Disembarking from the ferry, the full brunt of the Grand Hotel Ville d’Este’s first impression slaps you right across the face. Crikey. Built on the banks of Lake Como, amid a location which is the epitome of idyllic, my thoughts are momentarily beamed elsewhere.
To another continent and another decade, when yours truly and a mate had blagged – albeit legitimately – themselves into the one of the world’s flashest hotels. It is always particularly annoying when picture people beat word people to the good lines, but it was so apt that all these years later, I heard them again. Stunned by the sheer decadence and the ceremony of service, came the line: ‘You know mate, we really don’t belong here….’
In theory, the 2016 Concorso d’Eleganza Ville d’Este should wind me up. It is a concours event and, although I get the need for automotive preservation, obsessive grease-nipple polishing and arguing about the spec of tyre-valve caps is just a waste of a finite resource. Lately, my vitriol has increased to new heights for this activity since I feel compelled to preserve the Alfa’s spookily mint engine bay. Cars are meant to be driven, if you want something to look at and polish, collect horse brasses.
It has all the hallmarks of an event which might be reported in the society pages – and that means fewer knowledgeable characters and a greater risk of corporate hospitality. Thus such a do can attract a swarm of blaggers and hangers-on. All sporting bright trousers, Simon Cowell shirts, creosote tans and accompanied by their far younger ‘nieces’. And where corporate hospitality lies, lurks restricted ‘You can’t go in there’ access. Indeed, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing for the Times or the Dorset Pig Botherer, there is nothing quite as belittling as a sign which infers ‘The likes of you – come in here? Er, no…’.
Thankfully the VdE is devoid of out-of-place corporate liggery for city institutions or the service sector. Secondly, this being Italy, and me sporting an English accent – admittedly somewhat polished, old boy – I am not the target of any down-the-nose glances. But then, as a guest of BMW, we are more or less allowed to go anywhere and are spared the ceremony of the raised-hand, mumbled-apology, red-faced, about-turn exit.
Villa d’Esta itself appears effortlessly elegant with its perfect flower beds, crisply combed gravel and lawns trimmed with military fastidiousness. Then there’s the outlook – a body of vast watery blueness, adorned with the odd Riva powerboat and surrounded by all manner of geographical and architectural splendour. I don’t know how the Italians do it, but even the buildings that are slightly knackered, rough and faded of glory radiate a heart-melting charm. It has to be something to do with the colour palette, style, a lifetime of cinematic visual references and a quality of light which should be registered as an artisan speciality. The sunshine has a delicacy, softness and subtlety which few places enjoy and presents a view almost as if it have been painstakingly light for a Ridley Scott film.
Despite the curious outfits of some guests jarring the view – brightly coloured slacks are the de rigeur minimum, moving onto a Yoko Ono tribute that appears to have T-boned The Cure, or a bewildering Mr Miyagi/Pee-wee Merman mash-up – the concorso was a wonderful experience. Themed ‘Back to the future – the journey continues’ there were even a few cars for which I would have happily sold relatives. And not just classic class one blue-chip investment porn, but some of the new concepts like the Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato and BMW’s they-have-to-build-it 2002 Turbo hommage.
Does this herald a personal damascene conversion for how the other half enjoy their cars? No. Instead it underlines the charms of a place which somehow gets away with and even make a positive virtue of anarchic traffic management, eye-watering bar prices, rattly air-con, nights punctuated with random yelling and excitable teenagers spanking their motorini.
Then again, it might just be the champagne talking.