Moon Living Abroad in Italy
Prime Living Locations
© John Moretti, from Living Abroad in Italy, 2nd Edition.
Used by permission of Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.
Maps © Perseus Publishing Group, Inc.
Choosing the right place to live in Italy is like surveying a dessert cart. Everything looks too good to pass up. A waiter might suggest a few specialties, but you’re always going to wonder what you missed.
There are no bad choices among Italy’s cities and regions, though some are more practical than others. If you’re a career person, for instance, remote southern locations should probably be scratched off your list. Other places, like the choicest towns in Tuscany, will be financially out of reach for the average homeowner.
These pages highlight Italy’s two largest cities, Rome and Milan, each of which offers greater numbers of job opportunities for foreigners. Then there are sections dedicated to the best of rural and small-town Italy: The northeastern-central regions of Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, the northwestern regions of Piedmont and Liguria, the center regions of Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche, and three regions from the South: Campania, Puglia, and Sicily.
Venice and Florence are not covered. Though they are two of the most popular places to visit in Italy—and for good reason—they are not, in my opinion, the best places to live. Tourist season itself is one major reason to steer clear. The streets in both places are so crowded with English-speakers in the warmer months that it hardly feels like you ever left home. You’ll have to battle the crowds on the streets just to get a bottle of milk. (Disgruntled locals in Venice will tell you that even milk is hard to find, now that the tourist shops have overtaken the corner grocery stores). You’ll have to struggle with long lines at the train station. Veneto and Tuscany have so much to offer outside of their famous capitals that you might as well take advantage of these lesser-known places and live like a local, saving the tourism in Florence and Venice for weekends in the off-season.
Rome has been a magnet for foreigners ever since the Goths sacked the city and moved in. Its featured attractions need little introduction. Millions of Americans come to this hub of Western Civilization every year, and many of them refuse to leave.
The weather in Rome is superb. Though it lies on roughly the same latitude as New York City, palm trees lazily grow out of ancient ruins, and the most you’ll need to wear in winter is a lightweight jacket. That alone is reason enough to move in, but Rome’s history is its greatest asset. The aura of the ancients is present in every little act of modern life in Rome, whether it is setting an appointment to meet friends in front of the Pantheon, driving to work on the Appian Way, or coming home late at night to your apartment behind the Colosseum. The eternal monuments are a constant reminder of the greatness of this city and the wisdom its people have attained through the centuries.
Indeed, while the monuments are what initially attract foreigners to Rome, the Roman way of life is what makes it so hard to leave. These people have spent millennia identifying the essential and enduring elements of life, and the answers almost never include work. On any given afternoon, well-dressed Romans will let the hours roll by at lunch, then glide off on their motorini to their next appointment with pleasure. Few seem bothered with such banausic preoccupations as a paycheck. This feature of daily life will be off-putting to those who demand efficiency, but for those armed with sufficient patience and seeking a relaxed lifestyle, there really is no other place to be.
Milan and the Lakes
For many foreigners, Milan is defined as a fashion capital, where models rush between sleek office buildings for photo shoots and others shop frantically to catch up with the trends. This definition isn’t altogether off the mark. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Milan stole the fashion-capital title from Florence, and it is now the home of the big-name labels and all the catwalk shows that count.
Milan is also the hub of financial services and the headquarters of the country’s biggest businesses. For that reason, it is known to Italians as a place to make money and a career, and that’s about it. Yes, it looks a little drearier than the nearby Riviera or the Alpine scenery just to the north, but the indoors lifestyle contributes to the city’s mystique. If the Milanese aren’t at the office, they’re hanging out in nice bars and restaurants or entertaining at home; then they escape on the weekends to Europe’s renowned playgrounds, just an hour or two away.
Especially close to the city is Italy’s lakes district, Lake Como in particular. This Alpine lake is so well connected to the city, in fact, that many locals enjoy the best of both worlds by residing near paradise and working downtown. The suburbs of Brianza, which stretch from the city limits to the lakeshore, are attractive in their own right.
