Visit Lake Como and you’ll find the locals are surprisingly keen to tell you about their sometimes-resident celebrity.
“Very, very beautiful and so generous,” they say of George Clooney who owns a villa here. He seems to have charmed everybody, and it’s not hard to see why.
Luminously shot adverts show the impossibly wealthy, fragrantly handsome actor holding court at a local palatial property (while extolling the benefits of a brand of coffee). This especially picturesque stretch of Italy is a place where things are done considerately, traditionally, and Clooney has ramped up its profile as an idyllic location and scattered A-list stardust across the region without upsetting its delicate rhythm. Or, it seems, his neighbours.
For a short while my friend, Mari, and I are destined to live among them at Villa Sola Cabiati, where we’re greeted at the entrance by our white-gloved butler Alberto. Originally dating from the 16th century, this grand old mansion was upgraded further in the 18th century to serve as the summer residence of the Dukes of Serbelloni. To this day it remains one of the most beautiful properties in all of the Lake Como region and now it can be experienced as never before.
A partnership between its owners and the nearby Grand Hotel Tremezzo has for the first time made this palace available to the public for overnight stays. While the offering is extraordinary, the premise is simple: the hotel can arrange either special day events at Villa Sola Cabiati, such as the most romantic Italian wedding imaginable or a spectacular birthday party, or organise extended stays for up to 12 guests, who will benefit from full access to the hotel’s facilities in addition to all that is on offer at the villa itself.
Reassuring though they might find it to know that Grand Hotel Tremezzo offers an impressive spa and gym, various pools and a beach club, it’s unlikely the villa’s occupants will often leave what is one of the most remarkable residences available for hire in Italy. It is a trove of decorative jewels and beautiful antiquities, a generations-old family home and living museum in one.
Also called Alberto, the villa manager proves a poetic guide as he leads us around the property. The villa is “a treasure of the town and its people; it is a place to fall in love, it breathes absolute beauty.” As we wander through its salons and suites he points out pastel-coloured frescoes painted by a master from the Tiepolo school and inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, which depicts the foundation of ancient Rome. The balconies are carved from marble; displays of weaponry and cupboards of crockery are much-loved family heirlooms; furniture includes a bed slept in by Napoleon and his wife Joséphine.
Valentina de Santis, owner of the family-run Grand Hotel Tremezzo, meets us in one of the villa’s drawing rooms to discuss the property as Alberto (the butler this time) serves tea and cakes. For her, the best thing about Villa Sola Cabiati is that it offers “the opportunity to step back in time”.
With an ornate chandelier above us, antique clocks on either side and a grand piano in the corner, it really does feel as though we’ve left the present day behind. I’m also unexpectedly charmed by the clunky old radiators and seemingly decades-old units in the bathrooms – were this a frequently renovated hotel, those lovely relics might have been ripped out in the Eighties to make way for avocado suites – while bedrooms with their gilt-framed portraits and black-and-white family photographs evoke the memories of prior guests now dearly departed.
But more modern conveniences are here, too; for all its grandeur, this is still a space where residents can settle in and get comfortable. Classically styled furniture is in places complemented by more contemporary pieces such as mustard-coloured chairs by Italian brand Flexform, and a Bluetooth-controlled Sonos sound system will enable partygoers to broadcast their Spotify playlists around the property.
The approach to dining is relaxed, too. Accommodation is offered on an all-inclusive basis and the team will happily construct the grandest of formal dinners, but it’s best to keep things simple. The Albertos recommend we try “the queen of Italian dishes”. The resulting plate of homemade tagliatelle with pomodoro sauce and a sprig of freshly picked basil is perfect. It’s served to us in the villa’s front lawn, a vast downwards-sloping Italian garden divided into four immaculate parterres, that overlooks the glistening lake.
At other times we enjoy a cooling Aperol Spritz by the back garden’s pool; a candlelit dinner in the dining room features ravioli with ricotta and spinach, followed by Mediterranean-style sea bass; for dessert, our tiramisu is served in martini glasses. An array of fruits and pastries is laid out to share at breakfast. It’s fun, festive, not at all pretentious.
While Grand Hotel Tremezzo has long offered statuesque suites with views of the water, Villa Sola Cabiati is far grander than anything available for guests at that property – and being able to offer the property as an adjunct to the main inventory is something that should elevate the already impressive reputation of the hotel.
All that said, for Valentina, ensuring that guests feel fully at ease in the villa was crucial. “The villa is firstly a home and we’re a family hotel, so keeping that sense of authenticity and inclusiveness is really important to us.” That ethos has filtered through to the pricing strategy, too. At €7,320 (£6,500) a night full-board for up to 12 people, it isn’t cheap to stay here but considering the clientele that has long holidayed in Lake Como, there’s no doubt they could have charged more than £542 per person all-in for a property of this magnitude.
Among the first guests to stay at Villa Sola Cabiati were a European royal family; the home was subsequently booked by a British couple for five nights. Those travellers will be accustomed to paying substantially more should they stay in European luxury hotels’ better suites in the summer.
I get a further sense of Villa Sola Cabiati’s stature when we charter one of Grand Hotel Tremezzo’s boats for a private voyage. A jumble of ancient churches and grand old town houses, Lake Como’s honey-and-terracotta villages are flanked by forested mountains and the snow-capped Alps, and when the sun hits the water it glistens the colour of emeralds. The whole place is soaked in beauty.
We chat again about Clooney – though he could have bought anywhere, it’s easy to see why he chose Lake Como – and drift past properties owned by Richard Branson and the Versace and Guinness families. Impressive though they are, we’re soon ready to go back “home”. No doubt they’re beautiful inside, but as far as we can tell none of them seem to match the majesty of Villa Sola Cabiati.
Villa Sola Cabiati is available from €7,320 per night, with a minimum three-night stay; rates include board. Rooms at Grand Hotel Tremezzo start from €488 per night. The season typically runs from March to early November. Villa Sola Cabiati can this year be booked up to October 31.