The Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli is a listed monument. On Lake Garda, the luxury villa is a niche product.
The Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda: an ambience only for the well-heeled Photo: imago/Karo
Who wants to visit the Villa Feltrinelli in the small village of Gargnano on Lake Garda, should already know the way. For a wrought-iron gate to a park-like complex hidden behind walls, without any indication of the posh hostel, is the inconspicuous entrance to a luxurious world. When the gates open, the deceleration already begins during the approach.
At a maximum speed of five kilometers per hour, a vehicle can meander along the serpentine roads surrounded by ancient trees. Until the drive ends in front of an impressive Art Nouveau building: the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli. The magnificent building, built in 1892 by one of Italy’s wealthiest industrialist families as a summer residence, has been a destination for the well-heeled from the United States, Europe, Russia and Asia since 2001.
That it happened at all was a coincidence. The founder of the Regent International hotel chain, Robert Burns, was actually looking for a retirement home in a pleasant climate and acquired the property for this purpose in the 1990s. It was then probably too big, because the owner decided to make a "small" boutique hotel out of it. In the end, the conversion and renovation work alone took five years. This was not an easy task because of the numerous requirements imposed by the Italian authorities. After all, the villa is a national monument that is listed as a historical monument.
Today, guests experience an ambience that takes them back to times gone by. Many treasures refer to the eventful history of this historic setting, from the portrait painting of the first lady of the house to Benito Mussolini’s oversized work table or the gigantic gold-framed mirrors that the "Duce" had specially brought from Rome to his new domicile. For it was precisely here that the Italian dictator found his new home for a year and a half, guarded by thirty SS men, after he had fled the "eternal" city.
Finally, it is thanks to Mussolini that air conditioning can be operated at all today. The appropriate preparations were made for him in 1944. After the end of the Second World War, the property returned to the Feltrinelli family. During this period, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli became one of the country’s most important publishers, introducing authors such as Boris Pasternak and Tomasi di Lampedusa to the general public, and a political activist in the Communist Party. Over the years, the multimillionaire and friend of Fidel Castro became more and more radicalized and joined terrorist groups, so that in 1970 the estate served him as a hiding place from the international police search. In 1972, Giangiacomo died while trying to blow up a high-powered pylon near Milan. The dynamite he was carrying exploded too soon.
Every chair, every carpet, everything is unique here
"Yes, people come who know the history," Odermatt tries to explain the destination’s appeal, "but many come just for the beauty. You have to like the villa, everything here is unique, every fabric, every carpet, every chair, the countless historical architectural details of high quality, which also ensure that the house has been preserved so well."
In any case, the guests who spend their vacations in the villa, including actor Richard Gere with his family or the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, are not looking for exciting nightlife or great shopping experiences here, the hotelier emphasizes. They would rather go to Sardinia, Venice or Portofino. "We are a recreational oasis, a kind of church in the desert."
Markus Odermatt, General Manager
"With a team like this, you can grow. It’s the soul of the hotel. The guests notice that."
With this, the managing director alludes to the location: "Lake Garda doesn’t actually suit our product, it’s not surrounded by villas like Lake Como, it’s a sporty lake, was discovered primarily by campers and windsurfers, there’s no luxury destination here, there are also no large grand hotels like on Lake Como, in this respect we are a niche product."
Odermatt does not even attempt to present the villa as a showcase hotel in terms of ecology: "This is about luxury and also about the protection of historical monuments. As far as electricity consumption and laundry are concerned, for example, there are no restrictions, because the guest’s wishes are paramount." This is also ensured by 80 staff members who look after a maximum of 40 guests. And the approximately 30 percent of guests who arrive in Brescia with their own plane are transported to the hotel by helicopter, since the access roads are very "congested" during the high season.
A master chef in the kitchen
Only as far as the garden is concerned, they are exemplary in protecting and caring for the old trees and plants. Among other things, there are 200 of their own varieties of herbs, which Stefano Baiocco, the master chef of the two-star restaurant, which is also located in the villa, likes to use.
The biggest challenge for the manager in running the luxury resort was building up a permanent team of staff and keeping them motivated over such a long period of time: "You need ‘hands’, because service means hands. There’s nothing worse than when you keep having new people." For fifteen years, the landlord says, 80 percent of the staff has remained unchanged: "With a team like that, you can grow; it’s the soul of the hotel. The guests notice that. And the employees know the guests, their needs." Even in winter, when the facility is closed, there are still 30 employees on duty to keep everything maintained.
For Odermatt, at any rate, the hotel is the "perfect product" because there is no bank or investors as owners in the background demanding ever higher profits and profit maximization: "We can reinvest the profits."
For him, his job itself seems to be something like a vacation, one might think, listening to him parley in such a relaxed manner in the library of Villa Feltrinelli. But even here, a little distance is necessary – and the boss enjoys it on his own Caribbean island.