The young manager, Gian Luigi Mariani, flicked through the pages of what he called the hotel's 'Golden Book'. This was a hefty, leather-bound volume filled with the signatures of famous guests at Stresa's Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees over the past century. 'This is Golden Book part two,' he said, frowning. 'Part one disappears. Where is he?' He snapped his fingers. 'Disappeared]'

Part one covered the hotel's first 10 years, from 1861 to 1871. 'Perhaps not so interesting,' he concluded philosophically. Part two, however, is certainly a treasure. The spidery signatures on the creamy paper bring to life the ebb and flow of twentieth-century society with inky vividness.

The pre-First World War guests were part of an aristocratic world that was soon to be swept away by social turmoil: the King of Italy, the Queen of Romania, the Prince of Prussia, the Duchess of Genoa, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the King and Queen of Portugal, the Aga Khan. . . .

'Here is Fritz Kreisler, the violinist. I think you know. Here is Mussolini - before he was so well known. Here Toscanini, John Steinbeck, Clark Gable, William Mayo of the Mayo Clinic, Andrew Carnegie. Here more princesses and counts and Madame blah-blah.'

And here, finally, is the name I've asked to see. Beneath the signature of A J Cronin is a neat, unostentatious autograph, 'Ernest Hemingway', with the date, 1 October 1948, and, in brackets, a wry note, 'an old client'. One can imagine the famous Hemingway say-cheese smile as he wrote this. He was indeed an 'old client', but there was much more in his return to the Grand than simply a tourist retracing his steps.

Hemingway first came to Stresa in September 1918. The elegant resort on the shores of Lake Maggiore has a glorious setting, bordered on two sides by the Alps. Hemingway, then 19 and little travelled beyond the US Midwest, was entranced.

The pleasures of a stay at the Grand Hotel were particularly sweet because Hemingway was in Stresa on convalescent leave. Two months before, on the Italian front near Treviso, he had come close to death when an Austrian trench mortar landed in a dug-out which he was sharing with some Italian soldiers.

Early in 1918 he had left his job as a reporter on the Kansas City Star and joined the Italian Red Cross as an ambulance driver. Like most things to do with Hemingway's life, the reasons for this decision are disputed; the most likely explanation is that he believed he would not be accepted by the US Army because of his poor eyesight.

In June he passed through Milan en route to the Red Cross centre in Schio, near the Austrian front in north-east Italy. After a failed offensive, the Austrians had dug in along the river Piave. It was near Fossalta di Piave that Hemingway was wounded while delivering cigarettes and chocolate to soldiers in the front lines.

The exact nature of his wounds - and whether or not he performed heroically after the mortar fell - have been endlessly discussed by biographers and literary commentators. The explosion, which killed one of the soldiers in the dug-out and badly injured the two others, left Hemingway with 227 wounds in his legs, which required difficult operations to remove mortar fragments, and a lengthy convalescence. His injuries earned him the Italian silver medal for valour (although, beyond simply being at the front, he seems to have displayed no outstanding bravery).

He also achieved temporary celebrity as the first American to be wounded in the Italian campaign. He was transferred to the Red Cross hospital in Milan, where he met the first great love of his life.

A fascinating thing about Hemingway is that the real events of his life tend to be more interesting than his books, in the best of which real life and fiction are often spun together. A Farewell to Arms, published in 1928, perhaps provides the most successful mixture of fact and fancy, and is arguably his greatest work. The hero, Frederic Henry, is a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Piave front and suffers a trench- mortar wound identical to Hemingway's (the fictionalised version is said to be the most accurate account of Hemingway's injury). Henry, like Hemingway, ends up at the Red Cross hospital in Milan, where he, too, falls in love with a nurse.

But here fact and fiction separate. Hemingway's love affair with the nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, seven- and-a-half years his senior, may have been close, but was probably platonic and was relatively short- lived. Later, Hemingway characteristically attempted to paint a different version - he boasted to a friend that it takes a trained nurse to make love to a man in a splint, and described the novel, in a letter, as a 'long tale of transalpine


Indeed, Frederic Henry and his English nurse, Catherine Barkley, embark on an affair steamy enough to have had Scribner's magazine, which was serialising the book, banned from newsstands in Boston.

Hemingway spent seven of his 10 days' convalescent leave in Stresa separated from Agnes (he cut it short to return to Milan to be with her), and thus had plenty of time to yearn for the sort of passionate affair enjoyed by his fictional alter ego. But the only sport he enjoyed at the hotel was a regular game of billiards with another guest, 99- year-old Count Greppi (who appears as Count Greffi in A Farewell to Arms).

He otherwise spent his days rowing on the lake and on one occasion taking a trip to the top of the Mottarone to enjoy its stunning view over the seven Italian lakes. 'This beats paradise all to hell,' he observed.

Seventy-five years on, Stresa can still challenge paradise as a holiday destination. The Grand Hotel is that rare sort of five-star place: smart and stylish yet thoroughly welcoming.

Last week, in that sink period between Christmas and New Year, it was mostly empty. In the lounge, a pianist vamped his way through Fly Me to the Moon to an audience of nobody - apart from me, and I had only wandered in from the corridor; we exchanged embarrassed smiles.

The man at the desk was happy to show me the rooms taken by Hemingway on his 1948 visit. Did he know which was Hemingway's room when he originally came in 1918? 'I think it was the same one,' he said. It seems unlikely that a convalescing Red Cross lieutenant would have been given either of the grand rooms that now make up the Presidential Suite in numbers 105 and 106 - but, being Hemingway, he just might have managed to talk his way into one of them.

