The invitation game

The TV presenter Donna Air has stayed at a friend’s holiday home in Portofino most years since 2005. She tells Audrey Ward how to keep the hospitality flowing.

Donna Air is a perennial overseas house guest. The model, actress and presenter often holidays with pals in their stylish villas and chichi homes from home, regularly staying with friends in the Bahamas, Montauk and the Hamptons. Earlier this year, she enjoyed a week in Mallorca at another pal’s pad, and she’s now making plans to hotfoot it to Portofino, in Italy, for her annual minibreak at a friend’s farmhouse.
As the autumnal weather begins to take hold, skipping abroad to make use of friends with second-home benefits sounds like the perfect antidote. So will James Middleton be joining her? Air, who has been dating the Duchess of Cambridge’s younger brother on and off for the past three years, coyly replies: “I’m not sure who I’ll be going with.”
Yet being a house guest can throw up a host of issues — and, indeed, uncover a host with issues. Remember the family spat that hit the headlines a couple of years ago? One poor young woman was invited to stay with her fiancé and his father and wife, only to receive an email from the stepmother after her visit, outlining transgressions she had allegedly committed. These included staying in bed too late, cracking inappropriate jokes, taking extra helpings of food, failing to send a thank-you card and leaving the family dog traumatised and depressed.
When it comes to staying in someone’s home abroad, it seems the absence of a host — or even an invitation — should not always be a deterrent. Air, 37, isn’t sure if Richard Wolman, her friend of 14 years and the owner of that Italian farmhouse, will be there when she visits in the next few weeks. “I go with or without Richard. I copy everyone in on the email — his wife, his PA and him. It’s not like a set plan, it’s organic,” she says between nibbles of hummus and pitta bread.
Doesn’t she ever feel a bit uncomfortable pitching up at someone else’s holiday home? The secret is to choose your host wisely. “I only stay with people I know well,” Air says. “My friends are all really good hosts, they’re quite relaxed.
“I never feel guilty, because I host a lot, too. I’ve spent years being a host — I think fair’s fair.”
Air, who grew up in Newcastle and started out as an actress in the children’s television series Byker Grove, is certainly well placed to advise on the dos and don’ts of house-hopping, as she’s been on both sides of the sun-burnished front door. During the seven years she spent with the businessman and conservationist Damian Aspinall, they entertained friends and family at Howletts, his neo-Palladian pile in Kent, and at a mansion retreat in South Africa. The couple separated in 2007, and now she plays hostess in her Chelsea townhouse.
Air first rocked up to Wolman’s home on the Italian Riviera with her daughter, Freya, now 12, in 2005. “Richard’s a relaxed guy. He said, ‘Sure, come and stay whenever you like.’ It was probably a long weekend — the first visit anywhere, you just want to stay for a few days.
“We went swimming, down to the port, had a lovely walk in the nature reserve at the back of the house. He’s a keen sailor, loves being on the boat, on the water. There were lots of lovely lunches, lots of pesto.”
The secluded property has wooden floors, original beams and exposed brickwork, and is tastefully kitted out with African art. The grounds, with two pools and olive groves, are tended by a team of six gardeners.
Over the years, Wolman acquired some neighbouring land, and now owns about 60 acres. The main house and a second farmhouse sleep six people each, and two converted barns house eight in total, so the property is not quite as compact as the French gîte or Spanish apartment the rest of us might find ourselves in.
Wolman, a South African doctor and consultant, lives in London with his German wife, Astrid, and their two children. His search for a home from home on the mount of Portofino began back in the 1990s. “It was pre-internet searching, and I found an ad in the classified section of The Sunday Times,” he recalls. “I called the number and the person I spoke to said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. We don’t know of any houses there, but we’ll see what we can do.’ Three months later, they called me. They’d heard of a little rustica, a farmhouse. I was on the plane the next day.”
Finding a property was one thing — buying it was an even greater undertaking. “It hadn’t been sold for hundreds of years,” says Wolman, 59. “It had been owned by 13 family members and they were all at war with each other. We got it with the help of a 90-year-old lawyer from Genoa.”
Bureaucratic tangles meant it was four years before their first overnight stay. Wolman is tight-lipped as to what he paid, and the costs of the renovation, but even the overheads must be an eye-watering sum. “There’s a huge amount of work involved in managing this place. It’s endless toil, but I love it. I’m a project man, and the gardens are my passion.”
