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We're a little late for tea with Mussolini

Published 30 September 2012
News Review
1,001st article

Geraldine in the gardens at the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Lake Garda (Arnold Crust)

Benito Mussolini was not everyone's cup of cappuccino. In 1943 the Nazis, in an attempt to establish a pro-Hitler government in Italy following the surrender of the king to the allies, brought the exiled fascist leader and his ministers to Lake Garda.

Mussolini was held prisoner, guarded by German officers at the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda. Of course, that was before it became a hotel.

In April 1945 Mussolini fled with his mistress, Clara Petacci, who was housed further down the lake, in a failed attempt to reach Switzerland. They were apprehended by partisans in a country lane, where they were both shot. Their bodies were then hung upside down from lampposts in Milan as a lesson to those who don’t pay the bill promptly.

After our stay there, Geraldine and I left by limousine and private jet. Let each person choose his or her own exit, I say.

In 1997 an American, Bob Burns, bought the villa with the vision of bringing it back to its former splendour. Then he remarried and his wife, a New Yorker, said: "I ain't living here." So it became a fantastically beautiful hotel, now run by a Swiss company.

It really is one of the most lovely places ever: luxurious, tranquil, overlooking Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. A few sun loungers are well spread out around the pool with a view of the gardens and the lake. It's run with precision and dedication by a Swiss, Markus Odermatt.

The chef, Stefano Baiocco, is remarkable. The delicacy of his cooking is exemplary. His desserts are legendary. My only criticism is that so many amuse-bouches, freebies, extras - call them what you will - are piled upon you that by the time your main course arrives, you feel you've already had a feast.

Actually I have one more problem: the restaurant manager is the most surly, unwelcoming person ever. He personifies everything a restaurant manager should not be. All the other staff are a delight.

The hotel gardens produce herbs and spices. You see kitchen staff picking them to take back to the kitchen.

My favourite offering on the menu is a sort of soft cheese roll: I've never worked out how it doesn’t fall apart. One of the great puds of all time.

If you want to go somewhere really special - I mean breathtakingly so - try to get into the Villa Feltrinelli. It's not easy, as it has very few rooms, but you may get lucky.

The great thing about the Feltrinelli is that it hasn't changed. Most hotels are a shadow of what they used to be. The Excelsior on the Via Veneto, Rome, had the most magnificent suites on the first floor. Vast. High ceilings. Truly majestic. Now the hotel is the Westin Excelsior and those suites are all divided up.

The great hotels in Florence overlooking the Arno have also changed their names as chains have taken over. One - I think it's what's now the Westin Excelsior - used to have an enormous balcony to go with the best suites. Last time I stayed there it had been reduced to what you could barely swing a cat in.

That's an interesting hobby, cat-swinging. Could be politically incorrect these days. Let's have a campaign to bring it back. That'll outrage everyone.

  • PS: When I first went to Italy in 1954 with a friend from Cambridge, we stayed at the Excelsior on the Lido in Venice. To save money, because we had booked for room and breakfast, we would order vast breakfasts. Being even dumber then than now, we didn’t realise you got only a basic continental breakfast in the deal. So we were wasting a fortune on boiled eggs, sausages and other stuff we were being charged highly for.

    However, I did get a photograph of Sir Oswald and Lady Cynthia Mosley looking at the Bridge of Sighs. How wonderfully uncrowded it was in those days. Now all the popular resorts are a nightmare of hustle, bustle and confusion.

  • I am a considerable fan of the delicatessen Reubens in Baker Street. Lovely family. Marvellous food. We often send the chauffeur there for takeaways. But, oh dear, they’re becoming impossible. Too often they are shut with a notice saying: "Closed for staff training." At other times they're just closed without explanation. Sweet people, but that's very tedious.

  • From Don Roberts in Cheshire: Becky asks Hymie: "What are you doing?"

    Hymie replies: "Nothing."

    Becky says: "Nothing? You've been reading our marriage certificate for an hour."

    Hymie responds: "I was only looking for the expiry date."

    Michael's missives

    Real whipped cream should have a matt finish; the merest hint of gloss means it's been tampered with. Rather like your latest photo. Have you joined the Lib Dems? All badly co-ordinated pastels. You'll be saying sorry for your restaurant ramblings next. Stay opinionated and cantankerous.
    Patrick Tracey, Cumbria

    It's my wife's birthday next month. I plan to take her to the Splendido hotel. I've asked you before where you get your shirts. Please let me know so my wardrobe will be complete.
    Adam Osborn, Malaga, Spain

    The top candidate for a Winner's Dinners pomposity award is Stoke Place, Buckinghamshire. The dreadful amuse-bouches did nothing to amuse and, after a tiny morsel passed itself off as the main course, I asked to receive our desserts right away. "This is fine dining, sir," the arrogant maitre d' informed me. "The dessert will be served when it is ready."
    Gareth Owen, Buckinghamshire

    I did a Winner concerning the food at Northwick Park hospital, Harrow. It was so awful that my wife brought in food for her 12-day stay. The budget is obviously so low that, after the caterers and suppliers have made their profit, patients are left eating reconstituted meat and fish. It would be interesting to serve this to the catering manager and the minister for health!
    Nigel Blackburn, Buckinghamshire