||As if 7,500 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline wasn’t enough of an aquatic blessing, Italy is also endowed with a wonderful array of lakes. They range from steep-sided beauties in the north, to serene hill-fringed oases in the centre, to isolated mountain tarns and sandy coastal lagoons in the south. Smaller and calmer than the sea, lakes have an appealingly restful quality which makes them perfect getaways. Couple this sense of geographic tranquility with exquisite lakeside towns, pretty surrounding villas, historic gardens and so on, and it’s little surprise that Italy’s lakes are among the country’s most popular holiday spots.
Homes in lake areas make an exceptionally good buy. They hold their value extremely well regardless of wobbles in the economy or the wider marketplace. Plus, they offer perennially strong holiday rental prospects. Most Italian lakes are protected against being spoilt by over-development, which further safeguards the value of homes in their vicinity and ensures that visitors will want to keep coming. While prices of Italy’s lake-area properties have remained largely unchanged since the onset of global recession four years ago, would-be buyers might notice that today’s vendors may be a little more open to offers slightly below their asking price. They might also notice that there’s a bit more to choose from and a bit less time-pressure to make final decisions, as fewer buyers are currently in competition. Temporarily static prices plus more time to make up your mind are obviously to your advantage – which makes now a very good time to buy, before the market picks up pace again.
So what sort of prices are we talking about here? At the very lowest end of the scale, you might get a good-sized rural house near the shores of sleepy Lake Omodeo in central Sardinia for as little as €30,000. In a less remote location, two-bedroom apartments near Umbria’s lovely Lake Trasimeno start at €90,000. Up north on Lakes Como or Maggiore, expect two-bedroom apartments to start at about €170,000, and two-bedroom houses at about €250,000. Obviously, there are absolutely plenty of larger and more luxurious properties in lake areas too – farmhouses, village homes, and sumptuous period villas sold whole or divided into apartments. Essentially, if you have a budget of anything between €30,000 and €30,000,000, you should be able to fulfil your lakeside dream one way or another!
Italy has dozens of lakes large and small, but as a non-Italian you’re likely to be most familiar with the famous biggies in the north – Garda, Como and Maggiore. These are undeniably stunning, but they’re not the only lovely lakes you should know about. Central Italy has a notable clutch of sparkling beauties – warm shallow Lake Trasimeno in Umbria and the crystal-clear volcanic lakes of Bolsena and Bracciano in northern Lazio, for example. These latter three generally see much lower-priced properties than their well-known northern cousins. Being that bit further south, they also see slightly longer summers. Let’s look in closer detail at each of these two lakeland areas.
Adored by British visitors for more than a hundred years, Italy’s mountain-fringed northern lakes are some of the most beautiful places in Europe – powerfully redolent of ease and sophistication. Exquisite, fruit-coloured villas dot their shorelines, as do pretty towns full of prosperous folk. Culturally influenced by Italy’s great northern cities, for which they serve as fresh-air getaways, the northern lakes enjoy good travel connections, a solid all-round infrastructure and a very high quality of life. Property on northern lakes can be pricy, as super-prosperous northern Italians want a second home here as much as you do. But holiday rental prospects are excellent, and you’re very likely to cover your costs with rentals. Not all homes on the northern lakes are expensive, and there are some good bargains scattered around.
The largest of all Italy’s lakes, and the most visited, Lake Garda has a dramatic and mountainous northern shoreline which grows steadily flatter and more developed toward the south. Reliable winds make for excellent sailing and windsurfing, and the lake can grow very busy in summer. Garda is generally the priciest of all the northern lakes. Linda Travella of the long-established agency Casa Travella says “Properties close to the lake vary from apartments or villas in small developments with shared pools, to larger modern villas often with spacious grounds. There is a good deal of new-build on Garda and it is a very good area for families, with lots on offer for children. The market is fairly quiet at the moment and a keen purchaser can find some very good buys. You can find a property around Desenzano with a shared pool for about €160,000, but for anything with two bedrooms expect to pay €235,000 or more.”
