Italian Lakes (2013)

INSIGHT: THE GRAND HOTELS

Some of Europe’s grandest hotels line the lakes, a legacy of their importance on the Grand Tour.

The western shore of Garda was the first to embrace modern tourism when splendid lakeside villas were built in the 18th century. Long before, in Roman times, lovers and writers were seduced by its charms, and Catullus wrote many of his explicit amorous poems from his villa at Sirmione, which he referred to as his place of contented homecoming. D.H. Lawrence described Gargnano as “one of the most beautiful places on earth”, and even Friedrich Nietzsche temporarily forgot nihilism in favour of the lake’s beauty.

Gargnano’s Grand Hotel Villa Feltrinelli was once a hideout for the infamous Mussolini and his wife, Rachele. Although more interested in her pet hens than the villa and her domineering husband, she could not have failed to be entranced by the glorious views. Now transformed into one of the world’s best hotels, this luxury bijou residence has sweeping terraces, parquet floors, gilt-framed mirrors, sumptuous antiques and palatial bathrooms.

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Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées, Lake Maggiore.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Nearby, Gardone Riviera was once the magnet for everyone, including heads of state and European royalty, and is lined with huge Belle Epoque hotels, including the pink-and-white Villa Fiordaliso – the convenient love-nest for Mussolini and his mistress, Clara. Now also an elegant boutique hotel, (although not quite in the same pecking order as the Feltrinelli), four of the rooms are named after flowers, the fifth after Clara.

Lake Maggiore was on the Grand Tour map by the late 18th century, and as the former fishing villages mushroomed into elite towns graced with Belle Epoque hotels and casinos rivalling those of Venice’s Lido and Monte Carlo, it became a favoured retreat for Europe’s nobility and glitterati. The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées , overlooking the jewel-like Borromean Islands, has been home to well-heeled guests since 1861. Ernest Hemingway was a regular visitor who loved the hotel so much that he featured it in his book A Farewell to Arms . Like Hemingway, his eponymous suite is king-size in every way, with vast marble bathrooms. Recent lavish renovations have restored the hotel to its glory as the grande dame of lake hotels.

Near Lake Iseo, L’Albereta is set in the Franciacorta wine-growing area. The former country seat of a noble family, this ancient hunting lodge has been imaginatively restored into an elegantly furnished hotel-restaurant.

On Lake Orta, the Villa Crespi is an opulent Moorish fantasy, also boasting a superb two-star Michelin restaurant.

In Lugano, Switzerland, the decoratively Art Nouveau Hotel Splendide Royal overlooks the shoreline of one of the most enchanting Prealp lakes, its rooms a sumptuous mix of gilded tassels and silken stripes. Both rooms and views more than live up to the hotel’s ambitious name.

Dramatic, deep and romantic, Como continues to bewitch everyone. Often named as Italy’s most beautiful town, Bellagio is graced by the lavishly ornate Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni , set in huge lakeside grounds. The star-studded guest book has signatures from royalty to a galaxy of actors and heads of state including Winston Churchill, who painted from his suite at the top of the marble staircase. Murano crystal, marble halls, glorious vistas and a nightly string quartet are all part of the elegant and spacious opulence.

Enjoying equally magnificent lake views, the luxurious Grand Hotel Tremezzo Palace stands next to the botanical gardens of the 18th-century Villa Carlotta. Built in 1910 and recently renovated, its lavish Liberty charm is complemented by the glamorous T Spa and the renovated Terrazza restaurant. Outside, a floating pool on the lake provides the ultimate setting for a swim amid glorious views.

On any list of the world’s grand hotels, Como’s Villa d’Este always ranks near the top. A former 16th-century princely residence and once the riotous retreat of Princess Caroline, the estranged wife of Britain’s Prince Regent, it was transformed into a grand hotel in 1873. It has continued to be the opulent retreat of countless dignitaries, celebrities and royalty from all over the world. Latter-day fashionistas from Brangelina to Sharon Stone have joined musicians from Verdi to Mick Jagger amid the precious marble walls of this pleasure palace. This is a true Renaissance villa, reflecting a magnificent bygone era – yet with the most up-to-date of facilities. Set in its own 10-hectare (26-acre) lakeside park, it is still the most fabled, luxurious and expensive hotel in the whole lakes region.