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Villa d'Este Hotel, Italy: Best in Europe

It is six o'clock on a boiling-hot Tuesday morning in Rome, and my friend Mark, in anticipation of our trip to the Villa D'Este hotel in Cernobbio, is reading from a letter Franz Liszt wrote to Louis de Ronchaud in 1837. "When you write the story of two happy lovers," the composer advised, "place them on the shores of Lake Como. I do not know of any land so conspicuously blessed by heaven."

Rome certainly does not seem blessed this June morning. And yet by lunchtime we are off the plane and in our rented Fiat, driving down the avenue--lined with cypresses and magnolias--that leads to the Grand Hotel Villa D'Este. The play of light in the leaves makes me feel as if I'm in an English park, or in a cathedral looking through emerald- and lime-colored stained glass.

We pull up in front of the Villa D'Este. A bellman in charcoal livery leads us through a white wooden revolving door. There is no question about the bags, or the car: they will be dealt with silently.

The lobby is vast and cool, with chandeliers, marble columns, and a pair of staircases worthy of a royal entrance. A handsome woman in a blue suit greets us, then takes us up to the second floor and along a softly lit corridor to our room in the new wing. Off the hall that leads to the bedroom, three doors open: one to the bathroom, two to dressing rooms paneled in walnut. As for the room itself, it is enormous, painted the color of candlelight. The furniture is Empire and includes a pair of imposing, even regal, beds, a sofa striped in red and blue silk, two armchairs, a circular table with a vase of lilies, and a leather-topped writing table.

Left alone, we explore. Parting the blue curtains patterned with red bumblebees, we see the foot of the formal garden and, on the right, a sliver of lake. The bathroom is on a grand scale, with a hydromassage tub, a shower with a watering-pail head, and twin sinks. On the walls, slabs of verde romano marble band butterscotch-colored Carrara. The soap and shampoo are from Bulgari's Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert line. Even the glasses are beautiful, slender columns that widen at the bottom like carafes.

Downstairs, we have lunch on the terrace overlooking the lake. At the next table four Japanese women divvy up plates of pasta. A man reading Il Corriere della Sera slings back his HermËs tie and knots a napkin around his neck. Some American honeymooners photograph their lunches. (Mark deduces that they are newlyweds from the way the young man fiddles with his ring.) Wherever we turn, there are children: tearing along the patio, or playing with a dalmatian puppy in the garden, or splashing in the famous swimming pool that floats on the lake. Their vivid presence surprises me; I had expected the Villa d'Este to be stuffier than this, a place where you had to keep your voice down. But rarely have I seen ease and formality so happily married: a waiter flirts with a curly-headed little girl; the maitre d' opens his photo album to reveal snapshots of his Harley-Davidson and the pope; under the statue of Venus crowned by Eros (attributed to Canova), a child begs her mother for a Barbie.

After a mid-afternoon nap, we take a walk in the garden. A grotesque entrance of pagan figures standing stiffly amid urns and pilasters frames the famous allée, down which trickle a pair of those Renaissance fountain railings known as water chains. The allée leads to the villa's park, where we check out the battlements and fortresses Countess Pino (one of the estate's first owners) had built lest her second husband--a young Napoleonic general--grow nostalgic for the war. Follies on a big scale, these false ruins have now become real ones.

We return to the hotel. Abandoned are our plans to venture forth. For as we are quickly learning, the Villa d'Este is not a hotel at which you merely stay; it is a hotel at which you settle. Why contend with the traffic in Como, when you can read or doze in the shade of a 500-year-old plane tree?Why search out trattorias when the chef will be glad to prepare you a risotto alla milanese, even if it isn't on the menu?

Speaking of risotto, we are already starting to think about dinner. Because the Grill, the Villa's more casual restaurant, has live music on Tuesdays, we opt for the Verandah, where coat and tie are obligatory. In a dining room lit by chandeliers, with a view of mountains casting shadows on mountains, we eat black-and-white tagliatelle with fresh peas and lobster, veal in a crust of artichoke and potato, and, for dessert, a mosaico of fresh fruit and lemon sorbet, with blackberries the size of quail eggs. As a digestivo, the waiter recommends an amaro that comes--as he does--from Sondrio.

By now it is 10. We take a last stroll through the garden before returning to our room, where the beds have been turned down, the pillows are orthopedic, the mattresses firm. (The quality of the mattresses may be the ultimate measure of a really good hotel.)

Wednesday

Forgoing the lakefront this morning, we take our coffee in the Verandah. The coffee, I am afraid to say, is not good--it never is in Italian hotels--so we stroll into Cernobbio, whose main street is so narrow that traffic is only allowed to pass in one direction at a time. In the clothing stores the mannequins wear mostly golf and tennis outfits: a testament to the wealth of the province of Como, in which there are more golf courses than anywhere else in Italy. We stop at two of the bars to test the cappuccino; it's much better than the hotel's. In both bars mothers are feeding bites of cornetti to their babies. Like the mothers--indeed, like almost everyone here--the babies are blue-eyed and fair-haired and smile at us. Fear seems remote, as do city griefs: smog and traffic and noise.

Back at the hotel, the two of us, both writers, sit for a while on a white wooden bench composing haiku. (That we have turned to such an unlikely and relaxing diversion testifies to the benefits of even a day at the Villa d'Este.) Trading a pad back and forth, we do half a dozen each, among them the following, from Mark:

Seven bells sound in
the church; honeysuckle robes
eight formal columns.

As for me, I have the little girl begging for the Barbie on my mind:

The child is crying.
She wants what she cannot have.
Her mother planned this.

The sun is beginning to fade. Thomas Mann was right when he observed that time seems always to move faster toward the end of one's stay in a place. Soon we must get ready for dinner at the Grill. We try a superb risotto with sausage and peas, steak with walnut and rosemary sauce, grilled young chicken marinated in thyme and garlic--the latter dish served with that rarity, perfect french fries. This time, for a digestivo I order limoncello, a chilled lemon liqueur, while Mark opts for a truly bitter amaro called Unicum. "You have to buy this at the pharmacy," says the waiter as he pours out a tiny glassful.

Thursday

The weather has changed for the worse. Waking, I hear the muffled sound of rain against drainpipes. How I would like to stay here all day, I think, safe and warm in the bed. But we cannot. The city, with its shrill urgencies, already beckons.

After a last breakfast of delicious little pastries and scrambled eggs with cheese, I ask the concierge how much time we'll need to reach Milan. Alas, he tells me, the highway is blocked because of the weather. What should be a 45-minute journey will take twice as long.

Regretfully, we head out, stopping only for a last cappuccino in Cernobbio, where we encounter a group of waiters from the hotel. Dressed in jogging suits, they are laughing as they wolf down their cornetti: no longer black-suited functionaries, but boys; ordinary boys. With one we exchange smiles of recognition. Finishing their coffee, they get on their bicycles and ride off toward the Villa, in the opposite direction from Milan.

Grand Hotel Villa d'Este,40 Via Regina, Cernobbio, Italy; 39-31/3481, fax 39-31/348-844; doubles from $444 with breakfast.

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