Continuing our series of armchair travelling (and drinking), writer Harry Seymour recalls enjoying the quintessential aperitivo – the Aperol Spritz – at the Hotel Grand Tremezzo on Lake Como, just a stone's throw from the drink's birthplace.
Illustration by Amanda Berglund.
Two hundred years ago, when the Veneto region of north-eastern Italy was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire, the visiting soldiers struggled to drink the local, stronger wine because of its high alcohol content. ‘Spritzen!’ they would supposedly yell at the tavern tenders, requesting a spray of water in their glasses to dilute the potent drink. And so so the story goes, the Spritz was born.
Fast-forward to 1912 and Luigi and Silvio Barbieri — two brothers who had inherited a liqueur business from their father — set out on a mission to invent a spirit unique to their home town of Padua.
After seven years of experimenting they settled on a recipe infused with orange zest, rhubarb, vanilla, cinchona and gentian, and unveiled it to the world at the Padua International Fair in 1919. They named it ‘Aperol’, after the French word for aperitif; apéro.
Supposedly, their secret original recipe is still the one used today.
Aperol was an instant hit and by the 1950’s, when Italy’s post-war boom economico was transforming the country’s fortunes, a glug of the mixture in a sparkling-wine Spritz had become the drink of choice for locals as they flooded back to their cobbled piazzas. Today, it’s estimated that more than 200 Aperol Spritz are drunk every minute in Venice alone.
There will always be a place in my heart for a €3 Aperol Spritz served in a plastic cup on the waterfront at Venice’s Osteria Al Squero, accompanied with a paper plate of homemade cicchetti, but nowhere captures the Belle Époque essence of the drink more than a hotel 150 miles east as the crow files, just on the other side of the Dolomites.
While Lake Como’s Grand Hotel Tremezzo can’t claim to be the birth place of the Aperol Spritz — nowhere can — its perfectly symmetrical, bright-orange Art Nouveau palazzo (which would send Wes Anderson weak at the knees) perfectly embodies the cocktail.
The hotel threw open its doors in the heady summer of 1910, just as the Barbieri brothers were dreaming up their new drink down the road. It seduced aristocrats, tycoons and Hollywood stars during the Golden Era of travel, as electric trains and motorcars began making paths across the alps. In 1932, Greta Garbo even described the hotel as ‘the happy, sunny place.’