Few overseas destinations have the allure of Italy. Conjuring up images of rolling hills, perfectly preserved medieval hilltop towns and delicious food and wine, who could fail to fall for its charms? Emerging markets often advertise with the strap line 'the next Tuscany' but you can't beat the real thing. Once upon a time, Tuscany was the destination of choice for most Brits but as values there have risen steeply and accessibility throughout the country has improved, British buyers are now to be found in all corners and even on its islands.
And this diverse country has so much more to offer from its stunning cities, its 7,600 kilometres of coastlines and seriously beautiful mountains and lakes. The scenery is unbeatable but it's the people who really make the country so special. Italians are renowned for their excitable nature but you'd be hard pushed to find a more warm-hearted nation with whom you can truly enjoy 'la dolce vita'.
Italy is also the country that tops the polls in having, at 16, the most public holidays of any country giving you plenty of time to enjoy the country's many attractions.
Italy has an abundance of international airports and it's now cheaper to fly there than ever before. Rome, Milan, Pisa, Naples, Turin, Bologna and Venice serve as the main hubs and from here you can take internal flights which connect to the smaller regional airports and to the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Elba. In recent years it has become impossible to mention air travel to Italy without crediting the one company that has revolutionised travel between the UK and Italy; Ryanair. The company is constantly increasing its Italian routes and fares booked months ahead or during special offer periods can mean that flights can cost as little as a few pounds. Alitalia is the national airline with several routes between the UK and many of its cities and other carriers such as Easyjet and BMI also have several routes between the UK and Italy.
British drivers can opt to take the ferry across the Channel with companies that include Brittany Ferries or P&O Stena Line. As an ancient maritime nation, Italy has many ports, and many of them offer passenger ferry services to other countries and locations such as Greece, North Africa and Croatia.
If your nerves aren't up to the rigours of road travel, internal trains are a great way of exploring the country and rail networks are excellent. Cheap, clean and usually efficient, trains provide a great way of hopping from city to city and can take you from Aosta in the north to Sicily in the south. If you plan on making many journeys, it might be worth investing in a rail card. There are eight classes of train, from the Eurocity services to the Regionale trains.
Italians are infamous for their driving style and, while many of their roads are good, being behind the wheel requires nerves of steel. With one hand on the wheel and the other hanging out of the window with a cigarette in hand, Italians think nothing of sitting right up on your bumper. Leaving a decent gap between you and the car in front acts almost as a challenge for the person behind you who always opts to fill it - and quickly. To get to Italy, most Brits opt to drive to the south of France and then head east into northern Italy. Driving into Italy means negotiating the narrow neck of the country and, after being closed for three years, the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy is now open again. Alternatively, you can head straight across the Alps from Germany and Switzerland.
Bordered by the Alps to the north, the Mediterranean Sea surrounds much of the country resulting in a typically temperate climate. However, Italy contains five main climactic zones where you find variations: the Alpine zone, the Northern Italian Plain, the coastal Tyrrhenian area, the Adriatic coast and the Mediterranean zone. In summer the northern parts of Italy are warm with occasional rainfall, the central region is somewhat stifled by humidity and the south scorches under the dry heat. In winter, conditions in Milan, Turin and Venice are dominated by cold, damp and fog and Tuscany's winter temperatures approach freezing, while temperatures in the south of the country are much more pleasant with an average temperature of about 10°C to 20°C. Italian tourism peaks between June and August when Rome's maximum temperatures reach around 30°C and 27°C in Milan. Many Italians sensibly take their extended holidays in August and this is when many shops, bars and restaurants close down.
As the song goes, everyone loves Paris in the springtime but visit any of Italy's beautiful cities and you won't be disappointed and this is also the perfect time to enjoy walking in the hills and valleys. Much of the sea is warm enough to swim in between June and September and Italy's ski season runs between December and April.
Generally speaking, non-Italian speakers find it is easier to get by in the north and central regions of Italy. The further south you head, the harder making yourself understood becomes, so having a basic grasp of key phrases is essential. Italians are infamously friendly and hospitable and will heartily appreciate any efforts you make and a few pleasantries go a long way.
Key Italian phrases include:
Passports, visas and residency
Under the Schengen Convention, EU passport holders are entitled to travel freely around the member states of the EU and a visa is not required. If you intend living permanently in Italy then the law states that you must get a residence permit. This allows you to live there as long as you can support yourself and do not intend getting work in the country. There are two types of residency permit, a temporary residence permit, ricevuta di segnalazione di soggiorno, which allows you to stay for a maximum of three months, and a permanent residence permit, permesso di soggiorno.
Property ownership and the buying process
Caution must be exercised wherever you buy property and that includes Italy. It is always vital to use an independent, English-speaking legal adviser to act in all property transactions.
