Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Italian Tax. Scudo fiscale- 'fiscal shield' or the safe-conduct for capitals back into Italy

Italian Tax. There are two things in life we can’t avoid, death and taxes. In December 2009 50,000 Italians received a letter from the tax office and they breathed a sigh of relief. They weren't being billed. Instead, they were given a gentle reminder that they had until December 15th to declare any money illegally held abroad – or else. The Scudo Fiscale ('fiscal shield') program allows citizens to bring money from offshore tax havens while remaining anonymous and avoiding sanctions for past tax evasion. All they have to do is move their money to an Italian account within the next two months and pay a 5 percent fee. The introduction of new Italian legislation increasing (sometimes doubling) the sanctions for tax evasion related to illegal export of funds and undeclared foreign assets, has also been the opportunity to introduce a second tax amnesty in Italy, after the earlier, 2001 disclosure facility.

This legislation applies to Italian residents under current tax legislation, whether Italian nationals or foreign nationals, domiciled in Italy or abroad.
Under current tax legislation, individuals, partnerships and similar bodies (Societa` di persone e associazioni equiparate) resident in Italy are required to list in their Italian annual tax return (Dichiarazione dei Redditi) any holding of foreign funds/assets (outside Italy) exceeding Euro 10,000 and to declare any foreign income arising therefrom.
This is in addition to the exchange control regulations limiting the way in which funds in excess of Euro 10,000 can be taken out of the country.
It has frequently been the case that funds have been illegally exported out of Italy, and have never been taxed. The current tax amnesty (nicknamed 'Scudo Fiscale') addresses this situation, by providing a special way to regularize the situation in a simple but highly confidential way.
The details of the tax amnesty disclosures lodged with Italian banks and authorized financial institutions are confidential and will not be disclosed to third parties nor to the Italian Revenue, however should the matter come to the attention of the authorities, the repentant taxpayer will be able to avoid any sanctions, by exhibiting the papers proving his compliance with this new legislation.
1) 'Scudo fiscale' (Tax shield) the new amnesty.
This amnesty relates to tax evasion / assets taken out of Italy up to 31st December 2008. It will not apply to taxpayers whose affairs are being investigated, nor where tax assessments, sanctions and penalties have already been issued.
The legislation is aptly called 'Extraordinary tax on the repatriation of foreign financial and patrimonial assets' (Imposta straordinaria sul rimpatrio di attivita` finanziarie e patrimoniali detenute fuori del territorio dello Stato), and will only be available for the period between the 15th September and the 15th December 2009.
Considering the practical difficulties that may be involved in implementing some of these provisions, it is a very short window of opportunity.
Basically, the taxpayer is required to lodge a confidential report (Dichiarazione riservata) with an Italian bank, financial institution or authorised management company, listing full details of the foreign assets (the same details which should have been declared in the omitted annual tax returns) in question.
At the same time, the taxpayer must also pay the special amnesty tax, which is levied at the rate of 50% on an annual deemed income of 2% for the relevant foreign assets in the last 5 years. No deductions for losses or expenses/charges are allowed. Basically the payment required is 5% of the value of the undeclared foreign assets.
The bank, financial institution or authorised management company will then pay this sum over to the Italian Revenue without disclosing any details and will deliver a stamped receipt to the repentant taxpayer, which is both a certificate of compliance with the new legislation and evidence of payment of tax. This document will prevent any further enquiries and shield the taxpayer from any future assessments / penalties. This is why this legislation is called 'tax shield' (Scudo fiscale).
2) 'Repatriation' or 'Regularisation'?
This however is not the end of the story. At the same time, the repentant taxpayer must take back into Italy his foreign undeclared assets, and this is where the difficulties and delays are likely to arise. Under the new legislation the foreign assets may be 'repatriated' or 'regularised'.
Repatriation (Rimpatrio) is available for all assets, from all countries of the world. Basically the funds, shares, securities, jewellery etc must legally be taken back into Italy. By complying with current exchange controls, the resident taxpayer may even, himself, bring his assets back into Italy himself.
Alternatively, it is possible to have 'juridical repatriation' (Rimpatrio giuridico), where the foreign assets are formally placed in the custody / under the control of, or management of authorised Italian banks, financial institutions or management companies who at the same time should receive the repentant taxpayer`s confidential report (Dichiarazione riservata).
Where the foreign assets are in a European Union member State and in a very restricted number of other States which fully co-operate with the Italian Authorities in tax matters, it will be possible 'to regularise' (Regolarizzare) the foreign assets. This will effectively mean that the assets will not have to be taken back into Italy, nor any changes be made, but simply disclosed /listed in the Dichiarazione Riservata. Greater details (sometimes a full sworn valuation) will have to be added to the confidential report (Dichiarazione Riservata). This procedure will be particularly useful in the case of foreign properties /land, yachts and ships, valuable paintings, sculptures and other artistic assets.
Complex rules apply to trusts and controlled foreign companies.
3) The wider context.
Although this legislation has been condemned as 'condoning' tax evasion, and undermining the rule of law, it must be seen in the context of the effort made by the authorities to collect revenue in a deep recession.
The same legislation marks a substantial effort to prevent future tax evasion. It introduces a general presumption that any undeclared foreign assets originate from tax evasion, and must be treated accordingly.
Penalties for failure to report foreign income and undeclared foreign assets are increased to between 200 and 480 times the tax actually evaded. New heavier measures have been introduced against tax havens. Meanwhile the Italian tax courts have introduced a very wide definition of 'abuse of rights' which will discourage tax avoidance as well as tax evasion.
A very delicate balance is struck with anti-money laundering provisions, in the sense that only specific tax offences are excused. Banks, financial intermediaries and management companies are required to report suspect applications/matters.
This new legislation originates from a wish to draw a line under a regrettable past, and to give a chance of rehabilitation to situations which have developed over a protracted time, a chance which may not come up again.
It remains to be seen whether this legislation will work. Several factors are in action at the moment and it is difficult to predict how they will operate. Much reduced interest rates on a world wide basis and reduced Italian inflation have substantially weakened the incentive for Italian resident taxpayers to invest abroad, no matter what the risk or the possible consequences. Also, attempts to reduce the overall level of taxation in Italy are now beginning to show some positive results. It is now only a few weeks since Inheritance and Gifts tax was totally abolished in Italy, and already substantial reductions of Italian income tax rates are being proposed by the current Italian Government. Plans to reduce the red tape are also being considered, as an attempt is made to reduce all taxation to five main taxes only.

