Lake Como’s last hotel is an 18th-century gem
The first time Valentina De Santis set foot on the premises of Villa Passalacqua, she assumed it would also be the last. It was October 2018: the three-story 18th-century villa in the small Lake Como town of Moltrasio was being auctioned off, and De Santis and his father – the only bidders to appear in person – had high hopes but low expectations. “It was a super closed but mostly remote auction. I think there were less than 10 bidders,” she recalls. “When we rang the doorbell – it was a cloudy day – a ray of sunlight broke through and hit the bell, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s something. . . ?’ And oddly enough, it felt like a lot of people were supporting us, even at the villa. We were sure there would be at least one bidder with no price cap, which we certainly weren’t. We didn’t really think we would get it.
Three and a half years later, and after renovation expenditures of around 20 million euros, Valentina and her family will open Passalacqua to customers on June 3. There’s a reason locals quietly put down roots for the family: Since 1975, Paolo and Antonella De Santis — and, for the past decade, 39-year-old Valentina herself — have owned and operated the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, in the middle of the lake. area near Bellagio. For its many loyal and first-time customers, the Tremezzo — with its alpine “beach” and floating pool, the outposts of Gualtiero Marchesi and Giacomo restaurants, its vintage wooden boats flying the orange flag, and its high ceilings – end-of-the-century charm century – is Lake Como. And the De Santis family, often present on site, is one of its most charismatic ambassadors.
Passalacqua is a different proposition. It has just 24 rooms and suites, compared to the Tremezzo’s 90, spread over a whopping 5 acres of private land. This scale informs the whole atmosphere, which is both more intimate and, in some ways, more exclusive than that of the Tremezzo.
It’s easy to spot: the only building in Moltrasio – just north of Cernobbio – which is surrounded by a wide green belt. Built in 1767, before much of the town existed, Passalacqua has some of the largest and most beautiful private gardens on the lake. The multiple terraces are planted with an olive grove, vegetable gardens and heritage roses, and shaded by bicentenary and tercentenary magnolias and Lebanese cedars. Its facade, painted a pale butter-biscuit yellow, stands out above them, striking in both its size and impeccable symmetry.
Passalacqua was still a private home when it came into the hands of the De Santises in 2018. The previous owner, an American banker, renovated it in 2000 and commissioned renowned landscape designer Emilio Trabella to restore the gardens along the Formal Italian 18th century. lines. While everything was working perfectly, the family had a vision that needed to be (re)made.
“We started with something specific in mind, which was the feel of a real comasco home,” says Valentina. Hotels where you feel at home are a claim that is rarely met. But what the De Santis family has created hits the mark – an environment made up of three centuries of beautiful things, from fairs, merchants and auction houses, and family heirlooms, all put together with a clearly accomplished meaning. balance and fluidity.
The family turned to San Francisco-based design firm Bamo – whose work ranges from the elegant Capella in Bangkok to the Villa Feltrinelli on nearby Lake Garda (a kind of holy grail of hotel maximalism to the old) – to shape the initial project. “They really helped us make sense of the most difficult spaces,” says Valentina, which included the 60m² bathroom of the Bellini Suite, the largest in the villa.
De Santis’ task—and ultimately, she admits, family obsession—was to bring all the art together, along with the glassmakers and blacksmiths and lighting and textile designers. “My parents took care of most of the furniture,” says Valentina. “They went to fairs in Parma and auction houses in Naples, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany. Most of the time they just bought what they liked without knowing where it would go, and usually a good spot in the villa turned up. The De Santises commissioned Murano glassmakers Barovier & Toso to design sconces and chandeliers for the entire villa, including six spectacular two-metre-high light fixtures installed in the windows of the triple-height entrance hall. The etched glass minibars are inspired by an 18th century trumeau; the large Ottoman coffee tables, covered in hand-painted leather, were made to Passalacqua specifications by Bordoni, an Emilian leather goods boutique.
De Santis’s father and mother collected the hundred or so 18th and 19th century prints that now adorn Passalacqua’s three lodgings (in addition to the villa, there are eight rooms in the former stable, known as de Palazz, and the Casa al Lago, a four-room “cottage” on its own garden terrace that can be reserved as a private residence). In the bathrooms, the spaces have been shaped by partitions clad in mottled marble in a bizarre way; tubs sit below windows framing 1950s postcard views of the lake; etched mirror shines and sparkles throughout.
In the Palazz, the atmosphere of the rooms refers to the discreet architecture of the building, which once housed cattle. “It all started with the ceiling beams,” says Valentina – huge roughly hewn lengths of oak that have not been covered. She commissioned Fortuny for the hand-painted silk wall and ceiling lights, including the 3m cascading chandelier around which the main staircase revolves. The simple palette – oxblood red and forest green – was inspired by a remnant of a mural on one of the walls. Craftsmen have hand-drawn a tone-on-tone, gloss-on-matte damask pattern on the walls, which is highlighted where the light hits it. On the ground floor is the spa, the star of which is the former colonnaded nursery that has become a relaxation space dotted with vintage rattan chairs.
But in Como, al fresco is the place to be, and Passalacqua is going to be a place of places thanks to the very clever use of its six garden terraces, linked by a winding pebbled ramp that goes up from the quay to the villa (guests got in and out in a vintage Fiat 500 electric convertible). At the villa level, breakfast and lunch are served under large green, white and ocher striped marquees. A terrace below is the swimming pool, surrounded by lush lawns and flanked by the Conservatory, a greenhouse transformed into a bar by Milanese designer JJ Martin, in a pared-down iteration of her multicolored patterned style.
Below are the rose gardens, which benefit from the shade of five huge magnolias. Keep relaxing and you reach the huge clay tennis court. “We call it our infinity yard,” she laughs. There is a long vegetable garden and, next to it, a petanque to research. The gym is in a second converted greenhouse behind the olive grove; outdoor equipment – an elliptical trainer, a stationary bike, a rowing machine – sits enthroned among the trees. Gazebos for private lunches and dinners dot the stage. From almost every vantage point one has a view of the lake and, beyond, the steep slopes of Blevio and Monte Boletto. When it comes to Italian dreams, he’s extremely hard to beat.
From €1,000 per night in a bed and breakfast, passalacqua.it/en