Women Who Travel Podcast: An Italian Hotelier Living La Dolce Vita on Lake Como

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What is it like growing up in one of the most storied and iconic hotels in Italy? Ask Valentina de Santis, who was raised in the kitchens and ballrooms of Lake Como's Grand Hotel Tremezzo and now runs the charismatic Passalacqua along with her parents nearby. Lale chats with the hotelier to hear stories of life on Lake Como, get tips on traveling in both summer and the off-season, and what it really means to live La Dolce Vita.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi there, I'm Lale Arikoglu and this is an unashamedly escapist episode. Our picture book setting is Lake Como in Italy, and my guest is a third generation hotelier Valentina De Santis. She operates two glamorous historic properties, each with spectacular views of the lake.

Valentina De Santis: You have the lake in front of you, maybe it's morning, and you have the sun that is sparkling on the surface of the lake. Because you really see the surface of the lake with two million diamonds on it because the sun is reflecting its light. And this creates this incredibly magical atmosphere.

LA: Valentina's grandfather bought the Grand Hotel Tremezzo in the 1970s and restored it to its former glory. It was built in 1910 and hosted popes and Italian aristocrats. In the Arnufo style, the hotel had soaring ceilings and two elevators.

VDS: The story behind the hotel is very beautiful because it was built by a couple that was from Bellagio. So just in front of Tremezzo. They were super big travelers. They loved to travel, so once they got married... The husband was coming from a family of hoteliers while the wife was coming from a family of artists. And they started to travel all over Europe and they did what is now the iconic grand tour of Europe. So they visited all the European capitals. So they did this very, very long trip.

And when they came back on their beloved lake, they just had this dream that was to build a grand hotel that was similar in terms of elegance, charm, character and personality to the ones that they were so lucky to experience during their grand tour. And here comes the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. So they chose that piece of land which belonged to the botanical gardens of Villa Carlotta next door. So very lush, very verdant, very rich.

LA: It sort of feels like a book or another time. I don't know, romantic place.

VDS: Yeah, it's really romantic. You really found the perfect adjective that sums it all. The hotel... Many times it has been compared from the outside only to the Grand Budapest Hotel.

LA: Valentina's parents tracked down a diary from the early days of the hotel.

VDS: So incredible to see the kind of life that was happening at the hotel at the time. And to read the names of the guests that were living the hotel, staying at the hotel. There were stars, actors, aristocrats, noble families. And Greta Garbo, of course, is one of the names that sticks. So incredible, especially to our heart because she was a big, big lover of Tremezzo.

LA: Grand Hotel Tremezzo actually stayed open during both World Wars, and it's featured in the 1932 film, The Grand Hotel starring Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.

VDS: The movie, the movie is very... It's very intriguing. So it all takes place in a grand hotel. And there is of course, someone that dies and a lot of very, very shocking moments. And at the very end, she leaves the hotel and she jumps on a car and she says, "I want to leave. I want to go to Tremezzo. Only in Tremezzo I will be happy and I'm sure it'll be sunny, so let's go to Tremezzo." And so this really became the most iconic movie moment ever for us. And it's really becoming what I think every guest should feel like coming to stay with us. It'll always be sunny in Tremezzo always.

LA: I mean, it's just the celebrity and the glamour. And there's this sense of past and present, all mashed up in this hotel. What do you think it is that has given it its longevity and its grandness?

VDS: It has such an important past. You can really breathe the past. You can really envision all these very glamorous guests, very elegant, very chic coming down the main staircase. Because once every couple of days there was a big party, there was a ball in the ballroom, there was the orchestra playing the music. They were doing tennis classes, skating classes, boat tours all together around the lake with many, many boats all together. So you enter those doors and you feel it. You still feel that vibrant life glittering and full of elegance, which I think is not so common to find nowadays.

LA: As a child. Valentina pretty much had the place as her fairy tale playground.

VDS: When I tell my story, I compare myself to Eloise at The Plaza. I don't think it was exactly the same. But yeah, I was a very, very lucky girl. My grandfather bought the Grand Hotel Tremezzo back in the seventies. So I mean, since I was born it was part of my life and I was spending the whole summers of my childhood in Tremezzo, not living in the hotel. We always had a house on property. And Italian school holidays are quite long. And what I really loved about Grand Hotel Tremezzo was not spending time with the guests. So many people envision themselves chatting with the guest. I didn't know how to speak English well.