As this is an extremely delicate matter, much will depend on how this legislation is perceived and how far Italian residents can be reassured that compliance with 'Scudo Fiscale' will not result in unpleasant, unexpected secondary effects. If this legislation fails in producing the expected results, it will not be for lack of trying.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Easter in Italy- Italian Festivals and Celebrations for Holy Week

For some foreigners it may be hard to understand how important Easter is for Italians, so if you are in Italy for Easter, you will find a lot of interesting Easter celebrations. Easter, Pasqua, in Italian, is the second most important religious holiday after Christmas. From a strictly religious point of view it is even more important, in fact Easter, being the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is the celebration of the mystery that is the basis of the Christian faith. Easter in Italy has its share of rituals and traditions and the Monday following Easter, Pasquetta, in Italian, is also a holiday throughout Italy. While the days before Easter include solemn processions and masses, Easter is a joyous celebration.
Lent (Quaresima): marks the forty days of fast and abstinence before Easter. Lent is marked with the Feast of St. Joseph (Festa di San Giuseppe) on March 19th and Palm Sunday (Domencia della Palme), in which palms and olive branches are blessed by the parish priest and given out to the congregants. Many churches still follow the tradition of having the priest knock three time from the outside of the closed church doors to symbolise Jesus' entry in to Jerusalem.
The local parish priests for sure go round knocking on the neighbourhood's door. It is traditional for priests to visit their parishioners and bless each home with the Easter Blessing.
Good Friday (Venerdì Santo): solemn religious processions are held in many towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter and sometimes on Easter Sunday. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin and Jesus that play a big part in the processions. The statues may be paraded through the city or displayed in the main square. Parade participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes. Olive branches are often used instead of or along with palm fronds in the processions and to decorate churches.
Some towns, such as Montefalco and Gualdo Tadino in Umbria, hold live scenarios during the night of Good Friday or plays enacting the stations of the cross.
Holy Friday is also often marked in the churches with a ritual washing of the feet, with the priest symbolising the role of Jesus, and twelve church members symbolising the role of the apostles. While Easter mass will be held in every church in Italy, the biggest and most popular mass is held by the Pope at St. Peter's Basilica. On Good Friday, the Pope celebrates the Via Crucis in Rome near the Colosseum. A huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. At the end, the Pope gives a blessing.
Haven't we all wondered why Good Friday is 'Good'? Never mind that, just remember that for me it's followed by 'OK Saturday', the woefully neglected Easter Week day. So let's celebrate it!
Easter Saturday food blessing celebration: Italian families often go the church with a basket full of food (bread, salt, wine, egg - usually painted etc). The baskets are then blessed by a priest.

Easter Sunday begins with a bang in Florence - quite literally! The three hundred year old traditional 'explosion of the carte' (Scoppio del Carro) has its roots in the pagan ritual of ensuring a good harvest" and is now considered a bringer of good luck for the city of Florence.
Since Easter is the end of the Lent season, food plays a big part in the celebrations. Traditional Easter meals vary from region to region, but eggs and roasted lamb are common elements everywhere. Eggs represent life, fertility, and renewal, all of which are essential symbols of Easter. Dyed eggs grace many Easter tables, and eggs are often found in soups and in a traditional Easter pie (Torta Pasqualina). Roasted lamb, as a symbol of birth and the Shepard, is a traditional main course. Chocolate bunnies are not common, but beautifully decorated chocolate eggs are a traditional Easter treat and gift! Chocolate eggs are a symbol of Easter even for non religious people. Everybody gets an egg for their dear ones. Most chocolate eggs are industry produced. Every serious cake shop produces finely hand made eggs, using the best chocolate they can get. Inside each egg is hidden a small gift. Or not so small, depending on how luxury the egg is! It is also possible to request a custom made egg, selecting in advance the gift it will contain. Many engagements began in Easter, with an engagement ring hidden in an egg.
The official Easter cake is the Eastern Dove (Colomba) that represents peace.
Easter Monday - La Pasquetta

On Easter Monday, some cities hold dances, free concerts, or unusual games often involving eggs. In the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, cheese is the star. Ruzzolone is played by rolling huge wheels of cheese, weighing about 4 kilos, around the village walls. The object is to get your cheese around the course using the fewest number of strokes. Following the cheese contest, there is a band in the piazza and of course, wine. Easter Monday is a time to gather with friends and have fun.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Assisi, Calendimaggio 2010 May 6th - 8th

