What makes Villa d’Este one of the world’s most romantic escapes? On the surface, one may attribute it to the 25 acres of private gardens on languid Lake Como. Or to the palatial architecture and art spread over a mosaic-studded nymphaeum (a national monument in Italy), Renaissance-styled suites and floor-to-ceiling paintings that adorn the interior. Or even to the reputation that has spread far and wide over the last 150 years that the establishment has been operating as a hotel. But those who stay at Villa d’Este know that there is something more unique here than all the features and facts and figures combined. They know that there is something of substance behind the elegant façades – something elusive and ineffable yet at the same time ever-present.
We believe it comes down to the stories that have imbued the Villa with a rich spirit that gives it a certain authenticity and eternally illuminating character. Stories from the past that extend to 1568, when renowned architect Pellegrino Pellegrini (whose clients included Pope Paul III, Phillip II and the council of Milan where he was appointed architect of the Duomo) was commissioned by the Cardinal of Como to create an exceptional summer residence. And stories of the present – unforgettable memories passed on from generation to generation by the return guests, just like the tradition of vacationing at Villa d’Este itself. As the Managing Director, Mr. Zucchetti, says “You cannot buy stories and history”. And it is indeed this priceless legacy, captured through stories, and kept alive by those who are still in love with Villa d’Este, that gives the Villa its authentic charm.
It is also fair to say that this authentic charm is nurtured by the family-owned philosophy, long-term staff and Mr. Zucchetti himself. Mr. Zucchetti stands out not because of his desire to stand out but by his understated nature, authenticity, delightful humour, ease of presence, genuine attachment to the place (15 years and counting) and a management style which is consciously respectful (all the staff we talked to had something good to say about him, without being asked). If any aspiring manager desires to aspire to the pinnacle of luxury hotelier, they need to spend some time with Mr. Zucchetti at Villa d’Este. He is a priceless jewel in the establishment’s crown.
By nurturing the hotel’s authenticity, the guests attracted to the Villa typically also share the same values. Unlike many other top luxury hotels that attract only those who are there to be seen, Villa d’Este is genuine down its core (which is why it is also the perfect fit for The Luxologist). Of course, celebrities do come here. But when they come, they come to feel at home. Some of them have even made it their home – from Caroline of Brunswick (Princess of Wales who purchased the establishment in the early 19th century) to the discreet celebrities who rent out the private villas for months at a time, to George Clooney who comes across by boat from his house regularly for his signature risotto dish.
As the Villa’s team state: “the Villa is more than a hotel, it is a destination”. We would add: It is a place to see yet not be seen. It is a place where you feel at home, however far away home may be. And it is a place that you cannot miss…and cannot help missing when you leave.
GUEST EXPERIENCE HIGHLIGHTS:
§ Romance: Every gait in the gardens and sigh in the suits is filled with a touch of romance at Villa d’Este. Perhaps a moment that exemplifies Villa d’Este’s romance is the “golden hour” in summer. This is when the temperature becomes a little cooler and the sun begins to consider setting – but seems to be in two minds about it, preferring to spend just a little more time at Lake Como, illuminating its blessed shores (can we blame it?). The golden light during this time is elevated by the reflections of the yellow hued villas on the other side of the lake. And as this spectacle is unveiled, the Villa’s resident pianist starts playing “Amapola, La Vie en rose, Where do I begin…”, while Riva’s sparkle their way across the water and the smell of June’s jasmines fill the air. If there is a more romantic setting, we would like to hear about it.
§ Privacy: This is a “Leading Hotels of the World” affiliated establishment that guarantees privacy. As Mr. Zucchetti says “At Villa d’Este, you can be whatever you want…it is a place out of time where everyone can have a carefree state of mind”. Here you are far away from the stresses of the everyday, including the paparazzi. The exclusive and expansive nature of the grounds, accommodation options and highly professional discreet service is designed for absolute relaxation. Mr. Zucchetti goes on to say “Even if you’re a rock star, you’re not treated like one. You’re given space. No one tries to take selfies with you. You can just relax.” Perhaps because everyone is VIP to the team at Villa d’Este, and at the same time, just a member of the family.
§ Resort: The 25-acre park is also designed in a resort-style structure, with clay tennis courts (and equipment available for guests including tennis shoes), the world’s first floating pool (launched in 1966), a large indoor pool and spa area, putting green (as well as electronic golf!) and water activities in the lake ranging from waterskiing with the hotel’s speedboat to sailing and stand-up-paddling. Little wonder why guests often don’t go anywhere else when they’re at Villa d’Este. Everything is here that you could possibly desire. Of course, if you are adventurous, you can always take a helicopter to capri for cocktails or to Switzerland for lunch (however we wouldn’t recommend it as long as resident chef Mr. Zambanini is here).
§ Architecture & Art: Pellegrino Pellegrini created a wonder. The whole villa is an art historian’s dream and the elements ranging from the grandiose façades to the nymphaeum in the garden with its delicate mosaics and water features is a sight to behold. Inside, authentic paintings from the Medici era adorn the walls, frescos spread across the ceiling above Murano chandeliers and a statue of Eros & Venus by the Canova school epitomises the hotel’s spirit (a harmonious blend of love and beauty). Nature also plays a role in the artistic ambience with flower beds sprawling elegantly throughout the gardens.
