Wealthy Buyers Are Turning This Region Into One of Italy’s Hottest Home Markets | Kanebridge News
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Wealthy Buyers Are Turning This Region Into One of Italy’s Hottest Home Markets

Once an impoverished area, Puglia has seen an influx of high-end buyers willing to spend millions on historic farmhouses and villas

Thu, Jun 15, 2023 8:09amGrey Clock 5 min

In a shaded spot near his new swimming pool, Northern Italian architect Paolo Genta is taking stock of his Southern Italian dream project—a luxurious vacation compound, serving three generations of his extended Turin family, that he created in Puglia, the region running down the heel of Italy’s boot.

On a hot spring day, over a glass of local rosé wine and tomato-and-pasta canapés, Genta, 64, remembers his initial encounter over a decade ago with the sunbaked property, which he bought in stages between 2012 and 2015, for $537,400, and then restored up through 2022.

“A friend took me here,” he says, of the 2/3-acre estate, then in ruins. “But it immediately felt familiar to me—as if I already knew it.”

He has gone on to spend around $1.075 million to realise his vision by renovating three adjacent structures, dating back to at least the 18 century, as well as $236,400 on the lavish landscaping. He and the Genta clan plan to use the compound’s seven bedrooms, spread over two buildings, up to a few months a year. The third building, a deconsecrated Baroque chapel, is the perfect place to have a cool lunch on a hot day.

Genta is one of a growing number of luxury-minded homeowners who are transforming Puglia, once a remote and impoverished corner of Italy, into an outpost of upscale living. Historical stone farmhouses, called masserie, are getting high-tech upgrades, while Puglia’s traditional cone-topped rural structures, called trulli, are being converted into high-end primary suites.

Puglia is one of the few areas of mainland Southern Italy—along with the Campania region, home to Naples and the Amalfi Coast—to develop a reliable luxury real-estate sector. According to Idealista.it, the Italian residential real-estate site, home prices here now average about $121 per square foot, which is higher than in nearby Basilicata, Calabria and Abruzzo.

Luxury properties are clustered in two areas. One, Valle d’Itria, is an agricultural valley between Bari, Puglia’s largest city, and Ostuni, an old, atmospheric hilltop town. This is ground zero for Puglia’s trulli legacy. Thousands of the structures, large and small, mark the hilly countryside, creating a distinctive, rustic skyline. Further south, around the Baroque city of Lecce, lies Salento, where Genta has his compound. Flatter and hotter, with simultaneous access to both Adriatic and Ionian beaches, Salento offers more seclusion.

Many residential buildings in Valle d’Itria, a Puglia area increasingly known for upscale homes and luxury resorts, are topped with cone-shaped trulli.

According to Idealista, Puglia’s Brindisi province, which includes much of Valle d’Itria, is seeing the region’s strongest price increases, up 9.2% between May 2022 and May 2023. The most expensive sale in 2022 was a 6,500-square-foot Salento masseria, not far from the Genta compound, which sold for $3.78 million.

Valle d’Itria is known for its white-stone towns and exclusive hotels, such as Borgo Egnazia, a 40-acre coastal resort, where high-season prices can reach $26,585 a night. Near Ostuni, a restored, trulli-topped stone house dating back several centuries has an asking price of $1.72 million; the five-bedroom home sits on a roughly 7.5-acre lot.

Valle d’Itria appeals to design royalty, such as Milan’s MariaCristina Buccellati, who works with her family’s luxury jewellery label, now owned by Richemont. Salento, meanwhile, attracts Hollywood royalty; local homeowners include actress Helen Mirren and her husband, director Taylor Hackford. In Salento, near the very bottom of the heel, a restored 12-bedroom castle, with a large enclosed garden, has an asking price of $3.56 million.

Canadian couple Alper Ozdemir and Cynthia Liu, who arrived in Puglia from Toronto in late 2021, have bought in the heart of Valle d’Itria. The active retirees, both in their early 50s, left behind Ontario’s cold climate for Puglia’s good food, warm weather and close-to-nature lifestyle, says Ozdemir.

In February 2022, they closed on a 7.5-acre farm with a trulli-topped ruin. They paid $247,000 for the property, and plan to spend about $860,000 to turn the 3,850-square-foot structure into a two-story, three-bedroom home, built around a new swimming pool.

Like many luxury buyers in the area, the couple narrowed their choice between Valle d’Itria and Salento, settling on the former. “Salento is nice in the summer,” says Ozdemir, “but people live around here year round.”

Puglia overall has become increasingly accessible. It is now part of Italy’s high-speed train network, and it has two international airports. Staying in a local rental to oversee their renovation, Ozdemir and Liu plan to use their new home, set to be completed in 2024, as a base for exploring the country.

A new set of buyers from the San Francisco Bay Area, brothers Mark and Peter Alwast, also regard their 2-acre Valle d’Itria homestead, purchased for $355,000 in September 2022, as a convenient toehold, with plans to explore Europe. The brothers, along with Peter Alwast’s life partner and Mark Alwast’s husband, expect to spend about $322,000 to renovate a 3,000-square-foot house for their retirement.

Meanwhile, they will use it as a vacation home. Despite the far longer travel time, the foursome view it as an alternative to Northern California wine country. “In Puglia you get a lot more for your money,” says Mark Alwast, 60, a designer.

Patience is often required from buyers in Puglia. Genta needed to piece together his compound from eight different owners, with some holding out for years. Retired New York attorney Ellen Bonaventura, 62, has spent the past nine years putting back together a Salento palazzo, a 30-minute drive south of Lecce, from a cluster of disparate buildings. “It was always my dream to have a house in Italy,” says the full-time Puglia resident, who estimates that she has spent $495,000 on real estate, about $3.22 million on renovation costs and around $537,000 on furniture and art, including Neapolitan and Sicilian antiques.

To-do lists tend to grow for this new round of Puglia homeowners. In 2021, Paolo Colombo, an architect based in Lugano, Switzerland, paid $1.94 million to buy two multi trulli structures on a 3.7-acre hilltop Valle d’Itria property, and then spent $2.16 million to renovate the two buildings—which required disassembling, cleaning and reassembling the massive stonework. Completed this June, the renovation will be followed soon, says Colombo, by a free-standing, latticework yoga studio and new outdoor sleeping areas, which will give his family of five a total of eight bedrooms in the main house.

Swiss-based Italian architect Paolo Colombo celebrated his birthday at his trulli-topped compound in Valle d’Itria.

Rula Al Amad and James Woods, a Milan-based, Palestinian-American couple, have expanded their Puglia portfolio. Valle d’Itria pioneers, they started in 2006, when they paid a mere $129,000 to buy a derelict set of trulli, then spent $295,000 over the following several years to create a 2,000-square-foot vacation home.

Sensing it had become too small for their family of four, the couple paid $537,000 in 2018 for a nearby derelict masseria. They then spent about $1.57 million on a gut renovation, which wrapped up this spring. The finished compound can comfortably sleep up to 10.

Speaking in her new living room, which emphasizes the 500-year-old masseria’s use of historic local limestone, Al Amad, who first stayed in the house this past Easter, is looking ahead to winter. “We go to Michigan at Christmas but come back to Italy for New Year’s,” she says of the routine of her Midwest-born husband and their two teenage boys. “I can see doing a big New Year’s Eve party here.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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