The word 'Calendimaggio' comes from the Latin word 'calendae', first day of the month in the ancient Roman calendar. 'di' means 'of,' and 'maggi' is the Italian word for 'May', so Assisi’s festival is a celebration of the return of spring, and it takes place on the first consecutive Thursday, Friday and Saturday in May. Many cultures in many countries have such festivals to celebrate the rites of spring.
Let me quote from the wonderfully illustrated Bonechi book 'Art and History Assisi'-
'The first Calendimaggio in Assisi was promoted by Arnaldo Fontini in 1927. In its present form it dates to 1954. The city, divided into the “parte de sopra” (upper part) [to be more exact, the “Nobilissima Parte de Sopra', since the rich everywhere generally take the high ground] and the 'parte de sotto” (lower part) [more precisely the 'Magnifico Parte de Sotto', rich in St. Francis’Basilica, convents and monasteries, olive orchards, and gift shops.]'
So... this is not an artificial or modern division of Assisi. It dates back hundreds of years, even before the Guelfs and Ghibellines had their rumbles, and back then it was a very serious matter. The main events of this modern Calendimaggio take place in the Piazza del Comune, always the heart of the town and a neutral space for the warring factions. A Roman forum still lies some 12’ below the piazza’s paving stones, and the tall marble pillars of the Temple of Minerva provide a classy backdrop for the festas, concerts, flag-waving, and historical parades that go on all spring and summer. Today, channeling the ancient rivalry, Calendimaggio provides a framework for 3 days of competition between the upper and lower parts of town, between Sopra and Sotto.
On Day One the mayor of Assisi hands the Keys of the City to a distinguished, black-velvet-clad elderly man called the Maestro del Campo, and for 3 days Assisi is under his command to live the medieval life and celebrate spring. The judged competition takes the form of music and dance, theatrical spectacles, drumming, and historical re-enactments of medieval life in blocked-off parts of the town, at night, lit only by the flames of candles and liquid paraffin. These re-enactments are judged on historical accuracy, so to prevent intrusion by modern-day non-participants every entry to these areas is closed off by big wooden doors built specially for this one night only, or by traffic barriers guarded by hired security men from other towns. The wise traveler carries a flashlight, since all the street lights will be out. Unwary visitors may fumble their way homeward via pitch-black unmarked detours up and down back streets. It would be nice if the tourist office warned the tourists about this, but they don’t.
Both sides begin preparing for the event in January – fabulous medieval costumes are sewn and repaired in the halls of each quarter; late at night in chilly alleys and piazzettas groups of men with hands shoved in the pockets of fleece bomber jackets gather to discuss what to construct there to recreate medieval scenes within the already medieval scenery of the town – they’ll build taverns, tanneries, food stores, dyers’ yards, potters’ workshops, all the crafts and paraphernalia of life in the middle ages. Their jackets -- red for Sotto, dark blue for Sopra – are emblazoned with Magnifico Parte de Sotto or Nobilissima Parte de Sopra or identify carpentry groups within the sides. The first time Allen and I stayed in Assisi we were baffled by the sudden appearance around 10pm of such a group under our window, where they passionately debated in high-volume dialect for about an hour. We couldn’t understand a word, nor read the writing on their jackets – was it a gang? Too many grey heads for that. Weeks later that piazzetta was lined with crude booths, hung with animal skins, and turned into a tannery for the historical re-enactment. As May approaches, the ferocious rumble of the corps of special drums called tamburini echoes through the streets, often late at night. Piazza San Rufino hosts almost nightly practice sessions for Sopra’s reedy flutes, 5’ long clarions, big drums, tambourines and dancers.
Each Parte is itself divided into 3 regions, and each flies its own traditional flag. These colorful banners suddenly appear a couple of weeks before the event, swagged from balconies, lolling from high stone windowsills and flapping from poles up and down the streets, adding a festive air to the town and announcing the coming of Calendimaggio.
You can pay for and reserve a ticket for a specified seat in the stands for all 3 days. Tickets cost 60 or 80 Euros, depending on location -- which turns out to be a bargain compared to your other option, buying a ticket for each day’s performance on the day itself. The phenomenally uncomfortable steep wooden and metal bleachers, 10 to 13 levels high, go up the whole length of the north side of the piazza in the final week. You do not get to choose where your seat is, but if you spot a better vacant seat after the performance starts you can move there. The spectacle itself takes place the whole length of the south side of the piazza, with Sotto and Sopra entering and exiting from various streets and stone staircases.
There’s a traditional program for the 3 official days which does not begin to encompass all that happens. There are 3 afternoon events, which your ticket says start at 3 or 3:30 (they end around 7:00, or later), but Medieval time is understandably elastic. On Thursday all the bells in Assisi ring out (and there are many!) to signal the festival’s start; there’s flag tossing, historical parades, handing over the keys of the city to the Maestro di Campo, and a crossbow contest; that night, one side or the other performs their historical re-enactment, and from 9:30pm on you can view it – supposedly -- on big screens in the Piazza del Comune. Friday: historical parades, Medieval games: log-sled race, tug-of-war (not like any I’ve ever seen!), and archery; proclamation of Lady of Spring; that night, the other side’s historical enactment. Saturday is the biggest day, when the two sides challenge one another and put on massive theatrical spectacles. All of this is accompanied by groups of musicians playing and singing lively Medieval music from the stage – there are lutes and drums, flutes and trumpets, harps and fiddles and hammer dulcimers.
To some of us, best of all is the Saturday night event that starts around 10:30pm in the blacked-out piazza. It’s billed simply as a choral contest but it’s really the night when both sides play with fire and sometimes nearly burn down the town. The fluorescent-lime-clad Vigili del Fuoco, the Fire Brigade, are prominently parked nearby and ready to respond should it all get out of control, like last year. I will never forget the drummers of Sopra marching down Via San Rufino with their drumsticks alight, pausing in their pounding now and then to blow out their flaming drumskins. Or that blazing carriage towed by black-faced creatures, with the bare-chested blacksmith striking fire from his glowing anvil. Last year it was stunning too, with a beautiful stilt-walking Archangel Michael fighting fire-breathing black-winged demons with fire, and his troupe of angels dancing with torches, and the cloth lanterns all unexpectedly going up in flames, but it was tame by comparison.
I don’t know how many Assisani actually participate in Calendimaggio, but it must be well over a thousand out there, with who knows how many more directing, building sets, and sewing. Where on earth do they practice these massive choreographed spettacoli? It seems as if half the population is dancing in the streets, the other half screaming in the stands. It does appear that there are far more people involved than could possibly live in town – I’d say at least ¾ of my neighbors are elderly, so where do the kids come from? When Sopra pours it on in their grand finale, they come in torrents. While Sotto has more actual territory, much of it is occupied by convents and monasteries whose nuns and friars have no truck with these pagan rites – though the fun-loving, Congo-line-dancing Cappucini seem to like it. Turns out that many younger Sopra families now have apartments in the newer palazzi on the hills outside the walls. I suspect the Sotto young folk seeking a more convenient life move down into the valley itself.
What I especially love about all this is that, make no mistake about it, right here in hyper-religious Assisi there is this in-your-face, unrepentantly pagan celebration of spring and sexuality. The centuries-old poems that start each day’s performance are all about love and desire. The hard-muscled, long-haired, arrogant, disciplined drummers personify one type of male energy; the confident, grey-haired, stalwart archers another; and joyful lads in tights springing like deer to the music of medieval flutes provide another still. The big Girl Event is the selection of the Lady of Spring (May Queen) by the winning archer. But women of all ages are splendidly everywhere, gorgeously dressed, proudly looking for all the world as though born to wear these medieval gowns and headdresses – my God, the young women are so beautiful, so uniformly slender and elegant I can only marvel at them and applaud. And the children! Velvet-robed lords and ladies sweep over massive colorful cloths that are spread for them and held down against the wind by lads and lasses the length of the Piazza del Comune. Cradled in their arms and held at their sides are tiny swaddled babies and costumed toddlers, and never a cry or a whine have I ever heard from these bambini despite the thunder of tamburini and deafening clamor of the crowd. Two sprouts who couldn’t have been more than 6 years old sat in front of me all 3 days and the last night, not squirming through the long scenery changes, applauding like proper fans, having a grand time with their young mum and dad and probably deciding what role they want to play when they grow up.
Word has it that, yes, there are many romances and more transitory couplings during this festival, and (no surprise) that the drummers on both sides are notorious wolves. No wonder my sources report that every school boy wants to be a Calendimaggio drummer, and that competition is fierce to be one of the 25 best who form each of the drum corps. Permission to make all that noise, wear those cool costumes, and have your pick of the girls? Whoa, Dude!
In the end, around midnight Saturday, after the flames have died down, they have the choral contest. Lovely Medieval choral music, a cappella, first one group, then the other, back and forth, with pauses between the sides. It’s a perfect way to wind the festa down, after the drama and fever pitch subside. Bravi!!!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

