The convoluted name should tip you off straight away that this is no ordinary part of Italy. ‘Friuli-Venezia Giulia’. It’s hard to remember where the hyphen goes, and hard to understand why the Italian word for Venice sits in the middle when Venice itself is in a different region – in the Veneto, next door. But Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s hodge-podge moniker suits it very well. It’s an eclectic and unusual name for an eclectic and unusual region.
Hugely mixed in terms of geography, culture and even language, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one of the least conventionally ‘Italian’ parts of Italy. For all that, it still shows the distinct prosperity and savoir-vivre typical of northern Italy – plus the characteristically elegant architecture. There’s an extremely high quality of life to be enjoyed here, not to mention all the things that appeal to foreign visitors – warm weather, historical sites, great food and wine, etcetera. And yet British property-buyers seem to have largely overlooked Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Many long-term British italophiles haven’t even heard of the region. Unlike some of Italy’s other ‘undiscovered’ areas, this is not and never has been an impoverished or remote place. Communications, travel links and general infrastructure are all top-notch. Unemployment is very low and jobs abundant. In short, there’s no reason not to take an interest in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Property here currently represents excellent value for money, with prices much lower than in the neighbouring – and comparatively crowded – Veneto region. The market is buoyant, with buyers being mainly local people and Italians from other regions. Prices are fairly stable, going up by about 7% a year on average across the region. However, with so much to recommend the place and with ignorance of its existence surely on the decline, it could be just a matter of time before Friuli-Venezia Giulia gets ‘discovered’ and the prices of its homes start to climb rather more steeply. For long-term investment, or simply for the pleasure of being here, now is a very good time to think about buying in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Set at the northeast extreme of Italy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia borders the Veneto to the west, Austria to the north, and Slovenia to the east. It shows the vivid influence of all three of its neighbours. Arguably then, it’s Europe in microcosm – reflecting our continent’s three main civilisations and language groups: the Germanic, the Slavic, and the Latinate. Historically, this area has long been a bridge between Europe’s east and west. Understandably then, it’s a colourful place.
As is the case with many European crossroads, Friuli-Venezia Giulia has been the scene of some fierce wartime struggles. World War I fighting was particularly intense here, as is attested by the many poignant trenches and ossuaries scattered across the Carso plateau just inland from the regional capital Trieste. Yugoslavia and the Allies were still fighting over Trieste until 1954, and the region’s border wasn’t finally settled until the 1970s. Of course, there are no border disputes today. Eastern neighbour Slovenia, a nation independent of Yugoslavia since 1991 and now an EU member, is a very stable and prosperous country – and a great place to visit from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Likewise Slovenia’s neighbour Croatia, not far from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, whose glorious coastline has seen rapidly growing tourism and property prices since it too became an independent nation. The hugely improved fortunes and visitor popularity of both new countries have only increased the appeal of neighbouring Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Over time, they are likely to further increase the value of its property too. Austria to the north, meanwhile, has of course been thriving for a very long time, and daytrips to this country from Friuli-Venezia Giulia are a pleasant prospect.
Across its relatively small area, Friuli-Venezia Giulia manages to squeeze in a wide diversity of landscapes. The blue Adriatic lies along its southern edge – forming warm, shallow lagoons and peppered with sandy islands. Inland, much of the flat, fertile south is a sea of cornfields. Inland from Trieste, though, the landscape buckles into the limestone plateau of the Corso, riddled with caves and grottoes. From its southern plain, Friuli-Venezia Giulia slowly rises to form gentle hills then stiff highlands. The northern stretch, encompassing the Carnia mountains, is clearly like the Dolomites or the Alps. There are limestone peaks, forested valleys, flower meadows, highland pastures – even the occasional ski resort. It’s great walking country, with an extensive network of paths, but it remains remarkably little-known and under-visited. One of the great delights of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is that you can travel from the beach to the high mountains in about an hour and a half. The region’s great diversity is all easily accessed, thanks to short distances and good travel links.
