The sophisticated region of Emilia-Romagna offers every geographical delight as well as some of the best food in Italy. Rural homes in its hills offer exceptional value for money too, says Fleur Kinson. Photos by Getty Images
If you’ve never heard of Emilia-Romagna, that’s only because this happy, prosperous place feels no need to advertise itself. You’ll surely have heard of the region’s cities and products, though. Emilia-Romagna is the home of radiant Bologna, jewel-like Ravenna, joyful beach-babylon Rimini, cosy Parma and dreamy Ferrara. It’s also the home of Parmesan cheese, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, lasagne and a rather well-known pasta sauce called bolognese. Oh, and it’s the home of car manufacturers Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini. Hmmm, fine food and fast cars. Sounds like a place with a high quality of life, doesn’t it?
Emilia-Romagna has one of the highest standards of living of all Italy’s regions. Affluent and orderly, it has hardly any crime and a very low rate of unemployment. But it’s no hotbed of stressed, money-driven workaholics either. Like most northern Italians, Emilia-Romagnans prefer to keep a healthy work-life balance. The region’s pace of life is comfortable and unhurried, with plenty of time made available for strolling round town, sitting in restaurants and going to the opera.
At weekends and in the holidays, urban workers decamp to the beach or into the tranquil wooded mountains. An excellent travel infrastructure and a low population density means it’s easy to get around.
And you’ll want to get around, because there’s so much to see. The region’s urban gems are irresistible, but so are its rural landscapes. All of Emilia-Romagna’s long southern border with Tuscany and Le Marche is an undulating wonderland of hills rising into the tranquil heights of the Apennine mountains. Emilia-Romagna’s eastern edge, meanwhile, is a long line of golden beaches slipping into the warm, shallow Adriatic Sea. Central and northern stretches of the region are dominated by pretty cropfields rustling beneath wide skies. As well as its own delights, Emilia-Romagna also offers easy access to some very lovely places just beyond its borders. Venice is not that far away, nor are the chic beaches of Liguria, nor all the cultural treasures of Tuscany.
Right now is an excellent time to buy a home in Emilia-Romagna, as prices are at a five-year low but not expected to go any lower. In some rural hill locations – which were very good value to begin with – prices are almost half what they were five years ago. In cities and on the coast, prices are also slightly lower today. There are several reasons that these decreases have slowly crept into being. First, there was the very long tail of the 2008 international financial crisis, which caused a big drop in the buying of second homes abroad, and while this didn’t translate into a lowering of prices in Italy for many years, it did eventually. Second, there have been the manifold uncertainties created by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, which have made many British buyers (traditionally one of the largest groups of buyers in Italy) delay buying a home in Italy, or indeed anywhere on the continent. And third, there were changes in Italian law which have made it more expensive for Italians to own a second home. The end result of all these things? Fewer buyers, and eventually lower prices.
Frank Ralph of Appennino Properties, an agency specialising in the rural hills and mountains of southern Emilia-Romagna, concurs that his part of the region now has a ‘buyer’s market’. “Property prices are around half what they were five years ago,” he says, “and there are no signs that they are going up again. That said, there does not appear to be any downward movement in prices or the market over the past year, and I am cautiously optimistic that we have finally reached the bottom of the trench. Currently, average prices for a detached two-bedroom house needing minor redecoration and with 600-1,000 square metres of land range from €70,000 to €120,000. Rustic or unfinished properties with outbuildings (barns) and around 30,000 square metres of land tend to be a similar price.”
In general, Emilia-Romagna’s lovely mountain areas see its lowest property prices, the region’s wonderful little cities see its highest prices and the joyful coast sees prices somewhere in the middle or on a par with the cities. City prices can be roughly double those of the countryside, especially in Bologna and Parma. Cities offer superb rental prospects, however, and you might be able to cover some of your costs by offering holiday lets. Note that people take city breaks at all times of the year, not just in the summer.
Handsome, lively Bologna is one of the region’s priciest locales, but it has very strong rental prospects. Tourists love the place, but there are also longer-term rental clients in the form of visiting businesspeople and the many students drawn to Europe’s oldest university here. Cute little Parma isn’t far behind Bologna in price, with one-bedroom apartments starting at about €125,000, and two-beds at about €150,000. Sleek, classy Modena has one-beds for around €100,000, and two-beds from €140,000. Attractive and lower-priced cities to consider include Ferrara, Ravenna, Piacenza and Reggio Emilia. Two-bedroom homes in Piacenza or Reggio Emilia start at about €90,000 and three-bedroom homes at about €115,000.
