The Villa d’Este is the Lady of Lake Como. Gracious, serene, beautiful and always perfect in her manners and in her dress, she carries easily that for which so many others can only strive – breeding. She is on intimate terms with the great and good, and yet she treats all her guests, however high or lowly, with the same charm and courtesy. She stands alongside every great hotel in the world and yet, somehow, she stands above them. As the late, great Jean Salvadore (who dealt with the hotel’s public relations for so many decades) never tired of reminding me: the Villa d’Este is unique.
Certainly, I know of only one hotel in the world after which a motor car was named. And it was not just any motor car. It was a special version of the Alfa Romeo 6C Super Sport made by Touring of Milan. Only 25 of these gorgeous machines were made, of which just 8 are thought now to reside in Europe. Like the hotel, the eponymous motor car is a true classic, of impeccable pedigree. It is the Coupé Villa d’Este, first made in 1949, a masterpiece of automotive design (shown in the picture). I have now had the privilege of sitting in this particular, pristine example, for it resides in a display cabinet in the grounds, and must be considered a significant addition to the hotel’s collection of works of high art. Now there is an annual celebration, called Villa d’Este Style, when the surviving examples of the motor car are invited back to their ‘home’ by Lake Como.
It should not surprise you, dear Reader, that the Villa d’Este is the one hotel in the world from which I never stray during the course of a visit. Why am I so happy to stay put? Well, this particular hostelry possesses some of the most magnificent (and important) gardens in Italy. Its rooms and suites are luxurious and comfortable. It sits right on the edge of Lake Como, and therefore enjoys a panorama which has few equals. There is plenty of civilized space, for its elegant public rooms and terraces are numerous and quiet. The food in its restaurants is delicious and the service from every member of its staff is courteous, friendly and efficient. Indeed, I should pay tribute to the members of the wonderful team which ensures that only the highest standards are entertained within the Heavenly Estate. My picture shows five of them: (from left to right) Ilio Chiocci (the bar manager), Fabrizio Zarattini (the Manager of the Verandah Restaurant), Massimo Dorino (the Resident Manager), your correspondent, Annamaria Duvia (the PR Manager) and Danilo Zucchetti (the General Manager) – great persons all.
I am not, of course, the first person to be captivated by this demi-Eden. A prince of the Church, Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, built himself a retreat on this spot in the 16th century, and Queen Caroline – the estranged wife of George IV – could not resist buying the property in 1815. With owners of such quality and wealth, all keen to adorn their lovely prize, it should not surprise us that the gardens are full of fountains, mosaics, arches, statues and battlements. They make the grandest of settings for the 19th Century hotel buildings. For the hotel is a relative newcomer, having been opened in 1873. Its fine buildings are, however, entirely right and exude the impression of having been here forever.
Room 137, on the first floor, was as gracious and charming as I could wish. It was a ‘Junior Suite Exclusive’ and therefore 970€-1,530€ a night, bed and breakfast for two, according to season. It was decorated in exquisitely traditional taste. In the sitting room were different shades of pale green, set off by the gold of the picture frames, the table lamps and the very grand standard lamps. Two crystal chandeliers cast their beams down upon the sofa, the armchairs and the oil painting of a lady of significance. Within the panelled, walk-in wardrobe was plenty of hanging space (which I welcomed, for I do not travel lightly). There was also a private safe.
The bedroom continued the graceful style for the chest of drawers, the dressing table and the headboard of the bed, which had – of course – been made deliciously soft for me. The bathroom was more modest in size, but its large slabs of honeyed marble still managed to enfold a wash basin, a tub of proper dimensions, a separate shower, a loo and a bidet. And, as always, there was a plentiful supply of the Villa d’Este’s own toiletries.
Breakfast on the terrace of the Verandah Restaurant at the Villa d’Este is one of the glories of Italy, and – the weather being kind – I was able to enjoy it in the most leisurely of manners. The waiter Marco looked after me with the utmost efficiency and discretion, bringing to me grilled sea bass and sautéed onions with my favourite boiled peas, along with plates of raspberries and pineapple (a fruity marriage made in Heaven). Along came, too, silver pots of coffee, buckets of ice cubes and glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. Indeed, so wonderful were all these comestibles that, every morning, I neglected to inspect the groaning buffet tables within – but I was assured, by those who did, that the breakfast buffet was living up to its legendary reputation for an over-abundance of everything you might want to break the fast.