Eighty miles west of Lake Garda, Lake Como is to some minds the most beautiful and romantic lake in Italy. Steep slopes sprouting lush greenery plunge down into the water, giving it a particularly dramatic aspect. A long and slender lake shaped like a letter Y, Como’s every shore offers entrancing views across the water to another nearby shoreline. Evaporation haze makes dreamy layers of the surrounding scenery, while high Alps climb celestially into the northern distance. Jewel-like Lake Como is popular with the rich and famous, and several big names own villas here. Refined and elegant, it’s not a cheap place. It’s still possible, however, to get a nice one-bedroom apartment in the lake’s vicinity for around €100,000. Two-bedroom houses, meanwhile, ask €170,000 and upwards. New-build property, in a tasteful complex with a shared pool, can be especially good value.
Como’s western neighbour Lake Maggiore has a similar elegance and wealth of pretty villas, although its surrounding slopes aren’t so consistently steep or dramatic. Maggiore is particularly popular with visitors of post-retirement age. And it’s an especially good place for period villas, many of which have been converted into reasonably-priced apartments. Generally, one-bedroom flats round the lake can go for about €150,000, two-beds for about €200,000. The stately old resort of Stresa on the western shore is Maggiore’s most expensive spot. Sally Walker of Sallitalia Properties says that “For a two-bedroom apartment with lake views in the most popular area of Stresa, expect to pay around €350,000, with villas from €500,000 upwards.” Sally adds “The further north you travel from the lake the more reasonable the prices. The eastern side of the lake represents better value for money and doesn’t attract such large numbers of tourists as the western side. Holiday rentals on the lake remain good, particularly in the west. You can expect a rental income for around seven or eight months of the year, slightly longer if the property is in a good location for skiing.”
Moving south down the Italian peninsula to Umbria and Lazio, three good-sized lakes deserve your consideration – especially if you haven’t yet heard of them! Lakes Trasimeno, Bolsena and Bracciano each sit in attractive rural landscapes dotted with charming little towns rich in history. Ringed by gentle hills rather than plunging Alpine slopes, these lakes have a restful beauty rather than steep drama. The super-sophistication of Italy’s great northern cities might not be on your doorstep, but the considerable delights of Tuscany and Umbria – not to mention Rome – are never far away. The central Italian lakes are less crowded than the famous northern ones, they offer less expensive property, and enjoy a slightly longer summer.
Gentle Lake Trasimeno is Italy’s fourth largest lake. Edged by small sandy beaches and reedbanks, it sees woodlands, sunflowers and vineyards arcing across its low surrounding hills. Clean and shallow, the lakewater is agreeably warm for much of the year. Over the last decade or two, Lake Trasimeno and its handsome little towns have become fairly well-established with second-home-owners, but the area remains uncrowded and reasonably priced. Apartments on Lake Trasimeno start at about €90,000, while very nicely-restored and well-situated ones with a terrace or garden might ask €180,000-€200,000. Paola Berlenghini of the Umbria-specialist agency Welcomeservice notes that “The areas offering best value-for-money at the moment include Castel Rigone, San Feliciano, Panicale and countryside locations round the lake.”
| About thirty miles south of Lake Trasimeno lies the first of Lazio’s sparkling volcanic lakes. Eight miles wide, Lake Bolsena is Italy’s fifth biggest, and purportedly the cleanest lake in Europe. It sits serenely amidst green and super-fertile hillsides dotted with friendly little towns full of Etruscan, Roman and medieval remains. Its southerly neighbour Lake Bracciano, not far from Rome, has similar charm. Both lakes have long been loved by holidaymakers from Rome, and over the last fifteen years or so by foreign visitors and home-buyers too. The lakes remain completely unspoilt by development, however. New building in the immediate lake area is heavily restricted, and set to stay that way. Small village homes start at around €90,000, two-bedroom houses at about €200,000 and larger villas at around €300,000.
