When my colleague and fellow wanderlust traveler Christina told me last spring about her plans to get married in Italy, I was duly intrigued. I had always dreamed about having a wedding in Italy (particularly Venice with its perfect scenery and part of my own heritage) but the logistics of coordinating such a feat seemed exhausting. Planning a regular wedding in your own hometown – with a laundry list of decisions such as locale, cake, wedding dress, music and food – is in itself a daunting task. But to logistically plan the coordination of 80 people to and within Italy on top of that seems well…insane.
After seeing the pictures and hearing all the details upon Christine’s return, though, it’s hard not to be a bit envious. Not to fret – while for many of us weddings are fairly distant memories, there are many other opportunities to replicate this itinerary in some shape or form.
For any of you who are thinking of getting married (or re-married) or hosting a large celebration (40th or 50th birthday, anyone?) abroad, I urge you to read this post:
Our wedding journey began in my grandparent’s living room at midnight on Christmas day 2011 when my husband to be got down on one knee in front of my entire family and proposed in Spanish. I point this out only because he is Korean American and given that my grandparents only speak Spanish, I was speechless. It felt as if I had been romantically transported to the scene in Love Actually when Jamie (played by Colin Firth) boldly confessed his love in Portuguese to his bonita Aurelia.
However, unlike Jamie and Aurelia, our journey began in Las Vegas – quite possibly the last place any father would want his daughter to find a suitable husband. I was celebrating my birthday and Michael was there for a bachelor party (not his, thankfully) when our paths crossed at an unlikely after-hours bar. Trust me, if my daughter came running to tell me she met the man of her dreams in Vegas I might tell her to run the other way, but I’m undoubtedly convinced that our meeting that night was fate. After three years into our relationship, our parents met unexpectedly for the first time in Machu Picchu on 8.8.08. I will never forget that date because it was the start of the Beijing Olympics. The second time our parents would meet would be at our engagement party.
Planning a Wedding Abroad
Fast forward seven years and the wedding planning commenced. What type of wedding would we have? Where would we have it? My family is from Texas and Michael’s family from California, but we had made our lives in NY – what then? Who would we invite? There were so many decisions to be made all while I constantly fidgeted with my finger that was adjusting to the ring that now lay snugly upon it.
In a state of inquiry, I did what any girl would do and began my search on Google. A few minutes later “most beautiful places in the world” somehow entered my search box and the first breathtaking image I saw was of Lake Como. Made famous by George Clooney and James Bond, I had heard of this majestic place situated in the northern part of Italy surrounded by mountainous terrain from neighboring Switzerland, Austria and France. We… I mean I, immediately fell in love and like finding the perfect dress and husband, you know when it’s ‘the one’. Imagine that – a place we had never visited before, a place that neither of us had ties to or spoke the language, but loved the culture and food so dearly, would now embark on a yearlong journey to plan the Italian wedding of our dreams.
It wasn’t long before I had a list of potential wedding planners in the Lombardy region and began the interview process. We asked to contact former clients, the process for selecting vendors, planning fees, pictures that represent their best work and also took note of how timely they responded. After much research we ultimately selected Sposiamovi, a team of wedding planners that specialize in all regions of Italy, from Tuscany and Rome to Portofino and Lake Como. Four months into our engagement, we planned or first trip to Lake Como to meet our planning team in person, look at venues, meet with vendors, and of course, finalize the wedding date. On our second trip just months before our wedding, we finalized the décor, the music, did a hair and make-up trial, and of course, a food tasting with our caterers to make the final menu selections. Because Lake Como is not the easiest place to navigate with its narrow and winding mountainside roads, many of our vend\s hailed from Milan which is only a 30-45 minute drive or reachable by train.
In Milan, we stayed at the Alice in Wonderland inspired Maison Moschino, a charming hotel where the lobby, dining room and each suite is uniquely themed. We enjoyed staying in the “Sleeping in a Ballgown” room in which a comfy bed is decorated by a larger-than-life dark red velvet ball gown. Breakfast was the best part as we dined in a room full of dress-adorned furniture. The hotel is also a short walk to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (where you will find Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper mural), the Teatro alla Scalla opera house and the Duomo.
Michael and I returned to Milan the week before our wedding journey kicked off. Our last night we enjoyed a delicious and memorable meal at Savini, a restaurant with excellent food and service located in the historic Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This is the type of restaurant you go to when you are not in a rush and want to enjoy classic Northern Italian dishes while drinking wine and doing some people watching.
