The waters of Lake Garda run through Domenico Ferrari’s blood. Both his mother's and father’s families have owned land around the Northern Italian lake for generations and he now lives in Bardolino, a village on its east shore with his wife, Costanza, their young son, and two Italian braccos, Ora and Bali, who are named after two Lake Garda winds.
One of these family properties was an ancient farmhouse, immersed in 20 hectares of land and attached to their holiday villa in Bardolino. ‘Some years ago, all the main houses used to have smaller or bigger farms to guarantee food – in this case wine and olive oil – to the family,’ explains Domenico. A family of farmers lived in the 17th-century house until 1970, after which it was abandoned and left in ruin. It was this farmhouse that Verona-born Ferrari would begin to restore in 2009 to create Prati Palai: a small hotel of only eight bedrooms with a breathtaking view of Lake Garda. Domenico, now 40 years old, was working in advertising at the time as well as managing his family’s agricultural properties. ‘These things all helped me in a small way with my vision, but what lent me to this was my love for my land, antique buildings, the landscape, and, of course, my lake.’
Prati Palai is only a half an hour’s walk to both busy Bartolini and the lakeshore, but is, as Domenico puts it, ‘something different’. Set up on a hill, it is all open space and nature with marvelous views of the lake at every turn. ‘The countryside around Prati Palai is itself part of the garden,’ he says. ‘If you walk a little beyond the breakfast terrace or the pool and its sun loungers, you will find the vineyard we have recently replanted, small woods, centuries-old olive trees, and all the classic natural landscape of this region. It’s a timeless place, but you need to experience it to understand it.’ Prati Palai enjoys a very special location in every respect. If you drive one and a half hours to the east, you reach Venice, and the same time to the west, Milan. The Austrian border and the Dolomites are not far, nor are the charming cities of Verona and Mantua.
But Prati Palai was a process rather than an immediate decision. After deciding to ‘do something’ with the farmhouse, Ferrari spoke to various architects, hoping to find someone whose vision matched his own. ‘Unfortunately, many people in our beautiful country have a ‘fast food’ concept for architecture and landscape. But I couldn’t embark on a project, however economically interesting, that destroyed something that has been in my family. It had to last for the future, which is why I decided on a small hotel.’ In 2009, Domenico met with Giuseppe Tommasi, a family friend, and architect who had been the pupil of the famous Carlo Scarpa. A year later, they started to draw the restoration plans, but sadly ‘Pino’ died before the work started. ‘He gave me a strong basis for the project and left his work in the hands of another architect Damiano Zerman. I can only say that I learned more in this time than in all my student career.’
By 2014, Prati Palai was completed. Domenico himself, along with the architect, designed its interiors and the simplicity of it all is by its original use as a workers’ house, stables, and barn. ‘It would have been ridiculous to put marble bathrooms and so on, but it is very charming and with all the comforts for modern guests,’ he explains. Floors were moved from another family farm; heirloom pieces of furniture were given a new lease of life and local artisans designed many bespoke pieces. ‘I love the windows,’ says Domenico, ‘it might seem banal but they are all handcrafted using an ancient technique yet have the high quality of modern windows. They fit perfectly with the buildings.
There is no ‘restaurant’ as such at Prati Palai, but you can order simple plates of food throughout the day. ‘Most of it is made with produce from our kitchen garden,’ says Domenico, ‘and our Bloody Mary or Caprese made with our tomatoes is something special.’ At Prati Palai, everything is an experience. ‘We are always trying to suggest special things for our guests, such as picnics, olive oil tasting, Aperitivo with our products, or a boat trip.’ Domenico himself recommends nothing more highly than ‘taking a boat out into the middle of the lake and diving in!’
In the future, Domenico has plans to add more rooms on the grounds, with treehouse accommodation, and by restoring another small house. He also hopes to convert all its land into a ‘garden’ with more vineyards, kitchen gardens, and animals. ‘It is a big project that in some way could bring the estate back to what it was in the past.’ And beyond that? Perhaps another small hotel project on another family farm in the style of Prati Palai.