Puglia, the sun-brushed heel of Italy’s “boot”, has traditionally played the role of the nation’s country cousin: warm, sleepy and unsophisticated. Despite its baroque hill towns, chalky beaches and plentiful olive groves, it only began to be noted on the international market about 10 years ago.
In that short time, however, Puglia seems to have arrived as a status destination. This year foreign interest in the region overtook Tuscany for the first time, attracting 40 per cent of all inquiries in Italy, according to Annabel Smith of Jackson-Stops and Staff.
Puglia has now established itself “as a trophy destination, like Capri or Portofino,” says interior architect Nigel Wilson, a Londoner who moved to the region to start a restoration business 11 years ago. While well-heeled international buyers haven’t deserted Tuscany — it continues to draw 30 per cent of inquiries at Jackson-Stops and Staff — some feel that the area dubbed “Chianti-shire” for its red wines and British visitors has reached saturation point.
“Tuscany is too polished now,” says Wilson, “whereas Puglia still has that authentic feel. When I moved here you couldn’t even get a Diet Coke.”
The interest in Puglia comes at a time of uncertainty in the Italian property market. Prices have fallen 20 to 30 per cent since the 2008 financial crash. Yet there are signs that the stagnant property market is starting to stir again.
Both inquiries and transactions in 2016 have increased 50 per cent on last year, which was 50 per cent higher than the year before, driven mainly by UK buyers, according to property agency Casa Puglia.
While Puglia was also hit by the crisis, prices before the crash were very inflated on some properties, driven by the onset of foreign interest, says Casa Puglia’s Johan Zetterberg. He says he expects a 35 to 40 per cent increase between 2010 and 2020.
“Puglia still has a lifestyle like we had in the 1950s,” he says. “And a couple of million goes a long way here. Fifty euros in Puglia is [worth] 100 in Tuscany.”
Per sq metre you can expect to pay about €2,000, rising to €4,000 in a fashionable town (add about 30 per cent for a sea view). In Tuscany, be prepared to pay up to €6,800 per sq metre.
Wilson, a director in Puglia Estates, which sources and restores historic properties, claims the downturn has failed to dent his business, with clients seeking “a villa with a private beach, or a baroque palazzo in a beautiful piazza”.
Centuries of invasions by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans and Spaniards, have left the region with a wealth of charming architectural oddities, including trulli, which are curious conical-roofed cottages, and Moorish-style masserias, the fortified farmhouses from which the hapless locals fought off the umpteenth sacking.
There are more modern homes too. Wilson has 16 or 17 builds in development, including the restoration of a 1970s modernist villa with sea access and its own natural rock pool. “Another project is a big palazzo in Galatina, where we took the plaster off the vaulted ceiling and discovered the whole place is covered in frescoes.”
Houses to restore in Puglia are getting harder to come by as demand increases, he claims. “Before it would take me three or four weeks to locate a baroque palazzo for sale; now it’s three to four months. There’s a finite number. They can’t build any more.”
Many British buyers have targeted what agents dub the “Golden Triangle”, between Brindisi (where there is an international airport), Martina Franca (a baroque hilltop settlement), and the pertinently named Monopoli. This area also includes the hill towns of Ostuni and Alberobello, famous for its trulli, which are popular among international buyers.
“We have waiting lists of clients, and no stock to show them,” says Alanna McLeod of the Elite Puglia agency, which is based in Ostuni, and covers only this area. “As soon as we list a property, it just slides out the door.”
The agency is selling Casa Carestia, which comprises a four-cone trullo and detached additional buildings, two miles outside Ostuni for €1.25m. The property comes with a pool, a private wood and two hectares of land.
Yet Puglia’s success is limited to certain pockets, according to Zetterberg. “Alberobello is a Unesco heritage site where every tourist spends at least a day. There’s a strong market around there. But in many areas of Puglia supply is still bigger than demand.”
Interest in the top end of the market is also still limited, Smith warns. Many of the highest-end properties, usually art nouveau villas costing more than €1.5m, are to be found at the end of Puglia, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas merge. The area around Santa Maria di Leuca, at the tip of the Salento peninsula is popular with the sailing crowd. But, she explains, the south of Salento is a long drive from the nearest airport (1.5 hours from Brindisi), and many shops and restaurants shut down for winter. “It’s not really an all-year-round destination.”
Increasingly, buyers are targeting historic towns, which do not just cater to the summer influx of tourists but offer a year-round social life. Aside from Lecce, the Salentine capital, there is Manduria, Oria and, on the Ionian coast, the market town of Nardò and the old town of Gallipoli, an island linked to the mainland by an arched bridge.
Casa Puglia is marketing a seven-bedroom 13th-century palazzo in the historic centre of Oria, which was part of the castle buildings of King Frederick II of Sicily, sometime Holy Roman Emperor. The property, priced at €1.2m, has a colonnade and its own citrus orchard. Casa Puglia is also selling a masseria with 16 bedrooms in Lecce, for €1.9m.
Jackson-Stops and Staff is selling a restored masseria in Gargano national park, northern Puglia, for €4.8m. The 14-bedroom property is in an elevated position amid 42 hectares of ancient olive trees.
Christie’s International Real Estate is selling a partly restored waterfront villa with sea access near Santa Maria di Leuca for €1.7m, or €2.4m fully restored. It has panoramic sea views, a 6,000 sq metre private garden, a guesthouse, two trulli and a pool.
Richard Howell, from London, bought a two-bedroom house in Nardò, in preference to properties in Tuscany, because of the region’s relaxed daily rhythm. Howell, the director of Secret Squirrels, a company that provides feedback from undercover customers to restaurants and hotels, came on holiday to Puglia and fell in love with “the light, the climate and the people”.
“It feels undiscovered,” he says.
● Taxes when buying a non-primary home are 9 per cent. Agency fees are 3 per cent
● Some stock is not listed so ask around but always use an accredited agent
● Planning regulations are more relaxed than in some regions. The rule of thumb is the more land you own the more building is likely to be permitted
● Many buyers want to a own a ‘trullo’. It is possible to buy one on its own with planning permission to add a villa within three years. ‘Trulli’ need to be restored by experts, so costs can add up
€800,000 A villa with several ‘trulli’ and a pool near Alberobello
€1.5m A restored ‘masseria’ with olive grove near the coast around Lecce
€2m A villa with private water access and a pool in Santa Maria di Leuca
More listings at ftpropertylistings.com
Photographs: Danita Delimont/Getty Images; Francesco Iacobelli/Getty Images; Getty Images; Mandy Koplin/Getty Images