I want to start this off by saying that there really is no way of putting this week into a blog post and giving you a true sense of what the week was all about... but I'm going to TRY.   I know I will fail, because this was a week of such GOD INSPIRED fellowship with people who had never met before and yet had a bond from the second they met.  But maybe, just maybe you will have a little peek into what the Lord is doing in and through this calling He has put into my life. (and I think He is putting in on Rebecca's heart as well...)

So let me start at the very beginning.  As I posted yesterday, our girlie turned 18 on this trip to Italy!

Rebecca has been my helper on these retreats for the last few years. Victoria has also been a big help but she has been in college and now about to get married, so Rebecca has become indispensable to me!  From the very beginning of planning this trip she was lobbying for her BFF to come with her because of her birthday happening while we were on this trip.  I didn't think that was going to happen, but it did!  And it so happens that her BFF's mom is also one of MY closest friends, so double bonus! :)

So we jetted to Italy and before we headed to Bellagio we spent the first night in Milan and decided to go into the city for a quick trip to see the Duomo... and do some shopping!  We're all a bit jet lagged here but it was so worth the early morning wake up to go see the city! We arrived before 8am in the square and by the time we left an hour or so later is was so packed there was no way to get a photo without hundreds of people in it. 

Oh these girls... they could have bought something in every. single. store.  And believe me they wanted to...But their budget didn't exactly fit the price tags... hahahaha

So we decided to have some coffee by the Duomo instead and get back to our hotel so we could head to Lake Como!

Waiting for the taxi to go back to the hotel and you can already see how many people are in the background by the Duomo. (notice no shopping bags... sorry girls :)

Then is was time to get to work!  Lots to do before the retreat started and we had lots of goodies to get ready, food to buy, gifts to prepare, plans to be made and YES, my helper/birthday girl had to work, even on her special day!

 (Although she had a cute helper so I don't know how much she minded... Thanks Michi if you're reading this! :)

Her Birthday was on the day the retreat started so we began the day with an early breakfast in this beautiful breakfast room:

And little did she know it,  but I think the whole town knew it was her birthday (and she probably had more people in Bellagio say Happy Birthday to her then in her own home town :) so it began with a Birthday serenade and CAKE for breakfast from the staff at the hotel!

How cute it that!?  And YES, we ate cake for breakfast!  And then there were flowers...

And then a whole lot of work before we were ready to greet all the ladies on the pergola.  But let me back up...  I don't know how much you've followed my blog or how much you have read about my retreats.  It's something I started in 2012 because I honestly fell in love with this part of Italy and wanted to come back.  So I found a way to come back...  But actually the Lord found a way (or I should say slowly showed me that is was all in HIS plan... because if He would have showed me all at once I would have FREAKED OUT!) It's funny how he doesn't reveal His plan all out once because He knows we wouldn't be able to handle it... lol

So we greeted everyone here and enjoyed a nice time getting to know everyone with this gorgeous lakefront view.  Then later that first night we had a beautiful dinner at the point of Bellagio... and I can't believe I forgot to take any photos!  I guess that would be because we were all having so much fun already I didn't even stop to think about it!  I did take a photo of the birthday girl that night at dinner (against her wishes, so I won't post it... :) and later in the music room while they serenaded her for her birthday... again! 

The next morning I wanted them to meet my dear friend Rita!  Everyone, and I mean everyone falls in love with Rita.  She is the most passionate, friendly, engaging woman who has such a huge heart for her lake and her Bellagio... that it is contagious!  I get so excited for everyone to meet her and get to know her as she takes them on a tour of her Bellagio.  Then I love to wait and hear the stories they tell me of how much they adore her and get so excited when they happen to run into her in town during the week!  She's just the best thing about Bellagio.  You have to come and meet her and then you will know. (She's the lady in the dark grey dress in front of me... I'm holding her mother in-laws dog Molly)

How about THIS for a dinner venue?  And check out the chef in my seat while I take the photo... That's my friend Luigi Gandola!  He owns this restaurant and it was given to him by his parents on HIS 18th Birthday!  Talk about a present, right? Can't really top that one Rebecca.. sorry. lol But this guy is a genius with food and is even the TOP CHEF of Italy!  Right here in little Bellagio.  He has a TV show, several cookbooks and get this:  He comes and picks you up from your hotel, takes you to your seat, takes your order, checks on you and tells you jokes, prepares your food and teaches cooking classes during the day, then takes you back to your hotel at the end!  whew.... if that isn't a busy guy!  But he does it all with a smile, lots of laughs and a cute accent that makes you remember him for the rest of your life.  Another passionate person who has a God given talent and loves what they do!

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Monday morning and we were ready for some classes!  I started off with the devotions before I taught the first class.  The theme for the week was the Fruit of the Spirit and each year I don't know what the "theme" is until the Lord just puts in on my heart.   But I am in awe of how He works it out and touches peoples lives through it and this week was certainly no exception!  