Coordinating 80 Guests
In addition to a wedding planner, we worked with a travel agency to create a custom itinerary for all 80 of our guests (and to imagine we were only planning for 40 guests… what were we thinking?!). Guests had the option of joining us on a 3 city, 2 country tour leading up to, and following our big day. The tour was broadly tailored so guests could dip their toes in each location giving them ideas of places they may want to come back to and explore further.
The wedding tour began with a 3-night stay at Starhotel Splendid in Venice, a recently refurbished luxury hotel that is quiet, yet steps away from St. Mark’s Square. The hotel’s Le Maschere restaurant serving local Venetian fare was the perfect backdrop to our rehearsal dinner as it provided views of gondolas drifting past the large windows. In Venice, we also arranged a private walking tour and sunset cruise to the Venetian Lagoon – with stops in Murano and Burano, the latter an island famous for its lace and colorful, photo-worthy houses. For those guests who have already experienced Venice, day trips to nearby Bologna or Florence were also available.
The day before the wedding all of our guests traveled by coach to Lake Como where we arranged for a 2-night stay at the Grand Imperiale in Moltrasio, a small town situated on the lake. We selected this location because of its proximity to our reception venue and the fact that the hotel had a dock right in front where the public ferry would pick-up/drop-off. The other popular option was Villa d’Este in Cernobbio.
Upon arrival guests were greeted with gift bags that included prosecco and then were whisked away on a day trip to Bellagio. Bellagio is by far
one of my favorite lakeside towns to stroll around in, shop, take in the scenery and of course, enjoy great food and wine. Some guests went off the beaten track and rented boats to stakeout George Clooney’s villa in Laglio.
Had we kept our wedding trip to one location and stayed in Lake Como, our second option for accommodations was Villa Lucia. The Richard Branson-owned villa sleeps 18, is carefully decorated with Sir Branson’s finds from around the world, and to add to the allure, is only reachable by boat. This is definitely a one of a kind place.
After the wedding, we ventured onto the last leg of our journey: Interlaken, Switzerland. There we stayed 2-nights at Hotel Bellevue, which is not a 5-star hotel by any means (i.e. does not come equipped with A.C., nor do most hotels in Switzerland), but it offers relaxing balcony views of the blue/green river Aar and the surrounding mountains. It appeals to a younger crowd and is conveniently located near shops and restaurants, but there are definitely more high-end hotels to choose from in the area. In Switzerland we arranged for a private tour of Mt. Pilatus and even got to ride a toboggan after our trek! Of course, you cannot leave Switzerland without shopping for watches and chocolates. One of our favorite places for chocolate truffles and treats was Läderach Chocolatier Suisse, where we also picked up many gifts to bring back home to those that couldn’t attend the wedding.
We had a few bumps with our travel agency, but in the end it worked out well because our guests could create payment plans, book their flight and ground trip all in one place. Because we had such a big group, Michael and I benefited from upgrades at each hotel and our group benefited as well with discounts at every stop along the way. The travel agency mailed travel packages to guests and made arrangements with all of the hotels, transportation and private tours. If you go down the travel agency route, make sure you reach out to multiple agencies, get quotes on travel packages and fees and ask about group discounts and the benefits for the bride and groom before making your final selection.
The Big Day
July 6, 2013 came as quickly as we had imagined, but the anticipation could not be contained much longer. Guests were transported by boat from our hotel in Moltrasio to Varenna, a rustic, old-world-feel picturesque town where our religious ceremony was held (and apparently is one of only a handful of places that allows non-Italians to have a Catholic ceremony). The church where we wed was built in 1313 and going back to how our meeting in Vegas was fate, our wedding date also reflected this. I’m not into numerology, but how crazy is it that 7.6.13 (our wedding date) is 7+6 = 13, 13!? After we tied the knot a 12-piece marching band a la Godfather awaited us outside the church and followed us through the narrow streets serenading us while guests enjoyed local gelato. Francis Ford Coppola would have been pleased.
Guests then sipped on champagne while traveling by boat to the reception at Villa Pizzo in Cernobbio – a historic villa overlooking the lake where musician John Legend and his wife just tied the knot in September (copy cats!). After an Italian feast (with no shortage of wine) and a surprise visit by mariachis (yes, we found mariachis in Italy), I serenaded my new husband Michael with a modern piano and vocal rendition of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love“.