But my big passion was spending a lot of time in the back office. So my favorite places were the kitchens where the chef was treating me with something to try every day and the wine cellar. So I love to put the wines in the right place and-

LA: Very Italian as a child surfing through the wine cellar.

VDS: Of course. I loved it. And then of course, I love to spend time in the back office of the reception area. So of course, there were not so many computers, there were writing machines. So I was writing all the time on a piece of paper and I really felt that I was very useful, that I was giving my contribution to the hotel even when I was six or seven years old. I was the only one to think so. But that was my point of view.

LA: It sounds like you're in the back office, in the kitchen, most of the time, but what was your favorite room to run around in or hide in? I imagine hide and seek must have been fantastic.

VDS: I mean, yes, there was once a year there was a dinner that my family was hosting that was part of a gastronomic event on Lake Como and I had the possibility to invite one of my friends for dinner. And once I had the opportunity to sleep in Suite Greta. So the biggest suite of the hotel, which is the one only room that has always been the suite with a huge terrace. And that was really-

LA: It's like the ultimate sleepover.

VDS: Yeah, the ultimate pajama party. Something that I will never forget. The emotion, I mean the feeling of saying, "Oh my God, I'm sleeping in this huge suite and I'm the little princess of the castle."

LA: After the break, Valentina on her family's 18th century property, Villa Passalacqua, which opened in June 2022. You might have caught it on Conde Nast Travelers Hot list. And since then it's established itself as one of the most coveted hotel stays in a very short time. Passalacqua only opened in June 2022. What was your vision for that hotel?

VDS: The same thing that I... And, I think what happened to the founders of Grand Hotel Tremezzo happened to me and my parents when we first crossed the gates of what was called at the time, Villa Lucini Passalacqua. We really had a dream, we had a vision, and we are a small family of three people, but our souls started to vibrate with excitement.

LA: The Grand Hotel is purpose-built, but Passalacqua was the private home of an Italian count.

VDS: Count Andrea Lucini-Passalacqua was a very, very wealthy businessman, very much into literature, arts, and with a huge culture. And the queen gave him the title of count. And so when he received such an important title, he really felt the responsibility. So he decided to create something special. So he sold the villa that he had, which was much more family size. And there he built Passalacqua that already in his mind was not only a place for what we call Villa Altura. So for the holidays, for spending the summer time enjoying life, but it was also a place for hosting.

Passalacqua has a very long list of illustrious guests, among which you have Napoleon, Churchill, Bellini, who is the opera composer, who lived there for three years. So the idea of the count was to make them meet each other, to spend time with this family in a very special place where you could really enjoy the little pleasures of life. As I said, it was the home of Bellini. So in what is now our suite, Bellini, which is the music room, which is a two-story room with this six-meter tall chandelier. That was really where he was composing his operas. And there is a beautiful piano and we always... When we have special guests arriving, we always play the piano when they check in.

LA: I had to know, what does it actually take to furnish so many spacious 18th century rooms?

VDS: We desperately wanted to buy it. We managed to buy it thinking, "Okay, let's build the hotel." And then after one month, I think we forgot that it was going to be a hotel and we really treated it as if it was our own home.

So every choice... And also something very specifically about the design is that during the whole process, we didn't have any clue of how the final result was going to be because the whole design process was a layering of choices. So we were starting from what we had in every room. I don't know. We had a floor and a beautiful ceiling with frescoes with very, very beautiful and antique frescoes. And so from there... Which is the colors of the walls. And then my parents were going to antique auctions and antique exhibitions, they were collecting huge collections of antiques.

And so we were starting to place one piece of furniture and then okay, from there we choose the sofa and we choose the fabric of the sofa. And then we should choose the pillows and then we choose all the objects around. And so it was really a layering of choices without having really any clue of how each room was looking at the end of this process.

LA: Kind of letting one discovery or purchase or antique kind of lead you onto the next thing that you were going to bring into the space.

