Lake Garda is the most prestigious of the Italian lakes where discerning Italians holiday or own holiday homes. Wealthy Italians pick their holiday destination with great care and Lake Garda is the most renowned for good reason. It is home to some of the most beautiful historic houses in Italy, many overlooking the lake. Indeed there is one stunning Palazzo, still entirely family owned, on a little island in the middle, on the southern side of the lake which really is a must see.
International eXcellence Magazine had been invited to an exclusive preview of a daring and bold new project that has been ten years in the making, cost 80 million Euros and shaken up the whole lake and its residents. A Viennese billionaire, René Benko, had purchased a 78,000 square metre valley just above the Gardone Riviera, a little town just north of Salo, and commissioned five of the worlds leading architects to conjure up grand new villas in a purist modern style.
The pedigree and work of the architects is quite extraordinary, these are all leaders in the field of modern architecture: Richard Meier, David Chipperfield, Matteo Thun, Marc Mark at ATP Sphere and Enzo Enea. I cannot think of another venture that brings together so many distinguished masters of modern architecture in one place. The mind boggles at the idea of managing such different artists to create this fantasy valley dedicated to modern design principles in such a rich historic and normally conservative part of the world.
Villa Eden Gardone is a museum to modern architecture and without doubt one of the most exciting building ventures we have ever seen. At first sight it is so anachronistic as it quite literally smashes all classic traditions of the area and yet after only a few days in this futuristic fantasy valley, it takes hold in the mind as a brave adventure, very much of its time and the traditional villas surrounding it start to look tired and a little clichéd.
There are at present nine villas on the estate, all of which are staggering statements in their own right. Modern versions of classical pillared Italian architecture designed with local materials of stone and glass, but in utterly modern block styles. Sharp angular staircases that jut from the buildings or cut down a hillside, infinity pools of sheer grey slate, panoramas of impossibly rectangular columns staggering off into the distance and vertical slabs of aquamarine glass walls that soar majestically from flat square terraces. All set in a lush green valley with incredible views of the lake with thousands of years of classical architecture dotted about its borders. There are also two helicopter pads on the estate which for nine villas is probably about right.
I admit I was a little doubtful at first, but soon you cannot help but be over awed by such chutzpah, such valiance and adventure in devising such a brave and futuristic haven in this dignified setting. It is aptly named the Villa Eden, an Eden for a brave new world that forsakes the accepted or expected and takes the best of the old and forges it anew to create a state of the art paradise, a contemporary and future Eden that accepts innovation, the advent of new materials and techniques, and is not afraid to explore all their possibilities.
Please excuse the rant, it really needs to be seen to be believed and I am very much aware that my words will fail to do it justice. Perhaps a little more detail will help conjure up a more personal vision of the property and its surroundings.
On arrival at Verona airport we were greeted by the Villa Eden concierge, Jay an Italian American who grew up in the states and now lives in Italy. His remit is to look after you and to make sure that your stay is the best experience it can be, whether you want to relax, take in the local culture, visit the bars and restaurants or speed across the lake in a motor boat. Jay knows and loves the area well and is very much a part of the offering at Villa Eden, he is warm, kind, sincere, humorous and takes personal pride in finding exactly what you are looking for.
We were whisked off to the Villa Eden or more precisely to the Clubhouse which was designed by Matteo Thun and is the core of the project serving as bar, restaurant and clubhouse terrace, with a Spa, gym and indoor/outdoor pool that traverses from the Spa to the garden. It is constructed in a rectangular semi circle over two floors with a protective wall or skin of glass squares in hues that reflect the colours of the lake and spill coloured light over the building and deck. It has six luxury rooms and suites which are ideal for getting to know the property. As you enter the building the welcome desk is to the left but you turn right for an even more welcoming glass of champagne in the beautiful glass bar at the entrance to the restaurant.
The restaurant is run by Cristoph Stiglitz who cooks there in the summer and chefs at their sister property chalet N in the winter. He worked at Nobu in London and even did a stint with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Christophe takes great personal pride in using locally sourced ingredients and local produce whilst working with the very finest meat and fish. His wine pairing is a delight and he clearly revels in presenting wonderful local and international grape varieties to invigorate even the most experienced palate.
After some lovely canapés and bubbly we were chauffeured down to the lake, they have two Range Rovers on call, for an outing on the Villa’s motor yacht, a Frauscher 1017 Lido with twin engine 700 bhp. The boat is perfect for the lake, with stylish lines, grey hull and classic wood finish. We cruised over to the palazzo on the island, where a private tour with the family owners can be arranged, then moored off a local beach on the south east side for a refreshing swim in the soft, clean, dulcet and surprisedly fresh waters. Italian families swanned sleekly by in their flat bottomed lake boats, whilst more powerful speed boats cruised by with typical Italian panache, immaculate styled hair and dark glasses, waving as they slalomed past.