There’s no better way to explore Venice than getting lost and be surprised in what it has to offer at every turn

It seems impossible that one week ago I had just arrived in Venice by train and was bumping my trolley up and down the bridges between Santa Lucia station and the holiday apartment I had rented. It was located in a 17th century building in the Cannaregio district, the old ghetto, near the Ca d'Oro. At 8am, with no foot traffic and no bags to lug, it might have been a 10 minute stroll away. Now, though, stumping up and down those annoying bridges, it felt like an hour. Really! After having visited Venice in 1989 on a school trip, how could I have forgotten that all those picturesque bridges crossing canals every few hundred feet are built with about 10 steep steps up and down each side?
Once I survived the wide commercial gauntlet of Strada Nuova, I found my alley easily enough -- Calle delle Vele, Street of the Sails -- and hauled my luggage over one final bridge to my apartment’s address. When I rang the bell Davide answered, the house caretaker whose family has lived there for hundreds of years.
The entrance hall was heavy-beamed, dimly lit by two bronze sconces on the facing brick wall, and sparsely furnished in that beautiful old Italian way. A marble staircase leading my apartment curved up to the right.
There was a heavy double wooden door opening directly onto the canal, where you'd get deliveries by boat, with stone steps inside the room leading down into dark, gently rocking blue water. The marble floor we stood on was about 18 inches above water level. I remembered studying that sirens signaling flood conditions, "Acqua Alta," "high water," sound when they predict the water will be around 39 inches high. To the right of the door was a collection of tools: a spindly wheelbarrow, planks leaning against the wall, buckets, tarps, cloths; to the left of the door was a workman with a hammer and chisel, slowly tap-tapping away at the brick wall; lying in a long pile above the steps down were lots of old bricks, presumably those already removed. Venice is one unending repair job -- as the buildings sink and shift, pipes crack, things give way, it all needs fixing. Staying in an apartment gives you the "real Venice" feeling you might not get in a 5 star hotel.
My studio apartment, one floor above, was lovely, its 4 poster bed hung with translucent, creamy fabric that spilled gracefully from the ceiling and swaged about the top, the bathroom was large and thoroughly modern. Two big windows looked out over an unused, tangled garden of palms and trees and vines between the back walls of three houses, a quiet little rio forming the fourth side. Luscious pink and primrose yellow walls were catching light on our canal's far side. The apartment had a fantastic canal view from where you can watch elegant gondolas pass gracefully by.
In an hour I sauntered out to enjoy the last light of the day.
I won't bore you with food stories on this trip, though I found two fine, inexpensive (for Venice), friendly trattorias I'd go back to in a flash- and
So... what can one say that is new about Venice? Well, for me, my perceptions of Venice were new and fabulous- every morning I was up and out around seven, my favorite hour for towns. The great blessing and curse of Venice is the absence of motorised vehicles other than boats, so it's quiet at that time except for the clanging of bells from towers, the clinking of saucers from espresso bars, the slopping of water against the rotting foundations lining canals. At first, just a few other people on the street, mostly heads down and hurrying and at this hour these are 90% men. There are tired old men methodically setting up newspaper kiosks where they'll sit hidden among a thousand periodicals and puzzle books and postcards all day, like hermit crabs; grumbly street sweepers; men in boats heaving boxes and bottles and bundles to other men standing on wet pavements or inside water-level doors; so many men rushing with big wheeled hand carts filled with supplies, through piazzas, down alleyways, bumping the bloody load up and down the steps of the bridges; a bit later, hordes of school kids hustling along with their backpacks full of books, like flocks of starlings flying at you out of tunnels; old people setting up grocery stands, arranging aubergines like works of art; then the handsome dark suits, leather briefcases bustling past, women in high heels streaking past to catch the vaporetto to the office. 
Breaking away from the sea of working people and tourists flocking at the city center in Piazza San Marco and heading for the narrowest alleyways is the greatest way to discover Venice! Don’t forget to bring a good map though.
I especially love the old market area across the Rialto bridge: the massed vivid produce stands, the singing vendors, the smell of baking cornetti, the pastry shops and butcher shops. My favorite of all is the wet-floored Fish Market, where you see fish of every silvery slippery shape imaginable, alongside octopus splayed like exotic flowers, squids swamped in bins of their own ink, sea-creatures out of Bosch waving beaded antennae, eels still swimming in tubs, flatfish displayed in a dark-top/light-bottom pattern as if by Escher, big burgandy-blooded tuna torsos being sliced into steaks, things like marine pill-bugs on steroids still breathing and flopping as they're scooped into cartons and handed to customers at 8am. All smelling fresh as the see at high tide.
Remember to never ever touch the product! This does not only apply in Rialto market, but in the whole of Italy. Ask the vendor of what you want and they’d be more than happy to give their best products to you.