Down on the coast, happy, bouncing Rimini is the chief resort. It’s one of Emilia-Romagna’s priciest spots for property, but still makes a good investment. Two-bedroom homes round here ask about €180,000 and three-beds about €220,000. Holiday rental prospects on the coast are superb, of course, but these are limited to May to October. Homes in Emilia-Romagna’s hills and mountains have less rental potential, but they do have a fair bit. Plenty of people want a peaceful, rural escape within daytripping distance of places like Bologna, Parma, Florence and so on.
Finding your place
Emilia-Romagna is a large region, and while you probably know whether you’d like a home in the rural hills, on the coast or in one of the cities, it helps to know more about each of those three environments and the range they offer. To begin making sense of this region, think of it as a big triangle. One of its three sides is 70 miles of Adriatic seaside; one of its sides runs for about 150 miles down the pancake-flat Po Valley; and its third side wriggles for about another 150 miles along the tops of the Apennine Mountains. So you’ve got sea in the east, flat farmland all along the north, and hills and mountains all along the south.
You’re unlikely to want to buy a home in the flat northern farmland, for several reasons. First of all, prices are quite high up here, as the area’s fantastically fertile land is eagerly sought by agriculturalists. But also, the climate is rather less comfortable than elsewhere in the region, with the mighty Po River creating fierce summer humidity and gloomy winter fogs. The southern hills and mountains, meanwhile, have wonderfully fresh air as well as inspiring vistas, walking trails, little ski resorts and so on.
As Emilia-Romagna’s beautiful little cities are mostly strung along its middle, between the northern farmland and the southern hills, it’s a good idea to choose which city you would most like to be nearest, and then explore the area south of it for property. You might consider buying in the mountains south of gourmet cities such as Parma, Modena and Bologna, or of serene, super-civilized spots such as Piacenza, Ferrara and Ravenna. Note that property in the area south of Parma, Modena and Reggio Emilia comes especially recommended for good value, and that anything too near Bologna can be fairly high-priced by comparison.
The lure of the sea
Emilia-Romagna’s coast ranges from sleepy lagoons ringed by nature reserves to golden beaches spooling along joyful, lively resort-towns. In general, the northern half of the coastline is quieter and more spacious than the southern half. The mighty Po River empties into the Adriatic up here, and so the seaside is often fractured by channels and rivulets. There’s a serene, wide-sky beauty to the area, with wet strands gleaming in the sun. Properties on this northern half of the coast are generally very inexpensive.
The southern half of the coast is a different story. Long sandy beaches and warm, shallow seawater means there’s an almost unbroken line of happy, pretty seaside resorts. These can be very lively places (Rimini, for example, is one of Italy’s clubbing capitals) but they’re also all very family-friendly. All ages groups are out in the water or lying on the sand, and all ages are filling the restaurants and cafes. Any Italy-watcher knows that in this country the generations warmly mingle with each other rather than sticking exclusively with their group of same-age acquaintances, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in seaside Emilia-Romagna. Simply everyone is out and about having a lovely time. Note that property prices in seaside areas can be high near the main resorts, as is often the case in Italy, but surprisingly affordable elsewhere, especially if you base yourself a few miles inland rather than within walking distance of the water.
Finally, a quick word on boring but important practical matters. Emilia-Romagna really does deserve special praise for the quality of its public services and facilities. Hospitals, healthcare, schools, universities, roads, water, sewage, emergency services and so on are all absolutely top-notch. Many British buyers have expressed the opinion that these things are all of much better quality here than in their homeland. Affluence and high standards of competence means that services and facilities are extremely good, while a low population density ensures they’re not over stretched or quickly worn out.
As if all this wasn’t enough, there’s the terrifying accolade of ‘best food in Italy’ which Emilia-Romagna often receives (along with Piedmont and Campania). Superb and crazily cheap restaurants are to be found everywhere in this region – even up in the spacious, rural mountains. The quality of locally-produced foodstuffs and of kitchen expertise is truly dazzling, so prepare yourself!
For Fleur’s Emilia-Romagna regional guide click here
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