Julie and Barrie Webb fell in love with Italy when they made their wedding vows in Tuscany, but they found true bliss beside the shores of Lake Como...
After being showered with confetti by their friends and family, most newlyweds go on a luxurious honeymoon to recover from their big day. While relaxing on their idyllic holiday many couples turn to each other and say, “Wouldn't it be great to live here?” While few actually make the move, Julie and Barrie Webb are the exception. After getting married in Italy they decided to swap their home in Cardiff for the glitz and glamour of Lake Como.
Italy wasn't always their first choice for making their vows. Originally, the Webbs thought the Caribbean would be a better place to marry, but Barrie says they were put off the idea when they witnessed a beach wedding that felt “more like a carwash”.
Barrie and Julie chose to tie the knot at the Palazzo Publico in Siena, Tuscany in 2000. However, when they decided to buy an Italian property three years later they didn't plump for a traditional Tuscan farmhouse; instead they headed north, to the Lombardy region.
They eventually found a new twobedroom apartment in the hills above the village of Argegno, on the western shores of Lake Como, which they bought in January 2003 for €173,000 (£161,502). Barrie says the apartment is now worth around €330,000 (£308,068), and property prices in this, one of the most sought-after regions in Italy, are rising steadily at around eight per cent each year.
Not surprisingly, there is a growing English and American contingent buying property around Lake Como. But this is not the first time this region has been invaded. The Romans conquered the northern Lakes around 300BC and built many of the towns that still exist today. Holiday villas on Lake Como have been popular since the time of Julius Caesar, who founded what was then called the municipality of Novum Comum.
To this day, the classic Italian architecture of the town, set against the serene backdrop of Lake Como and the majesty of the Alps, makes for some breathtaking views. “The scenery here is fantastic,” says Julie.
“Sometimes you get a better view of the lake on a cold day rather than a sunny day. It's completely different every time.” However, such beauty can be overwhelming, and Barrie admits that sometimes he does take it all for granted. The town centre of Argegno is a five-minute drive down a steep and windy hillside road from Barrie and Julie's home. The Webbs often jump in their convertible Mazda MX-5 and head into town for a quick cappuccino. The Bar Motta is a fantastic place to stop and watch the world go by… usually in an Alfa Romeo.
The locals of Argegno like nothing better than sitting and chatting to each other. God only knows what they talk about all day, but it's clearly a good way to pass the time.
Julie and Barry Webb“The best thing about living here is the locals,” says Julie. “They are so welcoming. We even know the mayor.
On Good Friday we were in the bar with him, all the lights went out and it ended up being a lock-in!”
Barrie adds, “On the one hand, Italians don't like queuing and they are impatient behind the wheel. But on the other hand if you want things done, they will go out of their way to help you.”
Fortunately, the Webbs haven't had to do much work to the apartment. “When we moved in we changed the décor, added new curtains and did a lot of work in the garden,” says Julie.
The garden extends along the side of their ground-floor apartment and has fabulous views across the lake. At the back there is a raised rock garden, which features a range of pot plants and stylish outdoor wicker chairs that Barrie bought from Ikea, in Milan. Yes, you're never far from an Ikea store, even in the Alps.
Here the only sounds you can hear are birdsong and the occasional chime of the church bells drifting up from the town below. It's an idyllic and peaceful atmosphere, which the Webbs seem to love.
“Living here is almost like going back in time. Over here you get a taste of how life used to be in Britain,” says Barrie. “People seem to live a very simple life.”
Barrie and Julie's apartment is set in a three-storey building, built in the traditional Italian style, with wooden window shutters. However, inside the apartment has an almost minimalist, modern feel, with white walls and cream floor tiles. The open-plan living room has black leather sofas, a stereo and a flat-screen TV. The walls are decorated with some framed pencil sketches drawn by an art teacher from Cardiff depicting some icons of Italian culture – St Mark's in Venice and Michelangelo's David in Florence.
To the side of the living room there are two bathrooms and two bedrooms – one of them doubles as an offi ce with a desk, laptop and phone – and a long hallway featuring a full-length mirror. The state-of-the-art fully fitted kitchen has a small breakfast bar and there are bowls of fresh tomatoes and onions ready to be eaten. Cookery books such as the BBC's Tony and Giorgio and Jamie's Great Escape indicate the Webbs' passion for Italian cuisine.
“The food here is very seasonal,” says Julie. “We come out especially in October to eat porcini mushrooms and asparagus in March and April.”
But when it comes to food, nobody is more passionate than the locals. “A lot of their conversations here revolve around food,” says Barrie. “Italians are very particular about what they eat.” Barrie describes one occasion when they invited some of their neighbours over for dinner and cooked them some Thai food. Apparently, the meal caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood as many of them had never tried Thai cuisine before!
“Argegno is a great little village as there is fresh bread every day and there's a beautiful home-made icecream shop,” says Barrie. “Amazingly, some of the younger locals have started buying McFlurries in McDonald's, which isn't even real ice cream.” Barrie's favourite local dishes include pizzoccheri – pasta made from buckwheat flour – and Milanese risotto.
Fashionable Milan is the nearest large city to Lake Como and Barrie is a big Inter Milan fan. “I support Inter because they play in the same colours as Cardiff City, and they were initially a British-run team.”
