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Among the last ‘unknown’ regions of Italy, these two unspoilt, inexpensive places are finally being discovered by foreign buyers. Fleur Kinson looks at two burgeoning markets with great potential.

Together forming the toe and instep of the Italian boot, Calabria and Basilicata enjoy an enviable geography. Rural hills and rugged mountainscapes meet with long, empty beaches in the east and intimate cliff-bound coves in the west. The sun never seems to stop shining, and the sea is clean and inviting. Only 2,600,000 people live here, spread across an area larger than Wales, and there’s only one city of any real size (Reggio, on the toe-tip). Local people enjoy a pleasantly slow pace of life and an admirably strong sense of community. Calabria and Basilicata have long been overlooked by foreign visitors and property-buyers – who judged them inaccessible, impoverished, and perhaps even dangerous. But massive government investment has transformed both regions, and each is now just beginning to realize its potential.

       In 2005, Calabria and Basilicata had the slowest property markets of all Italy’s regions (along with tiny Molise and Valle d’Aosta). But by 2008 this was absolutely no longer the case. Calabria had seen a building boom in tasteful, high-quality seaside developments and was rapidly earning a reputation as a great place to buy an inexpensive beach apartment. Rural Basilicata, meanwhile, was finally starting to attract attention and was tipped to become ‘the new Puglia’ – holding particular appeal to buyers seeking an affordable country idyll. Both regions have clearly gone from ‘undiscovered’ to ‘up-and-coming’ over recent years. Both have attracted the close attention of property developers and seen the rise of new estate agencies. They remain very low-priced and unspoilt, and now is a good time to buy.

THEN AND NOW
Calabria and Basilicata both enjoyed a glorious past as part of ‘Magna Graecia’ – the ancient Greek empire – and there are plenty of Hellenic remains here to thrill any history buff. [See Fleur Kinson's article on Basilicata's ancient historical legacy: http://www.where-to-go-in-italy.com/basilicata.html.] The last two thousand years, however, have been rather less economically and creatively successful for Calabria and Basilicata. Invasions, earthquakes, political corruption, organized crime, poverty and de-population – these two regions have had their fair share of suffering. At the end of the 20th century, both Calabria and Basilicata had high unemployment and continued to endure the blight of local mafia activity – albeit with mounting resistance. But the infant 21st century seems to be marking a real turning point in the regions’ fortunes. Huge amounts of government cash have been pumped into southern Italy in an attempt to kick-start the local economies, especially the tourist economy. And the results are definitely beginning to show.

       Calabria and Basilicata are still rough round the edges – slick northern Italy this is not – but the tourist infrastructure down here is considerably improved. (Other rough edges, such as the slow pace of life, can be charming of course.) Dozens of seaside towns sport lovely new promenades, the local road connections are better than they were, and best of all, budget flights have put both regions within easy reach of Britain. Ryanair flies to Lamezia Terme in the middle of Calabria’s western coast, and also to Bari in Puglia, from where Basilicata’s most fascinating city Matera is less than an hour’s drive. Both Calabria and Basilicata have considerable potential as tourist destinations, and it’s extremely likely that incipient visitor interest will grow and grow.

       Calabria’s chief appeal is as a seaside destination (and this is reflected in its property market). Resorts such as Tropea in the southwest are already well-known and well-visited by Italians from other regions. Calabria’s long western coast tend to be intricate and dramatic, with lots of cliffs and small coves, and steep terrain climbing inland. The eastern coast is flatter and emptier, with lovely long beaches. Basilicata’s chief appeal is arguably its inland rural landscape – especially around Matera where the countryside is reminiscent of Tuscany. Matera itself is a unique and very ancient city – not long ago a byword for terrible poverty, with locals living in cave-like dwellings. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and holds immense appeal for visitors interested in history. Basilicata doesn’t have a lot of coastline, but it does have one utterly thriving seaside resort: Maratea, on the western coast just north of the border with Calabria. A geographically gorgeous spot, it’s very popular with Italian tourists.

HOTTING UP
Let’s look at each region and its property market in closer detail, starting with Calabria. There has certainly been a lot going on here over recent years. Numerous developers have built small-scale apartment complexes on the coast, and they are selling extremely well. Conrad Bedford of Overseas Property Shop says [in 2008] “Over the last year and a half the market in Calabria has gone crazy. We sell on average one property a day down here. The developments are small, unlike Spain or other European countries where you get 200 or 300 units. Here you might get 16 or 32. Calabria is a breath of fresh air. The local people live an incredibly traditional lifestyle. It feels twenty years behind the times in some places. It’s fabulous.”