The Northeast: Emilia-Romagna and Veneto
The northeast corner of the country, bound on the north by the Dolomites, on the south by the Apennines, and on the east by the Adriatic Sea, has produced some of Italy’s most prosperous cities, which enjoy a very high standard of living. Emilia-Romagna, traditionally the wealthiest regions in Italy, and the Veneto, once upon a time among the poorest, have little in common historically or culturally, but foreigners will find a similar style of life in these two regions today. Both are composed of comfortable, medium-sized cities boasting world-class universities and hospitals, with fertile farms and vineyards surrounding them.
Verona, for example, is small and picturesque, a fitting setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which may be a reason that many foreign couples, especially from Britain, have begun to call it home. Expatriates have also flocked to Bassano del Grappa and other northern towns, especially since the provinces of Treviso and Vicenza house important military installations. Some of the country’s choicest rural living is found there, most notably in the vineyards that produce the grapes used in prosecco, Italy’s answer to champagne.
Emilia-Romagna’s wealth shows up in its homegrown luxuries. Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini cars are from here, as are a number of their owners. If you choose to live in Emilia-Romagna, the greatest hardship you’re likely to face is picking the city itself. Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, and Parma are all very comfortable places to live, with blossoming industry and a transportation infrastructure that is second to none. Each can lay credible claims to the finest cuisine in the country. Those with discerning taste and a penchant for epicurean pleasures need look no further than Emilia-Romagna.
The Northwest: Piedmont And Liguria
Piedmont and Liguria contain the best that Europe has to offer, condensed into a mountainous corner. The region starts at the Alps’ tallest peaks, rolls through foothills that produce truffles and Barolo, and then melts into the Italian Riviera. In late spring, you can ski snowy slopes in the morning and bask by the Mediterranean in the afternoon, stopping off for some excellent wine and cheese in between.
The two regional capitals of Turin and Piedmont don’t draw many tourists, but they do produce jobs. Turin is home to the nation’s largest private employer, Fiat, which has fallen on hard times in recent years as car sales have sagged, but will always hold a place in history as a driving force behind the Italian economy in the 20th century. It and the region’s high-tech industry ensure that Piedmont will never be just another pretty place to visit.
It is little wonder, then, that surveys regularly name Piedmont towns as offering the best quality of life, while the region of Liguria has an equally convincing claim to fame as home to the oldest inhabitants in the world. The secret to longevity, its centenarians say, is a relaxed lifestyle and one glass of wine per day.
The Central Regions: Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche
Picture this for a lifestyle change: You’re driving back from the beach in a red Alfa Romeo convertible, winding your way through aromatic Tuscan vineyards at dusk. You round the corner, marked by a hilltop castle, and pass a field of sunflowers. Turning onto a dirt road, you see your house come into view: a stone-walled villa with a large garden and a vista over the hills.
Unfortunately, many others have already bought into that dream. The hills just north of Siena—playfully known as “Chiantishire” for the number of English homeowners there—has become exceedingly expensive. The same is true around Todi, in Umbria, also studded with million-dollar homes. But other areas of Umbria still offer up bargains. Terni, for example, is an oft-overlooked corner of Umbria, which is surprising when you consider that it is only 40 minutes from Rome by train. It’s also not too far from Perugia, a mecca for foreigners, thanks to its university.
As Tuscany and Umbria outprice themselves, Le Marche has become the next frontier for foreign homeowners. There are loads of bargains in this mountainous region by the sea, although admittedly it is further away from international airports than its famous neighbors.
The South: Naples, Puglia, and Sicily
While the entire South may seem like a foreign country to the rest of Italy, there is something familiar about it for Americans. This is the Italy the rest of the world came to know when mass emigration emptied out its rural towns at the turn of the 20th century. In many cases, it seems that little has changed since then. The hospitality is still legendary; even families that don’t have much money will spend a small fortune to accommodate visitors. Family values are still very strong, and old traditions like chivalry have never disappeared.
Unfortunately, things haven’t improved much in terms of the economy. Campania, Puglia, and Sicily have still failed to catch up with the rest of Italy, if they care to do so at all. There has been some progress in cleaning up organized crime (without which, the national statistics bureau likes to point out, the South would be on financial par with the North). But Southerners don’t seem to be in any hurry to reverse their fortunes if it means changing their pace of life. Spend just one week there, and you’ll understand why.