The sky over Lake Como is as silvery as a turtle dove, the surrounding mountains are disguised in fog, and the emerald lawns of the Villa d’Este glisten in the light rain. Welcome to winter, far removed from the linen-clad, Panama-hatted, Persol-shaded playtimes that have made this place dolce vita ground zero for the past 150 summers. By December, the vintage cars have long been removed from the gravel, the terrace tables abandoned, and the floating outdoor swimming pool closed. Instead, there are Christmas decorations, a “chocolate room”, and a gathering of Como and Milanese society who are loyal to this storied luxury hotel.
Since last year, Hotel Villa d’Este has been opening its shutters for the Christmas season with a special advent gala – to which I-M Intelligent Magazine was invited on 1st December – and celebrates yuletide through to 7th January, when it closes again until reopening on 28th March through to the end of summer.
With the garden illuminated with thousands of fairy lights, guests to the cocktail party on 1st December were transported to a land of fantasy.
The 25 acres of baroque gardens are such an important element of the Villa d’Este that this month they have, in an abstract way, been brought inside. The Veranda dining room has its windows festooned with cut-out trees and fairy lights. Then, there’s the Greenhouse – a pop-up conservatory facing the lake, filled with taxidermy, art books and cocktail shakers; an almost surreal cross between Annabel’s and Twin Peaks.
Scanning the cocktail list, I choose one of the signatures: Hollywood on the Lake; Casamigos tequila and Campari with lime and grapefruit juice. No prizes for guessing who inspired it. I later take a motor boat to explore the frozen banks of the lake and some of the incredible mansions that gaze upon it, including the Clooney’s Villa Oleandra. The nearby Villa Fontanelle, the long-time home of Gianni Versace, now belongs to the Russian restauranteur Arkady Novikov. Opposite, we find Villa Pliniana, which has hosted Leonardo di Vinci, Lord Byron, Napoleon and, more recently, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
George Clooney, I’m told, will visit the Villa d’Este to eat once or twice a week when he’s in residence in Laglio, making the 15-minute trip by Riva boat. He and Amal brought Barack and Michelle Obama here to lunch once. “George always orders the same thing,” the Executive Chef, Michele Zambanini, tells me. “Tomatoes and mozzarella, and three types of risotto. I joked it was boring, so President Obama asked me to make him whatever I wanted. He was a very, very nice guy.”
La Veranda restaurant invites guests to a fine dining experience with glorious views of the lake and gardens.
Food is the best reason to visit this hotel in the winter. In fact, is there a better reason for Christmas? And, what could possibly be better than crowding into the kitchen with family and friends to watch your host at work? This is exactly what the Villa d’Este offers – your very own Chef’s Table. After greeting some of the 52 people who work in the kitchen, Chef Michele sits us down around the worktop, and he and his sous-chef Andrea Guerini – formerly of London’s Royal Automobile Club – get down to work: eight courses, including beef tartare with a very generous helping of white truffle, tagliolini scented with lime, served with tuna tartar and kaluga caviar, and Glacier 51 toothfish – a fatty, pale fish caught 2,000 metres deep in the volcanic crevices around Australia’s sub-Antarctic Heard Island – one of the most remote and inhospitable places on Earth. Zambanini describes it as “the Kobe of the sea,” and it’s wonderfully tender and flavoursome.
Inhospitable is not a word that could ever apply to the Villa d’Este. They truly go out of their way for their guests. Proof of that is the fact that they built a pool especially for Jennifer Aniston. During Covid – when the hotel was closed – they opened one of their many glamorous outbuildings – villas within the Villa – for Lady Gaga, so she could stay while filming House of Gucci in the area. She took the four-bedroom Villa Cima, built in 1815 for Catherine of Brunswick – the future Queen of England – positioned right on the shore front and outfitted by Loro Piana.
Built in 1815 on the banks of the lake, Villa Cima (bottom left) has always been a favourite among royalty, aristocracy and celebrities alike.
One of the more eccentric members of the team is Pierre Gähwiler who, with his wife Lilo, have run the hairdresser’s here for the last 53 years. “We’re Swiss, but Italian is more fun,” he says. Previously they would spend winters in St Moritz, blow-drying the guests of Badrutt’s Palace, but now, they get to celebrate Christmas with the rest of us. He says he counts George (Clooney) as a friend, and the walls of the salon that aren’t covered with Pierre’s art collection – some of it self-painted – are populated by signed photos of clients that include Mel Gibson, Paul McCartney, Bette Davis (“She had more drinks than hair”), Charlton Heston, Shirley Bassey, Henry Kissinger and Janet Leigh (“Jamie Lee Curtis came once, touched the photo and said ‘Hello mama’”). As I go to leave the salon, Pierre blurts out that he was a Hungarian nobleman in a former life!
This festive season, the classic look of Villa d’Este has been transformed into a breathtaking display of lights, intricate Christmas arrangements and floral decorations.
As the hotel is being decorated for the big Christmas opening party with fairy lights going up indoors and outdoors, exuberant flower arrangements placed everywhere and chains of sparkling red tinsel and baubles being wrapped around staircase banisters, we’re invited to craft our own tree baubles. I produce one in the Italian tricolour of green, white and red. The green is that of the lake itself, and the white, like the walls of the villa, to which I apply green shutters. I model the red on prosciutto di Parma, to jolt the appetite once again.
Executive Chef Michele Zambanini and his team have gone the extra mile this season to offer guests at Villa d’Este the finest dining experiences.
The guests and local dignitaries shuffle in as six dancers take to the stairs dressed as nutcracker soldiers. After their performance, the hotel’s heiress, Carlotta Fontana, makes a speech, “We are filled with joy and we are proud to drive the extension of the season on Lake Como.” And now it is time for dinner to be served at the Veranda restaurant; hearty fare from Zambanini’s kitchen, with a main of orange lacquered duck breast, served with black kale, candied pumpkin and ginger. I order a Barolo to wash it down with. For pudding, the kitchen presents a panettone in the shape of Santa.
The movie stars and world leaders will stick to the summertime, but to meet the characters who embrace the Villa d’Este through rain and shine – kooky bon vivants like the Gähwilers – and get to the heart of what makes it so magical, Christmas is the season to be jolly.
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Words: Adam Hay-Nicholls