After making your verbal offer, the first written step in the purchase process is the proposal of purchase, the compRomesso, or proposta d'acquisto. This first stage is a binding period of anything between five and 30 days, by which the buyer agrees to buy the property at the agreed price. During this time, both vendor and agent are free to consider other offers.
Once the offer has been accepted, the buyer then pays a deposit, usually 10% and the preliminary contract of sale, compRomesso di vendita, is drawn up by a notary, notaio, who acts for both sides. This sets out the formalities of the sale, including any conditions. If the purchaser breaches the contract, they may have to forfeit their deposit. If the vendor backs out, then they must pay the buyer twice the amount of the deposit.
Completion is usually around six to eight weeks later and it is at this point that the property's title passes from the vendor to the buyer by a deed of sale, il rogito. There are two types of deed. One is a public document and the other a private contract. The former provides greater protection and is slightly more expensive. If a property bought by private deed is subsequently found to have a charge against it, such as a mortgage, the notary cannot be held responsible, whereas if a public document has been used, legal action can then be taken against them.
After completion, the notary issues a certified copy of the deed of sale and registers the original document with the Land Registry.
Fees and taxes
At the time of writing in 2007, most properties in Italy are sold freehold. Buyers should add on around 10% to 20% of the purchase price for the total cost which include:
Everyone agrees that landlines in Italy are in the wane. Few rental properties now seem to bother with them thanks to competitive mobile rates.
Italy wouldn't be Italy without the ubiquitous sight of excitable Italians chatting away on their mobiles usually with a cigarette in one hand and their phone in the other, leaving none spare for the steering wheel. According to the latest figures from the International Telecommunications Union, Italy now has the highest percentage of mobile phone users, with 109.42 phones per 100 inhabitants. It's reported that, worldwide, only Hong Kong has a higher penetration rate. Italy has 62.7m mobile users, and 3G is proving popular along with Omitel.
The digital revolution has taken Italy by storm. Internet cafés are very popular throughout the country, and are spreading fast. Broadband is equally popular, with 29m users making a total of 48.8% penetration. In the north and central regions of the country you will generally have little trouble getting broadband installed in your property but, as a rule, the further south you go the more difficult it becomes. Obviously the more isolated and mountainous your location, the harder it will be to find broadband thus limiting your options.
Italian television seems to be full of game shows with the odd bit of gratuitous nudity thrown in for good measure. If this isn't to your taste, getting digital TV installed is easy and fairly inexpensive. This then gives you access to English speaking channels such as BBC World News and CNN. If you want to watch the same programmes you enjoy in the UK, you will need a satellite dish and receiver. A Sky digibox provides the most comprehensive selection of UK channels. The service is not supposed to be available outside the UK but, as long as you have a UK address, there is little to stop you taking your box and viewing card to Italy, which will give you BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and a host of other viewing options.
You can open a bank account in Italy whether you're a resident or a non-resident but non-residents can only open a conto estero, a foreign bank account, and these accounts can only be used for foreign currency or imported euros. If you have a second home in Italy, you can have all documentation, for example your cheque books and statements, sent to an address abroad. Some Italian banks also provide written communications in English.
You're considered to be a resident of Italy, residenti valutari, if you have your main centre of interest there, i.e. you live or work there more or less permanently. To open a resident's account you must usually have a residence permit, certificato di residenza, or evidence that you have a job in Italy.
It's best to open an Italian bank account in person, rather than from abroad. You must be aged at least 18 and provide proof of identity, for example a passport, and your address in Italy for which a utility bill is usually enough. Ask around for recommendations. Before choosing a bank, it's wise to compare the fees charged for international money transfers and other services, which can be high.
If you open an account by correspondence, you must provide a reference from your bank, including a certificate of signature or a signature witnessed by a solicitor or lawyer. You also need a photocopy of the relevant pages of your passport and a euro draft.
All banks provide credit and debit or ATM cards, called Bancomat cards, to obtain cash throughout Italy and also abroad, usually via the CIRRUS and NYCE networks. Daily withdrawals with a debit card are generally limited to €300.
Many foreigners either finance their Italian holiday home in cash or take out a second mortgage on their existing home in the UK. Several international banks, including British banks such as Barclays also offer mortgages in Italy.
There are Italian banks, such as the Monte dei Paschi di Siena and you'll find Italian branches of UK and US institutions, Citibank and NatWest are just two with a serious presence in Italy. Italians often stay in the same property for many years and moving is far less common than it is in the UK, therefore many Italians buy their properties using cash. Over time, this has meant that banks are less competitive and less flexible than in the UK.
Buyers generally find the set-up fees from the bank high compared to home and there are few perks, such as the lender paying your fees to secure your business. As fees to estate agents and taxes are also high, you begin to see why the transaction costs are high compared to home.
