By Eileen Ogintz
LAKE COMO, Italy (Day One) — Lucky George Clooney. Not because he is a rich, international movie star. Not because he just recently married the love of his life in a fantastically romantic wedding weekend.
I think George Clooney is lucky to have a villa in the tiny village of Laglio—just 700 people on Lake Como in northern Italy. I can say that from personal experience because I am the Clooneys’ neighbor—well their temporary neighbor at a lakefront villa courtesy of Doorways Villa Vacations. We’re here with family, six of us, though there is room for eight, here in Villa Mahonia that is owned by an Italian fashion designer named Manuela Nuti.
Staying in a villa is not like staying in a hotel and “villas aren’t for everyone,” says Kit Burns, of Doorways, who specializes in Italy. It is for travelers who want to gather in a special place and experience it like the locals, whether shopping for salami and cheese, taking a walk or figuring out how to do laundry without driers, as do most Italians.
Every villa has a story and this one starts with silk. In 1700, this lovely villa with its lake views was a small silkworm farm. The location was perfect to breed silk worms because the stream running through the garden to the lake supplied water to make the cocoons easier to unravel.
Silk production in the Lake Como area dates back to the 16th Century when Como became the silk capitol of Italy simply because the region proved ideal for silkworm breeding—water from the lake and mulberry trees which the silkworm eat. Today in the Como area there are 800 companies engaged in top quality silk and textile trades, including major fashion houses like Hermes, Armani, Versace and Gucci.
In 1915, the villa was bought by a rich Milan family who restored the house, creating the beautiful garden. Fast forward to 1986 when Manuela Nuti, a Como resident was visiting. She fell in love with the place and bought it. Nuti also is the is the chairwoman of Comitato rive di Laglio, a non-profit organization to safeguard the environment of the area which counts George Clooney as a member.
In case you are wondering, we’re at the base of the Alps; Como borders Switzerland.
When we arrived after an international flight into Milan, and about an hour’s and lunch at a small Trattoria. Manuela Nuti was here to greet us along with Stefano Sioli, who owns another villa near here and manages a third and speaks excellent English.
We were glad we’d arranged for Nuti to provide a “welcome “ dinner—homemade lasagna, a vegetable pie and tiramisu for desert plus plenty of vino; there were provisions for breakfast.
We were traveling with extended family who ooh and aah over the comfortable living room and terraces and gardens with spectacular views of the lake and the red-roofed stone villas rising up from the water across the lake. We each have our own bedroom and bath in the four-bedroom villa. Kids and teens would love the big screen TV and pool table downstairs in the rec room.
“Renting a villa gives you the chance to experience the real community,” Sioli explained. His wife is a surgeon; Nuta’s husband is an accountant and she is a designer. “We are creating a new customer base,” he said, adding “we want each day to be a good day.”
We worked with Kit Burns of the American company Doorways, who can arrange everything from airport pick-up to a cook to prepare dinner in your villa to a tour of the lake. Nuti’s husband Giorgio and Sioli took us out on Giorgio’s wooden boat.
More than 50 small villages dot the lake, the third largest in Italy—some famous like Bellagio and the Isola Comacina, the island in the lake where people bring boats one weekend in June to see a fantastic fireworks display.
We were treated to a fantastic fireworks display right from our villa terrace. What was it for? We asked Stefano Sioli. “Who knows?” he said. “People set off fireworks for all occasions—birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, to celebrate the beginning of summer and the end.”
We are here at the tail end of the season—too cold for swimming but spectacular all the same.
I see why villa vacations are so popular—not the least of which is because you can put the kids to bed and enjoy another glass of wine without worrying they are alone in a hotel room or because you can have a cappuccino (yes there is an espresso/cappuccino maker!) in your PJs; you can gather with friends and family in your own private space without invading anyone’s personal space.
This villa has everything we need—including the views—but it might not be the right place for toddlers or seniors—I’d worry about both on the stone staircases to the bedrooms!
There is much to see in the Italian Lake District with the mountains beyond the water—the gardens, the villas (we pass the famous Villa d’Este , now a luxury hotel, and the Villa Cassinella in Balbianello that we’re told can rent for well over $100,000 a week.
Kit Burns tells me it is cooler here in summer and delightful in spring and fall because of the microclimate influenced by the huge lake.
“We bring people here to have a glass of Prosecco and watch the sunset from the boat,” Sioli says.
And when the weather is bad, he suggests, you can relax together in the villa playing games, watching a movie—without being surrounded by strangers in a hotel. A “cooking mama” will come in and prepare a traditional meal for roughly the same cost as you’d spend at a restaurant. Perhaps the local specialty of risotto with perch?
In summer you can sail and water ski; there’s hiking, horseback riding and a choice of golf courses.
“Our” villa is complete with colorful painted glass windows overlooking the water. I do wish they had some mirrors in the bedrooms and a basic coffee pot, but we’re not in a hotel, after all.
The road we are “living” on Via Regina Vecchia, dates back as long as 1000 years!
We see the waterfall at Nesso and the famous deep narrow gorge (Orrido) cut into the rocks. He gestures from the boat to the area where people go hiking and biking in the hills. There is an ancient tower here; a church dating back a thousand years there. I don’t know where to look first!
We don’t see any souvenir shops or many tourists.
We stop just outside the village of Bellagio at Le Darsene di Loppia for lunch—homemade Cavatelli (small pasta shells) with shellfish, gnocchi , ravioli carbonara, risotto with black truffle and seasonal dishes like baked red partridge, sliced deer in mushroom crust and for desert, chestnut tiramisu and a white chocolate cream caramel with raspberries. Even the bread sticks are home made. And of course there is the view of the lake… We congratulate the young chef Matteo Gramatica.
“Our business is bringing pleasure to people,” Sioli says as we dig into desert.