The sugar and spice merchants of Amsterdam’s Golden Age, Venetian sea captains with wealth to invest in Montenegro and Parisian grandees of the 17th century had one thing in common – they all wished to live by water. The homes these people left behind them are remarkable in two respects: their architectural splendour and the price premium they now carry. Because a waterfront vista is real-estate gold, and across Europe buyers regularly accept the need to pay a substantial surcharge to live beside a lake, river, canal or harbour in search of that most elusive of 21st-century luxuries: tranquillity.
Lake Como has attracted popes and aristocrats seeking to escape the heat of Milan for centuries. Today buyers tend to be mainly Europeans and North Americans shopping for a summer home. Rupert Fawcett, head of Knight Frank’s Italian department, says that the only area overseas buyers seriously consider is the western “leg” of the Y-shaped Lake Como, between Como town, the Bellagio Peninsula and Menaggio. This stretch of shoreline is no more beautiful than the rest of the lake, but enjoys ease of access to Milan and the Swiss border. Its oldest properties are 16th- to 18th-century classical piles, built for Italian merchants and a handful of Victorian gentlemen taking a hiatus at the lake during a Grand Tour of Europe. They range in size from around 300sq m to 700sq m, and the entry price for a waterfront home is between €3m and €5m.
Sotheby’s International Realty is currently selling a charming 550sq m pink-rendered villa, with four bedrooms for €8m. At the topmost end of the market, Fawcett says prices reach up to around €35m. For this a buyer could expect a five- to six-bedroom property, with a boathouse and two or three acres of land – a veritable country estate in Como. Crucially the lake road would run behind, not in front of, the villa to ensure peace and total privacy.
Finding a historic house with a contemporary interior is rare on Lake Como. Most new owners have to get to grips with a renovation, although the theme tends to be low-key luxury. “This is not a blingy, ‘look at my house’ area,” says Fawcett. “It is muted rather than gold taps and the like.”
While Como residents enjoy a laid-back vibe, the palazzi of Venice attract buyers seeking a degree of opulence. Since the 13th century the leading families of the city have wanted a home overlooking the Grand Canal, and this meandering waterway has not lost any of its appeal. Ann-Marie Doyle, director of Sotheby’s International Realty in Venice, says most buyers prefer the slightly quieter stretch south of the Rialto Bridge down to San Marco and Dorsoduro. “It’s home to some particularly important palaces, and because the canal widens out here you really get an amazing vista,” she explains.
Palazzi tend to have been converted into large lateral flats – six or seven bedrooms is not uncommon – with buyers unafraid of statement interior design and particularly drawn to the first floor (or piano nobile). This floor contained the original main entertaining rooms, with their towering ceilings, lavish frescoes and terrazzo floors. Sotheby’s International Realty is selling a 450sq m four-bedroom, six-bathroom apartment on the piano nobile of a Grand Canal, with marble floors and ornate ceilings adorned with Renaissance-style frescoes, priced at €5.9m.
Italy has had a gruelling recession, and Doyle says canal‑front prices in Venice have changed little since 2007, standing at about €16,150 per sq m. This stagnation means that the city has missed out on the developer frenzy seen in London. Most apartments on the Grand Canal are in reasonable condition, but cosmetic work is generally required to enhance these grandest of renovation projects.
In London, where a strong prime market has brought huge investment into the city centre, some of the world’s leading architects have redefined the banks of the River Thames, smashing price ceilings with a series of modern (and often modernist) apartment buildings. “Anywhere else in London, unless you happen to face a park, is just a few metres from another building,” explains Fran Moynihan, head of Savills’ waterfront team. “Overlooking the river you get a sense of space and tranquillity – even as London gets busier and busier.”
For Moynihan, the premier spot lies on the south bank of the Thames between the Battersea and Albert bridges. “The draw is the view of Albert Bridge and the proximity to Chelsea and Battersea Park,” she explains.
This stretch of real estate is dominated by slightly older developments, heavy on steel, concrete and glass, notably Albion Riverside and Riverside One, both designed by Foster + Partners (Lord Foster once lived in Riverside One’s penthouse). A six-bedroom, 555sq m lateral apartment in Albion Riverside with a highly contemporary style is currently for sale with H Barnes & Co and Knight Frank for £12m (£21,620 per sq m); but Moynihan says average values along this particular stretch are usually a little lower – around £16,150 per sq m – while a home facing away from the river would be valued at about £12,400 per sq m.