There are also few of the newer mortgage products that we're now used to and mortgages are usually paid in the old way, gradually lessening the debt, though it may well be over 15 or even 10 years rather than the 25 we've come to expect in the UK. Your bank will may also stipulate that the loan be repaid by your 70th or even 65th birthday. They are also unlikely to lend you more than 80% of the property value, and 60% is more common.
Everybody who has financial transactions in Italy must have a tax ID number, a codice fiscale, and complete a tax return. A double taxation treaty exists between Britain and Italy, so tax is payable in one or other country, not both. Non-residents may be liable for taxes on income, capital gains and inheritance. Obviously, these vary from individual to individual, and it's important to take professional advice. There is no wealth tax in Italy.
The authorities are only concerned with Italian-sourced income. This includes interest on funds deposited with an Italian bank and income from letting a property in Italy. In the case of the latter, it is possible to offset expenses, including repairs to the property and management costs, against income. The residue is taxed at between 19% and 46%, depending on the amount. Most property owners pay around 30% (2007).
For tax purposes, anyone staying in Italy for more than 183 days during a tax year is considered a resident. The 183 days need not be consecutive. Residents may be liable for taxes on income, capital gains and inheritance. Like many bureaucratic areas of Italian life, the taxation system is complex, and it is essential to take expert advice from a commercialista. Anyone thinking of buying a property in Italy should examine their tax status carefully as they may be able to save money in the future.
Every town council, commune, raises a tax called imposto municipale or imposta comunale sugli immobili (ICI) on property. This is based on the property's rendita catastrale, rateable value, and is usually between 0.4% and 0.7%. The other tax that is raised locally is called tassa comunales which funds things such as refuse disposal, cleaning of streets and beaches.
Italy's main public holidays are as follows:
Italians have many festivals and traditions that make up their unique and sociable culture. In most cities, towns and villages you can't fail to experience a daily tradition, La passeggiata, which must be the most renowned and charming Italian social custom. Each evening the main square's piazzas cafés throng as families and friends take an early evening stroll solely with the intention of' 'seeing and being seen'.
Easter is when Italian festivals come into their own and this is when you can experience unbeatable parades during Holy Week, Settimana Santa.
A largely Roman Catholic nation, the Easter period is an incredibly important time for most Italians who certainly go all out to mark the occasion. One of the most important of these occurs in Rome on Good Friday, when the Pope leads a procession past the Colosseum and the Roman Forum up to the ancient Palatine Hill.
On Easter Sunday, the Pontiff holds Mass and gives a blessing to the crowd who wave flags from the many countries they've travelled from to witness the sight which takes place from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica.
It's not just Rome which comes into its own at Easter and some of the most memorably dramatic and passion-filled festivals are the Mysteries, I Misteri, at Trapani, the Easter Devils at Prizzi and the Albanian festivities outside Palermo. The Scoppio del Carro, or 'Explosion of the Carriage' takes place in Florence on Easter Sunday, symbolising the Resurrection.
Right across the country Italians celebrate the Easter period with processions and plays depicting Christ's final hours. Easter feasts are also a part of Italian celebrations and typical fare includes spring lambs and lots of sweet bread, cakes and special chocolates.
All across the country, you will find quirky festivals, which are well worth experiencing. Three examples are:
The orange festival, Carnevale di Ivrea, which takes place in February each year in Ivrea, a small town 30 miles north of Turin in Piemonte, northern Italy. Carnevale means 'without meat' and this festival takes place just before lent. The centre piece of the four-day celebration, which culminates on Shrove Tuesday, is the orange fight which pits 10,000 people on foot, dressed in colourful costumes, representing the masses, against people standing on chariots, the aristocracy. As the chariots charge, various orange battles develop all over town as people divide into several throwing teams. No one feels guilty about wasting large quantities of oranges as they're the excess from the Italian harvest that have to be destroyed under EU rules.
Firea del Tartufo Bianco d'Alba - (Alba White Truffle Fair)
Each autumn the town of Alba in Italy's north-west plays host to an exclusive festival to celebrate the white truffle season. White truffles, even more exclusive than black ones, grow beneath woodland trees and are located by truffle hunters working with sniffer dogs specifically attuned to the truffle's smell. Alba is, unofficially, the home of the pricey fungi. Each weekend from early October to early November the town celebrates the truffle with an open air feast, markets and auctioning of the prized truffles.
U Fistini Festival in Palermo: This festival takes place between 10 and 15 July and is dedicated to St. Rosalia who is the patron saint of Palermo. There are generally five days of celebrations including music, dancing and drinking although the formal highlight of the festival is a street procession where the relics of St. Rosalia are paraded through the streets of the city.
Ginetta Vedrickas is a freelance property writer who contributes regularly to The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and The Daily Express.
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