Italy’s Lake District is always flooded with tourists, including buses crammed full of retirees ticking off their travel bucket list, flocking to one of the popular flashier lakes.
Lago di Como and Lago di Maggiore draw the biggest crowds, thanks to Hollywood celebrities such as George Clooney, who bought the historic 18th Century Villa Oleandra as a summer residence on Como in 2002, as well as Bruce Springsteen, Robert DeNiro, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, all regular summer guests at Villa d’Este, the undisputed grand dame of Lake Como.
Lake Maggiore enjoys a different kind of fame, one more literary and so worth the visit for this if not its sheer natural beauty. In September 1918, just two months after a serious shrapnel injury sustained when an Austrian trench mortar landed in a dug-out he was sharing with Italian soldiers near Treviso during World War II, a 19-year-old Ernest Hemingway checked into room 106 (now the Hemingway Suite) at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees during his convalescence leave. His experiences there were fictionalised in A Farewell to Arms.
All this, of course, has made the region very touristico, as the Italians would affectionately say. Yet, the great lakes of Italy are more than just places to spot a celebrity. A visit to the seaside is the ultimate weekend escape, if not a necessity for Italians anxious to escape fast-paced cities, like Milan and Turin, where life moves at the pace of zooming, tiny red Fiats and makes as much noise as a bustling trattoria during lunch.
But for just over 1,000 inhabitants, who call Orta San Giulio home, their typical Italian life is calm and takes inspiration from the waters of Lake Orta, also known as Lake Time.
Further afield, at 20km west, is Sacro Monte di Orta, one of nine sacred mountains on the Unesco World Heritage list in Northern Italy, which sits almost 400m above sea level with its 20 complex chapels showing Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical designs from artists such as Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli (also known as il Morazzone; 1573–1626).
The vanguard designs complement and add to the romanticism of Orta. Italian companies Alessi and Bialetti, synonymous for their highdesign kitchen gadgets, have been manufacturing in the area since the early 1900s. Avant-garde designs also come in the form of aristocratic villas dating back to the 13th century with the Turkish-inspired, five-star Villa Crespi the most indulgent with its two-Michelin star celebrity chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo beckoning selfprofessed gourmets to indulge in his lavish degustation menu.
Of luxury taps and resorts
Another unlikely idiosyncratic hotel is Casa Fantini Lake Time. Sitting by her window overlooking the island of San Giulio is Daniela Fantini, owner of luxury tap brand Fantini Rubinetti and Casa Fantini Lake Time. The soft-spoken CEO was born and raised on the lake yet remains captivated by what she sees from her lakeside office and place of business where her 100- plus employees create some of the world’s most decorated luxury taps.
Fantini is just one of the dozen or so tap manufacturers in the region. Locals are not sure how the region came to be known for taps. Some say it dates back to the post-World War II era during the commercial and economic boom which resulted in families tapping into the tap industry, while others hail the manufacture of church bells to be the reason for their unique association.
For Fantini, it started with her father and his love for motorbikes. “My father wanted to be a racing car driver. On his return from the war, everything changed and the ambition was abandoned, although his passion for mechanics would never leave him. He bought a motorbike, fitted his cellar with a lathe on which he would work, threading the floats during the day. In the evening, he would take them to the leading tap companies in the area and, together with his brother Ersilio, began to develop and produce small mechanical products. With this, the foundations were laid for our family business.”
She continued to work with her father, building a formidable reputation among international designers in a highly competitive industry where shortcuts came in the form of outsourcing beyond Italy for parts and assembly. Following her father’s unexpected death in 1990, she took over the company at 28 and has been creating milestones of her own as leader of the Fantini brand.
Now 57, she has continued to grow her father’s legacy into something more than just a tap factory with exports to every corner of the world, including upmarket hotels in Taiwan, high-end residential suites in the US and luxury malls in Dubai.
Under her leadership, Fantini taps continue to exhibit the same high-quality, effortless and characteristically avantgarde Italian craftsmanship unique to the region.
Part of its success is due to the unique collaborative structure adopted by Fantini since it started in 1947. The brand does not have an internal design team. Instead, it works specifically with a rotating spectrum of artists from all walks of life for their award-winning designs. Partnerships with heavyweights Enzo Mari, Piero Lissoni and Naoto Fukasawa have served Fantini well and cemented its place as one of the best in the industry. However, it was the iconic Fantini design I Balocchi that put Fantini in the spotlight in the 70s.