Look at these cute bags that Shanna Noel had made for her kits with the Fruit of the Spirit stamps she made for us!

Here we go!  I brought a selfie stick folks... I couldn't resist!  So here I am attempting to get us all in as we start.  Yes I am a goofball and I'm totally ok with that.  (maybe my girls aren't so ok with it though... :)

Oh how I adore this girl.  I had only met her once and that was just this January at the CHA show in Anaheim.  I had already asked her to teach with me because she had such a huge impact on me over the last couple years.  See, this is the girl who truly started Bible Journaling as we know it today.  Almost three years ago now I remember "surfing" Pinterest and seeing a picture of a BIBLE with paint and stickers and ART on it!  I literally got goosies... It spoke to me on so many levels that I HAD to find out what this was?  Well it wasn't really anything yet.  It was just Shanna Noel's way of expressing her love for her Jesus, in her bible.  But she didn't really want to share it with the world.  She thought it wouldn't be anything anyone would have anything to say about... Oh Shanna... Little did you know how the Lord was going to use that one little Pin to change so many lives!  It didn't just speak to me, it spoke to thousands of people and it is now one of the greatest things that has changed my life.  Because it has brought so many things I LOVE together in one place... My love of Art, my love of the Lord AND His Word get to come together in a new way of worship!  It has drawn me closer to the Lord, deeper in his Word and brought new life to my world!  I can't begin to tell you how life changing this was for me and for that I have this sweet, sweet girl to thank.  (and of course a BIG, BIG GOD who knew so many people would fall in love with this type of expression and worship) Shanna shared her testimony with us and if you haven't heard it, go to a class of hers!  In her first class she also shared a technique of worship and devotional time that I had never experienced before that left me with tear stained paper and lots and lots of wet tissues... but I think that can be said of most of the ladies there.  Oh my goodness, I have never been so moved in a class setting before.  This girl is being used by God in mighty ways and I am so very thankful He allowed her to come and share her life with us for a week in Italy.  I am already planning to ask her back... :)

The next day we were headed on another adventure, this time across the lake to Varenna.  Not to be confused with Verona... because everyone confuses it.  But this town is on the "Lecco" branch of the lake and has a beautiful Monestary that I wanted to show everyone.  So we headed over in the morning and the sun and cloud cover over the lake made for an amazing setting as we approached the village.  (it's the photo at the top of this blog post that has a magical look to it)

The architecture in this place was just phenomenal.  Every where you look there are perfect settings for a photo!  

Here's Rebecca in her "apartment" again...  (more on that on a post from this summer)

Oh how I love this group of ladies from Texas!  They added so much laughter and heart to the week... And I love how the Lord brought the exact right people together too!  Some of the ladies that came had such deep connections because they were/are going through the same struggles, or have similar life stories... That is the POWER of the Holy Spirit working in our lives folks!  It's the REAL deal and I have many more stories from the week to prove it!

This is beautiful Junelle Jacobsen, the other teacher I asked to teach with me.  She has actually been here with me before on another retreat when my dear friend Jeanne Oliver taught.  Junelle was just coming as a student that time and I didn't really know her.  But let me tell you she amazed me with her OWN art that week!  I didn't realize she was an artist... and one that spoke straight to my heart!  She loved the same things I loved about Bellagio and I'll never forget falling in love with one of her sketches of the umbrellas by the pool.  I have had a love affair with those umbrellas for years and she was able to draw them and paint them in such a way that I just couldn't... and I KNEW I wanted her to come back and teach right then and there! As a side note: The hotel changed the umbrellas and lounge chairs by the pool this year and I may have shed a tear or two... the red and white umbrellas were just iconic of an older, gentler time and I am sad they replaced them with boring tan colored ones.  

I LOVE this photo of Sherri and Courtney, a mother/daughter on this trip together.  Hearing everyones stories of their lives and who they are and how they decided to come on this journey was so amazing to me.  I have said this all along as the Lord showed me He wanted me to bring Him into my retreats: That HE has ordained each and every person who comes to this retreat to be here for His purpose.  I have prayed from day one that He would bring the people that needed to be here.  This week it was so divinely evident that He did just that and He is orchestrating our lives in AMAZING ways.  I can't say that without getting choked up.  Honestly, I can't believe He wants me to be this little part of His great plan and I don't know why He picked me  (and my daughter) but I am just awestruck by it...

We had a few minutes to relax before the ferry took us back to Bellagio so we stopped in at my favorite cafe in Varenna and took it all in.  

Then it was time for a cooking class from these beautiful mommas!  These two ladies are mother/daughter and have grown up in Bellagio.  Silvana and Elisabetta are more friends of ours and have a "momma style" cooking school in town.  If Elisabetta looks familiar it's because she has been to California and visited us!  We adore her and her family and she adores ours.  Rebecca has become close friends with her and helps her with her cooking classes whenever she can.  These two are such great ladies and it's always a fun day when you are learning their recipes, sharing laughter with them and being immersed in the love they have for their food!