My days were spent on the terrace by the Lake – within or without the arcade, according to the heat of the sun. To me the excellent waiter Mattea (who used to work in London, just round the corner from Claridge’s) brought pots of tea and plates of little cakes. Here I would occasionally run into Danilo Zucchetti, the General Manager. Nowadays, with change and decay all around in the hotel world, it is a real comfort to those of us who love the Villa d’Este to know that Mr Zucchetti is in charge. He is charming, intelligent, dapper and absolutely determined to maintain the standards and the special ethos of this magnificent place. He is – and this is meant as the highest compliment – a Villa d’Este man. Indeed, I would venture to say that Danilo Zucchetti is one of the great hotel managers. Talking to him, you know that the Villa d’Este, its traditions and its outlook are in safe hands.
After these happy moments, I would return, as the sun began to sink gently towards the hilltops, to my apartment for the Pre-Prandial Soak. Via the television receiver, proper music was readily available. If you have never bathed in your room at the Villa d’Este to the sound of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, you have not yet lived life to the full. I set off for dinner each evening cleansed, invigorated and hungry.
The less formal of the dining rooms is The Grill, which is housed in a separate building in the gardens. Because of its location and its higher ground, the view from my table on the terrace – right down the Lake – was even more captivating than that at breakfast. Here I was in the hands of Gianfranco Mondelli (pictured), The Grill’s marvellous maitre d’. Soon the excellent waiters were lifting domes to reveal the enjoyable dishes prepared by Chef Simone Paredi. I began with some really tasty Culatello ham, accompanied to good purpose by pickled vegetables and hot fried dumplings – a most effective combination. Then it was soft and yielding tagliolini with porcini mushrooms and black truffle from Norcia, and on to a whole turbot, cooked in the oven and boned by the table. I ended in the traditional way with some good tiramisù. (Allow around 130€ for four such courses.)
To drink, Mr Mondelli recommended that ever-reliable Umbrian white by Antinori, Cervaro della Sala. This was in its 2013 vintage, and it was terrific: creamy, full-bodied, firmly structured and full of the oakiness, creaminess and discreet fruit I love.
My other dinners were had in the larger Verandah Restaurant. Here the hotel’s requirements are exactly right. I quote: “At dinner gentlemen are required to wear jacket and tie. Cellular ‘phones are not allowed in the dining room.” These words make me want to sing a Te Deum. If only all hotels were so sensible.
White napery, candles, waiters in black tie (or red jackets for the sommeliers) and gleaming glassware create an atmosphere at once properly formal and highly welcoming. Mr Zarattini’s calm professionalism ensures that all runs with perfect smoothness. In charge of the kitchen is the famous Executive Chef Michele Zambanini (pictured, with your correspondent). He deserves his reputation as a chef of very considerable talent.
Allow me to share with you the highlights of my meals at the Verandah. Duck foie gras terrine came with apricots and chocolate, and was ravishing in the complexity of its tastes. Beef tartare was meat of the highest quality. Tagliolini – of which I never tire – was enlivened by summer truffle. A fillet of sea bass with potato foam and caviar was exactly right in its luscious succulence. A cheese soufflé was as I like it – large and spooned out by the table. The ‘Villa d’Este Cup’ was worthy of its name, with an indulgent mixture of wild strawberries, meringue, chocolate sponge cake, vanilla ice cream and mango sauce. And more wild strawberries appeared in my birthday cake (for I celebrated the feast of my nativity during my stay), which included enough cream to make me forget the advancing years. (Allow around 150€ for four courses.)
The wine list over which Sommelier Gianpaolo Vaninetti presides has 573 offerings, including lots of magnums and half-bottles. Most are from Italy or France. Prices run from 32€ for a rosé from Puglia to 5,750€ for the 2001 vintage of Pétrus. I noticed one German eiswein (Silvaner, Luis Guntrum, 2009 – 140€, half) and the following tempting bottles: Planeta chardonnay 2013 (62€), Gaja Barbaresco 2003 (405€), Luce 2011 (160€), Solaia 2008 (420€), Ornellaia 2010 (360€), 2011 Masseto (1,210€), Cheval Blanc 1999 (1,980€), Haut Brion 1999 (1,350€) and Latour 2001 (1,950€). My own drinking at the Verandah included two splendid examples of Italian chardonnay: a lovely, buttery, alcoholic version from Abruzzo (Marina Cvetic, Masciarelli, 2011 – 70€) and a brilliant, elegant, Burgundy-like bottle from Lombardy (Convento dell’Annunciata, Curtefranca, Bellavista, 2011 – 94€). This was good drinking.
After all these delights, I finally drove away from the hotel full of gratitude for the beauty, the luxury and the exemplary service of this place. Jean Salvadore was right. The Villa d’Este is unique. I think I am in love with the Lady of Lake Como.
Via Regina 40, Cernobbio 22012, Italy.
Telephone +39 031 3481
Fax +39 031 348 873
Double rooms from around 550€-800€, including breakfast, according to season.
Open from March to November
Check the hotel website for special offers and for the rates for specific dates