In terms of settlements, Friuli-Venezia Giulia boasts some truly beguiling places – small in size, architecturally attractive, prosperous and offering a high quality of life. Trieste, the region’s capital, is its largest city by far but still has only about 215,000 inhabitants. Spreading sideways along an undulating stretch of coast just five miles from Slovenia and ten miles from a border with Croatia, this stately old metropolis grew especially rich in fin-de-siècle times as the southern port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (hence its many lovely Art Nouveau buildings, built with turn-of-the-century wealth). After World War I, the city was annexed to Italy and declined in importance. Today, an air of faded grandeur lingers atmospherically over Trieste, but the streets are bustling and the economy is thriving. There’s an elegant old quarter stuffed with cafés, an invigorating mix of old and new architecture elsewhere in town, plenty of employment opportunities, and a steadily growing property market. The hugely improved fortunes of nearby Slovenia and Croatia have had a positive effect on all of Friuli-Venezia Giulia but on Trieste in particular. Currently, you could get a two-bedroom apartment in Trieste for about €100,000, and expect to rent it out to holidaymakers for €850 per week in the summer.
Not surprisingly, Trieste is one of the most Slovenian-feeling of all the towns and cities in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. It’s probably the least ‘Italian’ of all Italy’s regional capitals – more akin to Ljubljana than to Rome. You’ll hear Slovenian spoken in some of Trieste’s suburbs, and you might even catch snatches of Austrian German here and there. To the great travel-writer Jan Morris, Trieste is the most interestingly mixed city in Europe, a delightful ‘nowhere’-place where the Germanic, Slavic and Latinate cultures converge. Certainly the unusual atmosphere has drawn a wealth of artists and intellectuals over the years. James Joyce famously ‘exiled’ himself in Trieste for many years – purposely choosing a ‘placeless’ place at the crux of different cultures to free himself from his own cultural baggage.
If the Slovene-Italian blend appeals to you, Gorizia is another attractive place to consider. North of Trieste and nestled up against the Slovenian border, this clean, green town full of parks and gardens has a very eastern European flavour. There’s a stout castle, colourful townhouses, and great shopping. Property prices are very reasonable and quality of life is high.
Perhaps the most elegant – and most Venetian-looking – town in Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Udine, 40km north of Trieste. Judged by Italians to be one of the most desirable places to live in all Italy, Udine’s pale, pretty buildings flank spacious and leafy streets where the prosperous local population stroll contentedly in the sunshine. This is a very pleasant place to spend your time, and it’s not expensive either. Two-bedroom apartments in Udine generally go for between €90,000 and €120,000, with apartments in the desirable centro storico starting at about €150,000. Detached houses start around €200,000.
There are some very attractive properties for sale in the countryside around Udine. Ten minutes away, a three-bedroom villa with lovely period features, needing restoration, currently asks €180,000. Twenty minutes from Udine, a large country villa with three storeys, in perfect condition, asks €500,000. Set at the near-centre of the region, and offering great transport links to Trieste, Venice and beyond, Udine has a lot going for it. When Friuli-Venezia Giulia gets properly ‘discovered’ by foreign buyers, it’s likely that the Udine area will become one of the most popular places, along with Trieste and various seaside resorts. Note that Cividale del Friuli, a small town 17km east of Udine, is another highly attractive settlement you might want to investigate.
In terms of seaside resorts, Friuli-Venezia Giulia has several in which you might want to consider buying property. The most popular place is Grado, an ancient island-town set in a warm, shallow lagoon and offering some of the best beaches in the northern Adriatic. Grado is a big hit with German and Austrian tourists, and it can grow a little crowded in summer. Holiday rental prospects, though, are very good. One-bedroom apartments currently range from about €150,000 to €230,000. And it is mostly apartments that are for sale in Grado. The topography of the town is long and thin, stretching along the sand, so detached houses are far outnumbered by apartment buildings lining up along the desirable seafront. On the other side of the same lagoon, Lignano is a very pleasant resort worth investigating, with prices lower than in Grado. Moving east to the seaside near Trieste, (the so-called ‘Triestine Riviera’), there are some very appealing little resort-towns, although the beaches here aren’t perhaps quite as nice as further down the coast. Barcola, with its vast lighthouse, is the nearest beach resort to Trieste. Múggia is a lovely place with an old hilltop town, and Duino and Sistiana are also definitely worth a look.
For ski resorts, three names stand out – Piancavallo, Forni di Sopra and Tarvisio. None are crowded or expensive, and each also offers the prospect of excellent summer hiking. Expect Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s mountainous areas to be deliciously mixed and varying in terms of culture. The local languages can switch from valley to valley, the dark-wood chalets can look like something out of Heidi, and the cuisine can seem a hybrid of Italian, Austrian and Slovene elements. If you’re out skiing or hiking, expect to meet as many visiting Austrians or Slovenians doing the same as you might Italians.