He says the property is at “the centre of Europe, a place where friends and family from all our own histories can visit and pass through”. And he has no problem with being tapped up for a bed. “Our home has always been about getting a call and someone saying, ‘Can I come?’ It’s not an invite — whenever you want to come, you can come.”
He dubs his house guests “the tribe”. “Donna is part of the extended family. She will come and stay whenever she wants. She can pop in and bring other people as well. To me, it’s not about ownership.”
A holiday in a friend’s overseas home shouldn’t cause friction, Air says — and with sterling having taken a tumble this summer, and accommodation abroad costing more, maybe the rest of us should forget about the staycation and be a bit more shameless about gaining free entry.
Wolman has a similarly relaxed attitude on whether guests should pay their way. “If they’re close friends, they just stay. If it’s more formal and it’s the weeks we’re not there during the summer, then they pay.” He lets the main house for a minimum of a week, at a rate of €3,300 (£2,850) a day. “We will let the place to various people, but they always have to be like-minded — we won’t put it on the commercial market. They have to be part of the tribe or known by the tribe.”
There are only a few house rules. “No smoking in the house or dropping butts in the garden, and don’t leave wet trunks on the sofa.” He sees no need for an endless list of regulations: he and Astrid prefer to tackle any issues head-on. “It’s all very honest — if someone does something like that, we’re all open.”
As well as the gardeners, there’s a driver who “schleps everyone around. The house is always functioning. Our housekeeper is a fantastic cook, the best on the mountain.” There’s no need for guests to clean up or to do the shopping, either, because Wolman grows his own fruit and vegetables.
“We produce so much food,” he says, “but if there are extras and we’re not there, the guests will contribute. They are very generous to the staff — they give them good tips. It’s just good behaviour and good manners.”
I expect Air to concur on the subject of tipping, but she is lukewarm. “It depends on the house. I wouldn’t tip the staff at Richard’s place — I don’t get involved in his affairs. But I get it for some people. Some people like to tip staff, and that’s their prerogative.”
Little gestures of gratitude are the thing. “Monetary stuff — I don’t work like that. It’s not an exchange of money, it’s an exchange of kindness. I think that’s really important. I tend to bring food to Richard’s house. I like to take nice photographs, frame them and send them to people, or get little gifts for people’s children, or smellies.”
She says bottles of vino are a no-no —“I’m never going to take wine as a gift, because people like to choose their own” — but treating the hosts to a meal in a local trattoria is a good alternative. “It’s nice to take friends out for supper.”
There’s always the risk that you’ll be bounced into the host’s routine, but Air reckons exercising a degree of independence will head off any strife. “I like guests to be gracious, to be self-sufficient. There’s nothing worse than feeling you have to constantly look after someone. It’s important to give your hosts space. At Richard’s, everybody does what they want and we all gather at mealtimes.”
Air says you should learn a few words of the local language — although she ignores her own advice. “I feel utterly useless for not speaking the language everywhere I go, and sort of ashamed, because it is nice to make an effort.”
Then she starts to giggle. “I really like it when the staff go a bit Fawlty Towers, because it’s always quite amusing. I remember once asking someone for my yoga mat, and I think they brought me a yogurt. Things like that are quite entertaining.”
It sounds as if the friends happily navigate the delicacies of the host and guest relationship, but surely Wolman has encountered some freeloaders who have behaved appallingly? He admits that he and his wife had to turf out one badly behaved visitor, a friend of a friend, earlier this year. He was guilty of “narcissistic, entitled behaviour”, Wolman explains. “The final straw was going to a restaurant where there were about 10 of us. This person sat down, ordered everything and was quite bossy around the waiters, which I abhor.
“Then, when it came to the end of the dinner, when the men were saying ‘pay time’, this person disappeared.” Later that evening, Astrid remarked to her husband: “He’s out”. She marched up to the man and said: “You know what? I think you should leave.” He was spirited away in their car by one of the staff.
Given the guest’s lack of manners, it’s unlikely that he sent a thank-you card, but Air is an advocate: “Super-important — I’ve always sent thank-you cards.” She also recommends ’fessing up straightaway if you break something. Yet on the question of the lazy lie-in in someone else’s home, she’s less of a stickler. “I want to sleep in late on holiday. Isn’t it lovely to do that?”
Future mothers-in-law and holiday hosts, take note.