The next day was a lake day!  I love getting the ladies out on the lake and seeing all the little villages dotted around the lake.  You really get a feel for this place by getting on the water.

I have so many photos of just these two from the week that I think I need to devote a blog post to them!  hahahaha  But it was a life changing week in many ways for the ladies, and for these two as well.

This is the Villa Balbianello, where a Star Wars movie was filmed and a James Bond movie as well.  It is usually a place we go inside and explore but on this day it was closed.  It still is magnificent from the water and a treasure of Lake Como for sure!

Without a doubt if you come on one of my retreats I will take you here.  It's the most peaceful setting I have found.  A family run restaurant in a little cove all to itself with the only island on the lake right in front.  The most "Pure" food (had to throw that one in for my friend Tracy) in the most relaxing spot on the lake as you listen to the water lap up onto the shore, watch the swans (and sometimes baby swans) float in front of you and enjoy the best food you've had in years!  

This is my happy place.  I wish I could hang up a hammock in their trees and just take a nap here.  

We had to get a group photo here for our traveler's notebooks!  

Sometimes I think I should advertise this week as a "Gourmet Food Tour" because that is also what it is!  We have been coming to this lake for 8 years now and we know all the best places.  So it's such fun to see the look on everyone's faces when they see where we take them!  This day was truly a "foodie day" and it couldn't have been better!

Of course eventually we had to get back to the classroom... So this day was Junelle's turn to teach and was I excited for this too!  Junelle is an artist that speaks to me!  She loves color like I do, she watercolors (which I try to do) and I was so ready to learn from her!  I will have to do another blog post of all the classes we did and photos from everyone!  But Junelle has quite a testimony as well and it was great to hear it and be so moved by it.

That night we went out to dinner with this family.  Oh my heart.  This is the dear family that we have been praying for for the last two years.  They lost their father and husband this past July.  Renato was the town doctor and a beloved man in Bellagio.  We were so blessed to know him and spend time with him.  Michi was one of the boys who stayed with us in California in 2013 and so this family is so dear to us.  This night they were so willing to share their lives with us, take us to Renato's grave site and enjoy dinner with us.  I am amazed how God has given us such a heart for a place like Bellagio... BECAUSE He wants us to know His heart for His people in this place as well!

These two have been friends for over 4 years now!  Michi was showing her some "blasts from the past" on his phone and it made from some fun conversation later that night! ;)  No matter where our lives lead us, it is such a great gift to know that we have made so many friends and we love that we are considered "locals" by everyone we know here!  Oh, and the guy in the white jacket in the back behind these two... He's the "Why Not" man.  Well to us he is.  He looks like someone who should be in a James Bond movie as the bartender and that's what he is here too.  But he's also a friend and someone who had an impact on us coming back again and again.  Because this hotel is family run.  Each year we come back we know the people, we talk with the owners, we have lunch with some of the staff.  That's why we come back.  It's the connections we've made more then the beauty of this place.

The last day of the retreat came way too soon.  Junelle took us outside to sketch and taught us more water color techniques that I will be sharing later.  But this week, we had time for laughter, time for lots of tears, time to explore what God has created here and time to bond with people God placed in our lives for a reason this week.   We had an amazing last night together and I know we will treasure this week and these people forever!  I have so many photos to share but you can look on my FB page for more.  We went home knowing the Lord brought us together for a reason and we will continue those relationships and prayer partners for years to come!

Our last night was at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni's Michelin Star Restaurant so we all got dressed up and enjoyed a wonderful last evening together!

Hey, there's our friend Rita again!!  LOVE HER. <3

I want to link some of the blog posts from the ladies at the retreat so you can see what the week meant to them.  But here is a little blurb or two from the ladies who came and I thought I would share them with you to give you another look into what this retreat is to people:

Stacey wrote:  "Sacred. That's the word I would choose when thinking about our week. The Lord, who makes no mistakes, and who is surprised by nothing, brought each person on this trip to reveal Himself uniquely to each person. I have not laughed so hard, been so moved, or so challenged in a very long time. I am tremendously thankful for His goodness in allowing me to experience Bellagio and all of those amazing women (and Tim!)"

