Karen Robinson
June 5 2016,
12:01am,
The Sunday Times

OVERSEAS

Why Como has Italy’s most

fashionable shores

Lake Como has gained cachet since George Clooney bought a villa on its shore, but you don’t need an A-list budget to live here.

Romantic retreat: the steep terrain and strict planning laws mean lakeside towns such as Menaggio have remained unspoilt. XANTANA/GETTY IMAGES

Romantic retreat: the steep terrain and strict planning laws mean lakeside towns such as Menaggio have remained unspoilt.
XANTANA/GETTY IMAGES

Living by a lake is a bit like island life, says the romantic novelist Erica James, mainly because the gossip has no chance to quieten down and fade away. Rather, in both cases, it ricochets from shore to shore, becoming more urgent, intense and colourful with each retelling. That could make you feel uncomfortably claustrophobic — or you could relish the animated friendliness of local life, as James does when she visits her second home in Lenno, on the shore of Lake Como.

George and Amal Clooney are the area’s most famous residents GISELA SCHOBER/GETTY IMAGESGISELA SCHOBER/GETTY IMAGES  

George and Amal Clooney are the area’s most famous residents
GISELA SCHOBER/GETTY IMAGESGISELA SCHOBER/GETTY IMAGES

 

It’s just up the coast from Laglio, a picturesque little community that’s now world-famous on account of one occasional resident, the actor and grade-A heartthrob George Clooney, who bought the 18th-century Villa Oleandra from members of the Heinz family for $10m in 2001. Estimates put its current value at 10 times that, as the estate now includes the houses on either side.

James, to her regret, has never met him, but loves the Clooney goss: he has his hair cut at the local barber’s; he kissed a friend of hers on the cheek at the golf club; she met a woman who’d been rescued by him after she was sent flying by an errant Vespa. His house is now on the itinerary boards of the scenic cruise companies, and the legends have taken on an eerie resemblance to traditional stories about the miraculous apparitions of Catholic saints.

It wasn’t Clooney-watching that brought James, 56, to Lake Como. She was on the brink of buying a flat in Venice, before “I woke up one morning and thought — what would a whole month in summer feel like? Too much...” In 2006, she had stayed in Bellagio to research Gardens of Delight, one of her bestselling novels; her latest, Song of the Skylark, is her 20th. So she came back and bought a flat on the fourth floor of a small, newly renovated block in Lenno, paying €330,000 in July 2007.

She reckons it’s now worth about €350,000 (£270,000). “I think it’s good that you can’t turn something around to make a quick buck,” she says. “In this village, there are still young people”, as the stable market deters speculators.

It’s a small flat “with a big lake view”. Property on Lake Como is all about the vista, and as you move away from the water and up the hillsides, the views become even more magnificent — though it’s homes close to the waterfront that attract premium prices.

James’s smart two-bedder suits her single lifestyle. “I think, because I’m on my own, I’ve got to know people,” she says. “Couples can be insular.”

Her natural writer’s curiosity has helped her make friends in the area. One pal introduced her to his mother, who told her all about local life in the 1950s — invaluable research for her 2013 novel Summer at the Lake. She’s also had some gallant male attention — on one occasion, in the supermarket. “By the time we were through the checkout, he’d given me his phone number!” But she’s not looking for love, she’s there to work.

The novelist Erica James on Lake Como, where she has a second home

The novelist Erica James on Lake Como, where she has a second home

She doesn’t encourage visitors — “the flat’s second bedroom is big enough for the occasional guest” — and often, when she swaps her home in a pretty Suholk village for the flat, usually for about 10 days a month, she doesn’t even call her friends to arrange boat trips and lunches. Instead, she gets down to work at her desk in the kitchen/diner/living room, facing the wall, her back resolutely turned against the French windows and the view across the dark blue water to Lezzeno, on the opposite shore, with the dark green hillside rising above.

James doesn’t let her flat when she’s not there, though she did pay €270,000 five years ago for a one-bedder further up the hill, in a complex with a pool and a tennis court, then spent €40,000 doing it up for the “romantic couples” market — she added a giant sarcophagus-style bath.

She leaves the running of the rental to a local firm, happyholidayhomes.net, and gets “the return I expected — it helps to pay for my lifestyle here”. She has now put it on the market for €280,000 (www.holidaypropertysolutions.com) to “simplify” life, but doesn’t expect a quick sale the market is slow, she says.

