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House Beautiful

Mussolini escaped from house arrest at Villa Feltrinelli, on Italy's Lake Garda, but modern-day visitors to this hotel will want to stay forever.

After spending four days at the grand hotel a villa Feltrinelli, it is inconceivable to me that anyone would ever want to leave. A gorgeous palazzo on the banks of northern Italy's Lake Garda, the villa was built by the Feltrinelli family in 1892. In 1943 it was commandeered by the Nazis, who painted its romantic Art Nouveau-ish facade olive drab and stashed Benito Mussolini inside. "Il Duce" hated lakes (he considered them a sorry "hybrid of rivers and the sea") and really hated being under house arrest, so after about two years, he grabbed his mistress and split. Shortly thereafter they were killed by Italian partisans.

Mussolini was, as we know, crazy. I never would have considered leaving. Especially not now, after the villa has been turned into the most fantastic hotel I've ever stayed in. About six years ago, Bob Burns, the legendary founder of the Regent hotel chain, bought the property for $3 million and spent four years and another $35 million on renovations. The result is sumptuous, but not over the top. The marble staircase, olive-wood floors and elaborately painted ceilings have remained, along with 70 pieces of the original furniture, but the style has been softened with fabric-covered walls, sisal rugs and more down pillows than I've ever seen under one roof in my life—there's even one on every already-upholstered dining-room chair. Most important, with just 13 guest rooms in the villa and seven more in three outbuildings on the eight-acre property, the hotel has retained the feel of a private home—albeit a sybaritic one, with amenities ranging from heated marble floors in the bathrooms to a highly respected chef, Andrea Travagin, in the kitchen.

Upon arrival, I was greeted with a bouquet of orchids that made me feel remarkably like a bride—and as it happens, I was accompanied by the man I'm about to marry. From then on, it was more like a honeymoon, as John and I were whisked through the lovely entrance hall to our vast second-floor room called La Poeta, where two star-shaped windows overlooking the lake offered a terrific view of the snowcapped Monte Baldo and the bed boasted equally snowy linens by Frette and Pratesi.

After a Campari and soda, we settled into the dining room, with its etched-plaster walls and ceiling of ornately carved wood (one foundation of the Feltrinelli fortune was lumber, so elegant woodwork abounds). Since the hotel was about to close for the season and we were virtually the only guests, we had the full attention of Travagin, formerly a chef at Venice's famed Cipriani. After a brief consultation, he prepared the perfect lunch for two jet-lagged people: a seafood salad of baby clams, lobster, mussels, squid, pan-seared black bass and a divine little creature described as a "river crab" mixed with fresh herbs and mâche in a warm vinaigrette, followed by a simple but delicious spaghetti tossed in garlic and oil with a bit of crushed red pepper and Parmesan cheese.

After lunch I decided to ramble, since the hotel was essentially my house. Just behind the dining room is a pantry where guests can find juice and biscuits and big jars of just about every kind of tea known to man. The fact that guests have free access to it as well as free laundry service (the clothes are simply picked up where you leave them, beautifully washed, ironed and returned) adds to the illusion of the villa as a visitor's personal domain.

In other seasons, I might have been tempted to ramble a bit further. In March the restaurants along the lake reopen after the winter hiatus. The hotel's boat, La Contessa, modeled after a 1920s American river cruiser, ferries guests to the waterfront restaurants, and La Tortuga, the Michelin one-star restaurant in Gargnano, is just a 10-minute walk away. Further into the nearby mountains, more rustic establishments roast local lamb, pork and game over open fires. The hotel also keeps a guide on call who will take guests to antiques markets or to meet cheesemakers and vineyard owners.

The first night we took a taxi to Salò, about 25 minutes away, to a restaurant called Trattoria alle Rose. Not only were we the only Americans there, we were the only people not from Salò and certainly the only people who spoke English. Still, we communicated well enough to achieve a divine dinner, including what our waitress, the wife of the chef, billed as a trio of traditional appetizers: a dense chicken-liver pâté served with warm brioche, a small artichoke soufflé drizzled with the fruity olive oil the area is known for and topped with sliced black truffles, and carpaccio with more of the olive oil and truffles.

I could have spent the whole next day in our palatial bathroom. Bob Burns invented modern hotel luxury as we know it—he's the guy who made separate bathtubs and showers de rigueur in swanky places, and here they are state-of-the-art. When I filled the tub, the water came up to my neck, and the platter-size "deluge head" in the shower pummeled me with a virtual blanket of water. Another Burns signature touch is providing full-size bottles of bath products (in this case Acqua di Parma) instead of tacky hotel minis, so I soaked in whole handfuls of bath salts and listened to Miles and Duke and Ella. Burns is a member of the board of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, so the jazz selections are especially good.

The next morning, pushed by that irritating and misguided American urge to get out and see something "worthwhile" (and not having completely learned from Mussolini's mistake), John and I left the premises. Neither of us had ever been to Verona, about an hour away, so off we went, guidebooks in hand. First, I fell flat on my face, a victim of the city's endless maze of cobblestone streets and sidewalks (as well as my unwillingness to wear anything other than Manolo Blahnik high-heeled boots). Next we went to a highly recommended wine bar, whose menu included donkey stew and horsemeat. That was it. I no longer had the slightest desire to see Juliet's silly balcony—I longed instead for the cozy warmth of Bob's Bar, where I could make my own drink in an antique Baccarat glass.

So for the rest of the trip we pretty much lay around. And even in the summer, I think I'd do the same. I'd sunbathe by the new azure pool and order something from the daily sandwich menu. Then I'd move to an Adirondack chair on the shore of the lake to read, before heading up to wicker sofa on the back porch for a Negroni and a view of the sunset. And I would definitely mosey into the sweet little (population 3,000) town of Gargnano. It provided enough diversion for D. H. Lawrence, who raved about it, and Winston Churchill, who painted it. There are good pizzerias along the lakefront boardwalk, where even in winter, it's comfortable enough to sit in the sun and listen to the waves. And there are two churches worth a visit. We wandered into a musicale in one, the Chiesa di San Francesco, and the choir was so beautiful it was impossible not to cry.

Afterward, as darkness fell, we headed back to our cocoon—and the pasta dinner Travagin had insisted we should have before departing. So we gorged on gnocchi with lobster and tomato sauce and tagliolini with duck confit, drank a sensational Pinot Grigio from Trentino and lingered over an apple and raisin tart napped with a vanilla crème anglaise. When we finally opened the door to our room and found the nightly nosegays on the pillows and candles lit on the dresser, I thought of Mussolini and what a lunatic he must have been to leave this safe haven. Because if the villa had not been closing its doors for the season the next morning, I know I would have found a way to stick around.

Julia Reed first experienced the Bob Burns touch at the Hong Kong Regent in 1986 and has been in love ever since.

Published April 2003
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