Playful and controversial Fantini turned the humble tap – a small, functional yet usually overlooked item in the bathroom – into an artistic centrepiece, using pop-art colours, which can now be found in art galleries around the world.
Fantini showrooms in Milan, Moscow and New York are elegantly designed and immerse consumers in the luxurious world of Fantini taps.
But it is the CEO’s latest project, Casa Fantini Lake Time – a luxury boutique hotel in Pella, which offers the ultimate Fantini experience.
Time at Fantini
She acquired Casa Fantini from a powerful man known only as Carletto and who had been in Africa during the war. “Carletto used to make an apple cake in his old aluminium cake tin for my father’s birthday. The cake was objectively very good but the legendary aura was magnified by the fact that he had never wanted to give us the recipe and had always been very vague about the doses of the various ingredients, and how to prepare them. Mystery fed the myth.”
Acquiring Carletto’s house was not without challenges. “I tried to buy it without success. Then one night I had a dream, which I interpret as a sign now because I dreamed Carletto was telling me to make the apple cake. That very afternoon, I got the call: they were selling the house! Today, this delightful cake is the symbol of Casa Fantini for me.”
With aspirations to boost tourism to the village of Pella and to offer her designers and partners a place to reside, the 11-room Casa Fantini was brought to life with well-known architect and friend Piero Lissoni leading the project and using the natural surroundings and Lake Time as the inspirations.
Lissoni took on both the renovation of the factory and the design of Casa Fantini, transforming Carletto’s house into a three-story stuccoframed structure attached to a contemporary new adjoining wing.
The dialogue between Fantini Rubinetti and Casa Fantini reflects the same social care that Daniela conveys towards communities associated with the brand. Creating jobs for locals and increasing tourism is a priority to help the region remain relevant.
“The main landmark in the town has been an ice cream shop in a historical tower,” Fantini says. “Our hotel will give added value and attract more tourism. We live in a beautiful place and it influences the design of our products. We wanted to express that in the hotel as well.”
While an intimate little café, Blue Lagoon, in the village is open to the public, the melded newer building is home to a restaurant serving only hotel guests. More like a dining room, it is where the owner has her meals, too.
Chef Paolo Bullone heightens the experience with local specialities reflecting the rich bounty of producers in the area.
Working to seasonal menus, he creates gourmet dishes without too much exaggeration or theatrics. Buttered seared foie gras, handmade ravioli bursting with parmesan cheese in a simple white sauce and, my personal favourite, scampi carpaccio laced over silkysmooth risotto paired with an oaky yet fruity 2015 Nervi Gattinara Barolo… Fantini definitely knows how to entertain her guests.
In fact, everything experienced at the hotel is neither contrived nor orchestrated but seamlessly curated by Fantini and her team. The food tastes this great because she loves it and wants her guests to enjoy it, too.
Breakfast is one of the highlights at Casa Fantini Lake Time. Excellent service from smiling staff, croissants from the oldest bakery in town and strong specialty coffee best enjoyed on the balcony overlooking San Giulio on a clear day are on offer; the experiences are unforgettable.
The furnishings and architecture also show her unrivalled, flawless style. All the rooms have a large balcony overlooking the waters where the morning sun illuminates San Giulio, encouraging guests to spend a day discovering everything that Orta has to offer.
Fortunately, spending a lazy afternoon confined to Casa Fantini can be guilt-free, if not encouraged. The rooms share the common theme of water, with the larger suites displaying hues of blue light glowing in the main bedroom to bring the natural surroundings inside. The expansive bathrooms, fitted with a pleasing collection of Fantini taps and faucets, vary in each room and all the inbuilt showers double as a steam room.
But like any good house guest, one must leave the room and mingle with the hospitable hotel family.
The lounge is inviting with sleek and rustic combinations of apparently random furniture – farmhouse tables, red spinning chairs and upholstered sofas you could easily fall asleep on – that do not distract from the natural environment.
Casa Fantini’s overall spirit is without a doubt bewitching, capitalising on the idyllic setting of the lake and the famous apple cake that started it all. In fact, at an outstretched communal table in the lounge, guests freely mingle, enjoying Fantini’s Apple Cake. Warm, inviting and calling out like the waters of Orta, its tempts all to relax, enjoy and return to this tiny piece of heaven on earth.