Finally, a word on restoration – which can sometimes be a good way to pay less for a home in the long run. As you might have guessed, there are fewer properties requiring restoration work around the famous northern lakes than around the smaller central ones. Buyers hoping to transform a neglected old house into their dream home will find greatest choice near Trasimeno or Bolsena. To find any neglected homes to restore on the northern lakes, expect at least a 20-minute drive from the shoreline up into the surrounding hills and mountains. Paola Berlenghini of Welcomeservice recommends restoration as still a good-value option, noting that many builders are currently showing greater negotiability on price. So, whether you restore, buy ready-restored or new-built, whether you head to the north, south or centre, there really are many ways to get yourself a lovely home near an Italian lake!
The largest and most visited of all Italy’s lakes, Lake Garda is an elongated teardrop-shaped body of water half in Lombardy and half in the Veneto. Its northern shorelines are dramatic, with mountains plunging steeply down to meet the water. The southern extreme, meanwhile, lies in a comparatively plain, flat landscape. Lake Garda is especially good for sailing, windsurfing and other watersports. There are a couple of large-scale theme parks nearby much loved by children. Popular with Italian visitors since Roman times, Garda draws tourists from far and wide these days. Property prices are among the highest in Italy. Some say that parts of Garda’s shoreline are a little over-developed now, and that not all of the lake’s resort-towns are attractive. However, new-build homes tend to be low-rise and tastefully done. Holiday rental prospects are excellent.
A three-pronged lake shaped like an inverted letter Y, Lake Como is long and slender with every shore enjoying entrancing views across the water to another. Steep green slopes plunge everywhere into the blue, giving Como an especially dramatic aspect. Evaporation haze, meanwhile, makes romantic layers of the scenery. To many minds, this is Italy’s most beautiful lake. A little quieter and less crowded than Garda, Como nonetheless attracts a very healthy number of visitors to its gorgeous little towns. The lake is hugely popular with wealthy Milanese (Milan is only 30 miles away), and celebrities such as George Clooney have bought properties here. Refined and elegant, it’s not a cheap place, but good-value homes are still available. Western neighbour Lake Maggiore has a similar slender elegance and wealth of pretty villas, although its surrounding slopes aren’t always so dramatic. It has, however, the stunning Borromean islands in its midst – decked with some of Italy’s most unforgettable villa-gardens. Maggiore certainly isn’t a cheap place either. It tends to draw an elderly international clientele. Both Como and Maggiore offer excellent holiday rental prospects. Note that prices are lower on the lesser-known small northern lakes, viz. Orta, Varese, Iseo, Lugano, etc.
Italy’s fourth largest lake remains a rural and tranquil place with abundant wildlife, despite being quite well established now with northern European visitors and second-home-owners. Clean and shallow, the water reaches a bath-like temperature for much of the summer. It’s ringed with small sandy beaches and reedbanks, while woodlands, sunflowers and vineyards arc across the low surrounding hills. Shoreline villages are generally peaceful, and the urban delights of Perugia lie only about 30km away. Umbria’s many stunning hilltop towns and villages lie further afield, and the border with Tuscany isn’t far off. Lake Trasimeno properties are still a little cheaper than those in other Umbrian ‘hotspots’ such as Todi, Assisi, Orvieto and Perugia. Ambitious restorers or developers should note that there are plenty of abandoned medieval castles and fortresses dotting the lakeside towns. Umbria also has other lakes to consider – Alviano, Corbara and Piediluco. All are attractive, and slightly cheaper than Trasimeno.
A trio of bright blue gems adorning the green, unspoilt landscape of northern Lazio, lakes Bolsena, Vico and Bracciano are hugely attractive places which have long been familiar to summer holidaymakers from Rome. They’ve become increasingly familiar to non-Italian visitors over the last decade or two. Spawned by long-dead volcanoes, and ringed by a circle of fertile hills, each of the three lakes offers astonishingly clean water, great swimming and abundant shoreline wildlife. Set in the ancient heartland of the Etruscans, and not far from Rome, Lazio’s lakeland area is very rich in historical relics – with Roman roads and Etruscan tombs dotting the pretty countryside. The lakeside towns, and those of the wider area, are small and charming, with friendly inhabitants and plenty of good, inexpensive restaurants. Lake Bracciano lies within commuting distance from Rome, so its property prices aren't terribly low. Lake Bolsena, meanwhile, on the edge of Tuscany and Umbria, remains more affordable despite its great growth in popularity.
