Is a Week in an Italian Villa as Romantic as it Sounds?
We have the answer.
Last month, Brent and I (and our friends Gillian, Kris, and Tyler) spent a week in an Italian villa on Lake Como in Northern Italy.
Specifically, we stayed in Villa Mantegazza in the town of Cernobbio.
How romantic are these names? I mean Mantega-a-a-zza just rolls off the tongue. And you absolutely need to hear how sexy “Cernobbio!” sounds when called out by a smokin’ hot Italian ferry worker.
The villa dates back to 1890, when it was built for an actual Italian painter named Giacomo Mantega-a-a-zza. And his descendants still own it today.
A classic villa built for a genuine Italian painter? Sounds pretty darn romantic, doesn’t it? Like something out of Under the Tuscan Sun, Enchanted April, Call Me by Your Name, or, well, almost every famous movie ever set in Italy.
(I’m guessing that, like poor Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, the current owners have no choice but to let in the unwashed masses like us in order to hold onto their ancestral home.)
So how was living in an Italian villa? Did we feel as romantic as Diane Lane and Raoul Brava canoodling under that Tuscan sun? Or as sexy as Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, er, calling each other by the other’s name?
Sure, the villa has a great pedigree. But is living in a hundred-plus year-old villa everything it’s cracked up to be?
Let’s find out by rating the different aspects of our week, using our patented Diane-Lane-in-Under-the-Tuscan-Sun™ scoring system!
When you first arrive, Villa Mantega-a-a-zza is hidden behind a tall stone wall, which is the way it should be: locked away from the schmucks who haven’t shelled out €2500 to spend a week here. There’s even a wrought-iron gate with a big lock and an engraved stone archway that says “Mantegazza.”
I mean, isn’t half the point of living in an Italian villa feeling snooty and superior?
Once you enter the villa’s grounds, charm abounds. There’s a gurgling pond with goldfish and a tiny stream flowing out of it; a trellis covered with actual grapes; benches under towering trees; cherubic naked statues; and a long stone walkway leading up through the landscaped grounds.
When you finally reach the villa, frescoes cover almost the entire exterior. This seems fitting too, since it was built by an Italian painter who, incidentally, almost certainly looked like Raoul Brava in Under the Tuscan Sun.
(Hey, this is my article and the Italian artist will look how I want him to look!)
Even the front door is very charming, situated under a portico that includes an elaborately decorated column, a marble bas relief of the Madonna and Child, and, of course, more frescoes. Oh, and the double wooden doors open via a delightfully oversized metal key that fits into a charmingly old-fashioned lock.
Remember this lock and key. It may come into play later on.
So overall, the outside is very romantic.
But not everything is perfect.
The romantic stone walkway is pretty uneven, and Brent and I had to be careful to not break our middle-aged necks. Even so, I still nearly fell more than once. Taking out the trash meant a long walk down to the street. And we took the trash out a lot, because the collection schedule made no sense. Why? Because…Italy!
Due to its location and orientation — and also the time of year — the villa didn’t get much sun. And the one really big outdoor patio is only accessible through one of the bedrooms.
But most importantly, the gurgling water feature is apparently the birthplace to approximately one billion mosquitoes who instantly descend on you whenever you go outside.
The grapes were fantastic, by the way: a very subtle sweetness that tasted more like some kind of flower — lilacs, maybe — than your usual grape.
But I’m sadly serious about the mosquitoes. You could pluck some grapes, but then you had to maniacally dance about swatting your arms and legs, before grabbing a few more grapes, then finally giving up and running back up the stone walkway to the villa, nearly breaking your neck in the process.
So our Diane-Lane-in-Under-the-Tuscan-Sun “romance” rating for the Exterior is….
(It would’ve been five Diane-Lane-in-Under-the-Tuscan-Suns if not for those #!@%ing mosquitoes.)
We’ve established that the outside of Villa Mantega-a-a-zza pretty well met our expectations for Italian romance. But what about the inside?
To start with, there are a lot of frescoes — on the dining room ceiling, some of the bedroom ceilings and walls, and around the huge glass window in the living room.
The ceilings are appropriately high, and the living room had plenty of couches and armchairs for us to laze around in each evening. I especially liked the lovely vintage upholstered lounge chair.
The villa also has an antique marble bust of an Italian woman in one corner, because what’s an Italian villa without at least one marble bust? Come on, that’s class!
The dining room features a huge wooden table with dark wooden chairs, while all of the bedrooms have armoires and chests and cabinets galore.
The kitchen isn’t especially charming. There’s no island in the middle with pots and pans and strings of garlic hanging down. The sink doesn’t have an ornate Carrara marble backsplash, and the counters are, sadly, linoleum.
In short, it’s hard to imagine an Armani-robe-clad George Clooney whipping up breakfast-in-bed for Amal, or even a flustered, overwhelmed Diane Lane lamenting how there’s brown water coming from her ancient pipes.