       Janet Fairfax of Cresta Villas agrees that Calabria’s property market is blossoming. “We’ve had a fantastic first and second year in Calabria,” she says. “It exceeded all of our expectations. It started off with just three developments, and now there are probably a dozen at any given time in our portfolio. When we first went out there, there was nothing even built – it was all being sold in plan. I do think the market in Calabria is about to explode. I think in the next six months you’re going to see transformation. The market is opening up very fast. It’s a good thing. There’s plenty to go round.”

       Although still very affordable, prices are beginning to rise in Calabria. Currently [in 2008] you can get a new one-bedroom apartment with a sea view from about €58,000, and a two-bed from €80,000. Note that most coastal apartments tend to be small-sized, the expectation being that you’ll want to use them just as a holiday home. Outdoor terraces, meanwhile, can be very spacious. If you want more interior space, new-build detached seaside villas are quite a bit higher in price, going for about €180,000 on average. But a short distance inland, old village houses needing some modernisation can be had for as little as €35,000. Generally, despite the very reasonable prices of new-build seaside apartments, an older property a short distance inland is often better value for money. And it’s recommended that you consider one of these if you want to visit Calabria in the colder as well as the warmer months. Life goes on as normal in the small hinterland towns and villages, while a seaside resort founded on visitor interest can shut up shop entirely in the winter.

EAST-WEST DIVIDE
Calabria’s east coast (on the ‘Ionian’ bit of the Mediterranean) is generally a little cheaper than its west coast (on the ‘Tyrrhenian’ bit). The west has long been popular with Italian tourists – especially the knobbly toe-knuckle of the Italian foot, around Tropea, which can be very crowded in the height of summer. The west coast is generally steeper and craggier than the flattish, expansive east, and Janet Fairfax suggests that would-be buyers visit both to see which they prefer. She says “For older people or families with children, the Ionian coast is often better. Forget Tropea if you’ve got walking difficulties or a pushchair. All those stairs, all those hills. That whole area is like that. It’s beautiful but not always practical. The Ionian Coast generally gives better value for money. There are miles and miles of coastline there that are untouched.” Martin Pearse of Andiamo Homes agrees that both coasts have their own appeal. But he admits that “The west coast is generally more mountainous and consequently more attractive. Parts of this coast certainly rival Amalfi and the French Riviera, at a fraction of the cost.”

       Comparisons to the Amalfi Coast have often been made about Basilicata’s short, glorious stretch of Tyrrhenian coast around the resort of Maratea – just north of the coastal border with Calabria. This picturesque hilltop town presides over a dramatic tumble of cliffs, rocks and secluded beaches. It draws large numbers of discerning summer visitors and sees Basilicata’s very highest property prices. But it’s still Basilicata we’re talking about here, so those ‘highest property prices’ are relative. A two-bedroom apartment in Maratea might set you back by €150,000. This is more expensive than most of the Calabrian coast south of here, but quite a bit cheaper than the Amalfi Coast further north! Note that if you move a short distance inland from Maratea, prices start to tumble. Let’s take a look now at the property market elsewhere in Basilicata.

WATCH THIS SPACE
Basilicata is one of Italy’s most thinly populated regions, with lots of wild open spaces and only a thin sprinkling of small-sized settlements. The people here – what few remain after the early 20th century’s mass migrations to the New World – generally live a quiet, traditional lifestyle. But the poverty that characterised Basilicata for so long is beginning to lift, and the region is no longer the wholly unknown and un-visited place it once was. In particular, the unique city of Matera and its surrounding countryside have been attracting quite some interest. Film-makers and journalists have drawn increasing attention to Matera in recent years, and the tiny city has undergone considerable self-improvement. It’s here in and around Matera where Basilicata’s few new foreign-buyer-oriented estate agencies are concentrating their efforts. The area certainly has the potential to become a new Italian property hotspot, appealing to the many buyers who seek a rural farmhouse in rolling countryside.

       Francesco Carlucci of Landscape Properties points out that “Matera has just been voted for the second year running the safest place in Italy, by the Italian equivalent of the Financial Times.” He adds, “The hilly countryside around Matera is truly sensational. It’s just like Tuscany, but with a different architecture and history. I think it will be the next Italian place to boom. The market here is virgin, and the area is absolutely ready for the right kind of development. Tuscany has thousands and thousands of farmhouses. But due to the fact that the south was so poor, there are comparatively few farmhouses. We take the traditional, elegant building style of the Puglian masseria and build them here. We do not want to target the area to the lower end of the market.”

       Sofie Anefors of Basilicata specialist agency Casa Enotria also believes the Matera countryside holds enormous appeal for foreign buyers. She notes that “The interest in Basilicata started a few years ago, and today there is a great interest especially from the English and Scandinavians. Basilicata is one of the last regions in Italy where you can still find very cheap and affordable property. Actually the prices started to increase in 2007, in contrast to many other regions in Italy where prices are staying at a fixed level. So now is the perfect time to invest.”

