Down at Villa Passalacqua, nothing runs deeper than the sense history — though the lake next door comes close. It’s hard to know where the past ends and the present begins — something to do with that lazy, hazy, mountain mood, and perhaps the sheer density of beautiful relics all about the place (which isn’t, by the way, necessarily a comment on the regulars.) Napoleon Bonaparte spent plenty of time in the handsome mansion here. So did Vincenzo Bellini (a man who gave his name to a drink) and Winston Churchill (a man who gave his life to one.)
You can see how they’d each fit in at this palazzo. Perched among the achingly pretty town of Moltrasio on Lake Como’s Western shore, Villa Passalacqua is artistic and statesmanlike all at once. Square, bold and clad in the colour of evening sunlight, the house was built in the 18th century on land originally owned by Pope Innocent XI. It was commissioned by a certain Count Andrea Lucini Passalacqua, who hoped to build the biggest and most spectacular villa on Lake Como (he may well have succeeded.).
The pretty gardens and grounds cascade and flow down from this proud house all the way to the shore, spilling history and colour at every step. There are little monuments to the noble Odescalchi family, who long owned this land and ruled from this grand seat. Inside the Sala della Musica, meanwhile, Bellini composed some of his most famous works, so taken was he with the landscape and the view. And then there’s the “countless others whose names we will never know,” according to the hotel, “who made their mark here as well: generations of gardeners with grand visions and green thumbs; or the skillful engineers who built our impressive network of underground tunnels…”
Not that you’d want to spend much time below deck. The light on Lake Como is so uniquely exquisite, refracted, somehow, through Alpine clouds and dancing cheerfully off the cool lake. And Passalacqua seems built to soak it all up, take it all in, with broad shuttered windows, high ceilings, and terraced green gardens spilling over with technicolour flowers and sportive fountains — each area with its own personality and charm and secrets. “The light changes every minute here, every second” says Beppe, the house boatman, who spends each day on the water ferrying guests on their various jaunts and sorties. “But I never get tired of looking at the lake.”
In its latest incarnation, Villa Passalacqua has become the passion project for one of Italy’s most beloved hotelier families — Paolo, Antonella and Valentina De Santis — a clan with a vibrant history of their very own. You’ll know them from the Grand Hotel Tremezzo nearby — a wedding-cake confection of such joyful symmetry that it is lazy to describe it as “Wes Anderson-esque” — and this new project is filled with their signature “vivere Italiano” charm. They seem particularly excited to bring this remarkable property and its singular grounds back to a wider audience, after decades of private ownership and seclusion.
There are 24 suites in the main villa, plus some cleverly converted ancient stables and a high-ceilinged “Casa al Lago” directly on the shores. (As with all great hotels, the bathrooms are the true highlight — and these have sheets of shimmering marble personally chosen, piece by piece, from the caves of Verona.) Pleasingly, there’s also a lakeside tennis court and a pool that blends nicely into the surroundings. “This is a place of wonder created from the heart,” the hotel says, created “by a family that has an ambition to give life to a new Lake Como icon. It honours the past — but is relevant for the centuries ahead.” Quite right.