Weaver of Italian dreams sets up vacationers in luxury villas

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Mara Solomon, 49, is founder/director of Homebase Abroad, a Massachusetts-based company that leases 45 luxury villas in Italy. She spends two to three months a year in Italy. Solomon is originally from New York.

Q. Has interest in extended vacations in Italy eased since the "Under the Tuscan Sun" craze of a few years ago?

A. Actually, demand for Italy is huge and growing. Italy offers a combination of things that transcends many trendier elements and gives people what they're looking for - meaningful, memorable travel.

Speaking from a villa perspective, people are more interested in going where they love, rather than going to different places just because they're different places. That's different from my grandmother's time, when travel was often "ticking places off a list."

Italy has beautiful landscapes, wonderful weather, fabulous food and wine and plenty of cultural or artistic points of interest. Even outdoorsy types always find something to do.

Q. Many of your properties are in northern Italy; do different parts of the region appeal to different people?

A. You really have to look at sub-regions. In Tuscany alone you have the well-known Chianti area, between Florence and Siena; the Val di Chiana and Val d'Orcia, which are famous but completely different. Go to the Tuscan coast and you have Monte Argentario, where Jackie Kennedy Onassis went: It has a gorgeous, rugged coastline and charming ports.

Then there's the area around Lucca, a fabulous walled city. There's a park all around Lucca so you can bike ride. From there you can also go to the ocean at Forte dei Marmi, a seaside resort town where, in summer, you can shop until 1 in the morning. People stroll, have drinks and visit. It's a pleasant scene.

Basically, you have all kinds of places.

Q. What about variables in climate?

A. Summer in Italy is like summer in New England: muggy and warm. People who prefer cooler are highly recommended to think about April, May and October-November. The Lake Como region in February-March is stunning and full of flowers. If you're into gardens, that's the time to go there.

If you have to travel in summer - perhaps you have the family with you - you can do either the hill towns - they're fun and easy to enjoy - or the coast.

Q. Every country has its ways; what's a faux pas to avoid in Italy?

A. Watch your manners: Italy is a more formal country than America. People dress nicer and are more reserved in their speech and demeanor.

In America, most stores are self-serve: You can get out of a store without much human interaction, if you choose. That doesn't happen in Italy, except for the very American-style supermarkets. Shopping in Italy means having a relationship with a store. It's important to be willing to try having a relationship with these people, even if you don't speak much Italian. Being appreciative - saying "please" and thanking them - is important.

In a villa, you're going into someone's private home and being looked after by their staff. They're going to want to know what you want for dinner and whether you want your personal laundry done. There's going to be interaction between you and the house staff.

Q. Who owns the villas you handle?

A. Many properties in our portfolio are important villas of important families that come out of history books. I won't give you names, but these are homes they've owned for generations - sometimes 500 to 700 years. These are aristocrats. Fabulous people who are extremely well-traveled and well-educated.

Others are young professionals who are successful.

Homes we represent are the owners' third or even 10th home - not their primary residences. These are vacation homes they may use three weeks a year. They give us a certain number of weeks they're willing to rent.

They want their houses to be appreciated. They'll ask, "What did they think of the house? Did they have a good stay?" They'll bring the guest book and say, "Read to me - what did they say?"

Q. What kind of money are we looking at here?

A. $10,000 and up per week for a house. That includes cleaning in the a.m., a welcome dinner on arrival. Plus all the trip planning we do - hours and hours on the phone even before they book with us. It also covers concierge service there.

So people are well-looked-after.

Most who come to us are repeat customers or come on a referral.

Q. And where did you go on vacation in 2006?

A. Truth be told, I have not vacationed in Italy in a long time. I love Italy, but Italy is work. It is the phone ringing.

This summer, my family went to Sequoia National Park in California. We did rent a house. That's how we always travel, if we can.


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