       Matera province offers lots of possibilities for country homes with land and a sea view. A dozen miles from the water, you might pay just €25,000 for a small rural house needing work, or €135,000 for a completely renovated villa with lots of land. There are also plenty of apartments for sale in old stone villages around Matera. A small one needing major work can ask as little as €15,000, but you’d have to spend at least the same again – and probably a bit more – bringing it up to a modern level of comfort. Property prices are higher in Matera itself than in the surrounding countryside, and also higher right on the local seaside than in the hinterland.

JUST STARTING OUT
So, if you’re after an inexpensive holiday home in a beautiful and uncrowded part of Italy, Calabria and Basilicata are definitely two regions you should be considering. This is an exciting, new part of Italy that’s only just beginning to open up to non-Italians. Understandably, because the market is so fresh, it’s difficult to offer generalisations about the current holiday rental prospects here. Obviously, there’s a great potential for visitors in both Calabria and Basilicata, but how long it will take before they become well-known and well-visited is anyone’s guess.

       For the time being, it’s probably best to consider Calabria and Basilicata as excellent places to buy a holiday home for your own use, and any rental income you garner on it is just a bonus. If holiday rental returns are a key factor in your budgeting, or you would rely on them to cover your mortgage on a property down here, then you would need to proceed very cautiously indeed – and would probably be better buying somewhere else, with a more established visitor reputation. As we have seen, currently the best places for holiday rental returns in Calabria and Basilicata are Maratea, Matera, and the Tropea promontory. But of course, they aren’t the regions’ cheapest places! Summer-only rentals are pretty good in most seaside resorts, but as your clients would, for now, be mostly Italians you’d have to have good Italian language skills. [See Fleur Kinson's article on buying property for holiday rental: http://www.where-to-buy-in-italy.com/holiday-rental.html.]

       Rental returns may be uncertain, but one thing is sure: buy a home in Calabria or Basilicata and you’ll be buying into a fascinating slice of little-known but up-and-coming Italy. Both regions are definitely beginning to blossom, and they promise great things to come.

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The upper foot

For a brief but glorious few kilometres just beneath Campania, Basilicata touches the Tyrrhenian Sea. Reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast, the scenery here is a dramatic tumble of cliffs, rocks, and secluded beaches. The queen of this lovely stretch is Maratea, a picturesque hilltop town attracting chic, discerning holidaymakers and seeing the highest property prices in Basilicata (still quite low by Italian standards). Look inland a mile or two from Maratea and property prices start to tumble. South of Maratea, Calabria claims the coast – dubbing it the ‘Riviera dei Cedri’ in honour of the lime-like cedro fruit growing in abundance here. Appealing resorts include Práia a Mare with its superb beach, Scalea, stylish Diamante, leafy Belvedere Maríttimo, bustling Páolo, and San Lúcido with its especially lovely centro storico. South of San Lúcido, until the delights of the Tropea promontory, the beach towns are less interesting and their older inland counterparts can be hard to reach. Deeper into the hinterland, the northern part of this ‘upper foot’ is dominated by the mountainous Pollino National Park – great for hiking and picnics. South of Pollino National Park, the buzzing little city of Cosenza is certainly worth a look – with its restored historic centre and energetic feel thanks to a new university. Around Cosenza, many attractive little hill villages spring to life in the summer when cityfolk retreat to them for a breath of fresh air.

The top of the toe

Italy’s long, knobbly big toe is a geographically gorgeous place offering breathtaking views – you can easily see Sicily from the beaches here, and higher up you can see all the way to the Aeolian islands. Exotic vegetation flourishes all round the toe, with banana trees and cacti sprouting alongside jasmine plantations and citrus groves. Inland, the thinly-populated terrain rises to impressive heights, and incredibly there’s even a small ski resort at Gambárie in the Aspromonte National Park. But, of course, it’s the golden seaside that draws the most attention. The upper side of the toe – from the knuckle of the Tropea promontory to the toenail-tip of Reggio di Calabria – is perhaps Calabria’s loveliest stretch of coast. Pizzo, Briático, Tropea and Scilla are among the very attractive resorts here. Tropea is especially blessed, being arguably the prettiest town on Calabria’s western coast. But it’s a crowded place in summer, and its property prices can be as steep as its sloping streets. The small roads of Tropea’s promontory can clog up in high season. Further down the toe, travel connections are rather better. Reggio, Calabria’s largest city, on the toe-tip, is a rather plain, workaday place once famed for its mafia activity. But the regenerated seafront here is elegant, and there are hopes that Reggio will continue improving itself in every way.

