An offer you can’t refuse

( – 2004 – Sebastian Cresswell-Turner )

Cast aside all worries about the Mafia. With idyllic scenery, period property to rival Tuscany – at bargain prices – and low crime, parts of Sicily are proving increasingly hard to resist. Sebastian Cresswell-Turner explores the safe havens
“Buongiorno.” Pause. “Parli . . . um . . . er . . . parla inglese?”

“Yes. I am English, in fact.”

“Oh, jolly good. Now listen. I’m looking for a dream property here in Italy. A pretty farmhouse with a few acres and an unspoilt view over rolling hills and sun-kissed countryside would do nicely; near a beautiful old town with good restaurants, of course; and within easy driving distance of an airport with direct budget flights to the UK. I’m not ruling out a town property, mind you. But it’s got to be something I can rent out when I’m not there. Plus I want sunny weather virtually all year round. Oh, and I don’t want to spend more than a few hundred thousand pounds . . . ”

Try that on with any estate agency in Tuscany, and they’ll roll around the floor in fits of uncontrollable laughter before they recover enough to call the men in white. Move on to Umbria or Le Marche, or anywhere else in Italy where the British think of buying, and the reaction will be similar.

But there is a place where this extravagant wish list is perfectly reasonable: in the south of Sicily. Here you can pick up the sort of bargains that are a distant memory in Tuscany. This, surely, is Italy’s best-kept property secret.

The reason why the British almost never buy in Sicily is simple: fear of the Mafia. Are we right, though? Some areas of the island are indeed hotbeds of “organised crime”, as the Italians call it. But others are safe. Thus, while only a madman would buy a holiday home near the unruly town of Gela, not very far away is Ragusa, the incarnation of real-estate desirability.

This Baroque gem is the capital of a province whose crime rate is not only the lowest in Sicily, but also one of the lowest in the whole of Italy. The reason is partly geographical. Much of the area is a plateau called the Val di Noto that has in the past been cut off from the rest of the island. Accordingly, it is often referred to as un’isola in un’isola, or “an island within an island”.

It is also called la provincia babba, “the dim province”, the one whose inhabitants are too slow off the mark to get involved in crime like everyone else; and it has the reputation of being one of the few places in Sicily where businesses don’t pay the pizzo, or protection money. To quote a senior police source: “Nothing ever happens here.”

While it would be rash to take this statement too literally, one thing is sure: as regards the Mafia, Ragusa is as clean as you’re going to get anywhere in Sicily. And in any case, private citizens rarely attract the interest of the Dons, who have other fish to fry. As Susan Clarke, a British resident, says: “I have lived a normal family life here since 1978.” And in the words of Douglas Ponton, another resident: “I have lived here for seven peaceful years.”

No, the real concerns for prospective British buyers are the same here as everywhere else in Italy. Will the countryside near your house be ruined by the illegal building that Berlusconi’s government is doing nothing to discourage? And how high are the chances of you being burgled?

As regards illegal building, the comuni (town halls) in this province are now almost as strict as those in Tuscany, where planning permission is notoriously difficult to obtain. The area has numerous nature reserves, too, and Unesco recently classified the Val di Noto as a World Heritage Site.

As for burglary, often the work of roving gangs of illegal immigrants, this is a scourge that now afflicts the whole of Italy. But take reasonable precautions, such as installing an alarm system linked to the police station (no charge), and you are no more at risk near Ragusa than anywhere else. One British citizen, who is about to move to this part of Sicily for good, tells me: “I’ve owned a property in the country here for the past four years, and haven’t been burgled once.”

Leaving aside the inevitable risks involved in owning property anywhere in Italy, much of the landscape around Ragusa is idyllically beautiful, and a match for anything in Tuscany. The weather is fabulous. The food and wine are great. The roads are empty. Parking, even in the towns, is no problem. And the cost of living is far lower than on the peninsula. I paid only €4 for a cinema ticket, and a meal of steak and chips and unlimited wine at a decent restaurant in the centre of Ragusa cost just €12.

But perhaps most of all, after years of being inaccessible for British tourists, this part of Sicily is suddenly within easy reach. Ryanair opened a Stansted-Palermo route last year; and next month, British Airways and Air Malta will run budget flights to Catania, a mere 75-minute drive away. Added to which, a new international airport is due to be built at Comiso, barely six miles west of Ragusa.