If you’re looking for very inexpensive property, or for a feeling of having a small lake practically all to yourself, you should consider hunting round Italy’s far south. Little-visited regions like Molise, Basilicata and Calabria (as well as the rather more-visited islands of Sardinia and Sicily) each have a handful of small lakes dotted throughout their mainly mountainous interiors. Quiet and secluded, these mountain lakes typically have no real settlement on their shores. Great if you want splendid isolation and don’t care if your home has quite low holiday rental prospects. The prices of homes in settings like these can be rock-bottom (less than the price of a new car), but finding property for sale in the first place can require some effort. As well as asking local estate agents you should also ask local people if they know of anyone who’s selling independently. But freshwater surrounded by hills isn’t your only option. Italy also has several coastal lagoons offering tranquillity at a very reasonable price. Look at the crumbly, lagoon-prone Adriatic coast south of Venice – the Po River delta, peaceful and reedy, with the dazzling little cities of Emilia-Romagna never far away. Investigate Varano and Lésina lagoons on Puglia’s gorgeous Gargano Promontory – two oases of silence in an otherwise well-visited area. Or try the flamingo-rich lagoons outside Cágliari and Oristano on Sardinia.
Emma de Souza from Hertfordshire bought and restored a large house in the pretty countryside near Lake Bolsena in Lazio. She and husband David, together with their ten-year-old daughter Ellie, visit the property several times a year and also rent it out to holidaymakers.
“I’ve always had a love affair with Italy,” Emma explains. “A friend at school was half Italian and I stayed with her in the holiday after O. Levels. Even then I loved the food, and the attitude of the people.” Regular visits to Italy followed, including to friends who owned a house in the beautiful town of Bolsena in northern Lazio. “Then a friend started restoring a house in Yorkshire,” Emma says, “and it got me thinking…”
In January 2002, Emma went out to Lake Bolsena with a friend and little Ellie to view properties. “Homes in Bolsena were either too expensive or didn’t have much land,” she says. “I almost gave up, then an estate agent asked if I’d be prepared to go further out – to a village 20-30 minutes from the lake. I saw five houses, all looking like possibilities. Two weeks later, David and I travelled out to view three of them. ‘The Yellow House’, as my daughter had called it, was the second we saw and within ten minutes David gave it the thumbs up. It was a very emotional moment.
“It’s interesting how things work in Italy. We viewed the house at ten o’clock that morning, went to the estate agent to fill in some paperwork, and by lunchtime we had the owner of the house in the office accepting the offer!” It wasn’t the last time the couple would meet the vendor, Kalle Röhr – a German who had moved permanently to Italy. Becoming a firm friend, he helped to find builders to restore The Yellow House, acted as a project manager during the restoration work, and currently helps organize the holiday lettings.
“There was a lot of work to do,” Emma recalls. “The roof had caved in, the doors were hanging off, the window-frames were rotten, there was no electricity and only very basic plumbing. We restored as closely to the lovely original design as possible, only adding modern conveniences, a small extension and a pool. We now have a six-bedroom house that sleeps fourteen people.
“We’ve rented it out since 2003 and I still get a thrill from reading the guest-book comments. Notable visits include the guests falling in love with the area and buying a house here themselves, another couple getting married in Bolsena and having their wedding party at the house, and another couple proposing to each other under the oak tree in the garden!”
Midlands-based Jeff and Lea Harris bought a two-bedroom apartment on Lake Como in 2010. They enjoy regular trips to the property, and rent it to holidaymakers when they’re not there.