But of course Venice is gorgeous in so many ways! Perhaps above all, the crumbling stucco palette of it! Those yellows alone! Daffodil, primrose, lemon, straw; cream yellow, chrome yellow, cadmium, Naples, and Indian yellow! Oranges, ochres, mustards, umbers, siennas and rusts. Milk-white, cream-white, chalk-white, ivory, dove-greys, silvery greys. Persimmon and peaches, roses and mauves, salmons, geraniums, hot pinks, cool pinks, tints of magenta, black or dark green shutters for accent .... somebody stop me! Venice is definitely a work of art!
Then there are the boats, so many shapes and colours floating by that alter the scene in seconds. Vivid blue motor boats, mud-dark barges, olive-drab dredges, strong red fireboats, big white crowded ferries, cardboard-brown carton boats, vermilion skiffs, black traghetti, shiny black gondolas with gaudy gold bow ornaments and scarlet interiors, bright white speedboats, yellow-striped vaporetti, parked boats covered with green tarps and blue tarps... and all the men sailing and most of the passengers too are standing, not sitting. More room for the load, I suppose.
Taking a trip to Venice and failing to ride a Gondola is like going to France and ignoring the Eiffel tower. These traditional and symbolic boats have been used as transport around the narrow Venetian waterways for more than 10 centuries. Evolving and perfected through time, Gondolas are designed to be easily operated by a highly-skilled oarsman known as a Gondolier.
Early in the morning you see so much more, without the crowds. Bronze moor-head door knockers. Grotesque marble carvings on lintels. The rat-poison notices on drainpipes. Aha! I wondered where they were, "Servizi Derattizzazione" say the fluorescent green signs, with a symbolic rat in circle/slash fashion. Venice must have been heaven for rats, and the Black Death took its toll in several waves. The plague of 1630 was a doozy. Venice still celebrates the end of that quarantine annually.
As I strolled around aimlessly I was impressed by how fast the Venetians walk! It must have to do with the Byzantine maze of Venice's streets and canals, which makes it devilishly hard to get anywhere. One early morning I blithely set out for a major piazza across the Rialto bridge, the Campo San Polo.
Ask your tour guide or anyone who knows the city about the eeriest place in Venice, and I’m sure they will point you to Ca’Dario, a Palazzo with an attractive Venetian Renaissance architecture along the Grand Canal. The series of unexplainable deaths which seem to affect all of its owners first started way back when the structure was built in 1847.
One morning I went down to the Fondamenta Nuove, a long cement walkway facing the cemetery island of San Michele. In the choppy broad canal every sort of boat sailed and wallowed and sped every which way. There were ferry landings here for the islands -- Murano, Burano, Torcello, and San Michele (you could buy a one-way ticket to the cemetery for just 2 euros), some unadorned bars, some inexpensive caffes and pizzerie. In the window of one pizzeria was a poster for "Street Grapple System Extreme Ratio" training, featuring a scar-faced master of battle staring you down through the curves of a jaggedy combat knife held in his hairy, ham-like fist. At the top was written "When the search for your own style becomes an art." Elsewhere, I saw someone offering "street-fighting" lessons for bambini 7 and older.
Shopping? Did I hear someone (who must not know me well) ask about shopping? True, I have my guilty weakness. There were the usual hideous Italian fashions, some fabulous high-heeled boots, phantasmagorical purse collections, pretty Murano glass displays. But mostly what I perused were carnival masks -- especially cat masks. Venice has shops crammed with masks. Gilded, feathered, leathered, pearled and lacquered masks; filigreed, rhinestoned, ribboned and embossed masks ... I don't remember there being so many mask shops before. Sad masks, happy masks, funny ones, angry ones; devils and angels, 2 faced, 3-faced, beauties and beasts; sun masks, moon masks, elegant ladies, jesters and moors, pirates, Medusas, Venus and Death, every species of animal masks. OK, I even bought a blank cat mask to paint myself. But the classics are spooky long-nosed types, and the big one that caught my eye was labeled "worn by doctors during the plague." After 10 minutes in an Alladin's cave of a mask shop we'd reel out spinning from visual overload.
See, again! All this carnevale stuff is a bit creepy, rather than festive. This is a sinking, shrinking city, after all, that's lost half its population in the past 30 years. It's a culture on life-support, don't pull the tourist plug! Venice, a hundred islands linked by bridges, has been flooding since the 5th century. Now they're trying to hold back the tide -- though Acqua Alta is a phenomenon of wind and barometric pressure, not a tide at all-- through a grand engineering project rightly called "Moses." Wish them luck. I thank Rick Steves for the statistics.
What else? I barely skimmed the surface, Venice is overwhelming! Go while you can!
If you've visited Italy you've seen that there are always historic buildings "in restauro," closed for restoration to their former glory. Often these projects -- which go on for years, tap tap tap -- are shielded from public view by enormous tarps on which are printed a drawing of the building as it will look when done. Often corporations sponsor these expensive enterprises, and their names show up discreetly on the wrap. Venice has now done it differently. Two major projects close by the fantastic Piazza San Marco are wrapped, not in the image of their restored selves, but in enormous photographic ads. One sponsor is "Guess, " a good name as I haven't a clue what they're trying to sell, as the tattooed hunk and girly girl sure aren't talking to me. But the other sponsor, I must say, is clever. The brand is "Geox," a very good and expensive walking shoe that is waterproof yet "breathes" -- "respira." They've adopted the Bridge of Sighs -- and the word for "sigh" is "sospira." Very clever…

