Homes in art-rich cities

Pieds-à-terre in Europe’s historic art cities have never looked so attractive, offering centrally placed period renovations and sleek apartments at below premium prices. Lisa Freedman reports

St Mark’s Basilica and Square, Venice
St Mark’s Basilica and Square, Venice | Image: © Stefano Amantini/4Corners Images

When interior decorator Julia Panama first flew into Venice from Los Angeles 15 years ago, she arrived when it was already dark – and instantly fell in love. “The light over the lagoon at night made the buildings seem the same colour as the water. It was magical.” Since then, her passion for the city has grown ever stronger. “I adore Venice. It attracts very interesting, artsy types and has fabulous art and music. It’s just great, great fun.”

Julia Panama’s three-bedroom property in Venice, €1.8m through Knight Frank
Julia Panama’s three-bedroom property in Venice, €1.8m through Knight Frank

Over the past few years, much of the European property market has been going through rather a rough patch, but there remain wealthy buyers from around the world whose purchasing decisions are dictated only peripherally by financial considerations. These buyers, often with a number of homes, are looking for a lifestyle – a beautiful location, a rich heritage, a lively cultural scene. For them, today’s conditions could not be more ideal. “If you’ve got money now,” says Bill Thomson, who heads the Italian network of international estate agent Knight Frank, “you won’t be paying a premium. There are plenty of people who want to sell, sometimes at indecently low prices.”

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For many, Italy remains unrivalled in this “lifestyle” category, and the two powerhouses of the Renaissance, Venice and Florence, continue to have a universal romantic resonance. Few would dispute that Venice is one of the world’s loveliest cities. Largely built by the mercantile oligarchs who helped develop its dominating trading power in the 13th to 18th centuries, its watery byways are still lined with grand case – Byzantine, Gothic, baroque and rococo – whose interiors were ornamented by the finest artists of the time.

Spiral of the Galaxy sculpture by Marc Quinn, on display at the 2013 Venice Biennale
Spiral of the Galaxy sculpture by Marc Quinn, on display at the 2013 Venice Biennale | Image: Alamy

Nowadays, the most sought-after locations remain in the historic centre, on the Grand Canal, near St Mark’s Basilica and the Accademia art gallery. “If you’ve got boat access, all the better,” says Thomson. “A garden or roof space is better still, and most buyers want something in great condition, since restoration can be an expensive nightmare.” Knight Frank is currently selling a two-bedroom apartment in the 15th-century Palazzo Tron that meets these requirements pretty amply. The fully restored first-floor flat (€2.2m) is accessed through a private garden off the Campo Palazzo Fortuny and comes with a large sitting room that overlooks the Grand Canal.

A two-bedroom apartment in the historic Palazzo Tron, Venice, €2.2m through Knight Frank
A two-bedroom apartment in the historic Palazzo Tron, Venice, €2.2m through Knight Frank

The city’s exceptional artistic tradition stretches from Bellini to the Biennale, but one of its most famous residents was undoubtedly Titian, and Julia Panama’s romance with Venice eventually led her to purchase the house in which the artist lived for much of his life. Located in Cannaregio, a 15-minute walk from St Mark’s, the property sits in its own walled garden at a discreet distance from the crowds, and Panama has lovingly restored its three bedrooms and two bathrooms and introduced air conditioning, too. She manages to spend several months of the year here. “I come in the summer, then again at New Year. As well as the Biennale and the Film Festival, there’s a wonderful social scene, with parties and concerts on the Grand Canal, lunch at the Cipriani, swimming at the Lido and tennis on Murano. There’s a huge Venice crowd that goes back and forth.” Panama, who also has homes in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, is currently reshuffling her living arrangements and so is selling the house (€1.8m through Knight Frank), but certainly has no intention of leaving town. “I could never give up Venice.”

Palazzo Tornabuoni, Florence, studios from €850,000 through Knight Frank
Palazzo Tornabuoni, Florence, studios from €850,000 through Knight Frank

Florence, like Venice, has a village-like intimacy, but few cities, let alone villages, can rival it for the quantity and quality of its art, with a treasure trove of works by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael still located at the sites for which they were first created , or in museums a few feet away. Today, it remains as much a magnet for cultured residents as it is for tourists. “Tuscany has stood up well over the past five years, particularly in terms of unique properties, restored and historic villas, and apartments within easy reach of the city centre,” says Gemma Bruce, Italy consultant at estate agent Aylesford International. “Florence is a rich and sophisticated place and people want to be near the museums and restaurants. Then, of course, it has mind-blowingly beautiful property.”

