A sojourn at Lake Como’s magical Villa d’Este is an opulent treat that a privileged few can tick off
their bucket list. Even rarer: A coveted invitation to the exclusive Concorso d’Eleganza, an
annual gathering and auction of rare classic automobiles.
Since 1929, owners and potential buyers of significant historic automobiles and, more recently, motorcycles have gathered at this grandest of destinations on the shores of Lake Como to display their impeccable treasures. The Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este is aptly accompanied by a private auction, staged by world-leading auctioneers, RM Sotheby’s. And the BMW Group is the sponsor of the juried event’s most sought after Trofeo prizes for best in class.
As the saying goes, “getting there is half the fun,” so why not make a fabulous road trip through the breathtaking alpine mountain passes? Without much arm-twisting, I am able to convince my old (read: Long-time friend) and professional photographer Norbert to pack his cameras and join me on a leisurely 1,500 km road trip from his home in the south of France to northern Italy.
It is bright and quite early when we leave Norbert’s house in St. Romain en Viennois to head north on the A41, one of France’s fabulous auto routes. Our first destination: Annecy, a charming lakeside town at the foot of the French Alps complete with a medieval castle and vistas worthy of so much more than Snapchat. The border crossing into Switzerland isn’t far off and we soon find ourselves driving along Lake Geneva, towards Zurich and then on to Dornbirn for our first overnight.
Next, our adventure takes us across the Arlberg mountains and into the scenic province of Tyrol, where we cross into Germany to discover the fabled Hotel Kempinski Berchtesgaden. Perched on the side of the picturesque Kehlstein mountain, the Kempinski team welcome us with open arms and a tour of their wonderful rooms and suites. Most impressive is the wellness area spa, with its grand indoor/outdoor pool separated by a cleverly positioned glass screen that moves away as swimmers approach.
In addition to an in-house activity portfolio that includes biking, walking and more strenuous climbing tours, the Kempinski offers its guests a little something extra: Use of the house car. Imagine our pleasure when we discover that the vehicle on offer is a hot-blooded red Mercedes AMG. Yes, it is ours for the afternoon to roam around the alpine roads and hairpin turns of Bavaria. Wunderbar!
For dinner, we can’t resist traditional wiener schnitzel at the Johann Grill. It is served with a select Austrian wine and finished nicely with an authentic kaiserschmarrn (the Austrian emperor’s favourite dessert). Our amusing waiter adds to the charm of the experience by demonstrating his prowess in no less than 16 languages, German being his least familiar.
Routing to Lake Como calls for us to cross the Alps into Italy so in true sportsman’s style, we opt for the truly spectacular San Bernardino pass—a mountain road with hairpin turns and absolutely stunning views from elevations as high as 6,778 feet. A sports car driver’s dream, the pass is considered one of the finest driving roads in the world. Those of a more fragile disposition can skip the turns and take the direct six kilometre tunnel.
Once we are over the border it isn’t long before the shimmering waters of Lake Como appear ahead of us. Driving into town we can feel the buzz. Within 48 hours the much-anticipated Concorso d’Eleganza will be upon us. Hotels are fully booked and see-and-be-seen restaurants are only taking reservations from the likes of the Clooneys and DiCaprios.
It’s auction time and, as the cars roll out onto the stage one by one, there’s a hush followed by a palpable tension as the bidding drama unfolds. Suffice to say, the mint condition and uniqueness of the items that are offered attract bidders in person and by telephone from all over the world.
Once the deed was done, and the hammer had fallen a number of times to rousing applause, it wasn’t uncommon to see final bids between US $1,500,000 and $2,000,000.
As the evening sun sets over Lake Como on the gleaming paint and flashing chrome of the precious cars, we retire to the grand terrace at the Villa d’Este to sip Prosecco Frizzante with the who’s who in world of classic car aficionados and listen to their stories.
It feels like we’re on the set of a James Bond movie before the bad guys arrive and a chase scene ensues. It’s simply one of those “pinch me to prove it’s real” moments. Life just doesn’t get much better than this, my friends.
Photos: Norbert Stiastny, Concorso d’Eleganza, Villa d’Este, Helmut Dostal