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Umbertide and Niccone valley Umbria

I must say, Umbertide has proven to be a far nicer place than I've always thought. Yeah, I’m Umbrian but I'm pretty much a hill-town snob – living in Perugia. However while Umbertide (the town) is boringly flat, the topography of the Comune (township) of Umbertide is nicely varied. The Comune, comprised of 12 frazioni (towns and their surroundings – altogether around 15,000 souls in 2003), covers about 77 square miles. The Upper Tiber River runs through it, and tributaries like the Niccone and the Reggia rivers flow through fertile little valleys between high rolling hills. There’s a pint-sized railroad (the FCU line -- if you've ever dealt with dismissive Italian railway clerks, you can imagine what that brings to mind) that runs merrily from Perugia to Sansepolcro, stopping at Umbertide about mid-way. From its comfortable, colourful carriages you see traffic sailing along the parallel highway some distance away, huge old stone farmhouses knee-deep in surreal yellow fields of flowers, and curious high stone buildings bristling with vents for drying the local tobacco; town after town with well tended backyard gardens, featuring lilacs, iris, beehives, trellised vines just leafing out, and blooming fruit trees; smallish milky jade-green rivers under the trestles, flowering hawthorne hedges, fattening horse-chestnut leaves that will soon block the views completely; multigenerational laundry dancing with the wind on clotheslines everywhere; a whole lot of new apartment buildings being built along the busy roads; still holding the valley, wooded summits 'crawling with castles,'; abandoned rural train stations disappearing under a scrim of graffiti, most of it declaring that someone loves someone; old men digging in their masterfully productive and tidy vegetable gardens, bent nonnas in brightly patterned aprons feeding their chickens; but also from these rails you see the region’s industrial backbone- lumber yards, factories and distribution points for 'machine tools, farm machinery, textiles, packaging material, and ceramics'. The swift little trains whistle a cute little toot-toot now and then, and old men standing beside the rails, holding their grandchildren's hands, smile and wave as we roll by.
Like most Italian little towns, Umbertide has had several different names and incarnations and seen a whole lot of carnage. Nicely situated where the Tiber meets the Reggia river, it was an important trading center going back to Roman – even Etruscan – times. Hannibal passed nearby in 217 BC when he savaged the village of Lisciano Niccone for giving aid to survivors fleeing his terrible ambush and slaughter at Lake Trasimeno, whose eyewitness accounts tell us the lake turned red for 3 days with the blood of some 15,000 Roman soldiers -- the first Roman defeat. Totila destroyed the Roman trading town itself in the 6th century; it was rebuilt in about the 8th century, but endured 'perpetual pillaging' till Perugia took over in the 12th century; was wrecked again in 1413 thanks to the Duke of Naples; then spent some centuries under the Papal States till joining the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Umbertide proper boasts a 14th century castle with a 40 meter high tower, a 16th century octagonal church, a heroic naked-warrior statue that must have been Fascist, and the ugliest 20th century church you can imagine, known familiarly as the 'fire-station church' for obvious reasons. Not what you’d call a tourist town, and for that many locals are grateful.
Some of what Umbertide town DOES have is a hopping Wednesday morning marketplace, a sport-fishing stretch of placid river that is even wheel-chair accessible, a fine physical rehab center, hardware and garden and stationary stores, fabric shops, a kebab grill, an actual laundromat (still rare as hens' teeth here in central Italy), at least 5 supermarkets larger than your living room, two Internet caffes, an electronics shop run by an efficient and helpful lady, several good inexpensive coffee bars filled with geezers playing cards and shouting alarmingly at one another as they no doubt have since grade-school, a railway station whose ticket window grudgingly opens about 10 minutes before each mini-train is due, a hole-in-the-wall, a nameless panificio that bakes the best (and cheapest) bread I’ve ever had, a lot of totally uninteresting apartment buildings that however all have balconies, some handsome "modern" houses decorated with fine ironwork, unusually tree-lined streets, and a parking style I can only think of as 'King Kong is coming' – cars parked every which way, mostly with at least one wheel up on the pavement, as if they’ve just been hastily abandoned.
Living in Italy offers a not-to-be-ignored lesson in being 'mindful'...

