on a fragile bark he was landed by an unforeseen chance to the silence
of the Elysian Fields.” The fragile bark was a sailboat, originally
named Don Juan by Byron, but re-christened Ariel by Shelley. Caught unawares
by a summer afternoon’s storm in the Gulf of La Spezia in 1822, the boat
sank. Shelley’s premonitions about suffering death by drowning proved all
days providing snack food for the fishes, the poet’s body can’t have been
a pretty sight. Lord Byron organized a cremation party on the beach.
Before the flames took too fierce a hold, he plucked Shelley’s heart from
the funeral pyre. His ashes went to be buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery,
but Mary carried his heart around in a silken shroud until her own death.
And then he
wouldn’t recommend it, an inexpensive way to get about would be to emulate
Lord Byron. Living up to his “mad as a hatter” reputation, he used
to swim across the gulf from Portovenere to visit Shelley.
forking out for yet another boat-ride to Monterosso, I felt like a character
from Groundhog Day. By now, the village was beginning to feel rather
too much like home. Seeing the Santa Margherita train pulling into the
station, unable to face another wait, we leapt aboard without tickets.
The Capo del Treno happily issued them, but he also fined me for not buying
tickets beforehand. A $30 day-trip actually ended up costing $63 apiece.
fall by the wayside in chaotic, disorganized Italy. I adore the country,
but frustration always hits at some point. Trains and boats are often in
ritardo (late). Dishes you never ordered get brought to your table. Bills
sometimes get totted up wrongly, direction signs seem designed to lead
you astray, and real estate agencies remain mysteriously shut when they
should be open. But...you’re in Italy. Plenty of fabulous experiences more
than make up for the occasional annoyance.
each side of the Gulf of Genoa, Liguria neatly divides into two Rivieras.
Riviera Ponente runs from the French border to Genoa, Christopher Columbus’
birthplace. It’s also called the Riviera dei Fiori (Riviera of Flowers),
because of its cut flower production.
with Edwardian aristocrats, San Remo is the center of Liguria’s flower
industry. Although the town is something of a sprawl nowadays, its
worth a stop for its markets, the Pigna quarter’s switchback streets and
the curious Russian church near the casino. At the Casabella agency (via
Gaudio 31, 18038 San Remo; tel./fax (39)184-502850), I was told apartment
properties in new or restored buildings generally fetch $217 to $433 per
square foot. The price can drop to $109 per square foot, but that’s for
unrestored properties in the Pigna backsteets. And though a house in the
hills (1,800 square feet on two levels) near Santa Reparata was
$340,400, any seaside villa is a million dollars up.
the small seaside town of Alassio has the coast’s best sandy beach. Hemingway
stayed for a while and was among the first contributors to Alassio’s muretto
— a wall emblazoned with ceramic plaques bearing autographs of luminaries
from cinema, literature, and sport.
though, I prefer the Riviera Levante. Looping east of Genoa past the
Cinque Terre and the Gulf of Poets, it’s wilder and more scenic. Towns
like Portovenere or Santa Margherita Ligure (where I stayed) make
good exploration bases. And you can visit parts of Tuscany on day-trips.
From Santa Margherita, it’s only a couple of hours to Pisa. Even Florence
is possible with an early start.
has heard of the so-called “jet-set playground” of Portofino. On
a pine-clad promontory, this Riviera Levante village is achingly picturesque
— a postcard of pink and primrose houses set off by dark green window shutters...a
hilltop castle...a sweet little harbor.
But if you
get a sense of dissatisfaction, you’re not alone. Although the setting
is dazzling, Portofino feels oddly soulless. For goodness sake...outlets
for Gucci and Hermes don’t normally feature in Italian fishing villages.
As for the “beautiful people” who supposedly hang out here, don’t
expect too much. Whatever it was like in previous decades, the pricey café-bars
are now filled with assorted Eurotrash wearing too much jewelry and day-trippers
grumbling about paying $3.50 for an espresso.
East of Portofino,
on Tigullio Bay, Santa Margherita Ligure attracts mostly Italian visitors.
