It is both enchanting and mesmerising to dream of life in this chateau over the years. A rusting bell chain was hanging outside the door at the foot of one of the towers. I indulged myself thinking of visitors years ago pulling the chain and awaiting a response from deep within the chateau. For me the greatest appeal of Chateau de L’Islette was that it remains a private home. The very essence of a ‘private home’ museum. A building with a rich history and a place where visitors are made to feel genuinely welcome.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Hearst Castle, California was the home of William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate and heir to a vast fortune. Hearst spared no expense in creating his dream castle on a hillside over-looking the Pacific Ocean. Antique timber panelling was imported from a castle in Ireland and Carrara Marble came from a palazzo in Italy. Hearst entertained Hollywood stars at San Simeon, flying them up the coast in his own private plane. He employed Julia Morgan as his architect, she worked for Hearst on the San Simeon project for almost 30 years, from 1920-1950. Today a visit to Hearst Castle enables the visitor to step back in time to the 30s, 40s and 50s and to experience this ‘fantastical’ family home with its Hollywood associations and money-no-object lavish interiors. Hearst Castle was the setting for numerous Hollywood parties and events, hosted by Hearst and the actress Marion Davies. Davies was Hearst’s lover for many years. In fact the Hearst story fascinated the actor Orson Welles. He produced, directed and starred in the film Citizen Kane (1941) about the life of William Hearst and Marion Davies.

These real life stories fascinate us. We are curious, interested and often inspired. These stories tell us about happy lives, tragic lives and lives well lived. In fact these stories shape us and inform us. Curiosity leads to discovery and as the Greek philosopher Socrates observed, ‘…an unexamined life is not worth living’….. It’s great that we all love stories, that we respect those that have gone before us, long may it continue.


Written and published: 27-09-17

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