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Italian countryside

In my role as an Italian estate agent, realtor (well, somebody has to do it) I have the dubious privilege of driving hundreds of kilometres every week. A few of those hundreds are simply from home in Cortona to the office in Perugia, but the majority are spent driving the Italian countryside for appointments or showing clients properties for sale. But what diversity of countryside there is! I may have grown blasé about this, along with many other things I now take for granted after years living here, but every now and then you really notice it. Having spent my childhood and formative years in Cambridge and the South East, I was used to a more homogenous landscape. One area of the British countryside more or less roles into the next so, although it is all beautiful, there is very little to distinguish one place from another, other than the height of the nearest church spire. The patchwork quilt of arable fields and hedgerows that you see from the air as you descend into Stansted runs on for miles in every direction, broken only periodically by motorways or housing estates. You really need to head up North or to the beach to find anything remarkably different.

Round our way, however, the landscape changes as often as the frequencies on the radio when you are driving around. Anyone who has ever tried to listen to the radio in their car here will understand that no radio station lasts for more than a couple of songs before losing signal and lapsing back, inevitably, into the Vatican’s Radio Maria. In the Pergo valley east of Cortona we have a fairly classic Cortonese backdrop of high hills covered in oak and chestnut woods, olive groves on the lower slopes and arable in the flat of the valley. The same could be said of much of the hills and valleys lining the north side of the road from Cortona to Arezzo. Head around the back of Cortona and take the mountain road towards Citta’ di Castello however, and you come into a totally different landscape. Only twenty minutes drive, but you feel as if you have come to another country. Valleys with steep, tree-clad slopes, so deep you wonder what on earth lives at the bottom of them. Dense woodland all around, with the odd oasis of man made green lawns where someone has been brave enough to carve a place called home in the otherwise pristine wilderness.

There is a beautiful walk that we often take in the summer months, that passes over a saddle in the hill with a flat, wind beaten grassy area. From here on a clear day you can take in many different landscapes all in one go. To the south of you are Umbria and the whole of Lake Trasimeno, with its horseshoe of low, olive covered hills. To the west is Tuscany and Cortona with its high hills, overlooking the flatter, arable plains of the Val di Chiana. To the north is just an unbroken line of wooded hills, with little or no sign of civilisation. To the east on a clear day you take in dramatic snow-capped peaks and a far off glimpse of Marche. People often say they “prefer” the Tuscan landscape over the Umbrian, but really Tuscany offers one of the greatest diversities of countryside anywhere in Italy. This is partly due to the fact that, at a huge 23,000km2, Tuscany is the third largest Regione on the Italian mainland.

The bit that everyone envisages is undoubtedly the area of dolce, rolling hills known as the Creti Senesi, to the south and east of Siena. Probably the most photographed area of Italy, bar the leaning tower of Pisa, cypress trees and scattered farmhouses offer the only break in an otherwise serene and smoothly rolling landscape. It is so delicious you want to serve it up in great scoops like ice cream. Being mostly arable land, the colours change dramatically through the seasons, offering ample opportunities for the production and distribution of mass produced, second rate water colours. A short drive north into Chianti takes you into another world entirely, with deeper valleys, some covered in dense woods but mostly just row after row of vineyards, as you would expect. Every corner of Tuscany offers a different option. Alpine scenery and skiing in Abetone is only 100km from the umbrella pine forests and hot sands of the Tuscan coastline by Viareggio. The Val di Chiana is a vast, highly populated flood plain running roughly north-south between Arezzo and Chiusi. The Val d’Orcia on the other hand, just a few hills down, is a rolling and mostly empty landscape that looks as if somebody just took it off the moon. So, next time you are lucky enough to be here, get in the car and just drive and drive and drive…

Written by Paul Cleary

Monday, 15 March 2010


We have seen a huge rise in new property instructions since the beginning of 2010. If you're looking for Property For Sale in Italy we recommend New Properties For Sale.  Join our Italian Property updates on our website Just add our New Properties RRS and receive the latest Italian Properties direct to your inbox. If you would like to ask a question about Italian property or our services please email us.