A pretty resort, it has managed to stay low-key. Seeing gorgeous villas
along the esplanade, I put my Italian into practice and stopped in at an
estate agency to ask about prices. (AR92 Agenzia Immobiliare, Largo Giusti
13, 16038 S. Margerita Ligure, tel. (39)185-290-331; fax (39)185-290-163;
At least a million dollars for a 1,500-square-foot house in the hills with
a small garden and no swimming pool. Front-line beach apartments cost
$760 to $870 per square foot. Prices are lower in town, but you’re still
talking $440 to $550 per square foot for properties five minutes from Santa
Margherita’s center. Ten minutes away, the average is $220 to $330 per
But at least
the food is affordable. For around $8, most places offer the local
pasta specialty — trofie. These ribbon-like strips are served with home-made
pesto — an emerald green sauce of basil, pine-nuts, garlic, olive oil,
and pecorino cheese. Under arcades opposite the harbor, a fish market supplies
restaurants with piscine delights. You can also have pasta con vongole
(with clams) or con cozze (with mussels). Fritto misto is
a mixture of sardines, shrimp, and deep-fried squid rings; branzino is
sea bass, often baked in sea salt...and don’t miss the ravioli stuffed
with chopped fish.
from day trips, it was fun joining the passegiata (the evening walk about).
And, of course, having a campari or a fancy cocktail—Italy is as much about
the dolce vita as heavy culture. In every bar, snacks come with the pre-dinner
aperitifs. You might get bread sticks... olives... celery and carrot sticks...
slices of salami... chips. Zinco Bar also tempts patrons with small glass
bowls of strawberries, pineapple, and melon.
Trattoria la Cambusa has good food and a grandstand location. Although
it’s on via Bottaro behind the seafront, its upper terrace is an open-air
verandah overlooking the sea. Clams cooked in pine nuts and olives ($11)
are excellent and so is the fillet of sole ($22). I couldn’t manage dessert,
but the fresh raspberries and ice-cream looked scrumptious. Wine is reasonable:
$12.30 for a bottle of Bardolino.
ordered digestifs, the waiter got it into his head we were grappa queens.
He brought a tray containing eight different bottles. Grappa is Italian
firewater, a clear liquid produced from grape skins. Mags thought the variety
called diec’otto lune (18 moons) was “dog rough,” but it
slipped down my throat easily enough.
During my visit
to Liguria, I made a side-trip into neighboring Tuscany. Not to the countryside
around Florence and Siena (where even heaps of rubble cost $250,000
and more), but to Lunigiana. This almost unknown sliver of idyllic
Tuscan countryside is in the region’s north-westernmost tip, about an hour
from Pisa airport.
as “the land of the moon,” but there’s nothing lunar about its rolling
hills, river valleys, and forests of pine and chestnut. Anything less like
a barren moonscape is hard to imagine. Fact is, the area takes its name
from the old Roman port settlement of Luni. Arriving at the mouth of the
river Magra, seeing a city of white marble, Norman invaders believed Luni
to be Rome itself — and subsequently set about destroying it.
Tuscany is one of Italy’s most explored regions, few foreigners know of
Lunigiana — yet. Even fewer have discovered its castles, country churches,
and clusters of walled villages. But I guess it’s only a matter of time
before word gets out that small stone-built houses in habitable condition
still pop up in these villages for $47,000 to $59,000.
probably spend another $35,000 on modernizing a typical $59,000 village
house (plumbing and electrical are unlikely to meet the average buyer’s
approval), I must emphasize these houses have not fallen into rack-and-ruin.
They’re sound little homes, not wrecks. And other types of properties —
farmhouses, shepherd’s cottages, villas, even castles — are equally good
Lunigiana has the hallmarks of a secret land, it isn’t remote. It took
me only half an hour to get here by train from the Ligurian seaport city
and naval base of La Spezia. And La Spezia itself is only a hop, skip,
and a jump away from Ligurian beauty spots such as the Gulf of Poets and
the Cinque Terre. Owning a home in this corner of Tuscany means seaside
pleasures are practically on the doorstep...but you’re not penalized by
in fact, Lunigiana offers an incredible array of bargains that disappeared
elsewhere in Tuscany decades ago. Attractive village houses in good
condition are plentifully available for $105,650 to $176,000. If you follow
Italian real estate, you’ll know there are no worrying fluctuations in
the Tuscan property market — prices continue going up and up and up.
Lois Allan of L’Architrave Immobiliare showed me a screaming bargain —
a restored stone house (1,250 square feet) with a courtyard on via del
Sale, the borgo of Tavernelle village. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms,
and fitted kitchen with terracotta tiled floors. A real 16th-century beauty.
The price is but $141,000, and you could move straight in.
I was confused
by the term borgo. It usually refers to a remote hamlet of half a dozen
ancient houses attached to an equally ancient manor. These borgos are often
sold as job lots. However, in this part of Tuscany, borgo can also mean
a village’s original medieval center.
me down a path to see the stream where village women washed their laundry
until only a few years ago. Views of the Apennine mountains’ marble
outcrops glittering in the sunlight...ramblers’ paths through the chestnut
woods leading into the next valley...the trilling song of crickets…
But no time
to linger. We continued farther up the Taverone Valley, past rock pools
and waterfalls, to see another house at Catognano. Another village with
a borgo — one you enter through a tunneled out rock passageway. Priced
at $108,000, the house I saw here was around 1,400 square feet and had
a decent roof, beamed ceilings, and great views down the wooded valley.