Another wrote: "It's hard to put into words God's endless bounty, which is exactly what we received during the retreat. He showed us beauty in so many ways; Beauty in Lake Como, such overwhelming scenery. Beauty of His spirit, you could feel and see it in so many ways. Beauty in the ladies (and Tim) that came together as strangers and left as bonded Christian friends, praying for each other. Beauty in sharing our hearts, flaws, tears and true real feelings in dealing with ourselves and life. Beauty in the bounty of foods he created and we so very much enjoyed. Beauty in the strangers we met in Bellagio and surrounding area that were not strangers for long. Beauty in the welcome we felt from each of them to share their Italy with us. Beauty in the renewed spirit we are so blessed to receive and take home and hold tight in our hearts. "Your eyes will see the King in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar" Isaiah 33:17 NIV"

Here is a blog post from one of the ladies who came and her experience this week with us:

Merry Mary

I'll post more when I see them... And in the meantime if you feel lead to pray for us, it would be greatly appreciated!  Reality is, As Mary says above in her post, the enemy doesn't like when people come together to worship and connect in this way.  My own daughter is feeling lead into the ministry and at this moment is being bombarded with all kinds of things.  True story she may not want me to share... but she was on her bed last night in terrible pain from a dentist appointment earlier and a headache, trying to do her homework, thinking/stressing about an upcoming shoulder surgery next Monday and feeling a bit down on life in general,  and what happens next... the DREAM sign above her bed falls down... on her HEAD!  Talk about a "dream crusher"... funny but not so much, poor thing. 

 

The GREAT NEWS is, we serve a God that is SO much greater in us than he that is in the world...  (paraphrased from 1 John 4:4)  And when we are doing something that is honoring the Lord it's just part of the trials that will come.  But what's awesome is we can give our problems to the Lord and KNOW that he is in control of everything and will help us through them.  Amen to that!

Here's a couple more little "blurbs" from some ladies that joined us last week and just sent them to me:

Suzy wrote: "Thank you Lord for the blessing of this wonderful retreat. It was so wonderful to go to this magical place and spend time there. Every morning I would wake up and look around me and say "Lord is this place real?" The surroundings were so stunningly beautiful, it was like living in a dream world. What made it even better was being able to go with some of my dear and treasured friends. Especially when I initially signed up to go alone. Then the Lord provided not one but 3 companions! The blessings just kept on coming in the way of all the people we got to meet and spend time with. I also cant even believe I got to meet Shanna Noel from illustrated faith, whom I have followed for a few years and admire so much. Her ministry has meant to world to me and has ministered to me in so many ways. When you meet this lady you instantly feel a big hug from the Lord himself. Then there's Junelle Hallstrom Jacobsen, what a wonderful artist and absolutely delightful person. She radiates God's love and a gentleness I cant describe. Laura Hogue McCollough our event organizer and planner was something of a celebrity in little Bellagio. It seems the whole town not only knows her but LOVES her. If you have ever spent time in Italy you would realize that for locals to feel this way about a non local person is something very special. I got the feeling that some part of Laura has always been in Bellagio and when she leaves there is always a piece of her left there. The Dinners and excursions we went on were second to none. First class dining experiences not just once but many times. It was the best retreat I have been on hands down! Thank you Laura for making this such a special blessing."  (By the way Suzy says "a little blurb isn't in her vocabulary... "  hahaha  I totally get that though because my little blog posts end up being BOOKS.  I guess you should know that if you plan on coming back and following this journey we are on.  ;)

Janet wrote: "We were lovingly cared for during the week, blessed and restored. The Lord's hand was easy to see: He orchestrated Laura's dream to become reality, Rebecca's assistance and desire for ministry; to each woman (and Tim) who attended; to Rita and Elisabetta, chefs and shopkeepers who joyfully shared their love of country, culture, and food; to the breathtaking beauty of mountains and lake, gardens and walking paths. We were allowed to soak in His presence through the majestic scenery, in the new friendships of other women (and Tim), in the stories and encouragement from our teaching artists, and through the art and creativity that nourishes the soul. There are not enough superlatives in English to express what a treasure this week was."  

Let me tell you a quick story.  On the last day of the retreat I was in the room packing everything up and Janet came up to me and just hugged me and thanked me.  I lost it.  Tears flowed for a long time because I just still can't believe how the Lord would choose me to do this? It is beyond me how He can use just simple people who are just open to being used.  It blows my mind!  Be HE does and HE will do the same for you! You should know that this whole thing is so humbling to me.  It's not about my little plan of coming back to Bellagio... it's about His plan to connect people and move mountains.  Mountains were moved that week!  Lives were changed and we will do this as long as He allows us to.  This is a ministry that Rebecca and I feel called to.  It is something we are praying BIG prayers over.  I will share more on that some day soon... But to Him be the glory forever and ever!  It all is about what the Lord is doing and how He is ever present and ALIVE.  And if you want to experience a week like this then I encourage you to pray about joining us.  If He is leading you to come on an Art & Faith retreat with us then I know He will make a way for that to happen!

Next week I will share some photos of our artwork and the classes we taught.  Also, I have a couple class kits from Shanna Noel that I will be doing a GIVEAWAY with next week so make sure you stop back in for that!

Have a BLESSED day,

Laura

 

 

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