Mountains are the dominant feature of Italian geography, filling a whopping three-quarters of the country’s landscape. We Brits tend to holiday in Italy’s rolling hills or frisk on its endless seaside, but if we lift our gaze we can almost always see mountains off in the distance somewhere – their leafy heights and celestial snowcaps providing a serene, contemplative backdrop to the gaiety of life on lower ground.
Fittingly for such a mountainous country, Italy is actually responsible for the creation of Europe’s greatest mountain range. Geological aeons ago, the free-floating Italian landmass drifted up and smacked into the then-bottom of our continent – its impact thrusting up the vast, jagged heights we would later name The Alps. These majestic peaks stretch for hundreds of miles across Italy’s north, and their glorious skiing and hiking opportunities need no introduction.
Italy’s northeast also boasts the comparatively small Dolomite range – a famously beautiful group of mountains with sculptural, needle-like peaks. The mighty Apennine range, meanwhile, forms a long central backbone from which the rest of the country hangs. Variously shifting from low and wooded to high and craggy, the Apennines stretch for over six hundred miles from northern to southern Italy. Even Italy’s two largest islands, Sicily and Sardinia, are home to significant stretches of highland. In Italy, it seems one is forever looking upward. Or, positioned on high, one is forever looking out across magnificent vistas.
Most Italians make their home in the country’s lower elevations but they certainly don’t ignore the mountains, retreating to their cool heights in the summer and larking round on their snowy slopes in the winter. Skiing is a normal activity in Italy, with most Italians taking a wintry ‘settimana bianca’ in addition to their month-long summer holiday. Italian snow-resort culture is generally friendlier and more laid-back than that of France or Switzerland. Skiers don’t take themselves too seriously and are chiefly concerned with communal fun. There’s a great deal of eating, drinking and sunbathing on Italy’s slopes, a lot of looking good and chatting, a lot of socialising. Italians do skiing pretty much like they do everything else – happily, socially, and with the prospect of good dining never too far away.
British holidaymakers and property-hunters are much less familiar with the pleasures of Italy’s great heights. Summer hikers head more readily to better-known Switzerland or Austria, while skiers are often lured to swanky France or the new bargain spots of eastern Europe instead. Italy’s reputation as the place for art, architecture, exquisite cities and rolling countryside seems to obscure a popular recognition that this is also a place of fantastic mountain fun.
Italy’s mountain areas attract fewer foreign buyers than most other parts of the country. Couple this fact with the lower incidence of Italian buyers themselves seeking a home in the mountains and you’re looking at one obvious result: plenty of properties on high asking reasonable prices. This is especially true in the Apennines, where a nice two-bedroom home near a ski-resort can ask as little as €60,000, and a property to restore can ask €20,000. In the current money-saving climate, Italy’s mountains are a great place in which to consider buying an inexpensive home.
What you hope to get out of a home in the mountains will obviously determine the kind of areas where you should go property-hunting. Are you looking for a dedicated ski zone where you can reap reliable winter holiday rental returns, and enjoy world-class slopes yourself occasionally? Or are you perhaps looking for an inexpensive country home situated between various attractions, from which you might dabble in a bit of winter skiing and summer hiking when the fancy takes you?
If you’re a serious skier, or you’re after some serious winter rental prospects, then look north. Italy’s best slopes and most developed ski infrastructure are all up here in the Alps and Dolomites. The country’s biggest mountain-property pricetags are also up here too, unfortunately. A two-bedroom chalet in a popular resort such as Sestriere might ask €300,000. But look at a smaller, less well-known Alpine or Dolomite ski resort and it’s possible to find a one-bedroom apartment for just under €100,000, or a three-bed for under €150,000.
Italy’s far north is home to several vast interconnected networks of ski resorts, offering a great variety of slopes and valleys over a relatively small area. This means you don’t necessarily need to buy in a large, famous resort in order to have access to superb, diverse slopes. One such network is the ‘Milky Way’ west of Turin, where attractive and well-equipped places like Sestriere, Pinerolo, Sauze d’Oulx et al together provide about 400km of excellent slopes all within easy reach of each other. Another extensive network is the ‘Dolomiti Superski’ area in Italy’s northeast. Here, across twelve different mini-areas, 450 lifts serve a whopping 1,220km of slopes. The tiny, unspoilt region of Valle d’Aosta, meanwhile, is another spot teeming with ski resorts.