But the kitchen does feel homey. The sort of place an Italian grandmother — or Cher in Moonstruck — would stand singing something from La Bohème while stirring a massive pot of deep red spaghetti sauce.
Our Diane-Lane-in-Under-the-Tuscan-Sun “romance” rating for the villa’s Interior is….
Day-to-Day Life for a Week in an Italian Villa
Okay, the way Villa Mantega-a-a-zza looks — all that Italian charm and romance — is one thing.
But what was it like actually living there?
To be honest, there were misfires. There was a view of Lake Como from the small balcony on the second floor — and the mosquitoes probably enjoyed it very much.
I mentioned earlier that the much bigger balcony could only be reached by going through a bedroom. But it also had almost no view and zero furniture, so the mosquitoes were welcome to enjoy that too.
Brent and I had the only comfortable pillows in the entire place; one bedroom has no curtains; the heat apparently couldn’t be turned on until October 28th (local rationing due to the war in Ukraine?); the bedroom doors technically close but leave big gaps so privacy was not something that was guaranteed. Hush, hush, voices definitely carry.
And the top of the wardrobe in our bedroom has a cherub climbing out of the top. Brent loved it, but I thought it was creepy as eff. I mean, did the artist really think someone wanted to wake up in the middle of the night and see that dead-eyed creature staring down at them?
Then there was the matter of our bathroom. It’s fantastically large, but it’s also tiled everywhere, like that hospital in American Horror Story: Asylum.
As for the hot water, it took five minutes for it to arrive to our second floor bedroom.
No, seriously, I timed it. You could turn on the water, floss and brush your teeth, make yourself some tea, and watch the first episode of the new Netflix series From Scratch — set, in part, in an Italian villa! — before your shower was finally hot.
But the villa is more than a hundred years old, so this kind of thing is probably to be expected. At least it had hot water.
Not to be expected was what happened at eight PM on the final night of our stay.
After a day of touristing, we and our friends stopped at a wine bar for drinks and nibbles. It was a kind of somber “goodbye,” since we were all heading our separate ways the next day.
When we arrived back at the villa, that wonderful, oversized key I mentioned early?
It wouldn’t open the door. Once in the charmingly old-fashioned lock, it barely even turned.
We jiggled it, and fiddled with it, and cursed, all to no avail.
Finally, we called our host. When she showed up — twenty minutes later — she jiggled it, and fiddled with it, and cursed in Italian, also all to no avail. Sadly, she didn’t have the key to the downstairs door.
There was a backdoor, and just that morning, we’d discovered it didn’t have an actual lock; all week long, we’d apparently been leaving the door unlocked. But we’d found the door’s metal security bar, and before leaving, we’d promptly lowered it into place.
Ironically, there was now no way into the villa that way.
Our host said she had to drive back into Como — about a half hour away — to maybe get the key to the basement from the handyman.
If he didn’t have a key, well, we weren’t sure what we’d do. It was a Saturday night, and Italy is definitely not a 24-hour-locksmith kind of country. We didn’t even have the option of breaking a window because all of the windows were too high to reach.
So our host set off to Como, while we waited.
And that’s when it began to rain.
So day-to-day life in a real Italian villa on the shores of Lake Como? It wasn’t quite as romantic as we’d hoped.
The Final Verdict
So what’s the overall verdict? Exactly how romantic was living in an Italian villa?
Let’s return to that Saturday night when we were locked out in the rain.
We knew we had at least an hour to wait — and we were all down to our last few pints of blood, thanks to the mosquitos — so we walked down to the lake. We were all fairly stressed and not really dressed for rain. Gillian had an early morning flight, and the rest of us all had stressful travel days ahead too. We needed to get to sleep.
But the rain quickly faded to barely a drizzle.
Meanwhile, we all sat on a jetty and watched the lights of the passing ferries flickering on the water.
We started to talk about the past week, but also the many adventures we’ve all had together in different cities over the past four years, ever since we’d all first met as digital nomads.
And soon, we were, by turns, laughing and nodding along to each other’s fondest memories. What’s that about our being locked out of our villa? That was almost entirely forgotten.
La dolce vita, indeed.
Before too long — an hour later? honestly, I’m not sure — I got the message that our host had found the basement key, and now the backdoor was open for us.
Side by side, we walked back to our villa, mostly in silence. But as for me, I felt closer to everyone than I had all week.
If the lock on that door hadn’t broken, who knows? We may not have had that last special hour together on the shores of Lake Como.
The truth is, life doesn’t get much more romantic than that.
So our “overall” Diane-Lane-in-Under-the-Tuscan-Sun rating for Villa Mantega-a-a-zza is…
Michael Jensen is a novelist and editor. For more about Michael, visit him at MichaelJensen.com.
Great story, Michael! It reads like a wonderful experience despite the damned mosquitoes. By the way, that effing cherub instantly made me think of Chucky and there’s no way I could have slept in that room with him looking down on me. 😊
1 cup of olive oil in the fountain and problem solved. Vitamin DDT saves lives.