Throughout Tuscany, culture is as much part of daily life as the morning espresso. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to a dusty fresco in a shadowy corner of a rural church, there is beauty and art at every turn. UNESCO figures show that 60% of the world’s greatest artworks are in Italy and half of those are in Florence, Tuscany’s leading city since the Renaissance.
Although it might have been the undulating green hills, regal lines of cypress trees and strade bianche (white roads) lined with paper-thin poppies that first brought property buyers to Tuscany, it’s the exceptional culture on offer that helps keep it a perennial favourite. ‘Together with the Côte d’Azur and Switzerland, Tuscany is a core market where we’ve seen continuing activity from buyers despite the global situation,’ says Paddy Dring, head of International Residential Property at Knight Frank (Knight Frank, 020-7629 8171; www.knightfrank.com). ‘It’s a liquid market, which is the number-one criterion we advise clients to consider. The prime market, above €3 million, is in relatively good shape and sales volumes are healthy.’
The reasons for purchasing a second home in Tuscany may have stayed the same, but what is changing is where buyers want to be, as an increasing number now chooses urban verve over rural peacefulness. ‘Ten years ago, people were happy to sit around their pool in the country, with few considering a city home,’ says Claire Hazle of Knight Frank’s Italy desk. ‘Now, more look for culture and entertainment. In Florence, for example, the authorities put on so much for locals: cookery courses, open days in private palazzi and art tours. It’s a clear part of the growing appeal of city life.’
Buyers are normally very clear cut about whether they want country or city property, says Lynne Davie of Beauchamp Estates (Beauchamp Estates (020-7499 7722; www.beauchamp.co.uk), who herself lives in central Florence. Those who choose cities cite vibrant Italian life as their main reason. ‘City living provides convenience and a greater opportunity to become part of the community, learn the language and immerse yourself in culture,’ comments Miss Davie. ‘Accessibility to Tuscany’s major art cities-Florence, Siena and Lucca-is excellent, with two airports and road and rail networks.’
Urban living at its best is on show at Palazzo Bartolommei in Florence, a five-bedroom apartment a leisurely stroll away from the Uffizi. Owners Giorgio Miani and his interior-designer wife, Ilaria, have created a light-flooded, loft-style duplex apartment that rents for 24 weeks each year at €5,800 a week through Beauchamp Estates.
‘Florence is a city with a village mentality,’ notes Miss Davie. ‘It’s small-scale and friendly, yet is also the perfect central base from which to explore Tuscany and further afield. Rome is 90 minutes by train and both Venice and Milan are within two hours.’ So what about the disadvantages? As well as the problems of coping with relentless tourist numbers, properties in Tuscany’s historical centres rarely offer the contemporary living space that’s found at Palazzo Barto-lommei and demanded by modern buyers.
‘It’s important to remember that these beautiful Tuscan cities remained unchanged for hundreds of years, making day-to-day practicalities difficult,’ adds Miss Davie. ‘For example, owning a car can be problematic, from obtaining permits to parking.’ Space, light and external space-a balcony or a garden-are hard to find and come at a premium. Buyers can expect to pay €4,500 per square metre in Florence, according to Miss Davie, although prices can reach €6,500 to €9,000. Beauchamp Estates are asking €2.5 million for a four-bedroom family apartment in a pain-stakingly restored building in the historic centre, with all-too-rare private parking and a rooftop terrace.
Further north, in the charming walled city of Lucca, apartments in the sleepy alleyways have fallen in price by 25% in recent years. Yet the birthplace of Puccini provides an intoxicating mix of opera and theatre, good restaurants and bars all within an hour of Pisa airport. Buyers are also looking at Siena, arguably Tuscany’s most beautiful town and certainly one of its most prestigious. ‘Siena has a local feel and, apart from during the Palio in July and August, when Piazza del Campo is thronged, it’s quieter than many Tuscan cities,’ comments Miss Hazle.
Strict planning laws and strong regional pride mean a home in Tuscany’s exquisite countryside has the same cachet today as in the 1980s and 1990s, when significant numbers of British buyers first arrived. A dreamy lifestyle based around fine local food and wine, natural privacy and peace remains the main driver for demand.
Diverse landscapes, from mountainous Garfagnana to the softer vineyards and olive groves of Chianti and the carefully cultivated hills and picturesque hilltop villages of the Val d’Orcia, provide plenty of options. Beaches, ski resorts-Abetone, for example and some of Italy’s best cities are all a day trip away. Knight Frank has also seen continuous demand around prestigious Cortona, where proximity to Umbria provides good value and nearby Lake Trasimeno has plentiful options for active families.
‘Buyers want the advantages of the countryside, but increasingly demand good links to Tuscany’s main cities and the airport,’ says Miss Davie. ‘Few now choose splendid isolation. It can make property management tricky and costly and rentals may not be as strong.’ Miss Davie points to the Villa Orsetti estate in the Tuscan hills just outside Lucca. Once owned by a notable local family, it covers 120 acres of prime Tuscan countryside with two historic and substantial villas-one in need of total renovation, but complete with 19th-century frescos, and one modernised and requiring final decoration. The estate is for sale via Beauchamp Estates at €15 million.
Beauchamp is also selling four abandoned farmhouses at medieval Castello del Nero, 18 miles south of Florence. The estate is now a five-star, 50-room hotel set in 740 acres of Chianti countryside stocked with 7,000 olive trees and rows of Sangiovese vines. The substantial farmhouses, each with 2½ acres of private grounds, have a guide price of €6 million, which includes total project-managed restoration into a bespoke five- or six-bedroom home. ‘The ideal choice for many buyers would be a country property with close proximity to a major town,’ says Miss Davie. ‘The towns surrounding Florence, such as Impruneta, a market town 25 minutes to the south, provide the best of both worlds.’
Roger Coombes of Cluttons Italy (00 39 075 84 50 100; www.cluttonsitaly.com) has seen many of his clients who have sold large country properties retaining a foothold in Tuscany with a smaller town or village house. Once children have grown up and are less keen to holiday en famille, owners choose a more practical lifestyle with a compact property that’s easy to maintain and lock and leave. ‘One can become something of a slave to the routines imposed by a property,’ admits Mr Coombes. ‘Sweeping the terrace, maintaining the garden, redecorating and so on can be a chore, although, when admiring the sunset in absolute peace with a glass of wine in hand, all the effort often seems worthwhile.’
NEED TO KNOW
Events in Tuscany
Lucca Antique Market, Lucca, every month
On the third Saturday and Sunday of each month, some 230 dealers pack into the centre of Lucca’s walled city in an antique market that’s one of the finest in Tuscany
Musical May, Florence, April to June
First held in 1933, Florence’s largest classical-music festival-Maggio Musicale
-runs from the end of April to early June
Il Palio, Siena, July 2 and August 16
Held in July and August, Siena’s famous Palio turns the city into a tourist honeypot, but, in reality, is a fiercely contested local competition between the 17 contrade or city wards. Horsemen race around Piazza del Campo three times, but it’s the magnificent pre-race pageant that entrances the thousands of international visitors
Puccini Opera Festival, Torre del Lago, July 12 to August 24
The 59th Puccini Opera Festival held at Torre del Lago showcases the best of Lucca’s most famous son. Expect performances of Tosca and Turandot in a blissful open-air setting
Pistoia Blues Festival, Pistoia, July
It’s not all classical music in Tuscany. Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Santana and Bob Dylan have all played at the annual Pistoia Blues Festival. It’s believed the town gave its name to the pistol, which it began manufacturing in the 16th century. Pistoia is between Lucca and Florence, 40 minutes from Pisa airport
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