§ Accommodation: Villa d’Este does not only comprise one villa. In fact it has many. The Queen’s Pavillion is the more private of the two large villas. There are also four smaller villas for exclusive use – Villa Cima on the shore, Villa Malakoff on a small hill, Villa Garrovo in the gardens and the Mosaic House adjoining the nymphaeum. To understand how popular these villas are, bookings for Villa Cima have already been placed for 2023. The interiors of the private villas also have a more modern touch to the main villas – for example, Villa Cima has Lora Piana interiors. The main villa, called the Cardinal Building, is at the heart of the establishment, and having stayed there in a suite, we can only highly recommend it. For the guest who requires more space, there are two Presidential Suites up to 95 m2 and the signature Cardinal Suite with 108 m2. Some of the highlights of our suite included:
~ Extraordinary lake views
~ Artwork and antiques adorning the suite (no two rooms are alike at the Villa)
~ Fine bedding from Italian linen to wool covers
~ Villa d’Este’s own amenities made by an artisanal Italian company
~ Large walk-in wardrobe
~ Exotic fruit in rooms
§ Cuisine: Chef Michele Zambanini comes from Trento but has a wealth of international experience. This accounts for his style which fuses traditional favourites with his own flair and presentation. He focuses on fresh quality products – as witnessed by the large herb garden on the premise and his emphasis on choosing “3 ingredients, maximum of 4…sourced from the best places in the world. Angus steak from Ireland, scampi from Sicily…”. He goes on to say that “at the end, my star is the customer, so I may focus on 3 ingredients, but I have another 100 ingredients to make you happy if you wish. We just ordered a quail from Hungary as a guest asked for quail at this time of year. No problem. And George Clooney is another example. He has three different risottos on the same plate when he comes. I wouldn’t advise it because the risottos mix in the middle, but it’s the way he likes it! And if the guest is happy, I’m happy”. The Chef’s charm, sparkle in the eye and efficient but passionate manner immediately captures the attention. This is a man with flair and a man going places. And with three major restaurants under his management, a committed team (including the maître d’, Pasquale, who was a terrific host), and a new 700 m2 spotless kitchen that required a Euro 3m investment (with high tech equipment like a risotto machine that can make 25kg of risotto at once, and rooms for every type of food group), he has all the tools necessary to bring his creations to life.
It is worth mentioning that the breakfast on the terrace is a spectacular occasion in the morning with a large spread of options from the buffet and the menu. In addition, the signature restaurant (Veranda) brought the chef’s delights to life. To give our readers a taste, our dinner included:
~ A chef’s welcome with fresh Sea bass on a delicate bed of mashed potato
~ An entrée with lobster, Bellini ceviche, asparagus and Noto almonds
~ A plate of the day: A whole Turbot (approximately 40cm) caught that day off the coast of Italy, served with Mediterranean sauce, steamed vegetables and artichokes.
~ Chocolate soufflé (which is usually only available on weekends, but thanks to the beauty of Villa d’Este, guests can have it also by request)
~ A delightful tiramisu with Bronte pistachio ladyfingers
~ Petit fours, including a delicious praline made in house (we found the source – a large fridge in the patisserie kitchen, and had some more the next day).
§ Beauty Centre: The beauty centre provides guests with an opportunity to heighten their relaxation in a tranquil and elegant environment (with Asian and British design cues and a dark green hue that is conducive to relaxation). Here guests can relax with a treatment, ranging from extensive facial options (such as the signature “Power peel”) to full body masks, massages and more (we had a delightful signature massage with almond oil). Sauna and Turkish baths are also available in the Sporting Club.
§ Visit every season (except during the closure between mid-November to March). Next year is the Villa’s 150-year anniversary, so stay tuned for surprises to come. We recommend visiting in May/June (when the Jasmine is in its full bloom) and Mr. Zucchetti recommends visiting in Autumn (when the Autumn colours come to life along Lake Como).
§ Join one of the Villa’s exclusive events. The event that perhaps most typifies this is the “Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este”, renowned around the world for showcasing some of the most extraordinary achievements of automobile vintage glory. Among other features is the Villa d’Este Style Electric Yachting (a new event), Villa d’Este Style Vintage Yachting, the Villa d’Este Wine Symposium and the Villa d’Este Style “One lake, one car” (which is a tribute to the “Villa d’Este Coupé” by Alfa Romeo, when the owners of this limited edition come together at Villa d’Este).
§ Visit the hair salon. The glamorous couple behind the hair salon at Villa d’Este (Pierre & Lilo Gähwiler) have been with the establishment for over 40 years. They are both artistic visionaries who have contributed in a very tangible way to the splendour of the Villa and keep the spirit of the Villa alive. A visit and an appointment here is a must.
§ Keep active: The jogging trail is a wonderful track that takes you to the enormous sculpture of Hercules on the premise, as well as through the turrets and surrounding structures that overlook the Villa and the lake. A stand-up-paddle in the early morning is also an advisable activity to try.
§ A romantic boat trip in a vintage wooden boat with the Signature Villa d’Este prosecco is a memorable experience. You cannot come to Como without a trip on the lake, passing glamorous villas, George Clooney’s house and hidden, secluded gems that may tempt you to acquire.
§ Just sit in your own corner of the garden and let your mind wander. This is a place of both tranquility and inspiration – having inspired many great minds before you: from Franz Liszt to Gustave Flaubert and from Alessandro Manzoni to Edith Wharton.