Harold Lubberdink is the boss of both the rental firm and the estate agency James is using. He’s based in the pleasant waterfront town of Menaggio, and says the Clooney ehect can’t be underestimated. “Twenty years ago, the properties were all a bit tired, owned mainly by third-generation Milanese, but then Clooney came here. He didn’t do much more than buy a house and renovate it, but he put it on the map.”

Wealthy buyers poured in, he says. “Now it’s paradise — the gardens are maintained and tired houses are in a minority.” The rental rates can be staggering: the smartest lakefront palaces are priced at more than €100,000 a week in high season. More modest properties such as the one James lets out can command about €600 a week.

The best way to see the area’s return to splendour is from a boat on the lake. Como’s golden triangle covers pretty Varenna, on the east shore; Bellagio, on the point where the lake forks into two; and, on the west side, the stretch from Menaggio to Ossuccio. A cruise around it reveals immaculate villas in styles from the mid-17th century to the 1920s, with art nouveau, known here as “Liberty style”, particularly popular. The land rises sharply from the lake — one of the deepest in Europe — and the steep terrain, as well as strict local development laws, mean that the waterfront scene is picture-perfect, unmarred by ugly development.

Villa Gaeta dominates a promontory just north of Menaggio. Built in the 1920s, it has faux-medieval “Liberty style” pomp and should be recognisable to James Bond fans: it’s the setting of the final scene of the 2006 film Casino Royale. It is divided into flats, and Lubberdink is marketing a one-bedroom property there, with a terrace, for €650,000; it does brisk business as a holiday let.

According to Lone Heron, founder of Heron Real Estate, prices in prime Como areas — the other hot strip is from Laglio down to Cernobbio — match those in Cortina and Portofino, or the French Riviera. “We were insulated from the downturn in the rest of the Italian property market,” she says, attributing this stroke of good fortune to the fact that many owners were Milanese old money.

She generally deals in €1m-plus properties, and says you can buy a villa in Mezzegra, near Lenno, for about that price, although “on the water, they start at €3m”.

At the top end of the market is Villa Norella, in Cadenabbia, with nine bedrooms, a boathouse and 20 lakefront acres, including an organic vegetable garden. It has been on and oh the market, but has just been listed at €29.5m with Habitat Real Estate, the local partner of Savills estate agency (020 7016 3740, savills.com).

“Some ‘interesting’ properties have been on for quite a while at what I call old-fashioned prices,” says Paola Cleps, who runs Habitat. Some of the owners may eventually have to reduce prices to make a sale. And there are some she can’t tell me about. “Some vendors expect discreet sales and don’t want the neighbours to know.”

Rumors surface occasionally that Clooney is thinking of selling Villa Oleandra because his wife, Amal, is tired of the paparazzi attention — although the locals are fiercely protective of their glamorous resident, and try to ensure that he can enjoy the relaxed authenticity of this tiny community and the stunning lake views.

James certainly loves life in her Lake Como flat. “In the morning, I put the kettle on and stand looking at the lake. It sounds cheesy, but I still have to pinch myself. I don’t take it for granted.”

A few miles down the coast, when he’s in residence in his rather more magnificent palazzo, with its rather similar views, maybe Clooney still feels much the same. The local estate agents and property owners certainly hope so.

 

Properties for sale

Caratte Urio €4.95m

Villa ai Cedri was built in the late 18th century for an aristocratic family, and it shows in the frescoed ceilings, Venetian marble and gilded decor. The 5,200 sq ft home has four bedrooms (there’s a spa bath in the master suite), a lakefront terrace and an indoor pool. 00 39 340 513 6419, heron-realestate.com

 

Laglio €2.75m

For some buyers, the prospect of spotting George Clooney is as big an attraction as the lake, so Villa Negri, near the Hollywood star’s home, will appeal. Beautifully restored by its British owners, it has seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, a large pool and a guest cottage. 00 39 340 513 6419, heron-realestate.com

 

Menaggio €650,000

Villa Gaeta is an art nouveau stunner with lakeside gardens; its role in the Bond movie Casino Royale only adds to the glamour. You can buy a one-bedroom flat with an open-plan kitchen/living area, parquet floors, a terrace and a wooden staircase up to the master suite. 020 7099 0868, holidaypropertysolutions.com