The new allure of homes in untrodden Italy

Savvy buyers are discovering an under-the-radar Italy, drawn by a plentiful mix of palatial grandeur and lakeside luxe that rivals the glamour of the country’s prime property hotspots. Ruth Bloomfield reports

A 15-bedroom, 15th-century villa near Lake Iseo in northern Italy, sitting in six hectares of parkland, €12m through Lionard
A 15-bedroom, 15th-century villa near Lake Iseo in northern Italy, sitting in six hectares of parkland, €12m through Lionard

There are regions of Italy that have tempted overseas buyers for generations, from Lake Como to Chianti and the Amalfi Coast. But new research suggests that international buyers are beginning to tire of old favourites and are seeking out more rustic, untrodden corners of the country – without forgoing the fabulous beaches, lakeside views and open countryside that an Italian bolthole promises. These lesser-known enclaves may lack designer boutiques and famous residents but are also free from tourists and offer a wider range of outstanding properties for sale. According to Gate-away, the Italian property portal, requests for information from overseas buyers relating to homes around Lake Como fell 22.6 per cent year on year, while interest in property around Lake Maggiore, which straddles Piedmont and Lombardy, rose by 64.65 per cent. At Lake Iseo in Lombardy, enquiries shot up by 76.98 per cent.

 A 20-bedroom, 3,000sq m villa on the shores of Lake Iseo, with panelled walls, frescoes and barrel-vaulted ceilings, €3.7m through Lionard
A 20-bedroom, 3,000sq m villa on the shores of Lake Iseo, with panelled walls, frescoes and barrel-vaulted ceilings, €3.7m through Lionard

Ian Heath, a broker at Lionard estate agents, has witnessed this shift first hand, pointing out that “front row” homes around Lake Maggiore are some 40 per cent cheaper (and more plentiful) than around Lake Como – an area that has attracted the wealthy to its scenic shores since Roman times – and he says, is “more of a sellers’ market”. Cost and availability are not the only attractions for buyers. “Lake Maggiore is more generously spaced out and peaceful, and its houses are just as grand,” says Heath. The key towns in the locale lie on the western, Piedmont side of the lake – in particular the resort town of Stresa (once a favourite with Ernest Hemingway) and its lower-key and smaller neighbour Lesa. About 1.25km south of here is La Verbanella, a lakeside villa owned by the Mondadori publishing family since the 1920s, which is now being sold by Engel & Völkers. During their time at the house, the family received many famous guests, who would sign the chimneypiece before they left – Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann are among the signatories. The 1,400sq m property is ideal for parties (it has 20 bedrooms) and is listed for €4.8m. 

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Lake Iseo is also gaining traction with those in search of waterfront living. “Its brand is growing,” says Heath, who believes buyers who fail to find what they want beside Italy’s popular lakes are becoming more flexible in their search – and Lake Iseo’s towns and villages have an authentic feel, with properties (many grand in scale) almost exclusively Italian-owned. At the top end of the market is a ravishing villa 3.2km south of the lake and dating back to the 1400s, on sale for €12m through Lionard. The recently renovated 15-bedroom property resides in six hectares of parkland. For those who prefer to put their own mark on a palatial pile, the agent is also offering a 20-bedroom house in need of renovation for €3.7m. The historic villa, with its 3,000sq m of panelled walls, frescoes and barrel-vaulted ceilings, is situated on the west side of the lake with dramatic vistas of the water and mountains.

The Lake Iseo villa’s courtyard
The Lake Iseo villa’s courtyard

Like Heath, Simone Rossi, co-founder of Gate-away, has seen “a growing trend among clients for experiencing a less touristy and more authentic Italian lifestyle”, with buyers honing in on locations offering a far wider selection of properties for sale than in competitive, traditional second-home markets. “It’s not happened overnight but people are starting to notice that these areas offer a lot of options,” he says. Consequently, buyers are increasingly eyeing the northernmost tip of Tuscany, notably mountainous Lunigiana, which sits at the foot of the Apennines and the Alps. Here, Gate-away has found enquiries have risen 21.91 per cent year on year.