“We’d been to the northern lakes several times and loved the whole area,” Jeff explains. “We don’t like really hot places. We went to Tuscany a few summers ago and it just got too baking hot for us! So we decided on northern Italy. We love Italy; we love the food, the culture, the people, the style of the place.
“Our apartment is a new-build, in a little complex with a shared swimming pool. There are five blocks of four apartments. It’s just up the hill from the lake, a leisurely ten-minute walk. The views are astounding. There’s a clear vista right across the lake. Our apartment has a large additional room with two sofa-beds, half underground – which is actually an advantage because it’s very cool when there’s hot weather. Lake Como is beautiful at all times of the year. We’ll definitely be making winter visits as well as summer ones, because our eldest daughter is a keen skier, and ski resorts are within easy reach of us. We first saw the property in February – which was very beautiful because there was snow on the peaks – and we finalized in May. We negotiated a bit on price, and were happy with the outcome.
“We used the agency Casa Travella, and we found Linda Travella tremendously helpful. She seems to know everybody in the area. She recommended a good English-speaking lawyer, she helped us furnish the place, and she put us in touch with a man who can arrange holiday rentals on the property. It’s been marvellous the way she’s helped us and introduced us to all the right people. It’s all gone really smoothly.
“We love the idea of having a home on Lake Como that we can go out to anytime we like. It won’t stop us taking holidays elsewhere, of course, but we are going to be using the apartment a lot. At the moment I’m still working full-time, so I don’t see myself going out there for more than about three or four weeks a year. But we envisage that when I retire we’ll probably stay out there for months at a time – out of season.
“Lake Como is a beautiful part of the world. It’s not a typical summer holiday kind of place, not a lazing-by-the-pool kind of place. It’s somewhere that’s wonderful for walking, for hiking in the hills. Especially at the northern end of the lake, there’s a lot of windsurfing and boating. The little towns are hugely pretty, and the whole area is just a lovely place to be.”
Baz and Dee Ali from Weymouth own a two-bedroom apartment in a 17th-century farmhouse close to Lake Trasimeno in Umbria. They love the lake, its surrounding countryside and the variety of nearby places to visit.
Why Italy? “We had friends who were in the process of buying an apartment near Lake Trasimeno,” Baz explains, “and when we went out to visit them, we just fell in love with the area.” “Baz’s mother is French,” Dee says, “and we went to France every year for ten years. We were always looking for a little place to buy in France, but never quite found the right one. But with this place, it was completely different. We got there, took one look at the countryside, one look around and everything just clicked. Our friends had done lots of research to pinpoint where they should buy in Italy, and we were so lucky that we got to benefit from their efforts. We didn’t have to research anything!”
“Our friends’ apartment is in the same farmhouse as ours,” Baz says. “Theirs had been built but ours was still partly a cowshed when we bought it. It had to be pulled down and rebuilt in stone. This took about a year, and we were going out there almost every month for three or four days at a time.” “Our builder did a fantastic job,” Dee says. “It was quite exciting doing the restoration. We were involved in decisions on layout and all finishing touches. Once we told the builder what we wanted he simply got on with it.” “Italian builders are very conscientious,” Baz admits, “they restored everything in beautiful stonework, leaving exposed bits of stone as features in some of the rooms. For us, it was all painless and easy.”
“We really love the location,” Dee says. “We’ve got the lake, and we’re not far from places like Florence, Assisi and Rome. Even the coast is only a couple of hours’ drive. We have a private garden, we’ve got fantastic views over the countryside, and we have village shops nearby too. The local food is fantastic – simple cooking but with the very best fresh ingredients.” “We have about ten olive trees,” Baz adds, “and we hand-pick the olives and take them to ‘first press’ around November. It is a great experience! We get enough oil for ourselves and our family and friends to enjoy.”
“We just love the Italian way of life,” Baz continues. “The people are so friendly and helpful.” “There’s a lovely community,” Dee agrees. “And local people have really welcomed us. It’s wonderful being there. I love just swimming in the pool and enjoying the views. The light and the atmosphere are fantastic. The climate is perfect. The climate and the people. Not to mention the food!”