The seven-bedroom Villa Collalto, overlooking Florence, €6.8m through Aylesford International
The seven-bedroom Villa Collalto, overlooking Florence, €6.8m through Aylesford International

The Palazzo Tornabuoni, once home to Pope Leo XI and the Medici family, undoubtedly comes into this last category. It was designed in the 15th century by Michelozzo, also author of the Palazzo Medici, and its noble Renaissance interior has now been converted into 38 magnificent apartments, the majority for sale as private homes (studios from €850,000 through Knight Frank), the remainder available via a fractional-ownership club. The club – which those who own properties outright can also join – allows members plenty of opportunity to submerge themselves in the “real” Florence.

Statues in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence
Statues in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence | Image: © Giovanni Simeone/SIME/4Corners Images

“People who buy in Florence love the art and culture,” says Riccardo Maccolini, president of Club Tornabuoni. “They may come here to learn Italian or take a painting course, but they want to feel at home, not experience the city as tourists.” To accommodate this not unnatural desire, the Palazzo mounts a lively round of events, opening doors to a Florence tourists rarely see. “Our guests are involved with associations such as the Friends of Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi and the Amici degli Uffizi. We arrange private, out-of-hours visits and give concerts and lectures at the Palazzo.”

Norman Foster’s dome on the Reichstag, Berlin
Norman Foster’s dome on the Reichstag, Berlin | Image: © Günter Gräfenhain/4Corners Images

The Palazzo Tornabuoni is in the historic heart of Florence, a few minutes’ stroll from the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi, but even the greatest art aficionado may not necessarily want to be submerged in a constant bustle. Those looking for more tranquil living will find it near Fiesole, just 10 minutes’ drive away. Here, the fully restored Villa Collalto (€6.8m through Aylesford) offers seven bedrooms and two hectares of land, as well as a superb vantage point of the Duomo and the silvery ribbon of the Arno.

Living 108, apartments from €229,500 through Berlin Capital Investments
Living 108, apartments from €229,500 through Berlin Capital Investments

Berlin does not perhaps share the sybaritic reputation of its more southerly counterparts, but its own post-reunification renaissance has made it one of Europe’s most cutting-edge cultural destinations. Since the wall was breached in 1989, it has been transformed from a largely charmless urban expanse to an energetic, liveable city in which east and west have been knitted together by a whirlwind of regeneration. Its great historic museums and cultural institutions (including three world-class opera houses) have been restored and revitalised, while many of today’s leading architects, from Norman Foster (whose glass dome tops the Reichstag) to Daniel Libeskind (author of the landmark Jewish museum), have contributed to making it the most striking of modern metropolises. “Berlin is a great artistic hub,” says Anthony Lassman, director and founder of Nota Bene, the tastemaking private luxury-travel club. “It’s very tolerant, very open and filled with design studios, artists and architects. It’s an exciting place to be.”

A three-bedroom apartment on the Paseo de Gracia, overlooking Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, Barcelona, €3m through Lucas Fox
A three-bedroom apartment on the Paseo de Gracia, overlooking Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, Barcelona, €3m through Lucas Fox | Image: Lucas Fox

The residential property market here is as newly minted as the city itself. Until about five years ago, private-home ownership was very much a minority interest, but the prime residential market has grown at an unprecedented rate, fuelled by an influx of major businesses (such as Twitter, Daimler and Siemens) and vastly improved infrastructure (within the next year or so Brandenburg Airport is scheduled to become Germany’s third largest). Now supply cannot keep pace with demand and, according to Alex Upson, director of Cluttons Resorts, last year prices rose by 8-10 per cent.