Property prices in the most famous resorts, such as Courmayeur and especially Cortina d’Ampezzo, can be stratospheric, but choose a lesser-known place nearby and prices drop considerably. Mark Slaviero of Homes in Italy advises that “Resorts such as Cortina are the crème de la crème of the Italian ski scene and very expensive. If people are looking for a bargain, it would be best to look at smaller and lesser known resorts that link to popular areas, for example Sansicario which links to the Milky Way, Campitello on the Sella Ronda circuit, or someplace in the not so known Monterosa ski area.” He adds that “Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are popular with overseas skiers, as are Cervinia, Livigno, Madonna di Campiglio and Selva Val Gardena. If buyers are looking for rental income, then I would stick to resorts popular with foreigners as the Italians are very unpredictable with their ski rentals and often book late as they look at snow fall etcetera.”
Buyers thinking about holiday rentals should know that in Italy the ski season usually starts in the first week of December and lasts until Easter. Two bedroom ski apartments are the most popular properties, and being close to the lifts or a ski bus is crucial. Kate Brice from Holiday Homes in Italy advises that “It is usually possible to rent for an average of fifteen weeks a year in Italian ski resorts, if not more. High season is Christmas, New Year and February. It is often possible to maximise rents by selling to Italians in early season and Easter which tend to be less popular with overseas holidaymakers.”
Italy commonly squeezes in an exceptional variety of landscapes over relatively short distances. High mountains suddenly plunge into lakelands, soften into wooded hills, meet fertile lowlands or melt into the seaside. Any high-altitude home you might buy in Italy is likely to give access to more attractions than endless mountains. But if it’s diversity you’re specifically after, some areas offer rather more than most. And, being positioned mid-way between major ski resorts and other attractions rather than wholly concentrated on one or the other, properties in places like these can be very reasonably priced. Italian buyers usually want the prestigious ski slope or the lake or the beach on their doorstep. If you’re willing to travel a bit to reach your diverse attractions, you can save a lot of money on a property.
You might consider buying a home for reasonable cost situated between one of Italy’s most popular lakes (Garda, Como or Maggiore) and the high mountains just north of all three. Choose a small, lesser known ski resort in an area like this and you can easily travel to the lakeside and to more challenging runs further north. Linda Travella of the longstanding agency Casa Travella recommends, for example, “the pretty resort of Aprica in Valtellina just north of Lake Como. Here you can find a studio ski apartment from as little as €103,000 and a two-bedroomed apartment for €192,000. Aprica is just an hour from Bormio where the world ski championships are often held, and just across the border there’s St. Moritz in Switzerland.”
Inch south down the Italian peninsula, and there are many places where you can combine good skiing at small ski resorts with the nearby delights of famously beautiful cities or the fun of the seaside. Linda Travella recommends Tuscany-lovers have a look at Abetone, “which is on the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna and is the major Apennine resort. Abetone has 27 lifts, with many mixed ability pistes both above and below the tree line, and yet is only 50km from Pisa.”
Abetone, Sestola and Febbio are definitely worth considering if you like the idea of an affordable, high-quality ski resort set in the pretty Apennines between Tuscany with its art-cities and Emilia-Romagna with its famous good-living and gastronomy. The Apennines here offer great skiing despite their relatively low altitude, and are generally snow-sure in the winter (topped up with the artificial stuff if necessary). Local infrastructure is extremely good, with well-maintained roads and high standards across the board. The wealth and reliability of northern Italy is very much in evidence.
Property-wise, there are many good-value homes to be had. You might find a one-bedroom cottage near Febbio asking as little as €50,000, or a three-bed asking €70,000. Dedicated ski apartments with three bedrooms generally go for between €80,000 and €200,000. If you fancy something very chic, Linda Travella points out that “you can find a luxury two-bedroom, two-balcony apartment with garage, ski store and gym facility right in the heart of Abetone for €350,000”
Buyers who like the idea of being within easy reach of swimming and skiing – perhaps even being able to combine the two on the same day – should definitely think about Le Marche and Abruzzo on the eastern side of central Italy. Both regions flank the blue Adriatic but rise quickly from their beachy seasides through rolling hills to skiable heights. Le Marche offers some skiing in its Sibillini Mountains, while Abruzzo offers rather a bit more in its tremendously high and rugged Gran Sasso and Maiella ranges (all part of the Apennines). In both regions it’s perfectly possible to buy a property half an hour from a ski resort in one direction and half an hour from a beach resort in the other. A home here could provide year-round entertainment, if not necessarily strong holiday rental returns.