As you might expect in a region that is as yet almost wholly undiscovered by British buyers, there are very few estate agents here catering for buyers from Britain or other English-speaking countries. Of foreign buyers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the most numerous nationalities are currently Austrians and Germans (and they go mostly for homes on the coast – especially in or around Grado), but there is also a growing number of eastern Europeans snapping up holiday homes in the region. British interest is definitely anticipated, however, and there are currently a very small number of new businesses setting out to meet that expected demand.
As a property-hunter in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, it’s more important that you’re given some ideas on where to find property listings than a property-hunter in many other Italian regions. Unfortunately, you can’t just bung ‘property for sale in Friuli-Venezia Giulia’ into a search engine and expect the listings to come spooling out in great abundance – like they would for Tuscany or Umbria or elsewhere. Some of the British-buyer-focussed estate agencies who deal with all of Italy do include a few properties in Friuli-Venezia Giulia on their books, but the number of properties are invariably low – at least for the time being. For greater choice, or at least for a better idea of what’s out there, it can be useful to look online at the big international or Italy-based agencies such as Tecnocasa or Remax. The problem, of course, is that you can’t be sure of how much help with translation, legal matters and after-sales care these on-the-ground agencies are able to offer a foreign buyer like yourself. Each local office will be different, and it’s definitely worth asking what services they can provide if you find what looks like your ideal home in their area.
As for new businesses specifically aiming to sell homes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia to British buyers, one name that stands out is ‘Bridge 2 Italy’ – a small company set up by a husband and wife team from Friuli-Venezia Giulia who have relatives working as architects in the region. Where one agency has success, others must surely follow, and it’s very likely that Bridge 2 Italy will see other businesses cropping up over the coming years offering a similar service. British buyers in Italy are famously explorative, always looking for new areas where they might buy into la dolce vita at reasonable cost. It’s hard to imagine that Friuli-Venezia Giulia could continue to evade the finely-tuned nose of British buyers indefinitely!
Backed by limestone cliffs and fronted by the glittering Adriatic, Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s regional capital Trieste enjoys a great setting. The most easterly city in Italy, Trieste is just five miles from Slovenia and ten miles from Croatia – with much of that latter country’s glorious coastline lying within fairly easy reach. Trieste’s past and present is culturally mixed and highly cosmopolitan, having been largely built by Austrians as the Habsburg Empire’s southern port and then bandied back and forth as a possession of Yugoslavia then of Italy. As a major port city, it’s accustomed to welcoming the world, and has traditionally marked the coastal border between Europe’s east and west. It has long appealed to internationally-minded intellectuals, and has a strong café-culture. Even today Trieste is redolent of roasting coffee beans, thanks to the city’s many artisan roasters and grinders. Trieste’s architecture, like its atmosphere, is mixed. There are some fine examples of Art Nouveau and Neo-Classicism, as well as modern apartments. Decorative decay sits beside spanking new construction. Trieste is a thriving city with increasing tourism and growing foreign buyer interest, but it still represents pretty good value for money. A two-bedroom apartment here costs, on average, about €100,000. A four-bedroom house, meanwhile, would go for about €330,000. The seaside immediately either side of Trieste is nice enough, with Múggia being perhaps the stand-out resort – and an especially popular place for holiday homes. Duino and Sistiana are also nice. Half an hour inland from Trieste, the distinctive, cave-riddled landscape of the Carso is a different world to the coast and offers some excellent country walking. The Carso’s limestone uplands spread well into Slovenia, and the 20,000 inhabitants of the Italian section are distinctly Slovene in culture.
The loveliest beach resort in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and arguably in all of the northern Adriatic, Grado enjoys an isolated position amid lagoons at the end of a causeway 30 km west of Trieste as the crow (or, more appropriately, the seagull) flies. The resort’s abundant sands slope gently into shallow, bath-warm seawater, making it a safe and delightful place to swim. An ancient island-town, Grado is now dominated by summer tourism and modern buildings – although it retains the interesting relics of a few paleo-Christian homes in its old centre. Property in this charming place is a little pricier than in the region’s capital, Trieste. One-bedroom apartments ask €150,000-€200,000, while a luxury three-bedroom penthouse might go for around €400,000. Summer rental prospects, obviously, are very good. Where the lagoon meets the mainland behind Grado, the landscape becomes a sandy, silty place where rivers drain quietly into the sea. Further inland, endless maize fields nod their heavy green heads in the breeze. The little inland town of Aquileia is of interest for its astonishing Roman remains and vast early Christian basilica, but generally this flat coastal hinterland is a sleepy and pleasantly empty agricultural area.