Jay eventually guided us to the lake side San Vigilio bar on the eastern shore which immediately evoked romantic images of Audrey Hepburn sitting effortlessly sipping an Aperol Spritz (ice and a slice of orange, 3 parts Cinzano Prosecco , 2 parts Aperol , 1 splash of soda), a location straight out of the 50’s film classics. A wooden pontoon extends from a stone wall that contours a tiny harbour, bedecked with tables, covered by a pergola draped in vines and low hanging flowers. We sat at the bar and sipped Negroni cocktails as the sun went down over the lake, the opposite shore disappearing gradually as the light faded, surrounded by the numerous ducks and the singsong chatter of Italian couples. All too soon it was time to go and we took the boat back across the lake, soaring over the blue waters, criss crossed by white wakes as the light morphed ever more orange.
My favourite villa has to be Villa Sphere Ovest designed by ATP Sphere, though of my six marvellous companions, I believe we all had a different preference, so you will have to decide for yourself. Villa Sphere Ovest is like all great Italian architecture designed around an outdoor space, the terrace and pool, and the use of large slabs of stone and glass are all made to minimise the use of materials and maximise their impact. It is minimal modern architecture at its finest and also a celebration of light, with a blatant sun worship element thrown in. Bronze yourself to a crisp on the open terrace sun trap or lunch comfortably in the shade under the roof slab by the barbecue. It is open plan and open to the landscape so that you share completely in the earth, hills and greenery around you, living as part of the valley.
After a beautiful day visiting the different villas we spent the evening in Verona, a town with two grand squares framed by bars and restaurants and the hugely famous roman amphitheatre, the Arena Di Verona, where courtesy of Jay we were treated to a wonderful concert by three young tenors known as Il Volo. The setting was achingly beautiful with ancient stepped stone walls curving around us steeped in both ancient barbaric sporting history and recent large scale contemporary operas. No great change there then. The concert was a roaring success with people rising in their seats to applaud each charismatic tenor as they frolicked about, singing duets, trios and solos with youthful energy and passion. To see a concert at the Arena should almost certainly be on everyone’s bucket list as the venue is superb with an electrifying atmosphere. It also hosts rock bands and I would put this as one of the best places in the world to see the Rolling Stones or any other great live band. After the hugely successful concert we all retired to one of the idyllic bars overlooking the square for an Aperol Spritz and enjoyed the warm late September evening and watched the world go by, all stylishly dressed of course.
The last day was spent chatting with Luca Colombo, the architect at Matteo Thun, who designed the clubhouse. We met just after breakfast and he appeared immaculately but simply dressed in crisp white shirt, blue trousers and shoes, relaxed, charming and self deprecating. His approach to the project was to start by talking to the locals and farmers who knew the land to glean vital background information. He performed sun studies and explored the local materials and their potential. His ethos was to base the project on quality of life and comfort and to build up from there. Each architect was given the freedom to express his own creative personality on the space they had been allocated and to be as creative as they wished. They had a generous budget to begin with but each felt that they had to deliver the utmost quality within that framework as a matter of pride. Luca uses a different “language” for every building he creates and the front glass panelled wall is unique to the Clubhouse and came about from a love of the lake and the myriad reflections of light in different shades of blue and green mimicking the luminescence of light on water. Many of the materials employed were sourced locally and much taken from the land that was dug up on the property itself.
The relationship between the outdoors and the interior were vital in the formation of the design as outdoor living is so vital to Italian culture with the climate playing such an important role in the life of the people and the building. Buildings age well or badly with the passage of time and Luca designs with an eye to the future and the way the building will age. This is known as the “Patina” and is essential in any build that will gradually acclimatise to the area over time. The building must age gracefully and fit in with the landscape as it develops. Luca sought out local craftsman who worked stone in the old traditional style and they even reopened local quarries to source these materials. The plaster used on the site was based on old Roman techniques and employed in this modern design to great effect. It was a project where new and old techniques could be fused to create fresh synergies combining the best building methods irrespective of their time to create something truly modern with a classical craftmanship background.
All this nestling in a lush green valley overlooking the lovely little town of Gardone with the shortest but loveliest promenade on Lake Garda, where they frequently hold summer music festivals and the cafes all abound with sleek dapper Italian couples and families enjoying La Dolce Vita. If you love exciting luxury architecture, exclusive new places and ideas, modern art, lake living or luxury holidays that will inspire you then this is an absolute must.
We travelled with Oxford Private Travel who are luxury travel leaders in securing the finest places to recommend to their discerning clients. They also work closely with these excellent properties and locations knowing they will supply the same excellent concierge style service they deliver. They work with concierges like Jay to ensure their client’s holiday provides the most memorable experiences and research the property and its surroundings in great depth so they can ascertain exactly which location to recommend to each client.
Both the Clubhouse with its luxury rooms and suites and Villa Sphere Ovest are available to rent at Oxford Private Travel