Barbara Balda of Absolutely Abruzzo explains that “There are two main ski areas in Abruzzo. Roccarasso in the far south is very popular with skiers coming across from Naples. The other area contains Prati di Tivo, Pietracamella and Campo Imperatore – all located near Teramo and very popular with locals as well as with people from Rome an hour’s drive away. Other ski resorts in Abruzzo are many and varied but have scanty facilities. Both the areas I have mentioned would do well with rentals and are popular all year round. Prices are still very reasonable compared with Alpine resorts.”
One-bedroom apartments in Abruzzo’s best ski resorts might ask about €100,000, but there are some particularly good-value properties to be had if you’re willing to travel for half an hour to reach your local slope: new two-bedroom houses from €60,000, a three-bed villa for €190,000. There are also many cheap townhouses for restoration within ten minutes from Abruzzo skiing, starting at an incredible €10,000.
Barbara adds that anyone thinking of buying outside Abruzzo’s two main ski areas should consider the distance from the coast, travel links and winter weather. She warns, for example, that the Province of L'Aquila is renowned for its extreme and uncomfortable weather. “It’s one of the coldest cities in Italy from autumn to spring and one of the hottest in summer with very high humidity,” she says.
With so many mountainous areas to consider, and such a wide range of property prices, isn’t it time you looked beyond Italy’s beaches and rolling hills? Think onward and upward.
Tucked up against the border with France, and benefiting from a particularly sunny Alpine climate, Piedmont’s busy ‘Milky Way’ resorts together offer about 400km of excellent slopes. Picturesque villages flank thoroughly modern facilities – made even better by a billion-euro investment in the run-up to the 2006 Winter Olympics. Sestriere, just 60 miles from Turin and drawing a metropolitan weekend crowd, was Italy’s first purpose-built ski resort, and it’s still a fashionable and well-equipped place. Nearby lie picturesque towns-cum-resorts such as Pinerolo, Pragelato, Claviere and Cesana. Bardonecchia is especially loved by snowboarders, and family-oriented San Sicario is best known for its challenging runs. Of Italy’s three main northern ski areas (west of Turin, north of Turin, and the Dolomites), west of Turin is perhaps the least expensive. But not by much. All three areas sit in wealthy Italian regions with very high standards of living, and property prices reflect this as well as the excellent holiday rental prospects available to owners. In addition to the eager snow-crowd, summer walkers are drawn to the area, making year-round rentals a possibility. Property investment here is popular with local buyers as well as with foreigners.
With a distinctive Swiss-French-Italian flavour, and as comfortable speaking French as Italian, tiny Valle d’Aosta is Italy’s smallest region. Its limits defined by the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Gran Paradiso National Park, Valle d’Aosta is stunningly beautiful – sprouting castles, pine forests and waterfalls, and with quaint Alpine villages sprinkled across high, unspoilt mountain vistas. One of Italy’s most thinly-populated regions, Valle d’Aosta nonetheless teems with visitors come here to hike or ski. Its most glamorous resort, on a fashionability par with super-chic Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, is Courmayeur – often voted Italy’s top ski-spot. Cervinia and Champoluc are also popular. Property prices can vary wildly in Valle d’Aosta, with villas asking more than a million in Courmayeur but great bargains to be found in the region’s more remote parts, where there are few buyers. The holiday rentals scene is very strong, benefiting both from winter sportspeople and summer walkers. To the east of Valle d’Aosta lie the northern lakes (Maggiore, Como, Garda, et al), each with various small ski resorts to their northand a growing number of tasteful developments catering to the ski-property-buyer. You could get a 2-bedroom chalet apartment here for €200,000. Property in this area can tap into two holiday rental markets – lake-goers and piste-seekers.
Thought by many to be the world’s most beautiful mountain range, the tall, needle-like peaks of the Dolomites offer superlative skiing and world-class resorts. Queen of them all is Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy’s most famous, fashionable and expensive ski-bunny bolthole. But Cortina lies at the heart of only one of twelve different ski areas forming the ‘Dolomiti Superski’ network – where 450 lifts serve 1,220km of slopes. With typically sunny weather and abundant powdery snow, it’s little surprise that the Dolomites see huge numbers of winter visitors or that property here is expensive and commands superb holiday rental returns. The Dolomites lie across two Italian regions – the Veneto (home to Cortina), and Trentino-AltoAdige. While the former is pancake-flat save for its Dolomite bit, the latter is almost wholly mountainous – Dolomites in the south giving way to Alps in the north. Squeezed up against Austria, and maintaining a distinctly Germanic feel, the Alto Adige or ‘Südtirol’ area is gorgeous but extremely costly for property. Dominated by resorts and holiday homes, it might not be a first choice for relocation, but it’s a great place to rake in holiday rentals.