Leafy, airy Udine is the second largest city in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but is still less than half the size of Trieste. Prosperous and extremely pleasant, with tiny canals reflecting sunlight onto its handsome buildings, Udine is considered by Italians to be one of Italy’s most desirable places to live. Only 40km north of Trieste, it feels far more Venetian and less Slavic than its larger neighbour. Property prices are surprisingly reasonable, with good-sized apartments and even some small houses available for less than €100,000. (Of course, there are also plenty of more comfortable or spacious homes asking more than this.) 17km east of Udine, Cividale del Friuli is a hugely attractive little market-town which ought to interest the discerning foreign buyer. It has a serene, confident atmosphere and many historically-interesting buildings. South of here, and right up against the border with Slovenia, Gorizia is another appealing place, with a distinctly eastern European air. With great shopping and abundant parks and gardens, it offers the high quality of life typical of this area. To the west of Udine, the main towns are not as immediately attractive as those to the city’s east. Codroipo is a peaceful but largely unremarkable place, and nearby Porderone is a workaday town but with a rather nice old centre. Property prices are pretty low in both places. All of the towns mentioned in this section enjoy excellent rail connections.
The Carnia, or the mountainous northern swathe of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, sees the region change completely – shaking off its flat, placid lowlands and climbing towards distinctly Alpine and Dolomite-like landscapes. Great for hiking and climbing, yet relatively little-known, the Carnia differs slightly in its west and east. In the west, orchards and hayfields rise steadily to meet highland pastures and flower meadows split by lush valleys. There’s famously good food in the little towns and villages up here – typical hearty mountain fare, but prepared with great refinement. In the east, meanwhile, barren limestone peaks tower over forested valleys where the locals variously speak dialects of German, Slovene or Friulano – giving the place an intensely exotic flavour. There are some good ski slopes in this area, with Tarviso, Piancavallo and Forni di Sopra being the best resorts. Gemona, on the southern edge of the Carnia, has an ‘old centre’ that’s film-set clean and smart. After an earthquake flattened the town in 1976, the old centre was painstakingly rebuilt and remains as yet attractively unscuffed! As is the case in most mountainous parts of Italy, property prices up in the Carnia are among the lowest in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. A lovely two-bedroom chalet-style house near a ski resort might ask just €130,000. Generally, expect to find lots of Alpine-style houses up here – dark wood and steep roofs nestled amidst the pine trees and peaks.
Englishwoman Laurie Graham and her American husband Howard Fitzpatrick live in Venice and own a holiday home in the Carnia mountains in the north of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
“Venice drew us to Italy,” Laurie explains. “It’s a place that gets into people’s blood. We had a window of opportunity when the children had grown up and gone, so we decided to come to Venice for a year to see if we could make a life here – and we’re still here. We bought the house in the Carnia in the late 1990s, as a year-round holiday home. We wanted a real contrast. Living in Venice we’ve got the city, the water and the big sky. In the Carnia we’ve got a very dramatic landscape, with forests and mountains, and at just two hours’ drive from Venice. The look of the place is not particularly Italian; a lot of the houses are in the Tyrolean style. When we first decided to buy here, we joked about taking yodelling lessons! The air is very fresh, and the temperature is always cooler than in Venice. There’s very good and very affordable skiing about nine kilometres from where we are. It’s great walking country, but we just tend to sit on our veranda and gaze at the mountains.
“A lot of Italians don’t even realize that Friuli-Venezia Giulia is part of Italy! It doesn’t feel especially Italian to me. It’s a very interesting mix – an old Austro-Hungarian corner of the world. They don’t even always speak Italian up here. Where we are, the locals often speak Friulano. We had a housewarming party with our neighbours, and the more grappa that went down the more they lapsed into Friulano, until Howard and I had to sit and talk just to each other!
“After we bought the house we spent a year or so fixing it up. And now [in 2007] we’ve put it on the market. Our problem is that we like projects! We don’t like sitting round doing nothing, and now we’re ready for another project. I think Howard would quite like to buy a piece of mountainside and build a house, but I’d rather look for something that needs fixing up – maybe again in the Carnia. There are different sorts of landscape up here. The house we’ve got at the moment is on a steep mountain track, with fairly dramatic scenery. But there are also lovely rolling Alpine pastures, where like something out of Heidi or The Sound of Music, I can see myself running out of the house in my dirndl skirt!”
For more about Laurie and Howard’s house, visit www.casafriuli.com.