The grounds at the Villa d’Este in northern Italy, which run along the bank of Lake Como, are quiet in the early mornings. The guests here are unhurried. Inside the hotel, behind a gilded white desk, the night manager organizes international newspapers for delivery. The pastry chef turns the lights on in the kitchen, having arrived to proof the brioche. The gardeners are next, combing the stones on the terrace, which stretches under jasmine vines and offers a sublime view across the lake. The first breakfast trays go up at 6:30, laden with coffee and rolls, and soon after San Vincenzo church rings a morning peal, echoed in other bell towers throughout the town of Cernobbio and over the mountains.
The Villa d’Este has been a luxury hotel since the nineteenth century, and delighted Victorians with the same natural inducements that draw travelers today. The Italian lakes are a hybrid of sensual southern European living and Alpine elegance, la dolce vita in the peaks, and the hotel occupies an idyllic position in this exalted region of Italy. It was built as a private home in 1568 and considered a marvel from the outset. Before opening as a hotel, centuries of illustrious visitors came to admire the mansion’s stately architecture and the deep blue lake beyond its windows. Neither the villa nor its situation requires embroidery.
The gestures of old world hospitality are in motion as guests arrive, usually having driven an easy hour from Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Cars are zipped away by valets in cream-color jackets, and travelers are led upstairs through wide hallways full of portraits and sculptures, to rooms with high windows and silver pedestals piled with fresh fruit. The bedrooms are all of different sizes and configurations, tastefully appointed with antique furnishings. After a bath and a change of clothes—the guests here take care with their dress, especially from the afternoon onward—it is the moment to have a wander around.
The gardens outside begin a short walk uphill from the hotel. Part of the design was developed during the Renaissance and the grounds are dominated by a beautiful mosaic nymphaeum, which draws honeymooners for photographs. Positioned within the lake itself is a glamorous floating swimming pool lined with deck chairs. These are eternally occupied by sunbathers with novels, visited at intervals by servers carrying iced tea from the pool bar. On the first floor of the hotel there is an excellent, discreet spa, operated solely for the guests. I’ve heard talk that there is a very serviceable gym with an indoor pool on the grounds somewhere, but so far have never managed to find myself there.
The heart of the property is the terrace, which sweeps between the hotel and the lake. During the day it is handsome and calm, with a momentous prospect over the water. The atmosphere is stirring; it is the sort of place where everyone wonders if they should start writing a novel. In the evenings, tuxedoed waiters bring drinks to guests in formalwear, whose chairs all face the lake and the green mountains on the other side. The pianist plays. A pair of ducks move between the tables in a nightly ritual, past the ankles of the patrons, looking for cocktail nuts. There is nothing but fashion to pin the scene to any particular decade.
Following aperitivo, guests walk to dinner. There are two main restaurants at the hotel, and both are superb. Michelin-starred Veranda seats diners in its pleasing blue and yellow room with windows overlooking the lake, or in fine weather, outside on its own portion of the terrace. The food is refined but approachable (plump gnocchi over porcini mushrooms; veal Milanese with potato salad), and delivered with care by the brilliant staff, some of whom have been serving guests at the Villa d’Este for decades. There is also the less formal Grill, where a water taxi driver tells me that the hotel’s most talked-about neighbor dines often (“He doesn’t like to wear a tie, George” he says affectionately). Like Veranda, the dishes on offer are familiar and gratifying; the Fiorentina steak for two, set down alongside an eye-rollingly good bowl of béarnaise, is enough of an event to plan an entire day around. And a top tip: It would be a scandal not to finish all meals at the Villa d’Este with the best gelato you will ever eat—my order is hazelnut, chocolate, and pistachio.
After a generous night’s sleep, guests can either order hot drinks and pastries to their rooms or go downstairs for a more indulgent breakfast. Stretching out an hour or two on the terrace with an omelet and the paper is one of the pleasures of visiting the hotel. Following the first morning, your preferences for strong tea and white toast will have been noted and communicated to the rest of the staff, who strive to create a sense of familiarity for visitors. This is the great, significant strength of the Villa d’Este, a hotel with overwhelming expertise in hospitality. They want guests to feel that when they return to the hotel, they are coming home.
Around Lake Como
Though you could spend an enjoyable week without leaving the Villa d’Este, and plenty of guests do, there are a few excursions in the area to keep in mind. Taking a boat to lunch at Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, a restaurant located on an island in Lake Como, makes for a wonderfully romantic afternoon. The restaurant has been serving the same set menu since 1947—vegetable antipasto and ham, trout, chicken, a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fruit with ice cream—and the food is simple and delicious. Don’t skip the sweet coffee with brandy, meant to ward off a supposed curse on the island. In the town of Como, The Market Place is a terrific restaurant with an ambitious and sophisticated menu. On a recent evening, rabbit ravioli with lemon was rich and bright, and veal with chanterelles was cleverly paired with sweet melon and cocoa nibs. The restaurant also serves about fifty wines by the glass; a thoughtful offer, since most diners will have to motor home.
The drive to or from Lake Como is a perfect occasion for taking a detour to Da Vittorio the three Michelin–starred restaurant run for about fifty years by the Cerea family. Spectacular tasting menus are cooked by two brothers, Enrico and Roberto Cerea, while their sister Rossella runs the dining room—kissing babies (who are welcome), dispensing Parmesan, and directing the staff as needs dictate. The kitchen excels at balancing savory and sweet. Over a long lunch, we had a mini mortadella “sandwich” between two bread-shaped pieces of meringue, and a stunningly tender loin of lamb with rhubarb. The chefs have a special gift for foie gras, and we ate three blissful versions: one bite, shaped like a lollypop with cherry glaze; one piece dissolved in hot beef broth with summer truffles, and one seared slice served with banana bread and passion fruit sauce. For a remarkable destination meal, it is difficult to suggest a more worthwhile venue.
Article by: Jo Rodgers