Villa d’Este, the picture of opulence. As long as we’re dreaming, no expense should be spared. Why not splurge?
Winter in London is every ounce as dismal, dreary, and depressing as one might expect. Samuel Johnson tried to claim that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life…”. But I’d say when a man is tired of London, he’s just human. It is in this state of mind that we like to dream we are somewhere else; somewhere warmer and sunnier… essentially anywhere further south. The wonderful thing about dreams is that they are free and on a student’s budget thriftiness cannot be overvalued. In times like these I like to let my mind wander to Lake Como in Northern Italy and more specifically, to Villa d’Este.
Villa d’Este was built in 1568 by Tolomeo Gallio Cardinal of Como and was subsequently owned by a ballerina, a Napoleonic General, a Queen, and a Russian Empress throughout the years until 1873 when it was transformed into the hotel that remains today. This succession of, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, ‘fabulously well to do’ owners spent 300 years leaving the lasting impression of extravagance that adorns the Villa. The appropriate place to begin would be the entrance, which one reaches by driving through the relatively unassuming front gates and past the far more ostentatious gardens. This is unless, of course, the guest would rather arrive by helicopter via the Villa’s private helipad. This is not the part where I describe how walking through the front doors produces a transcendent, magical feeling because in truth, it does not. The experience of staying at Villa d’Este must be absorbed and digested over time. What sets Villa d’Esta apart is not an immediately comprehensible sense of superiority, but is rather an amalgamation of a thousand working pieces.
Many of those pieces can be found in all 152 of the uniquely furnished rooms of the hotel, each projecting its own mood. While they are quite a marvel just to look at, their decor is not what leaves a lasting impression on the guest. It is the view they provide of the lake that makes them worth staying in. As is so often the case, the balcony is more important than the entirety of the rest of the room. This is not entirely down to the view, as it also fulfils the valuable service of a drying machine. Once you hand wash your ossobuco stained clothes, it takes no time at all for them to dry in the mid-morning glare of the sun. When it costs an arm and a leg just to have breakfast, sending laundry out to be washed by the hotel staff is a luxury few can afford. In Red Notice, author Bill Browder describes how he had his wife sneak a bun back up to his room at Villa d’Este so as to avoid paying for breakfast for two. While the craftiness this guest employs to avoid paying the admittedly excessive costs is commendable, he unfortunately misses out on some of the finest things the Italian lake district has to offer. The shaded patio is a momentary recluse from the beaming morning sun which is quite necessary for those of us cursed with a British complexion. From this position one can still enjoy the warmth and breeze that establish the setting for a fabulous Italian breakfast without having to go home looking like that sun dried tomato you’ll be having on your focaccia for lunch. The breakfast consists of fresh fruit and seemingly bottomless coffee, as it is refilled so quickly and consistently you’ll be wondering if the waiter will be shot if he lets the cup go half-empty.
The first item on anyone’s itinerary when staying around the lake must be a boat tour to explore everything that eludes our limited view from the shore. Take to the water in a sleek speed boat with a foreign driver wearing your finest aviators and you will feel as mighty and self-important as a James Bond villain before his inevitable demise. This downfall will come in the form of George Clooney’s summer home which you will likely pass by, making you feel as small and insignificant as ever. Once you finish zooming in on your camera to try to catch a glimpse of George Clooney’s little toe, you can move on to the more rewarding sights on the lake such as the Medieval Civera Bridge.
I maintain that it is impossible to be bored at Villa d’Este. Ruth Burke famously said, “Only boring people get bored.” Under normal circumstances I would find this statement to be rather unfair but if you find yourself getting bored at Villa d’Este you might just be a boring person and that, unfortunately, is a lifelong affliction. The elegantly modern spa and gym facilities and stunning red clay tennis courts that lie atop the garden-endowed hills and beneath the statue of Hercules supply continual sources of entertainment, but it is easy to find satisfaction in the simple delights of the hotel too. I could spend day after day lying by the pool, reading, walking to town for rustic, authentic Italian meals and sitting outside in the evening drinking tea and ingesting my father’s secondhand cigar smoke. Villa d’Este has amenities that elevate it to a level above any decent vacation spot, but there is a common thread among the real highlights of a trip such as the one I have described. The spectacular views, wonderful fresh food and idyllic atmosphere make Lake Como a destination worth visiting and these indulgences can be found at far more cost-effective and modest institutions than Villa d’Este. The real luxury of a trip to Lake Como is the natural beauty of the region, not the grandeur of any hotel, even one as spectacular as Villa d’Este.
Featured Image: villadeste.com