Although I could easily picture myself living here in cobwebby seclusion,
an American buyer will probably want to do something about its distinctly
old-fashioned air. (Not cute old-fashioned, but the kind of old-fashioned
that translates into cracked linoleum on the floor.)
other tag is “the land of one hundred castles.” I was thrilled to
learn Lois has a castle on her books — and even more thrilled to hear it
could be yours for $400,000. Again, it’s no wreck. The old lady owner is
only now in the process of moving out.
habitable rooms downstairs, and the possibility of creating another 15
rooms on its upper floor, the back of the castle dates from the 13th century
and the front from the 16th century. It’s on the main square of a village
called Licciana Nardi. Next door is the church — and although it’s now
blocked off, an enclosed bridge-like passageway once connected the two
buildings. “The ladies never had to get their feet wet when they were
going to Mass,” said Lois.
no demesne comes with the castle, a small half-acre vineyard is included
in the price. However, it needs stressing that Disney-fied towers and
turrets aren’t normally a feature of Italian castles. Certainly in this
region, castles have a more austere, fortress-like feel. They were constructed
to suggest brute strength and power. Aesthetic beauty didn’t figure in
But the average
tourist goes orgasmic at the idea of spending a few nights in any kind
of castle. Licciana Nardi’s mayor is hoping the castle’s new buyer will
turn it into a small hotel. According to Lois, planning permission to run
it as a business is most unlikely to be a problem.
of a green zone
is designated as a green-zone, which means building regulations are tough.
For example, you cannot knock down a single-story stone farmhouse and build
a three-story modern villa on the site. Nor can you transform a shepherd’s
cottage into something more suited to the lord of the manor.
if you buy a property with land attached, there doesn’t seem to be any
difficulty getting permission for a swimming pool—starting price is $18,000
for a small one. Still, despite the land and building issues, I think the
investment potential here is outstanding. You won’t get an address anywhere
else in Tuscany for these prices.
all over Italy in the past three years, I think L’Architrave agency is
a real find. Most of its staff speaks English—language is often a problem
here—and can guide you through every stage of the purchase. They have their
own architects as well as builders and craftsmen they work with regularly.
is English but moved to this part of Italy when she was 10 weeks old.
She has worked in Italian real estate for 25 years and has professional
Italian qualifications. This is not always the case with expat agents in
Tuscany—I’ve encountered some agents out there you shouldn’t touch with
the proverbial bargepole.
also offers a management service if you’re not planning on living in a
property full-time. They can arrange for bills to be paid, repairs to be
carried out, pool and garden maintenance, etc.
L'Architrave - (Lois Allan) Via Montebello 20, Licciana Nardi 54016
(MS) Tuscany, Italy Tel: +39 0187 475543
- E-mail: email@example.com
railway station is Aulla, 8 miles from the villages of Monti and Licciana
property & Pilgrim paths
Italian property—the brass tacks
Once an offer
has been accepted, a compromesso di vendita is drawn up. This document
contains details of the price agreed, the deposit paid, the date by which
completion will take place, the name of the Notaio (notary) who will execute
the deeds, and all the terms and conditions of the sale. The deposit is
generally 15% to 20% of the agreed price.
tax (stamp duty) of 10% of the declared purchase price is paid on completion.
For the average-sized property, notary fees will be around $3,500. He or
she checks documents recorded at the Land Registry that may affect title,
and also ensure there are no charges or debts against the property. It’s
the notary’s job to register the new title with the Property Registry and
deposit the deeds with the relevant authorities.
agency fees are 5% of purchase price, with a minimum fee of $4,000.
This fee includes complete viewing service, drawing up the compromesso
di vendita in dual language, conveyance and preparation of the documentation
required for completion, translations, and transfer of utilities.
discover an area, prices always rise anyway. And there’s a good reason
why Lunigiana might soon be a magnet for specialist tour groups as well
as individual travelers...
working on reopening the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route threading
through the hills. During the Middle Ages, it formed part of the major
pilgrim way between Rome and Canterbury in southern England. To me, this
suggests immense tourism potential, especially as more people seem to be
seeking spiritual experiences.
Via Francigena will become almost as popular as el Camino, the pilgrim
route across northern Spain to Santiago di Compostela. Since el Camino
was re-opened, it has brought thousands of annual visitors to towns and
villages along its way.