George IV is indirectly responsible for much of the sheer fabulousness that is Villa D’Este, the legendary Italian hotel on the shores of Lake Como. If, as Prince of Wales in 1795, he had not rejected his bride, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, within months of their wedding, his neglected wife would not have sought solace at this ravishing spot where the Dolomites meet the most northerly of Italy’s shimmering lakes.
And if the philandering, profligate prince had not continued to rebuff her, Caroline may not have bought the sprawling lakeside Villa D’Este from ballerina Vittoria Peluso, also the Marchioness Calderara.
Nor would Caroline have spent five years — and vast sums of money — manicuring, polishing and extending the vast house and gardens to transform it into one of the most sought-after residences in Europe.
However, if we really want to hand out plaudits for home improvements at Villa D’Este, it was the ballet-dancing marchioness, who was responsible for the earlier glamorisation of the property, adding terraces where previously the lake had almost lapped at the villa walls, creating the spectacular formal gardens and installing magnificent statuary and a series of mini-forts in the hills to prevent her second husband (a Napoleonic general she married after her Marquis died), from hankering after his military derring-do.
In the 18th-century equivalent of having the boss over for dinner, she invited Napoleon to stay, preparing a vast room for him, embellishing it with columns, frescoes and exquisite statuary. Disappointingly, he didn’t turn up, but in the 136 years since Villa D’Este became one of Europe’s most illustrious hotels, a succession of royals, politicos, movie-stars, rock-stars, writers and designers have stayed there.
Hotel registers list Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, King Leopold of Belgium, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Stone, Madonna, Donna Karan, the whole Versace clan, Ralph Lauren, Jose Carreras, Woody Allen and dozens of others whom a Paparazzo would trample his grandmother to photograph relaxing on the immaculate deck beside the deep, green lake.
Shimon Peres has stayed, while George Clooney — who has a house in nearby Laglio — regularly drops in for dinner.
The Napoleon Room — untrammelled by the Emperor himself — is now beautifully restored and one of a dozen public rooms which include the Canova bar (named for a ravishing Canova statue), and the Column Room, where weddings (including Jewish ones) and receptions are held beneath a breathtaking hand-painted ceiling.
The hotel has just 160 rooms and suites, meaning that even when fully occupied, it never feels crowded. Indeed, if space and time are today’s real luxuries, then this hotel offers both in abundance: space, because of the vast public areas, guest rooms and extensive grounds; and time, because — despite every modern amenity — the ambience encourages guests to reset their body clock to an era when lives were not governed by mobile phones, email, Twitter and the internet. You can almost feel your shoulders drop as you walk through the doors, but for all the wealth of fabulous antiques, there is nothing stuffy or antiquated about it.
Most guests are under 45 and, this being Italy, children are welcome (there’s a kids’ pool and a playground), while the atmosphere reflects that quintessentially Italian sense of joie de vivre.
In its decorative style, the hotel is deeply traditional — everything that doesn’t move is gilded, carved or otherwise embellished, but that only adds to the sense of deep comfort. Rooms and suites — most with front or side lake view and balcony or terrace — have flat-screen TVs, abundant hanging and storage space (month-long stays are not rare) and marble bathrooms with deep tub, shower, lush toiletries and a “proper” hairdryer. Naturally, there are big, soft towels, stylish robes and slippers, while a regularly replenished bowl of fruit and nightly bottle of water are thoughtful touches.
In good weather, breakfast is served al fresco, on the terrace; on cooler days, in the Veranda Restaurant which, with its walls of windows and banks of blue hydrangea is as close to al fresco as you can get without exposure to the elements. Again, as you would expect, the repast is a feast of everything you might want, from freshly-squeezed juices and a huge selection of fresh fruit, to deli platters, cheeses, wonderful breads, cereals, eggs to order and hot items, accompanied by every kind of coffee, tea and infusion.
At lunchtime, there are opportunities for long, leisurely (and punishingly expensive) lunches in the Veranda Restaurant or its outdoor terrace, or more affordable sandwiches, pizzas and salads overlooking the lake.
At dinner, the Veranda Restaurant again spills on to the terrace for dining under the stars, with plenty of fresh fish, risottos and pasta dishes for kashrut-observing diners, as well as calorie-counted dishes.
With the current state of Sterling, dining here is very pricey (as are extras), with a two-and-a-half course meal for two with wine at the Veranda likely to cost £150, though the food, service and setting are so sublime, that it is at least worth splurging. At the hotel’s Grill Restaurant, perfectly located on a gentle incline overlooking the magical terraces and the lake, the high cost was less justifiable: a dinner of uninspiring tomato soup, a veggie pasta dish, a fish dish, one glass of wine and a bottle of water, came to the eye-watering sum of 119¤ (£101). And prices are not just high in the hotel: at the pretty village of Cernobbio, a five-minute walk away (good shops and lakeside eateries), a very simple dinner (two courses, a single glass of wine and a bottle of water) came to 85¤ (£72).
For those who are staying a brief time at Villa D’Este, there really is no incentive to leave — those bent on relaxation could simply mellow out on a lounger, listening to the gentle splash of the lake, stroll the truly magnificent grounds or enjoy a treatment in the luscious spa, while the active could indulge in a swim in the outdoor pool that “floats” in the lake or in the indoor pool, play squash or tennis (six clay courts and a tennis pavilion), work out in the gym or on the outdoor fitness course, or play golf at the 18-hole course (six miles away — there is a shuttle service).
If you are staying longer, Como for fabulous silk is a 10-minute drive to the south, while Milan, with its designer shops, ravishing Duomo and historic La Scala opera house, is an hour’s drive (or a 40-minute train journey) away.
Other local treats include an art museum at Villa Olmo where, until July 20, there is an excellent exhibition of Russian art, by among others, Chagall, while pretty lakeside villages like Bellagio can be reached by car or boat.
- Villa D’Este, Cernobbio, Como (0039 031 3481; www.villadeste.it) has double superior rooms from 490 euros (£416) per night; junior suites from 835¤ (£708) and singles from 295 euros (£250). All rates include breakfast, taxes and service . Also bookable through Leading Hotels of the World (www.lhw.com; 00800 2888 8882). British Airways (www.britishairways.com; 0844 493 0787) flies to Milan Malpensa (the nearest Italian airport to Como) from £124 return; Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers rental from Milan Malpensa from £151 per week
- Lake Como is in Milan, which has the second largest community in Italy.
- Milan has some 16 synagogues, a Jewish community centre, two kosher restaurants, a dozen kosher bakeries, butchers and food stores, and two mikvaot (www.jewishitaly.org)