In traffic-choked Paris, the exclusive Île Saint-Louis is a relatively peaceful enclave. Not only is this a romantic little island in the Seine, but its tangle of one-way streets is generally avoided by motorists passing through. This, plus its central location (within a leisurely walk of the Centre Pompidou and Le Marais), makes it hugely popular with buyers from the UK, the US and the Middle East who wish to spend springtime in Paris, says Clément Felisa, head of Athena Advisers’ Paris office.
The island’s elegant buildings predate central Paris’s 19th-century Haussmannian boulevards. They were built during the reign of King Louis XIII, two centuries earlier, as a restful escape for the great and the good – people who needed to live in the city but wanted to escape its noise and grime. “It is quite unique because you can feel how Paris was in older times,” says Felisa.
Most of the houses (which tend to lack the fancy ironwork and balconies one might expect from a Parisian bolthole) have been converted into apartments, and even on such a small patch of land there is a property pecking order. The “frontline” homes on the perimeter of the island command an average price of about €21,550 per sq m, with a typical 90sq m two-bedroom property costing about €2m. The most-prized homes are on the upper floors where the walk up the stairs is longer (few of these heritage buildings are equipped with lifts) but the views are the most magnificent. Savills is currently selling a fourth-floor 149sq m, three-bedroom apartment on the island for €3.715m with poetic views of the Seine and the Panthéon.
An entirely different kind of waterfront home is to be found around Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, described by Unesco as “one of the most magnificent ‘fjords’ in Europe”, with mountains rising steeply from the shoreline. The bay lacks beaches but its deep water lends it to maritime pursuits, and its nautical traditions date back to the Byzantine era.
Montenegro’s patchwork history of conquest and independence saw Kotor fall under the control of Venice between the 15th and 18th centuries. During this period sea captains and shipowners had grand villas and palaces built on its shoreline. These stone houses, usually protected from prying eyes by walled gardens, are today highly prized by overseas buyers – in particular those from the former Soviet nations and the UK.
They are generally sold as holiday homes to buyers who value privacy above the contemporary comforts of a new-build apartment in one of Montenegro’s upscale marina developments, notably Porto Montenegro. And unlike many other water-view homes, these properties often have a mooring or jetty and are wonderful for the sailing enthusiast who wishes to explore the coastline of the Balkans and Italy.
According to Aleksandar Kovacˇevic´, sales director of Dream Estates Montenegro, a typical villa would measure around 300-600sq m and be priced at between €1.5m and €3m. A palace would typically be between 745sq m and 835sq m, and sell for €4m to €5m. However, Kovacˇevic´ is currently selling one of the country’s largest palaces, the baroque Tripkovic´ Palace, near the village of Dobrota, which measures almost 1,150sq m. Price is on request.
Montenegro’s palaces were built as showpieces. Central Amsterdam’s most aspirational addresses date from the Dutch Golden Age and were built with more practical purposes in mind. The original occupants of the 17th- and 18th-century townhouses, which were built lining the city’s three great canals – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – were merchants.
Most canal houses have a hook embedded close to the eaves, the anchor of a pulley system. Some also tilt forwards, not a structural fault but a deliberate design feature to prevent wares from crashing into the front of the house as they were pulled up and down by rope.
Today canal-belt residents include a mix of Dutch families and international couples working in Amsterdam; lately the area has also been attracting British buy-to-let investors driven out of the UK by increasing taxes.
Homes overlooking the canals cost anything between €4,000 and €13,000 per sq m (10 or 20 per cent more than similar homes in the canal belt’s small side streets). Exact prices are determined by a whole series of factors. Smaller apartments, for example, tend to cost more per square metre than larger homes because there is a greater demand. Garden flats or homes with a roof terrace also attract higher prices, as do homes on the exquisite “golden curve” of the Herengracht.
Traditionally the fashionable gravitated towards De Negen Straatjes, nine streets towards the northern end of the canal belt, full of shops and restaurants. But the clamour of tourists (the noise of wheeled suitcases on cobblestones being a particular complaint) has begun driving increasing numbers towards the quieter southern end of the belt.
Although most canal houses are divided into flats, some whole houses do survive. Engel & Völkers is currently selling a painstakingly renovated 18th-century canal house on Keizersgracht with six bedrooms (825 sq m) for €10m.
The ambience of the canal belt attracts buyers, despite its significant practical downfalls. While beautiful, canal houses generally lack gardens and lifts, and on-street parking is a major problem. The houses are also narrow (an architectural conceit designed to avoid window taxes), making lateral living out of the question.
Nonetheless, demand is strong. “The houses have so much style and they were built with so much care,” says Barbara van der Grijp, managing director of Engel & Völkers in Amsterdam. “Each is unique and the atmosphere so special. The canal belt is like a little village. It is the most wonderful way to live.”