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Homes in Umbria - featured in Italia Magazine

February 18th 2006

Umbria, the ‘green heart’ of Italy, has always played second best to its famous neighbour Tuscany but its sheer beauty and endless attractions will undoubtedly impress the property buyer, writes Mark Slaviero.

Dotted with splendid medieval hill towns and offering the chance to escape the crowds in Tuscany, Umbria presents a great alternative for those wanting their own little piece of Italy in the central regions. Although not as frequented or popular as its famous neighbour, Umbria certainly has some great attractions and is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful regions in Italy.

This region, like many of its neighbours has experienced a troubled and diverse past, being invaded by the Etruscans, the Romans, and Lombards amongst others. This is obvious as Umbria is full of treasures and many can be found in churches and Palazzo’s, as well as over half of the municipalities in Umbria having at least one museum, with large collections of art and other antiquities.

Umbria is one of the few landlocked regions in Italy, and locals often refer the region as ‘il Cuore verde dell’Italia’ (‘Italy’s green heart’). Heart is something that this area has plenty of. It is the landscapes of Umbria that exert the most lasting charm; it may not have a coastline or spectacular mountains but the rolling hills, valleys and lakes make it gentle and serene.

The great range of colours of the many plant species create a wonderful and scenic effect on the Umbrian landscape, from the Beech woods and Maples to the Orchids, Asters, Violets, Poppies, Sunflowers and even Edelweiss. In the spring the countryside is splashed with reds, pinks and purples, which make way for the vibrant yellows of the Sunflowers in summer.

Umbria has a typically central Italian climate. For those looking for warm winters, they may have to reconsider. Summers are very hot with little or no rainfall in July and August apart from the odd thunderstorm. Spring and autumn are very pleasant and probably the best times to visit and although the winters are not mild, they are also not too severe as with the north of Italy. The rural backdrop to the region is reflected in the lifestyle of the Umbrian’s and you will find the region fairly relaxed.

Umbria’s cooking is uncomplicated, hearty and excellent. The region does not rank highly among the great culinary regions of Italy but it does not disappoint. The towns markets are awash with local produce and the region produces great olive oil, wheat and truffles. The Umbrian’s love their pasta and you will find a great selection in local restaurants. Meat is also popular and pork is king with duck and lamb also used. In the mountains around Norcia, expect to find pork ribs with sausage and lentils. In addition to bread, most dishes are also accompanied by flatbread. Umbria’s porcini mushrooms are truly delicious. The wines from the region are internationally recognised, especially the king of Umbrian wines, Orvieto and Orvieto Classico, which are delicate dry whites. Today, the region is also known for ground breaking reds, such as Sagrantino di Montefalco.

THE STAR ATTRACTIONS

Most British people looking to travel to Italy for holidays or searching for a holiday home, tend to want to be within one hour of an airport, which does exclude many parts of Umbria and is currently the regions main disadvantage. Rome in Lazio is the closest airport to Umbria (especially the South) with a number of direct flights from the UK. Pisa in Tuscany is another alternative for those wishing to access Western Umbria and Ancona in Le Marche is also an option. All this is set to change in the next few years and there has been much discussion about Perugia’s airport opening up to international flights. Rumour has it that Ryanair could be operating there as early as next year with direct flights from the UK, although their press office declined to comment on the matter. The A1 motorway however, does make the region very accessible in terms of reaching both the north and south of Italy.

What you find in Umbria is a wealth of impressive towns, which rival those of Tuscany. The hill town of Gubbio is one of the most striking with medieval architecture and surrounded by rugged and wooded landscapes. Many have classed this town as the ‘Siena of Umbria’ and although it doesn’t quite live up to this, it is still quite remarkable with a magnificent Piazza Grande and the enormous Palazzo dei Consoli. Tourists are waking up to this area and as numbers are on the increase, so are the property prices. Although many may feel that this area is a little off the beaten track and not so easy to reach, it is worth bearing in mind that Ancona airport in Le Marche is only 90 minutes away.

Assisi, which is located beneath the slopes of Monte Subasio, is visited by a staggering 5 million tourists a year. The town, however remains beautiful with an array of cobbled streets, impressive piazzas, geranium filled window boxes, wonderful architecture and of course the world famous Basilica di San Francesco, which houses the tomb of one of the Catholics best loved saints, St Francis. Art lovers can admire the frescos by the some of greatest painters of the middle ages, Cimabue, Giotto and Lorenzetti to name a few.

As far as cities are concerned, the regions capital Perugia is a star attraction; a stylish and bustling hill city with a strong cultural tradition and some splendid monuments. Being home to many fresco painters during its past, it now attracts students from around the world. It is also the home of the best-known ‘Baci’ chocolates and has some fabulous shops. In the summer during the Umbrian Jazz festival, Perugia takes centre stage with a range of events.

The gorgeous hill town of Todi is a sophisticated little place with its impressive Piazza del Popolo and medieval public buildings. Other delights include Orvieto, a remarkable town with an extraordinary cathedral; Spello, often referred to as Assisi’s little sister; Bevagna, a sleek and welcoming little gem of a town and the almost unknown Trevi. The dominating hill town of Montefalco, which is often referred to as ‘the balcony of Umbria’ is also a great place to visit or live with its commanding position over the Vale of Spoleto.