Tips & Tricks
As with most weddings, the sooner you start planning the more it will benefit you in the long run. This is especially true for destination weddings that take months to coordinate and orchestrate, not only for the big day, but for all of your out-of-town guests. Here are some of my tips for planning your big day abroad:
Plan With the Proper Currency in Mind
- Remember to breakout your budget in Euros (if getting married in Europe), not dollars. When our wedding planner asked for our budget, she immediately assumed we were quoting her in Euros.
- Negotiate the 20% VAT. Italy probably has one of the highest tax rates around. With 20% VAT (value added tax) on the Euro, it definitely inflated our budget. A trick we learned late in the game is to ask your wedding planner and vendors if you can pay in cash to avoid paying Italy’s 20% VAT. Once you pay in credit cards, the tax is automatically added.
Note: As of 2013, you can only carry $10,000 USD (per person) into Italy. Withdrawing large sums of money at an Italian branch or ATM was impossible and we even tried opening up a bank account in Milan, but they only allow it for residents. Oddly enough, there were no American bank branches in Italy where we could withdraw large sums of euros. Long story short, plan ahead and bring cash with you on each trip so you can pay vendors.
Create a Website
You will not believe how many questions guests have for the big day/trip. Along with directing everyone with inquires to our travel agent, we set up a website for our wedding and inundated it with as much info as possible.
Certifying Your Marriage in Italy
Many couples looking to get married abroad will have a civil ceremony in the U.S. prior to traveling and have their ceremony abroad be more symbolic. In our case, we wanted to officiate our wedding in Italy, which requires a bit more work. To go down this route, you will need to schedule a meeting with the Italian Consulate and bring two witnesses who will testify that you are not currently married.
Then before you arrive in Italy, you will need to make an appointment (can be made 2 months in advance) with the U.S. Embassy in the location you are to be wed. Before you arrive, you will need to have your birth certificates translated to Italian and certified in the U.S. with an apostille. There is lots of paperwork involved, but it is worth it. Depending on your religion as well, you will need to go through a different certification process which you can consult with your wedding planner or religious organization on what to do. http://italy.usembassy.gov/acs/marriage/marriage-milan.html
Traveling with Your Dress(es)
Many airlines have removed the policy of reserving space in the coat check (even for wedding dresses), so my advice is to fly First or Business Class because closet space is first come first serve. I had two wedding dresses and did I mention my delicately woven feather dress for our rehearsal dinner and Michael’s tux?. Even though you can’t reserve closet space in advance, it doesn’t hurt to give the airline a call prior to your flight or speak to the attendants while checking in and let them know your needs.
Get A SIM Card At the Airport
For the week of the wedding, I got an Italian SIM (subscriber identity module) that gave me a temporary number allowing me to make calls in/around Italy. You’ll need to speak to your service provider in the U.S. to ensure your phone is “unlocked” before you can remove the U.S. SIM card and replace it with one from another country.
Download Communication Apps
Most of the guests on our trip used Tango and WhatsApp to communicate to one another. These apps are free and can be used to send text messages and allows for video chat wherever WiFi is available.
Transportation in Lake Como
Transportation via cab in/around Lake Como is not cheap. It is recommended to take a ferry which is 3.5-4€ per person. You can also take express ferry routes that skip local stops, but it is more expensive. The public ferry system is very easy to navigate and is the best way to see the grandeur of the lake and explore each town.
Hotel Services for Guests
Make sure the hotel your guests are staying at for your wedding offers laundry/dry-cleaning services, wifi and back-up converters/adapters. Many of our guests needed to have their tuxedos and dresses ironed/steamed before the big day, a small detail, but important one to ensure your guests are comfortable.
- Photographers: http://www.veroa.es/
- Wedding Team: http://sposiamovi.it/en
- Caterer: http://www.afmbanqueting.it/
- Florist: http://www.figlideifiori.com/index.html
- Milan – http://www.maisonmoschino.com/en
- Moltrasio – http://www.hotel-lago-como-imperiale.com/en/index.html
- Cernobbio – Most of our guests stayed at the Grand Imperiale, but another very highly recommended and higher in price hotel is Villa De Este http://www.villadeste.com/en/13/home.aspx
- Venice – http://splendidvenice.starhotels.com/en/home.aspx
- Switzerland – http://www.hotel-bellevue-interlaken.ch/eng/hotel-interlaken/welcome-in-hotel-bellevue-interlaken.html