Back in Cardiff, Barrie worked in sales and marketing, while Julie was a mobile hairdresser. Both wanted a complete lifestyle change, so they set up their own property management business called Italian Apartments (www.italianapartments.co.uk), which helps holiday-home-owners rent out their properties and make the most of their investment.
“Most of our clients come through the website,” explains Barrie. “We find customers for them, arrange for someone to meet and greet them when they arrive and organise for the cleaning to be done when they leave.”
Holiday lets are very popular on the Italian Lakes and Barrie says demand for rental properties currently exceeds supply. “There's a lot of demand for three-bedroom properties here, as many people like to go away in groups of six to eight,” he says. “I received about 30 enquiries last week, many of which I will turn away because they all wanted the same dates.”
Barrie explains that an apartment on Lake Como can be easily be rented out for £400-£600 a week from June to August, the peak season.
“Providing they are competitive with pricing, owners can expect rentals from April to October,” he adds. Their business is clearly doing well and they now manage 40 properties across Italy, from Venice to Sardinia, the majority of which are owned by British buyers.
“I always wanted to run my own business,” says Barrie. “I still work long hours here, but I don't wake up on a Monday morning thinking, 'Oh, no, I've got to go to work today.' I enjoy what I do.”
And when they do get some time off, there's plenty to do. Each town around Como has something unique to offer. The city of Como itself has a fabulous Duomo (cathedral) and lots of great bars and restaurants to try. Nearby, in upmarket Cernobbio you can take a boat trip down the lake. Bellagio is famous for being the most beautiful spot on the lake, and Menaggio is where they shot scenes for Casino Royale. Then there are the quieter neighbouring lakes of Lugano and Maggiore to explore. When the winter months arrive you can ski at Madesimo and St Moritz in the Alps, check out the ice falls of Val Febbraro or visit the wildlife observation centre in Orobie National Park. You can also catch a train from Milan to most major Italian cities, and Switzerland is literally a ten-minute drive from Barrie and Julie's home.
The great thing about the Italian Lakes is that this high quality of life isn't just the preserve of the rich and famous. Property prices are very reasonable by British standards, and on Lake Maggiore it is still possible to find three-bed Alpine houses for under £150,000.
The Webbs have sound advice for others thinking of buying in Italy. “It's important to do a lot of reading about the area you are interested in, and to find a good estate agent. Ask about fees, as there can be quite a lot of extra costs here,” says Julie. “Also ask the locals about the best areas, as they know better than anybody.”
Barrie says he can speak enough Italian to get by, but he would like to be more fluent. “When we came out here on holiday five years ago, we used to draw pictures to be understood, but we don't have to do that any more,” he says. “I think that when you learn any language, you always understand more than you can speak at the start.”
“British people are usually quite reserved,” adds Julie. “But you just have to try, and they'll correct you if you make mistakes.”
The Webbs are clearly settled in their new laidback lifestyle. “It's less of a materialistic society here than the UK,” says Barrie. “If heaven is like this, with the food, the wine, the scenery, the culture and the people, then I'll be happy.”
For more details on rentals in Italy, visit Barrie and Julie's website, www.italianapartments.co.uk. For more information on property in Italy, contact Casa Travella: 01322 660988; www.casatravella.com.
Julie and Barrie Webb
Who: Julie and Barrie Webb, originally from Cardiff.
Where: In the hills above the town of Argegno on the shores of Lake Como.
What: Delightful two-bed apartment set in a three-storey building with a fabulous garden.
How much: They paid €173,000 (£161,502) in January 2003.
And now: It is estimated to be worth around €330,000 (£308,068).
The Webbs now run their own property management business, Italian Apartments (www.italianapartments.co.uk).
Tips on letting out your property
The Italian Lakes have been a tourist hotspot for decades. The nearest airport to the lakes of Como, Lugano and Maggiore is Milan Malpensa, which is served by easyJet, Ryanair and Flybe, so access is easy for Brits and there is great potential
to make money from holiday lets. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your property.
Decide how much money you want to make from letting the property. Factor in all your costs and mortgage repayments, then decide on an advertising budget. If you are aiming to earn from £5,000-£20,000 per year you will need to spend from £100-£500 on marketing. Word-of-mouth is the cheapest form of advertising, so tell friends, family and colleagues. Most owners advertise their properties to holidaymakers through listings websites, but you could also consider producing a simple brochure or advertising in magazines. It is important to encourage repeat business, so keep in touch with guests after their stay and let them know about any improvements made or and keep them informed of any late deals.
Good photography is the single most important tool for effective advertising, and it might even be worth hiring a professional to capture your property at its best. Managing bookings Decide how you want to manage your bookings. If you have little free time, you could consider using a letting agent to manage everything on your behalf. Ask other owners to get an idea of how much other properties are let for and to get agent recommendations.
If you are handling your own bookings then respond to any enquiries quickly, as holidaymakers are likely to have sent out multiple enquiries about different properties.
Find a local individual or company to handle cleaning, laundry and key-holding for you. And, most importantly, make sure you keep the property free for a few weeks every year so you and your family can enjoy the property!