The lack of coastline in Umbria is substituted by its lake. The fourth largest lake in Italy, Lake Trasimeno may not be on a par with its northern counterparts but it has a subtle and sleepy charm and is a great location for swimming, fishing, water sports and horse riding. It takes an hour to drive around its 35-mile circumference and is surrounded by gentle hills covered with olives and vineyards. There are a number of interesting resorts around the lake. Passignano is a lively and modern resort (with an almost hidden old town) with shops, fish restaurants and bars and very popular for the Sunday afternoon ‘Passeggiata’ (the obligatory walk with friends and family). The enticing Castiglione del Lago on the West shore is dominated by a 14th century fortress and has some pleasant beaches. Tuoro and San Feliciano to the south are pleasant enough but Panicale is a real steal with its picture postcard views over the lake and medieval core.

Be warned that the area becomes very busy on weekends as many Perugians flee the city for the tranquillity of the lake; the single lane road can often become one big traffic jam in the summer. In addition to the wealthier Perugian owning second homes around the lake, there has been a lot of interest from Dutch and German buyers in addition to the English.

Eastern Umbria and the Valnerina is also an enjoyable part of the region with some of the wildest scenery in Central Italy – breathtaking plains and mountains.

RENTAL OPPORTUNITIES

Due to its popularity as a holiday destination Umbria does offer the potential buyer excellent rental opportunities and there are a number of agencies and mainstream tour operators covering the region. The region is not just popular with the British, so bear in mind that you may well have enquiries from the States, Holland and Germany as well.

A typical property will have no problem in being let during the summer months if it is presented well and is in a good location. Expect to receive around £1,000 to £1,500 per week for a four-bedroom house with a pool. A one-bedroom apartment should command £300 - £500 per week and a two-bed apartment in a Borgo can be as much as £800 a week. Rentals obviously vary according to the size and location of the property.

Many of the larger farmhouses offer excellent rental opportunities and if developed with this in mind, sections of the property and outhouses can easily be developed as self-catering units or run as an Agriturismo.

ON THE MARKET

The range of property on offer is wide and ranges from the typical Umbrian farmhouses to apartments in Borgos, villas, townhouses, village apartments and houses. The farmhouse is still generally what many English buyers are interested in and there is certainly more of this type of property available unrenovated that in neighbouring Tuscany.

The property market is still active in Umbria and prices are still set to rise. According to the Association of Estate Agents, Properties in the Terni province rose by 10% increase in the second half of 2003. The first half of 2004 has also seen positive results with 10% in both the Perugia and Terni provinces. This is above the national average of around 8%.

Many people expect Umbria to be a cheaper alternative to Tuscany and in many cases it is. However, parts of Umbria are equally as expensive as the Tuscan heartland. Orvieto and Todi in the south, for example have attracted many overseas buyers and prices have inevitably risen. Umbria can be reasonable but don’t expect prices like in Le Marche or Abruzzo.

Not the first thing people want to hear about when purchasing a property but it is worth noting that Umbria was hit by an earthquake in 1997, which affected thousands of homes, especially in Assisi. The government acted quickly and grant assistance aided in the rebuilding of the properties and treasures that were affected. Newly built properties and renovations are now subject to anti-seismic building laws, which should give peace of mind.

If you are looking for an Umbrian farmhouse, then Lake Trasimeno is dotted with abandoned farmhouses and prices in this area are still reasonable when compared to Southern Umbria or Tuscany (especially Cortona, which is only a 20 min drive away). There may not be the choice of properties like in Le Marche but there certainly is a supply of farmhouses in this area and in the areas of Umbertide and Citta di Castello. Expect to pay anything from £100,000 to £200,000 for a farmhouse requiring work. Around the lake you will also see a number of semi-detached renovated houses in villages. A 3-bed property in good condition will be in the region of £100,000. It still is possible to get a bargain and if you are flexible on the position, outside space and general décor, then you may well pick up a village property for £50 - £60,000.

Bargains can be also found further a field and north of Perugia around Umbertide, it will be possible to purchase a large detached and renovated stone property for around £200,000.

Assisi is not the most reasonable of towns but you can acquire a two-bed apartment in the centre for £120,000. Renovated properties in the hills in and around the town will start from around £250,000.

Moving further south in the direction of Todi, then farmhouses requiring renovation can start from as high as £200,000. Villas and detached renovated properties can be anything from £300,000 to £1m plus. In the centre of Todi itself, it is difficult to find a small apartment these days under £150,000.

Buying a property in Umbria is not as difficult as it is in some other regions in Italy. There are a few UK based agents who cover the region. Some Italy based agents are used to dealing with foreign buyers but don’t expect everyone to speak English or to receive reams of information on a property if you walk into a local office. UK agents will be more used to dealing with overseas buyers and therefore are well placed to advise on the overall process and provide guidance through the purchase and beyond.

Don’t be surprised or become complacent if the property has been on the market for some time as many properties do tend stay on, especially if the owner is stubborn and is not willing to negotiate with potential buyers.

In conclusion, Umbria may not be the most reasonably priced region but there should be property to suit most budgets. Umbria is strategically placed and offers potential buyers a great base for exploring Italy and don’t forget that it not only borders with Tuscany but Le Marche and Lazio also. If or maybe we should even dare to say when Perugia airport opens up, property prices will inevitably rise, so there is no better time than the present to explore this region.

Umbria does have it all: wonderful countryside, excellent hill towns, lively Perugia for shopping and nightlife, Lake Trasimeno for swimming and water sports, mountains for walking, excellent culture and strong traditions. The regional landscape may not be as diverse as some of its neighbours but this rich combination of countryside, magnificent medieval towns and not forgetting the lake, give Umbria its own identity and it won’t take long for this green heart of a region to steal your own.



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