VDS: Yes. So it was really like sometimes we really felt, "Oh, here we need something." And then we were looking for something. But many other times, I mean we found something that we loved, we bought it, and then we decided where to put it.

LA: Describe for me walking into the lobby, like the first impression.

VDS: I mean, we don't have a lobby first of all.

LA: Well great. Then walking through the door.

VDS: You walk into the main door and the first thing that you have to envision is this huge door like four meters tall that is made of brass, but it's all handmade with little angels and plants and flowers. And probably it weighs like 2 million kilos and it's been there for 250 plus years and it's really incredible.

So first envision these doors that open to you. And you enter into a beautiful staircase and in front of you, there are incredible chandeliers that we have custom made for the villa in a very beautiful purple color that is in strong contrast with the yellow of the walls. So you have all these lights in front of you and the story, the history, and the colors, and this is the sense of arrival.

LA: I feel like villa means so many different things depending where you are. But in Como it's a very specific type of building. Does it have grounds?

VDS: Yeah. So when you think about a villa, you think about something historical. So a beautiful and very impressive facade. So with a very elegant presence, first of all. Second, super important to me are the grounds.

LA: I know those grounds often have fountains. Could you describe what it's like to walk through there and hear them?

VDS: Yeah, the sound of the fountains was one of the ingredients that I think really catched our hearts that day when we first crossed the gates of Passalacqua. Can you imagine being there surrounded by nature, beautiful century old trees. And then on top of that, you hear constantly, every moment of the day, the sound of so many fountains are all around you in every corner of the gardens. This is something that gives in your heart a sense of peace. So relaxing, so calming, it gives you a sense of nature. It gives you a sense of history as well, because fountains are historical. They're not something that you can really find everywhere now. And so this is a very, very special feeling, let me say. I don't know if I managed to describe it well.

LA: No, you actually really transported me there. Unfortunately, I'm on the 25th floor of the World Trade Center right now, but in my mind I'm walking through those fountains.

VDS: Passalacqua was not only a beautiful villa, but also had the possibility to have everything that a hotel that... I mean the kind of hotel that we have in mind can have. So huge grounds, a lot of spaces, huge suites, huge rooms, the space to have a pool, this incredible underground tunnels where now we're building our spa, which are totally unique.

LA: Coming up, we zoom out and take a wider look at Lake Como about an hour from Milan and close to the Swiss border and ask Valentina how to enjoy it. Is it for everyone? And does it get mobbed in the summer? And we get to the bottom of what it really means to live la dolce vita.

I want to zoom out a little bit from the hotels and talk about Lake Como more generally. It is such a popular destination. I've been there before. I think about it often. It is, I think for Europeans and Americans and people from other places in the world, it is one of the top kind of places to summer. What's the attraction of it and who is going there? What is Como in the summer other than George Clooney on his boat?

VDS: Como in the summer is... I mean, Como, anytime of the year is a combination of factors that make it unique. It's a lake of course, but as a lake is a very specific and special one because it has glacier origins. So it was created basically by ice eroding the mountains. It's a lake that looks almost like a fjord with a very, very tall and steep mountains falling straight into the water, but then greeneries. So it's very green. So when you envision a fjord is not so hospitable, no? While the lake is surrounded by mountains that are full of trees, full of flowers as well. The shores where Tremezzo is located are called Azaleas Riviera. So it's full of Azaleas everywhere. So this is the time of the year, April where the blooming of these pink flowers everywhere.

LA: What's it like, one of the best ways to see Comos from the water, really? What's it like to go out on the boats?

VDS: Absolutely. You must. I mean, being on the boat is something that is always my first suggestion. So you say, "Okay, I want a very big insider suggestion." And then I say, "Take a boat."

LA: People are like, "Really? That's what you got?"

VDS: It doesn't sound so original, but honestly, it's the best suggestion I can give to anyone. There are many different ways to enjoy a boat tour on the lake. It can be with your private captain on a vintage wooden boat, very cool with a glass of champagne in your hand. Or it can be on a public boat, which I think it's not less extraordinary surrounded by locals that sails very, very slowly. I mean, any kind of way you choose to explore. You can even take your little boat and drive it yourself, but it'll give you a completely different perspective. You put yourself in the center of everything, so on the water... So this is the reason why being on a boat is so special. You can see things that you will never, never see from the shore.