In the novel, Frederic Henry takes 'a good room'. 'It was very big and light and looked out on the lake. The clouds were down over the lake but it would be beautiful with the sunlight.'

The man from the desk flung open the shutters and revealed a glorious view. On this morning there were no clouds and indeed the lake was beautiful.

Later in the novel, Hemingway writes: 'I remember waking in the morning. Catherine was asleep and the sunlight was coming in through the window. The rain had stopped and I stepped out of bed and across the floor to the window. Down below were the gardens, bare now but beautifully regular, the gravel paths, the trees, the stone wall by the lake and the lake in the sunlight with the mountains beyond.'

I stepped out on to the wide terrace, and it was all as Hemingway described. The desk man pointed to the snow-capped mountains at the far end of Lake Maggiore: 'There is Switzerland. Round the corner,


He pointed to the islands in the foreground: 'The Borromean islands: Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori and Isola Madre, very pretty - you must take the boat and visit.' (In the book, Henry rows to Isola Pescatori - the fisherman's island. I took the regular boat service from the Stresa landing stage to Isole Bella and Pescatori and found them delightful, serene and charming - and both patrolled by armies of cats.)

I looked around the bedroom. On each side of the double bed, little towels were laid so that guests getting up did not have to touch the carpet with their bare feet. In the bathroom, neatly wrapped towelling robes waited to be worn (these can be purchased from reception, said a notice on them - just in case any departing visitor felt the urge to pop one in his bag).

'Much of this furniture,' said the desk man, 'is the same that would have been here when Hemingway came. Except the television. And the mini-bar, of course.' Hemingway would no doubt have greatly appreciated the contents of the mini-bar.

The Grand Hotel was owned by the Aga Khan and his CIGA hotel group until it was sold to a consortium of local hoteliers four years ago. Now CIGA is up for sale, with the Forte group rumoured as most likely buyer. The desk man had worked for Forte at the Gallia in Milan, and didn't think much of his former employers. He said: 'Forte is good for bed and breakfast but not good for luxe hotels. But if the Aga Khan doesn't sell the group he could go . . .' - he searched for the word - '. . .bankrush. He could go bankrush. Capisce?'

I returned to the lounge to keep the pianist company. Like Frederic Henry I ordered a dry martini. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway describes the barman's dry martinis as 'cool and clean'. To me, unfamiliar with the lethal mixture, it tasted more like high-octane rocket fuel.

In the book, the barman becomes Frederic Henry's saviour, providing him with the rowing boat in which he escapes with Catherine across the lake to Switzerland, evading capture by the Italian authorities and finally running away from the war.

'People ask me if I know who the character of the barman was based on,' said the manager. Pointing to the present barman, he added, 'I tell them it was his grandfather.'

Is this true? 'They are satisfied when I tell them this.' What did the manager think of A Farewell to Arms? 'I've never read it. I must do so one day.'

From the Golden Book, the manager was keen to fish out one final memory - his most prized memento, a hotel message notelet that bore a lipstick impression. 'This is from Carol Alt. She was here two years ago. Very beautiful lady, very. . . .' Sexy? 'Yes, yes,' he whispered dreamily, lost in his memories.

Before my flight home from Treviso, I drove around Fossalta di Piave looking for something that linked the place with Hemingway's brief visit. There were a couple of small war memorials in Fossalta, but the impressively large municipal library, which might have offered further information, was closed.

I had given up the hunt and was on my way to Treviso when I passed an enormous monument at Fagare, built to commemorate those who died in the Piave campaign. It seemed deserted until a man in a trilby popped out of the hedge. He rushed to unlock the door to his museum, delighted to entertain a rare visitor.

The museum housed an interesting collection of memorabilia: as well as the usual bayonets, pistols and helmets, the glass cases had a selection of personal effects, there were letters written from the front, and tragic family snaps of long-

forgotten soldati in feathered military hats . . .

'Hemingway?' I asked, wondering if the name was familiar to the monument's custodian. 'Emmingwhy? Si, si,' he nodded enthusiastically. He led me down a corridor to one of the bays, where the names of the fallen are recorded on individual plaques.

Here, next to the name of Lieutenant Edward McKey, killed in action on 16 June, was a poem that Hemingway wrote, inspired by McKey's death. It is a typically testosterone composition, the tale of a dead soldier remembered by his wife or lover. It concludes: 'Now in the night you come unsmiling/To lie with me/A dull, cold rigid bayonet/On my hot-swollen, throbbing soul.'

A Farewell to Arms: more than just a coming together of cold rigid bayonets on hot-swollen, throbbing souls? Discuss.

Getting there: Italy Sky Shuttle (081-748 1333) offers twice-weekly return flights from London to Milan from pounds 114. Seven days' car hire costs from pounds 169 with unlimited mileage.

Hotel: The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees (010 39 323 30431) offers rooms from pounds 114 per night (the Presidential Suite costs pounds 520). The Magic of Italy (081- 748 7575) offers seven-night bed-and-breakfast packages to the Grand from pounds 751; seven-night packages to the self-catering Residence Apartments, in the hotel gardens, cost from pounds 408.

Biography: Hemingway: A Life without Consequences (John Curtis/Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25) by James R Mellow is an absorbing account of the writer's life.

Further information: Tourist information office, 29049 Stresa (NO), Via Principe Tomaso, 70/72 (010 39 323 30150).

(Photograph omitted)