I can almost guarantee that the next enquiry for a property search in Italy will be along the lines of ‘please find me a secluded stone farmhouse, or villa, with lots of character in its own grounds with pool and the kind of view you see in travel brochures’. And, indeed, having spent a fair amount of time standing in the entranceways or the grounds of such properties, I can see the appeal. But, controversially, I can see their appeal for about a week, after which you may well be left scratching your head and wondering what to do with yourself, the children and the shopping – or lack of it, as, although there is no shadow of a doubt country estates are absolutely wonderful, unless you plan to set up a religious commune, write a book or produce your own wine, what are you going to do there? This, one of the first questions I always ask prospective buyers.
On the other hand, if you bought in a town, you would have lots to do, neighbours you could actually see with the naked eye and easy access to a supermarket or a plumber. Before the idea is dismissed, let’s be clear: we are talking about a centro storico, not the Italian equivalent of Luton. There are some incredibly beautiful historic towns dotted around Italy and buying in one makes sound economic sense. Doing so also means accessibility, so that once the novelty of staring at the frescoes has worn off, you can venture out of the door into a cobbled piazza and be immediately absorbed into an authentic Italian community, where you will find any number of bars, with the aroma of fresh coffee and brioche oozing out of them, the panificio and trattoria will all be in walking distance, as will classy shops full of the kind of Italian clothes everyone drools over, as well as the local aerobics club, swimming club, ski club, among others all without having to go anywhere near a car (or, more likely, a 4×4) and do the 20-mile trek down the farm track onto a twisty B-road which after several overnight stops will land you at the nearest village to your Tuscan estate.
Beneath all of this frivolity, there is a serious point: some people really want a Tuscan estate offering seclusion and plenty of space. They buy one, get great satisfaction from using it and it’s the best decision they ever made. On the other hand, there are some who think they want a Tuscan estate, buy one and subsequently realise they don’t know what to do with themselves once in situ.
Bergamo città alta
The upper town sits on the hills at the edge of the Padana plain, overlooking the lower town. In 1428 it passed into the hands of the Republic of Venice, which left its mark by building the walls encircling the upper town, as well as palazzi, churches and convents. There are, without doubt, many beautiful historic towns, and the città alta of Bergamo is easily on a par with any of them, and unlike Florence or Venice, there are very few foreigners who have purchased there – walk through the medieval cobbled streets on a Saturday morning in the middle of summer, you will only bump into locals.
But it doesn’t stop there – take the funicular down to the lower town, and you’re in a modern centre with all that that offers, and although ‘modern’ the avenues of the città bassa present some very desirable possibilities for property purchase if your budget won’t quite stretch to the upper town. It also means a mainline railway station, the A4 Venice-Milan motorway and the Orio international airport. Being located at the foot of two principal valleys, you’re close to skiing, and as the town sits between the Lakes of Como and Iseo, you can always join the locals on Monte Isola or go George Clooney-spotting on your Harley-Davidson.
Before many of us woke up one morning to discover that our investments were worth barely more than a poke in the eye, property values were as follows in the città alta of Bergamo, and interestingly – note carefully – they have not dropped, in fact this property microclimate is even now one of the few areas where the seller dictates the price. Average price is €4000/m2 for an unrestored property, which will easily rise to €8000/m2 for something renovated. However, you could find yourself paying in the region of €10,000+/m2 in one of the palazzi in the Piazza Vecchia, the town’s main square, for example, or indeed on the town walls with their views across the plain all the way to the Apennines, in fact these views can put up to 30% on the value, but still well below Venice or nearby Milan prices, where prime locations in the neighbouring finance and fashion capital hit €20,000/m2.
The villas on the hills overlooking the città alta cost millions but if you wanted one, head to San Vigilio, a hamlet just above the town with its own funicular. More modestly, a 2-bedroom 140m2 apartment in Via Porta di Pinta, close to the town’s funicular station, with 2 bathrooms, kitchen and living room, an older renovation, went for €650,000, whereas one of its neighbours was on the market at €1.1 million. A nice one-bedroom apartment with living room and open plan kitchen, around 60-80m2, in one of the via in the heart of the old town, for example Via Colleoni, would set you back €400,000 plus. To put that in a local context, if you took the funicular down to the città bassa and bought in one of the desirable via you would get something similar in the low €200,000s. Such is the appeal of the città alta, and it is worth noting that capital gains in the old town are historically strong, so that if a property in the suburbs of Bergamo rises in value by 5%/year, in the città alta it can be expected to rise by 15%, a trend likely to continue for the next ten years of so, according to one of the FIAIP vice-presidents (the national body for realtors).
It also makes restoration a more worthwhile exercise. A friend of mine bought a small apartment behind one of the town’s piazzas, 70m2 at €3,500/m2, and restored it at a cost of €650-€800/m2. It would now be snapped up at €450,000 and would go for more if you were prepared to wait. If you do the maths you’ll see why a restoration project in the town makes sense – if you can find one.
Why buy here
Above all it’s where Italians aspire to live, and going where the locals go, you can’t go wrong – especially in Italy where the locals have a canny eye and a developed taste for property. Add to that, buying in a centro storico, typically an area physically defined by very thick medieval walls, is a limited market where demand is historically high – you can’t, after all build anything else, especially not a high-rise apartment block.
Bergamo città alta offers all of this plus being an excellent base for skiing, the Lakes and exploring Italy in general, and with Expo 2015 in neighbouring Milan on the horizon, the town is only going to attract more positive attention.
The moral, if any, is an obvious one, but worth stating nonetheless: play the tape to the end. Country villas and apartments in historic palazzi are equally appealing but for very different reasons. When the honeymoon’s over, which one will still be ticking all the boxes for you?
Paul Hudson is a buying agent with specialist knowledge of the market in Italy
(+39 338 9414596 or +44 (0) 800 622 6745; www.thepropertyfinders.com)