Not surprisingly, shrewd investors, mainly from Germany and the north of Italy, have started buying up everything they can find here. But apart from the singer Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, who recently bought an estate near Milo on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna in the neighbouring province, the British are almost entirely absent.

It is not too late, however, because even though prices have risen sharply (up 40 per cent over the past three years in the centre of Ragusa, having been stagnant for ages), they are still at giveaway levels compared with anywhere in central Italy. The abandoned Masseria Torrevecchia, for sale through SunWay, is a typically mouthwatering bargain. This old-fashioned sandstone farmhouse with an imposing faade and a courtyard behind is in the large and hyper-protected Pino d’Aleppo nature reserve, and consists of 560sq m of floor space with 17 acres of top quality farmland. The price is €200,000 (£131,800).

Granted that the cost of restoration varies from €400 per square metre for good work in decent materials to €750 for work of the no-expense-spared variety (hand-carved stone, antique materials, marble surfaces and solid brass taps galore), the estate might end up costing you as little as €425,000, or well under £300,000. Not bad for a fully restored farmhouse with 17 acres of land that would be ideal for vineyards. What would you have to pay for anything similar in Tuscany? Five times that? Or more?

Not far away, and with stunning views over fields dotted with carob trees and crisscrossed with dry-stone walls, is the even more imposing Villa Cartia, for sale through A&M. This abandoned masseria, or farm, with a large courtyard surrounded by outhouses, two terraces at first-floor level, and Art Nouveau frescos on the vaulted ceilings inside, has 3,000sq m of floor space, and comes with 12 acres of land and the chance to buy up to 15 more.

The buildings are structurally solid, and since the property is huge, economies of scale would apply to restoration costs, which would be no more than €400 per square metre. The asking price is €2 million, so the fully restored masseria would cost approximately €3 million (£2 million). A rich man’s place, certainly; but most impressive, and still only a fraction of what you’d have to pay for anything comparable in Tuscany.

Those who want a country property with minimum risk of burglary might consider the secure estate that is being developed by SunWay at Cavalonga near the neo-Gothic castle of Donnafugata, still in the same area. Here, a number of traditional stone houses with between 70 and 120sq m of floor space will be for sale at between €100,000 and €200,000 (£67,000-£133,000). There will be a clubhouse with a security guard in permanent residence, and owners will have the use of the 37-acre park. The point of the development, which will be completed next year, is to offer peace of mind inside a private estate that is guaranteed untouchable.

Nor is there any lack of bargains in the Baroque towns scattered about the province. In Modica Bassa, SunWay is restoring a slice of the town known as the Quartiere del Cartellone, where other outside investors have already bought. Here you can acquire the picturesque Casa Rossa – red stucco and a balcony supported by carved corbels outside; 45sq m and rustic frescos on the ceilings inside – for €95,000 (£63,000), fully converted. The house looks onto Modica Alta, with its famous cathedral of San Giorgio.

More interesting still is what is on offer in the provincial capital itself; and let’s not forget that like any farmhouse or villa in the country, town properties can be rented out most of the year round; Patrizia Antoci of A&M can arrange that.

Here in Ragusa, Gabetti is selling a vast 440sq m flat on the piano nobile of an early 19th-century palazzo bang in the middle of the town for €500,000 (£329,000). It comes with original floors and spectacular frescoed vaulted ceilings.

In the evocatively named Via Ecce Homo, again in the middle of town, Gabetti is selling an entire late 19th-century palazzo: 400sq m on three floors, original features intact, with 80sq m of bassi on either side of the entrance that could be let out, and a rococo building opposite. The asking price: €415,000. Assuming a maximum of €250,000 for renovation, that comes to €665,000. In other words, well under £450,000 for a large and fully restored town house. Where else will you get deals like these?

And where, too, will you meet a man like U Scarparu (“the shoemaker”), who works at his trade in the same room where he was born 85 years ago, and who refused point-blank to accept a penny from me after he had spent the best part of an hour repairing a shoe whose heel I had left somewhere in a nearby nature reserve?