A Gaudí gatehouse at Park Güell, Barcelona
A Gaudí gatehouse at Park Güell, Barcelona | Image: © GlowCam/SIME/4Corners Images

Around a third of new luxury homes sold in Berlin are bought by people from outside the country, and Jonathan Dolling, consultant for Berlin Capital Investments, has been giving international buyers advice since 2007. “The best locations are in the cultural, political and architectural centre, Mitte. When you take into account the fact that Germany is the largest economy in Europe, the city remains excellent value, with prices per sq m significantly lower than in London or Paris.”

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Though Berlin has some fine period homes, many top‑end buyers are looking for new-build developments providing international standards of luxury. Yoo Berlin is set to be the most prestigious such address when it completes this summer (from €963,000 through Cluttons Resorts). Built on the site of Max Reinhart’s Grosses Schauspielhaus, where Marlene Dietrich once trod the boards, the 10-storey building has 95 apartments, river views, a fitness centre, a café, a bar and underground parking. This type of development is increasingly attracting high-net investors from east Asia and the Middle East, as well as Europe. “Many buyers start by looking at Berlin in a fairly dispassionate way,” says Dolling, “but then realise its lifestyle attractions and decide to spend time here. It’s an excellent time to buy. In 10 years you won’t recognise it.”

Those wishing to combine investment with a well-placed pied-à-terre could not do better than Living 108 on Chausseestrasse, one of the oldest and most centrally located streets in Berlin (from €229,500 through Berlin Capital). The one- to three-bedroom apartments come complete with a fitness studio and communal roof terrace.

The Spanish property market has, of course, been more badly hit than most in the financial downturn, but Barcelona, with its exciting artistic heritage and coveted combination of city and beach, has started to see a strong renewal of interest from wealthy international buyers over the past year. “Without exception,” says Alex Vaughan, founding partner of Lucas Fox International Properties, which specialises in the luxury end of the Spanish market, “lifestyle is their primary motivation. Our buyers adore the city. It’s relatively small and everything is on their doorstep. They love the ease of access, the climate, the gastronomy – and, of course, the art.”

Architecture fans are particularly well served. Barcelona is the only city ever to have been awarded a Royal Institute of British Architects gold medal (which is normally given to individuals), and the work of its most famous talent, Antoni Gaudí (Park Güell gatehouse), is on the Unesco World Heritage List. Nor should it be forgotten that master of modernism Ludwig Mies van der Rohe gave birth to minimalist luxury living here in 1929 with his seminal Pavilion, or that most of today’s architectural superstars, from Richard Meier to Frank Gehry, have contributed their might to Barcelona’s dazzling antique-modern mix. Artistic people are also keen to purchase property in the city. “A lot of our buyers come from the arts world: photographers, painters, sculptors, musicians,” says Vaughan. “Last year, for example, Ronnie Wood bought a flat in a classic building with all the period features.”

Prices at the top end here have fallen by 20-30 per cent on average over the past seven years, but Knight Frank’s Barcelona office, which saw far healthier sales figures in 2013, believes the decline has now slowed. Lucas Fox, too, has witnessed a significant increase in turnover, with Russian and French buyers notably keen, followed closely by an international array that stretches from the British to the Chinese. Two significant recent developments have, no doubt, contributed to this reborn enthusiasm. Last year, the Spanish government introduced a “golden visa”, which allows non-EU buyers purchasing property over €500,000 to become Spanish residents and take advantage of the Shengen Agreement. More locally, this year’s completion of a superyacht marina at Barcelona’s waterfront harbour, Port Vell, will undoubtedly add to the attractions of a city National Geographic has described as “the best beach city” in the world.

Throughout Barcelona, commercial buildings are now being converted into deluxe apartments with pools, parking and air conditioning, but top-end British lifestyle buyers still tend to favour updated period perfection. One example of this is an immaculately renovated apartment on the exclusive Paseo de Gracia (€3m through Lucas Fox). Offering views over Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, it comes with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, mosaic floors and gilded panelling.

As already observed, Barcelona is as renowned for its seaside pleasures as its urban delights, and Sitges, “the St Tropez of Spain”, just to the south, is where Dalí and Picasso used to while away the summer months. Located in the town is a spectacular architect-designed three-bedroom villa (€1.98m through Lucas Fox), complete with panoramic sea views and an infinity pool, that would be the perfect place to follow in their footsteps. The art of living as the artists might have liked to have lived it.

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