Discovering and visiting hidden places in my region is one of my favorite pastimes.
Liguria is a wonderful region and, even though some of its areas are quite famous among tourists (ever heard of Cinque Terre?), there are still a lot of hidden gems that very few people know of. Sometimes even locals have no idea certain places exist and so it’s always a pleasure to discover them.
I have written multiple times about Liguria in this blog but my articles are mainly about villages. I have been to Seborga, a village that wants to be independent, to Zuccarello and Castelvecchio, in the heart of the western Ligurian inland, to Apricale and Perinaldo, almost on the border to France, to Verezzi, one of the most scenic villages in the region, and to Bussana, an abandoned village not far from Sanremo.
All these little towns are undoubtedly lovely and charming but today I want to tell you about a place that is truly unique: a villa that was owned by one of the most famous clowns in the world. The place is called Villa Grock and is in Imperia, the main city in the westernmost province of Liguria.
As you may know, Liguria has four provinces: Genova, Savona, La Spezia, and Imperia. Each province has a main city with the same name and Imperia is the smallest and probably most overlooked of the four yet it is a cute little town with lots of interesting sights. It was constituted in 1923 by grouping Porto Maurizio, Oneglia, and some surrounding villages and this gives the town a very peculiar character as you can still feel the differences between its various neighborhoods nowadays.
I should probably write an article about what to see in Imperia because it totally deserves to be known better but today I want to focus on a very specific place: Villa Grock. I had been meaning to visit this villa since the very first time I heard about it but Villa Grock has been under restoration for a very long time and I finally managed to go there only last month. But it was worth the wait because I loved it!
Villa Grock is the former house of Adrien Wettach, a Swiss clown universally known as Grock. He was a real star, so much so that was appointed King of Clowns at the Olympia in Paris in 1919. Born in Switzerland in 1880, he had multiple talents: he was a juggler, acrobat, and musician, and also had a fascinating presence on the stage. He conquered audiences all over the world and was internationally acclaimed as a true legend until he retired from the scenes in 1954.
He fell in love with Imperia by chance: he was visiting his parents-in-law in 1920 and was so impressed by the little town that he immediately bought a plot of land with a nice sea view with the intention of building a holiday house there. On a hill overlooking Imperia, Grock designed an incredibly eclectic villa with dreamlike gardens that eventually became his permanent residence until his death in 1959.
The building of what was formerly known as Villa Bianca began in 1927 under the direction of construction engineer Armando Brignole. An amateur designer, Grock was deeply involved in the project. In fact, the house and gardens are characterized by the personal taste of Grock, with strong hints of Art Nouveau and Art Deco but also oriental and exotic influences and strong attention to even the smallest detail. The house was a tribute to the circus and to art in general.
Unfortunately, the original furniture and all the decorations have gone lost – it seems that Grock’s daughter sold everything at an auction – but even empty, the house still retains an incredible atmosphere. While walking around the rooms, you get a clear idea of how this house must have been in the 40s and 50s, at the peak of its splendor, when even celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy spent some time there. And the garden, with all its little details and its amazing water features – designed by Grock himself – has an exotic yet dreamlike quality that takes you back to childhood.
The house has been abandoned for a very long period of time. In 2010, the municipality of Imperia acquired it and started renovating it. Inside its empty rooms, they have created a Museum of the Clown, with lots of interactive activities, a nice way of paying homage to such an important personality and of bringing the house back to life, as it deserves. Also, the gardens have been brought back to their original beauty and the water features on display are the same that Grock planned so carefully.
You can visit Villa Grock at the weekends and during national holidays and, if you happen to be there in winter, I highly recommend you visit in the late afternoon, around sunset, because the light there makes everything absolutely magical. The visit doesn’t take much time but it is absolutely worth it because it feels like stepping into a completely different world, a place that is definitely unique in all of Liguria.
I really hope you’ll visit Imperia one day and find the time to check out this absolute beauty of a villa!
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