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Times Online

Italy for adventurers

by Marc Zakian of the Sunday Times

 

Abruzzo is Italy encapsulated. From the peaks of the Gran Sasso to the wild wolves in the national park; from its craggy medieval hill towns to the parasols of the Adriatic coast, this region has everything the Italophile could wish for.

 

So why haven’t we all heard about it? Well, this sparsely populated region, still the stronghold of olive farmers and fishermen, is shrouded by the Apennines and overshadowed by its entrepreneurial northern neighbour, Le Marche.

Andrew Turner and his wife, Emilia, sold their Oxford home and moved to Abruzzo last February. “We chose the area because Emilia was born in Pescara,” explains Turner, an internet consultant. “We were searching for a farmhouse with some land, but one day an agent suggested we take a look at a medieval palazzo. The moment we stepped into the courtyard, we knew we wanted to live there.”

Their palazzo is in Penne. With 30 rooms over six floors, there is plenty of space for Turner to operate his consultancy and for his two daughters to run around. “The town retains its old feel,” he says. “I bought a 25-year-old Fiat 500 to negotiate the narrow streets. Penne people are very friendly. There are no chain stores, just family butchers, greengrocers and bakers, where everybody says hello to each other. The locals struggle to understand my bad Italian, but have welcomed me with open arms. They know my name in the fishmongers, but when we reserve our fish they affectionately write inglese (English) on the packet.”

A few months after moving to Penne, the Turners started Abruzzo Properties. “Abruzzese estate agents speak only Italian, so when English buyers turned up they would ask Emilia to translate,” says Turner. “We realised a service was needed, so we created a package for English house-hunters. For a fixed fee we locate properties, take people on viewings, negotiate, oversee the purchase and provide after-sales advice. We are not an agency, but vendors often come directly to us with their properties.

“Abruzzo’s charm is that things are a bit old-fashioned. So if you want to buy a house here, it can be tricky. Estate agents don’t have shop windows. They don’t advertise and often don’t have e-mail, or even computers. Things work by word of mouth — fine for locals, but not much good if you are based in the UK.”

Most of the Turners’ clients are second-home buyers hoping to spend their summers in an Italian farmhouse. In Abruzzo this is a dream they can afford. “With £40,000 you can buy a two-storey, three-bedroom farmhouse,” says Turner. You’ll need another £40,000 for the conversion, which typically involves turning the stalls downstairs into a living area. Most properties come with a couple of acres of land and have a view of the valley or the sea.

“The closer you get to Pescara,” Turner adds, “the higher the prices. Many of the properties along the coast are hotels or monotonous seaside residences. But step inland a bit and you find something more original. At the top of the price range are the ‘noble’ palazzos. We have a client selling a 50-room, 18th-century palazzo in the town of Catignano. He’s asking £400,000, and you’ll need to spend the same to restore it, but when it’ s finished it will be a very special place.”

Another British couple who fell for Abruzzo are Bimbi Bellhouse, an interior designer, and her husband, Spencer Power. “Buying a house in Abruzzo was a combination of fate and financial logic,” says Bellhouse, the owner of the London-based design company Bellhouse & Co. “I made friends with the architect Ena Santoleri, who comes from an old Abruzzese family. When I realised that we could buy a house in Abruzzo and convert it for less than £300,000, it seemed mad not to do it,” she says. “For the cost of a one-bedroom flat in Notting Hill, we found that we could get a holiday house that sleeps 12 people, with a swimming pool. And for what I’d spend on a round of coffees in London I could take my guests out to dinner in a local trattoria.”

Last April, Bellhouse and Power found a farmhouse in the countryside south of Pescara. Their choice of property was unusual: “Our 1960s farmhouse is well-proportioned but unprepossessing. But the location is fantastic: right at the top of a hill with panoramic views. The Apennines are on one side, the sea on the other, and our five acres of olive groves behind.”

As you would expect from a designer, Bellhouse is giving her house a makeover. “We are replacing the roof, so that it looks more like a period house, and putting in old wooden beams and antique fireplaces. Spencer is a specialist painter and is planning some faux panelling in the entrance hall. By next Easter I hope to be cooking in my large Abruzzese kitchen with olive oil from our own trees.”

The couple are managing the conversion themselves. “Ena Santoleri’s firm drew the plans, but I speak Italian so I am supervising the work,” explains Bellhouse. “I wouldn’t recommend this to people who don’t understand the language or know the region. The Abruzzese have their own way of working: I had to persuade my builder to take the job because he’d never worked on a house outside his valley before.”

Luca Catalano, from the property company Realinvest, says that buying and restoring in Abruzzo can be tricky. “There are potential pitfalls in emerging markets,” he cautions. “It’s hard to compare prices when a lot of deals are done by word of mouth. Sometimes hard-to-sell houses are presented as overpriced ‘packages’ for foreign buyers. And restoration-lovers should be wary: an abandoned farm may seem a snip at £20,000, but if you have to pay for utilities to be brought in, the final value of the restored property could be less than the costs.”

To make second-home buyers feel more comfortable, Realinvest tries to work in an English way. “Italian estate agents take 3% from a buyer. We don’t charge for our developments,” says Catalano. “We arrange a package for our clients, which includes notaries and mortgages. Italian banks are rather old-fashioned, so I encourage our clients to take out loans in euros with one of the British building societies that operate in Italy. Some people like to borrow money in the UK, but they will have to pay a fee to change their money to euros.

“If you get it right,” Catalano continues, “Abruzzo is as an excellent new market for English buyers. The countryside is similar to Tuscany and Umbria, but it has the advantage that in summer you can take your kids to the beach, and in winter Abruzzo’s cheap and friendly ski resorts are on hand. The national park is home to bears and wolves and has the best trekking in Italy.”

So is Abruzzo the new Tuscany? Well, the Britons buying there display the same pioneering spirit as those who “discovered” Chiantishire some 30 years ago. And they all agree that Abruzzo is one of the most discreetly welcoming places in Italy.

This medieval palazzo (to the right of the church) is in the centre of Catignano. It doesn’t come with land but has a large terrace with a view of the valley, and original marble and terracotta floors. It is being sold for £418,000.

 

Source: Times Online December 07, 2003