The sprinkling of ski resorts in the mountains south of Modena make up one of Italy’s lesser-known high-quality ski areas. Serving as a natural border between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, the Apennines here offer great skiing despite their relatively low altitude, and are generally snow-sure in the winter (topped up with the artificial stuff if necessary). Sestola and Abetone are the largest resorts, the latter with 70km of pistes over 30 slopes. Febbio has the highest slopes, with more than 12km of ski runs, and Piandelagotti appeals especially to cross-country enthusiasts. The whole area is very well-situated for those who want to do more than ski, with the cultural delights of Tuscany and the seaside bliss of Liguria just a few miles to the south, and all the civilised and gastronomic pleasures of Parma, Modena and Bologna to the north. Emilia-Romagna’s Apennines are leafy and peaceful, dotted with small, well-run villages and towns. Property-wise, there’s a lot of good-value stuff about. You might spend €250,000 on a very comfortable 3-bedroom home, and rent it out to summer and winter holidaymakers for €800 a week.
East of Rome, in the comparatively little-visited Abruzzo region, Italy’s Apennines rise to their mightiest heights. Here in the ‘Gran Sasso’ and ‘Maiella’ ranges, a handful of ski resorts look out across awesome terrain. The area is of especial interest to those after a bargain, and to people who fancy having a ski resort half an hour in one direction and an Adriatic beach resort half an hour in the other. Old houses needing restoration get going at about €10,000 in Abruzzo, while one-bed flats in or near the region’s ski resorts can go for as little as €50,000. This peaceful and unspoilt region, teeming with wildlife, has a burgeoning tourist industry and it’s probable that property prices here will continue to rise slowly and steadily. The adjacent region of Le Marche also has some ski resorts in its pretty Sibillini Mountains. More fashionable than Abruzzo, Le Marche’s property prices are slightly higher, and there are fewer restoration projects available. Those seeking skiing in improbable places might like to consider the cross-country runs way down south in dirt-cheap Calabria, or the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, rather pricier.
Skiing enthusiasts Jacky and Paul Cavalli from Kent bought a house in a village on Lake Como five years ago. It gives them year-round entertainment. In summer they enjoy the waterside and in the winter they make daytrips to various Alpine ski resorts about an hour’s drive away.
“We are right on the lake,” Jacky says, “in a little village called Nobiallo which is next to Menaggio. We have a small boat, and it’s great fun to travel to the different towns around the lake. For skiing we usually drive up to Madesimo about an hour away. There are four or five other ski resorts at similar distance which are small, up-and-coming places. St. Moritz is less than two hours away, and we also go to Livigno which is further and then we stay overnight. When we bought the house we didn’t realize how easy the skiing would be to reach. We’ll leave about 8:30 in the morning, have a leisurely breakfast en route, ski for three or four hours, then drive back. We probably go skiing two or three days a week when we’re there in the winter. It’s idyllic.”
Why did the couple choose to buy in Italy in the first place? “We’d been looking for somewhere to invest in, and had looked at various countries,” Jacky explains. “Paul’s grandparents were Italian, so we knew Italy quite well. We had fallen in love with Cinque Terre, but couldn’t afford it. We did some searching on the internet and arranged to view some ski chalet properties around Lake Como with Linda Travella from Casa Travella. And we just fell in love with the lake the minute we saw it. We love Whistler in Canada, and there’s a big lake there too – which gives the place a similar lovely feel. But we thought Whistler was a bit too far to go for a holiday home!”
Jacky and Paul’s house is about a hundred years old and sits in a small cluster of village homes overlooking the water. “It’s built into the mountainside,” Jacky says. “The downstairs used to be where they milked the cows and sold milk!” The couple keep the place solely as a private holiday home and don’t rent it to holidaymakers. “We try to go out every month,” Jacky says.
Lake Como’s northerly position means the place is driveable from the Cavallis’ home in Kent. “We drive out about four or five times a year for bigger holidays,” Jacky says. “Door to door it’s about twelve hours and we share the driving. We love the place and I just wish we’d bought the house years ago!”