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A religious experience

Published 17 September 1995
Style Magazine
115th article

The abbey habit: Vanessa Perry at San Fruttuoso (Arnold Crust)

Something unique happened to me. It was dinner time on the terrace of the hotel Splendido in Portofino, where the view by night is staggering. The floodlit castle floats on a dark, wooded hill, two large pine trees growing out of its upper courtyard. It's called, rather boringly, Castle Brown, after a 19th-century British consular official who lived there. Below it, the lights of the boats rocking in the harbour ripple on the water. What happened was that Giorgio Tognazzi, one of my dream team and the maitre d', had kept both the unfinished bottles of mineral water (fizzy and still) and the bottle of white wine left over from lunch and offered them up. Surprisingly, the wine tasted just as good. I hate to think, pricewise, what I leave on the table in wine and water each year.

The Splendido is set on a cul-de-sac, narrow coastal road. You can drive into Portofino, but to get out you have to return by the same route. This covers a number of fantastic little towns before it meets up with any alternative roadway. The whole area has been remarkably preserved. No cranes loom on the hillside to signify overbuilding.

The food at the Splendido has gone from good to very good. Tagglialini with porcello mushrooms, scampi baked in the oven with a light lemon sauce, ravioli with potatoes, anchovy and fresh tomato, and so on. Everything deeply memorable. Apart from a ghastly moment when a dessert, which I had been told would be with vanilla ice cream, turned out to have sickly British-Rail-type soft meringue on top, then dreary ice cream and then the most awful chocolate cake ever. It tasted as if it had spent a long life in the deep freeze before suffocating. I didn't bother to mention this to Giorgio because he'd been so good at recommending the local wines. Thus I met Vermentino Vigna u' Munte 1994, Pigato lo Petrai (date forgotten) and a couple of others. All terrific.

Slightly beating the general manager, Maurizio Saccani, who is extremely funny and laughs a great deal, to be the star of the Splendido is the chief concierge, Fausto Allegri. It was Fausto who was dispatched to the swimming pool when I went berserk because the attendant had walked off leaving chaos and confusion and most importantly my loungers "stolen" by someone else! I made such a fuss that Mr Saccani, who'd just reached the Villa San Michele in Florence, drove all the way back to stay until I departed. Fausto has an answer for everything. I rang him one day and said "Fausto, this pool is full of people reading English newspapers. Why don't I have any?" "Mr Winner," said Fausto, as if explaining to an idiot child, "they are yesterday's papers." "As they're the only ones we're ever going to get," I replied, "do you think I could have some, too?"

Fausto's greatest moment came in the manager's office when I was complaining about the wrapped butter served at room-service breakfast. Mr Saccani was doing a number about the heat and all the guests being violently ill from rancid butter if he sent it unwrapped. Although he did send mine unwrapped for the next couple of days and I survived. Then I went on about the sugar also being wrapped. Mr Saccani went to a filing cabinet, proudly producing a sugar bowl with the double sea horse emblem of the hotel. It was, he said, not quite right yet, but would soon be adored by guests when on display each morning. To divert me he produced an album of photos of a speedboat in various choice coastal locations. "Why don't you take the boat tomorrow, Mr Winner," he said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't work we have two telephones so you can call for help. That's if they work," and he roared with laughter. "Go to lunch at the abbey of San Fruttuoso and then on to swim in a lovely cove, it's a marvellous day out." He wants to get rid of tne I thought.

"Okay." I said, "we'll do that." Fausto Allegri was brought in and told to arrange it. "Ah, Mr Winner," he said. "You don't want to go to the abbey for lunch. It's far too crowded. You want the boat at three o'clock when it's quieter." "Actually I do want to go there for lunch, Fausto," I said. "No, I promise you, you don't, Mr Winner. You want to go later," was the reply. "Why?" I asked. "Because another guest, Mr Mann, has the boat booked each day from 11 to 3," said Fausto. It's unassailable logic like that which I find totally disarming.


Did the manager and staff of the Splendido (Style, September 10) mind that Michael Winner had obviously just stepped out of bed and hadn't bothered to get dressed for breakfast?
E Howgill, Epsom, Surrey

As residents at the Splendido for nine days, we write to challenge the impression created by Michael Winner's article (Style, September 10). While Winner begins and ends his article with vague general praise of the Splendido, his specific indictments of the breakfast and service are unrecognisable. Having stayed in many great hotels in Italy, we noticed from the moment of our arrival how gracious and discreet the service is: frequently one's desires are anticipated. Many of the waiters speak five languages. As for breakfast, it is truly splendid: the fruit is first-rate; the fruit juices are freshly squeezed; the scrambled eggs are firm and succulent; there is always a wide variety of breads, cheeses, coffees and teas (brewed as they should be). Above all, the staff clearly have a justified pride in the consistently excellent quality that the hotel offers in everything and which matches the ravishing beauty of the setting.
Lynn Rose, London NW3, Gillian Rose, Coventry

Has Michael Winner ever eaten at Heathcote's, in Longridge, near Preston? If not, perhaps he might give this prestigious establishment a try. Maybe it will live up to its price and pretentiousness for his visit it certainly didn't for ours. Our table was near to the cheese board, so that the full aroma of stilton pervaded the atmosphere while we were eating our hors d'oeuvres and main course. Paul Heathcote came round after the first two courses to ask if we were enjoying the meal. He was most unhelpful when I asked him to move the cheese board, claiming he had nowhere else to put it, and it was only moved after a further complaint to another member of staff. He also appeared shocked when my wife, herself an excellent cook, criticised her first course of chargrilled asparagus, which consisted of about six very thin, dried-out spears. I have to say that the rest of the food served was excellent, but I fail to understand why Heathcote cannot accept fair criticism and, furthermore, we were treated with indifference on our departure by the rest of the staff.
Clive Feingold, Bowdon, Cheshire