What it’s like to stay at Passalacqua: the ‘best hotel in the world’

Recently named one of the World’s Best 50 Hotels, this luxurious 18th century villa on the edge of Lake Como is as exceptional as it is magical

Lake Como, nestled in the breathtaking region of Lombardy, Italy, is renowned for its stunning natural beauty and charming towns. However, it is the magnificent historic villas that grace its shores that truly captivate visitors from around the world. Dating back centuries, these villas boast exquisite architecture, lush gardens, and a rich history that transports visitors to a bygone era.

Passalacqua, one of the region’s most exquisite private homes, has recently been awarded the Number 1 spot in the inaugural World’s 50 Best Hotels. Opened to the public in June last year, offering luxury accommodation in 24 suites, the 18th century mansion enjoys an idyllic, tranquil location just off the scenic lakeside road, above the small village of Moltrasio. It stands atop three acres of terraced gardens with hidden pathways, beautiful centuries-old trees and some 15 playing fountains with manicured lawns gently tumbling down to the lake’s edge on the southwestern shore.

The history of Passalacqua

It is the latest offspring in the Grand Hotel Tremezzo family, having been brought to life by third-generation hotelier extraordinaire, Valentina De Santis, after three years of painstaking restoration.

The villa was built circa-1787 on land originally owned by Pope Innocent XI – the grand vision of Count Andrea Lucini-Passalacqua, who worked in conjunction with architect Felice Soave and designer Giocondo Albertolli to create the grandest villa on Lake Como. The Lucini-Passalacqua family’s crest of three parallel lake pike has been adopted as the villa’s stylish symbol – on keys, on doorhandles and more.

The villa soon attracted prominent figures from around the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill and composer Vincenzo Bellini were all villa guests long before its rebirth as a hotel. Bellini made it his home in 1829 while he composed two of his celebrated operas, La Sonnambula and Norma. Guests can still enjoy the composer’s original creative space in the magnificent Bellini suite, complete with antique grand piano.

There are 12 sumptuous suites in the main historic villa, eight in The Palazz restored rear stables with centuries-old beams and damask-covered walls, and four lakeside suites, Casa Al Lago, with private gardens and shared common areas – ideal for exclusive use. The ground floor of the Italian Baroque-style villa with original frescoes comprises one magnificent room after another from the cosy and intimate bar, the mirror room, well-stocked library, gracious reception to the central Imperial staircase, the oval room, through to the dining room.

The De Santis worked with local Italian artisans and generations-old companies to restore, replace and ensure the villa’s rich heritage, innate sense of place and exceptional craftsmanship were maintained.

Staying at Passalacqua

My junior suite with a lakeside view is big enough for a small family; the luxurious bathroom is almost the same size. Furnishing fabrics are opulent, curtains are silk taffeta and Beltrami bedlinen made from birch tree fibre are softer than silk.  At the press of a button, the TV rises up out of the custom-built leather-trimmed steamer trunk crafted by Bottega Conticelli in Orvieto. A beautiful etched mirror Barbini cabinet conceals tea and coffee-making facilities with a secret mini bar beneath.

On arrival, guests are met by hotel staff dressed in chic Giuliva Heritage uniforms, male staff wearing beautifully tailored bespoke waistcoats, jackets and cravats that hark back to a more elegant era. Although only a young Italian luxury fashion brand, their authentic Italian style fittingly celebrates Italy’s culture and craftsmanship too.

In summer, guests can enjoy breakfast outside on the terrace under striped canvas awnings overlooking neatly-trimmed Italianate gardens one level below. Inside, a buffet table is beautifully presented with homemade pastries and breads, while guests are encouraged to visit the kitchen to discuss with the chef what they might like to eat.

Lunch can be by the 20-metre pool under floral-lined DoubleJ parasols, in the colourful 200-year-old greenhouse or under the plane trees overlooking the whole estate; aperitivo in the garden or on the terrace while the dinner menu of Italian home-style classics is usually served in the beautiful dining room or on the terrace with lake view. Executive chef Alessandro Rinaldi wants to “make guests feel at home, welcoming them with the typical warmth of Italian homes.”

A typical dinner menu might begin with lobster and buffalo caprese, a seafood platter with raw langoustine, shrimps and purple prawns or perhaps chicken liver parfait or a salad of fruits and vegetables from the villa’s garden.  All pastas are house-made and appealing such as ricotta gnudi in a seafood soup, spaghetti with garlic, oil, pepperoncini and red prawns or pacchero pasta with cocciuto cheese, zucchini, zucchini flowers and Beluga caviar. Main courses might be Dover sole meuniere, a classic Fiorentina steak with roasted potatoes and corn, suckling pig with cherry chutney and garden vegetables or a traditional veal shank with risotto Milanese. Rinaldi’s spaghetti with clams is also note-worthy as are his fresh daily breads made using his family’s fourth-generation bread starter.

A customised open-sided orange Fiat 500 ready for a private picnic, chickens laying fresh eggs in an ancient orchard, intimate twin seats at an open-air cinema, a clay tennis court and luxuriating spa with Barbara Sturm treatments are all part of the unique Passalacqua experience.

It’s as if time has stood still from a past, more gracious era, with the real feeling that your own body clock has automatically reset. Yet this timeless bliss is so ‘now’. It’s such a treat to be able to live your day among such remarkable treasures.

Passalacqua is exceptional in every way. Even the staff think of it as a ‘place of wonder’, according to general manager, Gregory Bradelle.  At check-out, I asked the receptionist’s name. “Alice,” she replied. “Like Alice in Wonderland.” I could not help suggesting: “And I think you really are.”

Passalacqua is a 45-minute drive from Milan Malpensa Airport; 36 minutes by train from Milan Centrale to Como and 15 minutes by boat to Moltrasio.

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