LA: As summer becomes hotter across much of Europe. The milder climate on the shores of Lake Como is ever more attractive.

VDS: I mean, there are maybe some places the main towns, especially during the weekend, yes, if you find yourself in one of the main touristic towns in the middle of July on a Sunday afternoon, the crowds of tourists that are maybe the daily visitors. So they really don't get into the heart of Como because it's not so easy to access. Under one point of view, yes, it's very easy to get to Lake Como. I mean, you take a train, you take a car from Milan and then you're there. But then getting into the heart of it and into the real place to be, it's not that easy. So it's not inaccessible, but it's not so immediate.

LA: It's not kind of how... When we talk about Venice, people in Venice don't want the tourists there, or at least that's the kind of narratives I read. But it seems like in Como it's a little bit different.

VDS: It's totally different first because as a local, for example, I don't feel the tourists. I don't. Also, because things that maybe the tourists do more often are not what-

LA: You're not doing it.

VDS: Or not. So it's different than Venice where really tourists are everywhere. There are actually a lot of visitors, the numbers that are speaking very openly about that, but also the geography of the lake is very special. It's like a y upside down and it's very spread. So there are 200 kilometers of shores. So the tour is quite spread out and you cannot really feel in an overcrowded place.

LA: At Condé Nast Traveler, we recently did a really fun collection of stories, which is all about Italy in the off season. What's Como like in the off season? How can you make the most of it?

VDS: I think it's beautiful. I mean, living there for me, the off season is maybe one of the most fascinating moments of the year. So let's speak about winter because the season of Lake Como is much longer than the season of many other destinations like seaside destinations. It takes spring, summer and autumn. So three seasons out of four are part of the season, let me say, of the good season. Low season is mostly winter, and winter is really when the lake expresses the most in terms of fascination and charm.

And so you start to have those days with a little bit of mist just on the water and the light with the sun that is not so high in the sky creates a very, very specific atmosphere. So if you're looking for this kind of very romantic, maybe a little bit nostalgic as well. So it's a little bit more on a nostalgia side during the winter. So it doesn't give you the boost of energy that gives you in the summer. It's a little bit melancholic, but in a very beautiful way.

LA: I mean, I love a bit of melancholy. I love to wallow. So it sounds like it's my time of year.

VDS: It's really... To me, it's so magical. I don't do it so often, but when you take a boat in winter, that is the time of the year where the boat, it's all yours. And there is a little bit of mist. I think that is the quintessential expression of melancholy and beauty and romance.

LA: I have to ask, going into the summer, I'm hopefully going to Italy in September to a wedding. What is the meaning of la dolce vita?

VDS: La dolce vita is a lot, and it's something that I think makes Italy what it is, and it's something that still attracts people from all over the world. It's the way that as Italians really have to enjoy life. So we are speaking about places that were dedicated to what we call now. Now, it's a very vintage world, but we call villeggiatura. So villeggiatura was spending your holidays without having... Now we are used to intend holidays like days off, where you have a super packed plan of million of activities and million things to see.

The villeggiatura was something completely different. So was spending your time without having any plan, just enjoy every single moment and just unplug. But it's really the way us Italians have a very special way to enjoy life. So what describe Italy is the food, the wine, the happiness of the people, the hospitality that we kind of have naturally in our heart. So you put together all the ingredients, and we try, I think, to show to the world that life is beautiful. And it's full of beautiful things, and you have to catch the moment and enjoy it all.

LA: I mean, it's rules to live by, or at least I would like to live by. Valentina, thank you so much for taking me to Lake Como for this episode. Hopefully, I'll be out there on the boat with you sometime soon.

VDS: Yeah, thank you for sharing this virtual journey with me, and I hope to be on the boat with you soon, really.

LA: Next week we'll be on a short break and we'll be rerunning a wonderful episode with Freya Bromley. She spends a year swimming across the UK's tidal pools.

I'm LA and you can find me on Instagram at LaleHanna. Our engineers are Jake Lummus, Nick Pitman and James Yost. The show's mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. Chris Bannon is Conde Nast's Head of Global Audio. See you next week.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler