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Near enough perfect for me - but not my assassin

Published 14 November 2004
News Review
592nd article

Michael Winner next to Markus Odermatt and staff of Villa Feltrinelli (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

From time to time "new" hotels are talked about with great reverence and praise.

Such is the case with the Grand Hotel and Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, Italy.

American Bob Burns sold his posh Regent group of hotels (it once included the Dorchester) and invested £24m in restoring a marvellous late-19th-century Italian villa, which had been commandeered and lived in by Mussolini. It has only 21 rooms.

The small, elegant dining room seats about 30 people. The hotel closes for five months from the end of October to April 1. So profit is unlikely. It's a labour of love. And it shows. It is staggeringly beautiful, set in eight acres of immaculately kept lakeside gardens. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a gem.

Unlike other hotel writers, who are nearly all given free accommodation and therefore praise everything, I paid. Therefore I can offer some gentle criticism.

Why have sisal mats in my room? These are horrid on the feet. Why have the toilet in the bathroom when you've got masses of space? Why not have it housed separately?

Why is the orange juice squeezed the night before so it has substantially degraded by breakfast time? Why put flower petals in the toilet basin at night?

When giving a guest the map of Mantua, why not indicate with a cross where the restaurant you've booked for him is located? Especially as the street is too small to be on the map. Why is piped music always on in the bedrooms, so if guests don't want it they have to turn it off?

And, towering above these minor quibbles, why have a restaurant manager and maitre d' who speak in very loud Swiss-German accents, thus destroying the calm ethos of the place? These two need a dialogue lobotomy. Every dinner was spent totally not enthralled by their conversation with other guests, usually in German.

The restaurant manager, Peter Aesandla, is very tall. He dominates, physically and sound-wise, the small, delicate dining room with its log fire. He even left one group, having talked non-stop, went to a serving table and said "Okay" to the table. Very loudly. It was kind of comical, but Geraldine also found it disturbing.

Please don't think I'm biased against Germans. The best and most exemplary hotel person I ever met was Elfi Kammerhofer, the Austrian manager of the Sacher hotel in Salzburg. She had a nice quiet voice, as does Markus Odermatt, the Swiss manager of the Feltrinelli. He's immensely charming, efficient and witty. Except he didn't give me the best room in the villa. That has a really large balcony overlooking the lake.

"Who's in that room?" I demanded. "Our dear, dear return guest for many years," replied Marcus. "Throw him out," I said. But Markus wouldn't hear of it.

Oh well, nobody's perfect.

I was in the next-door, second-best room. Somewhat diminished by the most enormous magnolia tree right in front of my balcony, largely blocking the view of Lake Garda.

Markus assured me it was Mussolini's favourite room and he liked it because the magnolia tree made him less visible to assassins. "I'm sure many people wish to assassinate me, Markus," I said, "but I doubt if any of them are on Lake Garda this particular autumn."

To further frustrate lurking men with high-powered rifles we took to the hotel boat: a delightful, recently built, old-fashioned looking thing, which could easily take 30 guests. It was for just Geraldine and me, accompanied by captain and butler. We toured Lake Garda dropping off here and there for meals, which I'll regale you with on other occasions.

The hotel chef is a young man, Stefano Baicco. His food is very good without being gasp-making.

I had Coregone, a nice white fish from the lake, thankfully not served on a bed of spinach, but with broccoli. The sauce with it was delicious. I also enjoyed scampi and some special pigeon.

The lime souffle was a notch below good. The local rabbit sauteed in sesame oil served with fennel, beans, olives and candied cherry tomatoes was exceptional.

I also liked the iced coconut and tapioca soup. Best of the puds was the home-made ice cream, admirably soft like Mr Whippy.

I particularly enjoyed the mural on my bedroom ceiling. It showed a topless woman holding a palm frond, then a decorative border, and on the other side a winged cherub strangling a distraught dragon. In the centre, in gothic style, were the words "Ave Maria".

So my visit was not only a highly luxurious and pig-out experience, but of considerable religious significance as well. Could you ask for anything more?

Winner's letters

Did you know Michael Winner is an anagram of: "Rich meal 'n' wine!"
Victoria Gray, Bolton.

Your reputation, however that may be defined, is clearly not bounded by these shores. Last week my lady and I enjoyed a wonderful dining experience at Fouquet's in Paris. I asked the waiter if he'd heard of Michael Winner. To my amazement he replied, "I 'ave 'eard of 'eem." But he said he'd not yet had the pleasure of meeting you. I told him I hoped his good fortune would continue.
Dennis Pallis, Kent.

You mentioned in your visit to Sutton a Dutch influence on fish and chip presentation. I find chips let down such eateries badly. In Holland and Belgium, where they produce excellent "frites", they fry the potato chips in the morning, then re fry them to order, very quickly, later on. This produces the high quality I always find on the Continent.
Richard Evans, Hertfordshire

Like you (Winner's Dinners, October 31) my family enjoyed Sunday lunch at the Ritz. Earlier in the year my son, a 32-year-old police officer, was refused entry for wearing designer denim jeans. Doubtless a pair of black acrylic trousers from Tesco would have got him in. I prefer eating with well-dressed, clean and tidy people. But I don't believe the type of trouser or neck covering indicates cleanliness or style.
Dr Susan Sanders, Swansea

Last week I read your column for the first time since your offensive and publicity-seeking meeting with OJ Simpson many years ago. I wanted to stop taking The Sunday Times altogether - but my wife wouldn't wear that one. What broke my determination never to read you again was the picture of the really nice staff at Finnigans in Sutton - and yourself of course! I finally decided to return to the fold when you wrote that you, too, drip syrup on your shirt.
Michael Place, London.

The old joke used to go, "How do you double the value of a Skoda?" Answer: "Fill it up with petrol." I was amused to read last week the addition of a sticker to Mr Winner's autobiography, announcing he'd signed it, is having a similar effect.
Graham Richards, Devon.

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk