MOVE OVER CHIANTI, HERE COMES PUGLIASHIRE

When Giovanni Veronesi, a paper and pulp business consultant from Milan, went to Puglia on holiday a few years ago with his wife, he was quickly entranced by the Valley of Itria. Between Bari and Brindisi, this lush inland valley is home to trulli, the region’s famous cone-shaped buildings, as well as olive groves, vineyards, and the whitewashed hilltop town of Ostuni.

It’s just like Tuscany was 30 years ago, says Mr. Veronesi. He speaks with some experience here, as he is also the owner of a home in Tuscany, though he said he virtually abandoned that property. Within six months of his Puglia vacation, he purchased Le Taverne, a 17th-century masseria (farmhouse) three kilometers from Ostuni. It was love at first sight, he says. He bought the masseria from a 90-something-year-old aristocrat who had moved to Rome many years before. Surrounded by 75 acres of knotted olive trees, the stone building with colorful Baroque-era carved trimmings has an ancient olive mill in its vaulted basement and some 20 rooms that Mr. Veronesi and his wife are currently remodeling to convert into an exclusive hotel.

Our plan is to one day settle down and retire there, he says. Mr. Veronesi is one of many clients who have employed Milan-based architects Ado Franchini and Giovannella Bianchi di Donnasibilla to make their dream of living under the Puglia sun come true. The husband-and-wife architect team regularly travel to Italy’s heel to track down trulli, masserie, and other historic buildings with market potential from Foggia to Lecce. They recently unveiled a website designed to match sellers and buyers and win the ensuing remodeling contracts. What sets them apart from other real estate brokers is that they are the first to focus firmly on a brand of clientele relatively new to Puglia, a region often dismissed as backward and too far off the beaten track.

The investors attracted by Puglia have an entrepreneurial spirit, says Mr. Franchini. That’s what gives that region such enormous potential. Indeed, real estate prices are 30 50 percent lower than in regions like Lazio and Umbria. In Puglia, some ‚250,000 can buy a masseria with a sizable chunk of surrounding farmland.

More relaxed building regulations are also attracting investors. The forward-thinking town hall of Ostuni allows buyers to add as much as 20 percent in volume to an existing structure. That kind of flexibility is unheard of in conservative zoning farther north, where even updating a bathroom involves a tedious wrestle with red tape. (Contributed by Monica Larner, author and Italian correspondent for Wine Enthusiast magazine.)

It is counterintuitive that Puglia should have so many bargains. Prospective homeowners in Italy tend to look for exactly what this part of the country has to offer: old stone walls surrounding olive groves and their respective ancient mills, just 10 minutes by car from the sea. They also look for signs of history, and the scent of the past in the Valley of Itria is overwhelming. It is a kaleidoscope image of whitewashed homes on hilltops, reminiscent of the Greek settlements from which the first inhabitants came; the names Gallipoli and Monopoli speak to their ancient Hellenic origin, and the ubiquitous Byzantine cathedrals are reminders that those ties remained close for centuries.

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