Church For Sale near Monte Santa Maria Tiberina in Umbria

Chiesa Piantrano, is an unique opportunity to purchase an Italian church and stone Umbrian farmhouse in the green heart of Umbria with stunning views of Umbria and Tuscany. 

A very rare find which when restored would represent a superb investment. Rarely can one find a property of such character and importance in such good original condition.  Very unusual to find a deconsecrated Church that is not only attached but has internal access to the large residence.

The Church which is 45sqm has permission to be converted into a studio or living room which has 3 windows and a double door supplying ample natural light. The property will convert into a truly unique 4-5 bedroom luxury Italian villa.  Stunning views on 3 sides taking in the delightful Medieval hill top town of Monte Santa Maria Tiberina, where one can find supplies and take advantage of the panoramic restaurant specialising in Truffle and Mushroom dishes. Permission has been granted to move the access road a little further away from the main building enhancing privacy.

Offered For Sale at 550.000 Euros.

Friday, 12 March 2010

What to do when someone starts using your trademark.

Abode Srl. We have now been trading for 3 years but collectively we have over 30 years of experience in the property business of which 20 years of this has been in Italian property. Since the beginning of 2010 we have been targeted by one of our competitors. I set up a property company dealing in luxury interior designed property in Notting Hill, London almost twenty years ago. The central London real estate (estate agents) business must be one of the most cut throat and ruthless business environments in the world. It took 7 years to establish the company but when I sold Domus Nova in the early part of 2004 it had become one of the market leaders in the area. Although there must have been and probably still are over 20 professional companies all competing for the same instructions in Notting Hill their was always a code of conduct between the agencies. This unwritten law was king and gave the business, which doesn't have the best reputation, a modus operandi. It was then to my great surprise to find that although there exist the necessary authorised bodies like FIAIP in Italy there seems to be absolutely no and I repeat NO ethical understanding and respect between real estate agents. No, that is not entirely true. Unfortunately there is always one. If I am not mistaken Italy is part of the European community. That means as Europeans we have the right to move and work within Europe. I realise that this can be hard for some people to understand but the perfect example are Polish builders who arrived in London ten years ago and immediately became the builders of choice.

This brings me back to what to do if you are targeted by your competitors. Well firstly nothing. Obviously they are spending their time getting upset and therefore I would recommend that you leave them to get on with it. If on the other hand, like what is happening to us your competitor starts using your registered trade mark and placing it all over their own website and there related websites I would seek legal advice.

If you have a similar story we would love to hear from you.

Monday, 8 March 2010

What is going to happen to the Euro after the UK election

We are interested to find out what you think is going to happen to the Euro after the forthcoming UK election. There is a lot of speculation that if the outcome of the next UK election is a hung parliament that Sterling will drop to record lows.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

What is happening with the Euro? Is this the time to purchase Italian property?

So you're looking to purchase a house near Siena, Florence or Cortona and have been looking for several months. In the good old days the pound was a happy 1.5 euros and we all equated 30 Euros to 20 Pounds. Those days are unfortunately over. Just before Christmas 2009 I flew back to London on business. Landing in London Stansted I  asked the exchange rate at the bureau de change. I had to ask twice as I didn't believe the cashiers reply. One pound equated to 1.007 Euro. Although this was the tourist rate it didn't get much better online, nor did my enthusiasm lift when I spoke to my currency chap. What had happened to Sterling? That was then and this is now and although Sterling made gains over the Christmas holidays the pound has taken another large hit over the last five days and all indications are that it has further to go.

This brings me back to you search for your Italian abode. Should you continue looking or wait until the pound recovers. Well firstly it is my opinion that the pound will not recover in the short term and who knows what will happen in a year or so. What you need to remember is what seems to be your misfortune is in fact your gain, for vendors who are looking to revert the value of the sale of their Italian property back to sterling are now more then ever keen to find a purchaser. For example we have one client who has a stunning property overlooking a lake near Sansepolcro who has reduced his asking price from 3.2m to 2.2m Euros. Our clients are talking to us daily and you will see from our website that we have a dedicated section for reduced properties.

We are the people on the ground who are following the market trends and right now Italian property is looking cheap. If you're interested in purchasing Italian property or would like to talk to someone just contact the Perugia office on 0039 075 573 3941 or email us at I wouldn't delay, there are bargains to be had right now.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Villa di Sant' Andrea Tolentino Le Marche

This former rural property, extremely well restored, composed of typical farmhouse, small guest house, garden with pool, has a great 360-degree view and is set in a private spot at only a few kilometers from Tolentino.

In the main house: Ground floor: large living room with fireplace, dining room, kitchen, shower room/laundry. First floor: three bedrooms (one with ensuite bathroom) and a further bathroom. Guest house: a bedroom and a bathroom. Water, electricity and heating. The property is surrounded by an unspoilt countryside.