 A four-bedroom apartment within a baroque palazzo in Lecce, €1.15m through Engel & Völkers
A four-bedroom apartment within a baroque palazzo in Lecce, €1.15m through Engel & Völkers

Lunigiana is a romantic territory full of unspoilt villages, crisscrossed with medieval trails and scattered with scores of isolated towers and castles. The vibe is of splendid isolation but the area is surprisingly well connected with several international airports (including Pisa, Genoa and Parma) about an hour’s drive away. It is also prized for its proximity to both the area’s beach resorts – including La Spezia and Monterosso al Mare – and ski destinations such as Zum Zeri Passo Due Santi, making it a year-round option. William Filippi, estate agent at Terra di Lunigiana, says that interest in Lunigiana has been a slow burn since the 1990s (when it was discovered by pioneering Dutch buyers). Word has spread, gradually. “It’s is a very traditional part of Tuscany and free of industry,” he says. “It’s typically Italian and the landscape is amazing – it’s mountainous but there are also chestnut trees, olive groves and vineyards.” 

An eight-bedroom palazzo in Licciana Nardi that was reputedly owned by the noble Malaspina family, €1.5m through L’Architrave
An eight-bedroom palazzo in Licciana Nardi that was reputedly owned by the noble Malaspina family, €1.5m through L’Architrave

While there’s barely a castle or farmhouse in prime Tuscan territory that has not been renovated, those with an interest in restoring a ruin can find rich pickings in Lunigiana. According to Filippi, a stone farmhouse in need of restoration can be secured for as little as €50,000, while fully restored homes go for around €300,000. Apartments, sometimes found within a palazzo and resplendent with original features such as frescoed walls, cost around €100,000 to €150,000, which makes them an inexpensive option for those looking to expand their property portfolio. Right now, there is a fabulous eight-bedroom palazzo for sale for €1.5m through L’Architrave estate agents that was reputedly owned by the noble Malaspina family, who ruled Lunigiana from the 14th until the end of the 18th century, and which nestles in the extremely picturesque town of Licciana Nardi.

A sitting room in the Licciana Nardi palazzo
A sitting room in the Licciana Nardi palazzo

Across Italy, overseas buyers tend to hail from either North America, mainland Europe or the UK and, according to Rossi, while they are looking for a spacious country house, proximity to a beach is also high on their wish list. And it’s along the coast in the Salento region, which occupies the heel of the “boot” of southern Italy, where the market for homes is heating up. Here, says Rossi, there has been a 25.24 per cent per cent hike in enquiries from overseas clients, making it one of the most sought-after locations in Italy. Lecce, “the Florence of the South”, is a city known for its abundant and spectacular baroque architecture and Viktoria Kim, a director of Engel & Völkers, finds buyers of all nationalities interested in historic homes – a palazzo in the centre of the Old Town, or maybe a masseria (farmhouse) in the quiet and simply gorgeous nearby town of Nardò. Buyers here tend not to crave a place right by the sea, preferring to keep their options open. “We are bordered by two coasts: the Adriatic and the Ionian,” says Kim. “If you buy in the centre of these, it is possible to be on the east or west side in 10 to 15 minutes.” Gate-away has a great three-bedroom bolthole for sale at €550,000 in a swathe of green countryside just outside the coastal town of Otranto, benefiting from an infinity pool and an outdoor kitchen with barbecue. In Lecce, meanwhile, Engel & Völkers is offering a four-bedroom apartment within the baroque Palazzo Rossi for €1.15m.

The chimneypiece at La Verbanella near Lake Maggiore, signed by visitors such as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann
The chimneypiece at La Verbanella near Lake Maggiore, signed by visitors such as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann

The uptick in interest in these locations has occurred against a backdrop of long-term price falls across Italy. Eurostat, which monitors EU house prices, found that average prices across the EU increased by 11 per cent between 2010 and 2017. However, they fell 15 per cent in Italy during the same period, making it Europe’s worst performer after Spain. But there’s good news, as real estate firm Knight Frank reports a “significant” increase in the sale of Italian properties valued at €10m and above – citing UK, Italian and US buyers as responsible for the most online property viewings. 

The 1,400sq m La Verbanella villa is €4.8m through Engel & Völkers
The 1,400sq m La Verbanella villa is €4.8m through Engel & Völkers

Heath has seen a similar spike in interest, with his firm receiving “300 to 400 new enquiries from overseas each month”. He describes the top end of the Italian market as “confident and robust”, with prime market prices consolidating and, in some cases, increasing. “Our international clientele are buying second, third and fourth homes. They want to expand their property portfolio but they’re not purchasing houses to make a 10 per cent return each year – they are seeking a better quality of life.”    

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