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LAKESIDE ROMANCES : GRAND HOTEL FASANO, Lake Garda, Italy : Living It Up at Two European Luxury Hotels, Where Waters Lap at Shorelines, the Surroundings Are Intoxicating and the Dining Is Positively Sinful

July 31, 1994|ALVIN SHUSTER | Shuster is the Times' foreign editor and a former foreign correspondent based in Rome

GARDONE RIVIERA, Italy — Four years ago, my wife, Miriam, spotted the picture in a magazine--a stately grand hotel, sitting in a park, overlooking a blue lake and beckoning us to drop everything and come as soon as possible. As a further inducement, it was in Italy, in a calm and secluded part of the country with spectacular cliffs that descend into the lake, terraced lemon groves and a coastline that immediately suggested leisurely lunches over pasta, coffee after sunrise, drinks before sunset and quiet walks at anytime.

The picture was promptly placed in Miriam's "Mediterranean" file, and whenever the idea of a vacation in Italy crept into our conversation (which seemed daily), the focus turned to that lakeside hotel. "What do we really know about this?" I asked, echoing the kind of question raised whenever a daughter was dating yet another unknown.

What Miriam knew was that the name of the place was the Grand Hotel Fasano, an old Hapsburg hunting lodge that stretched along Lake Garda, the largest of the Lombardy lakes (which includes Lake Como) in northwestern Italy. And what she expected to find was peace and quiet, excellent food and service, and a perfect setting.

The more we talked, the more we envisioned ourselves ensconced on the veranda where aristocrats used to play. We have always been attracted automatically to hotels called "Grand" anyway; we had once been to the southern tip of the lake and wondered about the rest; we were told of perfect spring and summer weather, of the nearby bizarre estate of the eccentric Italian writer, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and of the vineyards that produced white Lugana wine that hated to travel.

We also liked the size of the hotel--just 75 rooms--and the location, within striking distance, to the south and east, of the better-known towns of Verona, Padua and Mantua and, to the west, the lovely hill town of Bergamo. Milan's international airport is just 80 miles away. And the geography looked attractive: a lake 30 miles long and from three to 10 miles wide, extending from the Alps in the north to fertile plains in the south.

So, in the spring of last year, the time finally came for Lake Garda and the Grand Hotel Fasano.

We planned a hectic trip that would wind up at our quiet lakeside refuge. First, we spent a week in Venice, followed by an overnight visit just north in Treviso, a lovely walled city seldom toured by Americans. While there, we took a day's drive to nearby villas that are among the triumphs of the great 16th-Century architect Andrea Palladio, who designed more than 20 villas in the Veneto region, many along canals to ease the access for wealthy Venetian owners. We focused on two, La Malcontenta and Barbaro, which gave us a wonderful sense of Palladio's genius.

On the day of our drive to the Grand Hotel Fasano, we stopped for lunch en route at Sirmione, a spa resort at the bottom of Lake Garda known for its unique location on a narrow peninsula and a 13th-Century moated castle that sits on its own tiny island. This was the part we had visited before, and it was much as we remembered, a lovely city clogged with day-trippers from landlocked industrial areas of Italy who were in search of an hour or two on an excursion boat.

Sirmione is prepared for the hordes with dozens of restaurants, and we simply chose one at random near the water so we could watch the tourists and their ice cream cones drift by. After a salad and spaghetti with oil and garlic and a sprinkling of peperoncini (red pepper) , ice cream seemed like a good idea. It also quickly seemed like a good idea to leave the crowds and head for a bit of tranquillity. That was soon at hand as we drove west through Desenzano del Garda and turned north along the western side of the lake. We headed for Gardone Riviera, the site of another and larger "Grand," a 180-room hotel that we passed on the way to our destination in a suburb about a mile north.

As we pulled off the road and into the Grand Hotel Fasano's dirt driveway, it was clear that our only mistake in coming here was to have waited so long. The hotel is painted, appropriately, the color of lemons, and stands between the hills and the lake, amid gardens and cypresses, suggesting a colorful history. The Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who built the place as a hunting lodge in 1880, knew a good location when he saw one. And, though it was converted into a hotel at the turn of the century, there was no doubt this was a place fit for emperors and others in that league.

While the bellman unloaded our luggage, we were struck by an added touch that weekend: Two dozen Ferraris, driven there by their German owners, who had apparently decided to spend a few days together cleaning engines, polishing door handles, wiping dashboards and impressing each other.

Inspired, I washed the windshield of our rented Alfa Romeo.

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