The ball of the foot

With about 500 kilometres of almost uninterrupted sand running beneath the Italian foot all the way from Reggio to Táranto in Puglia, the Ionian or eastern coast of Calabria and Basilicata forms Italy’s longest beach. The water is warm and crystal clear; the beach resorts are small and thinly scattered; and there are appealingly wild and empty stretches of seaside. The terrain is flatter here than the western coast, and property prices are lower. Modern waterside settlements backed by much older towns a few hilly kilometres inland are the pattern repeated all along this coastline.  Attractive beach resorts include Mélito, Bova Marina, Locri (with its Greek ruins), Marina di Gioisa Iónica, Roccella Iónica, Caulónia, Monasterace, and Soverato – which pulls in an international clientele. Of sizeable towns down here, hilltop Rossano is perhaps the most appealing and well-kept, with a bustling resort down by its beach. Crotone is a grey industrial place and Catanzaro is a crowded, traffic-clogged little city. Inland, the ball of Italy’s foot contains the mighty Sila massif, whose deforested hills rise to densely forested highlands and to peaks nearly 2,000 metres high. Artificial lakes and a few small towns are scattered about, as well as some shabby but exotic villages. Trekkers will find the area appealing. Property prices fall away to incredibly low levels deep inland.

The instep

Calabria’s part of Italy’s instep holds a few small-scale beach towns, while Basilicata’s coast sees larger places more popular with northern Italians – Policoro, Scanzaro Jónico, Pisticci, and Metaponte (where Pythagoras once established a school, and where you can visit some well-excavated Greek ruins). The Basilicata hinterland here is currently the region’s most promising area for foreign buyers. New estate agencies are promoting the countryside around Matera, and have seen particular interest in the attractive, Tuscany-like area between Matera and the sea. Prices are currently very affordable, and this deeply rural area is easily accessed from Bari airport in neighbouring Puglia. Matera itself is a fascinating city, with good tourist potential, and has drawn quite a few foreign buyers. Once a byword for near-inhuman poverty (locals lived in caves until the 1960s), Matera is now a surprisingly pretty and cultured town by Southern standards. It has been hailed as Italy’s safest place to live, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site twelve years ago. Further into the instep, the next place of any note is Potenza, Italy’s highest regional capital at 819 metres above sea level. Battered by earthquakes and war damage, Potenza is nevertheless a sprightly place with a beating heart of animated alleys set amidst its apartment blocks and industrial works. North of Potenza, the landscape is dominated by the long-dead, forest-topped volcano of Monte Vulture – a much-loved beauty spot. Norman castles abound in the brooding hills round here.



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My Home in Calabria

Gaynor Peycke from West Sussex owns a one-bedroom apartment in the small seaside resort of Ischia Marina, near Soverato on Calabria’s Ionian coast. She bought the property off-plan [in 2008], and expects it to be finished early next year [in 2009]. But she has already made a substantial profit on her investment.

       Why did Gaynor choose Italy? “At the time, the Spanish prices were too high,” she explains. “I didn’t fancy an eastern European country like Bulgaria, nor going out to Turkey. Calabria had easy access, with budget flights from the UK, and the prices were fantastic. My apartment was €58,000 when I bought it eighteen months ago. It was one of the best bargains of the time, and the apartments sold within hours of coming onto the market. The value of mine has now gone up to about €80,000.

       “It’s in a complex of about 200 apartments, which is going to have a communal swimming pool and a restaurant. It’s literally five minutes’ walk to the sea. I’ll use the apartment in May and September, and at other odd times of the year, and hopefully rent it out during June, July and August. The holiday season is very short for the Italians – just the main summer months.”

       What are Gaynor’s impressions of Calabria? “I’ve paid three visits now, and I love it,” she says. “It’s totally un-commercialized. It’s a little bit run down in some areas, but obviously as the money goes into the area that will come up. The food and the friendliness are outstanding. It hasn’t got the dedicated tourist infrastructure that Spain has, and I like that. It’s like Spain was when I first went there about 40 years ago. But I don’t think Calabria will ever get like Spain is now. They are quite strict on their building controls. They won’t allow any new buildings within a certain distance of the beach, for example.”

       How is she coping with the language? “When I go out I do seem to pick up the odd word very quickly,” she says. “I think Italian is easier than Spanish and can be picked up more rapidly. Anyone buying here will need a working knowledge of Italian to ask for things in shops and restaurants – especially in the little towns. There are some really, really ancient towns where it’s like going back in time. You will also need a car if you buy in Calabria. Most seaside developments are half an hour to an hour away from Lamezia airport. They’re talking about expanding Reggio di Calabria airport, but no one knows for certain when that might happen.”

Gaynor bought her property through Phoenix Overseas.





 






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Where to Buy in Italy