Friday, November 13, 2015

Villa d’Este: A lakeside Italian idyll

The Villa d’Este on Italy’s Lake Como.
By Delia von Neuschatz

Dubbed “Hollywood on Lake Como” after Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visited Villa d’Este in the 1920s, the star power of the glittering grand hotel remains undimmed.  Located at the foothill of the Alps, on the banks of one of the most picturesque lakes in Europe, the Villa d’Este continues to attract the great and the good. 
George and Amal Clooney at the Villa d’Este in 2015.
The 30-mile long Lake Como, situated 25 miles north of Milan near the Swiss border, looks like an inverted Y.  The most desirable part of the lake, real-estate wise, is the “Riva Romantica,” or Gold Coast, a five-mile stretch on the western side between the towns of Cernobbio, site of the Villa d’Este and Laglio, site of George Clooney’s Villa Oleandra.
Guests have also included Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Vladimir Nabokov, King Leopold of Belgium, John F. Kennedy, Gianni Agnelli and the Duke and Duchess of WindsorAlfred Hitchcock spent many a summer there even shooting a scene from his first feature film, The Pleasure Garden on the hotel’s legendary grounds. 
Virginia Valli and Miles Mander in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s first release, The Pleasure Garden, set on the grounds of the Villa d’Este in 1925.
The villa’s 25 acres of parks, gardens and fortifications, offering prime examples of Italian renaissance landscaping, inspired the likes of Gustave Flaubert and Edith Wharton. Highlights of the property include a 500-year-old plane tree and a 16th century mosaic nymphaeum. Rose and jasmine bushes perfume the air while azaleas, camellias, oleanders and hydrangeas delight the eye. Exceedingly romantic, it is no wonder that Elizabeth Taylor and Conrad “Nicky” Hilton started their romance at the Villa d’Este. 
The famed nymphaeum (or monument consecrated to the nymphs) is overlooked by a seventeenth-century statue of Hercules hurling Lychas into the sea.
The 500-year-old plane tree.
The mock fortress was built by a former ballerina, Vittoria Peluso, who inherited the property from her husband, the older and debauched Marquis Bartolomeo Calderara, proprietor of the villa as of 1784. Still attractive, the young widow lost no time in remarrying, choosing a handsome Napoleonic general as her betrothed.  Fearing that her dashing husband would abandon her for the excitement of the battlefield, she had these towers built so the general could engage in mock battles.  Delighted with the ramparts, her husband busied himself by recruiting young cadets and holding sumptuous feasts capped off by fireworks after the pretend skirmishes.
My husband and I headed to the Villa d’Este recently in search of some much needed R&R and certainly found what we were seeking. We began to decompress as soon as we stepped foot on the property, unwound by the Alpine lake’s dreamy sense of unreality. “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty,” wrote the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a sentiment no doubt echoed by the many notable artists who found inspiration on its shores.  It’s where Verdi composed La Traviata, for example and where Leonardo da Vinci set his Madonna of the Rocks.
The petit fours served after lunch at the hotel’s Veranda restaurant.
Our spacious junior suite in the Queen’s Pavilion.  A doorway on the right leads to a sitting room and a second bathroom.
The view of the lake and floating pool from our room.  Lake Como was a favorite wartime retreat for Winston Churchill who wrote: “An air of complete tranquility and good humour pervades these beautiful lakes and valleys, which are unravaged by war.  There is not a sign to be seen in the countryside, the dwellings or the demeanour or appearance of the inhabitants which would suggest that any violent events have been happening in the world.”
The hotel itself enhances the natural beauty of its surroundings.  Accommodations are divided between two historic buildings.  The main villa was built in 1568 for a wealthy cardinal and art enthusiast.  Transformed into a luxury hotel in 1873, it became an essential stop on European Grand Tours.  A second building, the Queen’s Pavilion, and two private villas, were added in the 19th century bringing the overall occupancy to 154 rooms, all of which are uniquely decorated with period furnishings, silk drapes and oil paintings.  Today’s modern amenities include a spa, a gym, squash courts, and two swimming pools—one of which actually floats on Lake Como.
The Queen’s Pavilion is a nod to the hotel’s storied past, built as it was in honor of Caroline of Brunswick, tragic Princess of Wales.  Fleeing from her troubled marriage to the future King George IV and consequent social isolation, the original “people’s princess” sought refuge at Lake Como, buying the villa in 1815 and christening it the Villa d’Este. 
Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1798.  Caroline returned to London in 1820 in an attempt to take her place on the throne, but she was never crowned queen having been barred from the gates of Westminster Abbey at bayonet-point during her husband’s coronation in 1821.  She died three weeks later.  After her funeral procession passed through London, she was buried in her native Brunswick, Germany.  Her tombstone reads “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England.”  The sordid squabble between her and her husband where they each tried to tarnish each other in the press, captivated England throughout the 1820s:  "It was the only question I have ever known," wrote the radical critic William Hazlitt, "that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house and cottage in the kingdom." 
It was to the sybaritic spa that I repaired to on our last day at the Villa d’Este in an effort to steel myself for re-entry into the real world.  The award winning Beauty Center’s comprehensive menu of treatments offers something for everyone.  There are regenerating and hydrating facial treatments, remodeling body treatments, foot scrubs, “age-defying” hand treatments and muscle-lengthening massages.  The guest is spoiled for choice.  I chose a radio frequency facial and a Swedish massage in an attempt to make the most of our Italian idyll. Two hours later, smooth-skinned and loose-limbed, I went back to our room even more loath to pack up and leave this otherworldly place. To find out more about the Villa d’Este, click here
Debora Casalaro, my facialist and massage therapist at the Beauty Center.