When You Want To Shop Like A Roman And Live Like One Too

Mark A. Carlson

It’s a balmy November Saturday afternoon in pre-Omicron Rome, and the Tridente retail district (Via dei Condotti, Via del Babuino, Via del Corso), is packed with early holiday shoppers. I am walking through the masked throngs with Barbara Lessona, owner of Countess Concierge, a boutique firm specializing in shopping, travel and relocation services, who is showing me some of her favorite fashion stops. Lessona, daughter of an American journalist and an Italian count, has lived in the Eternal City all her life and navigating the Tridente with her is, as they say, like strolling with the mayor. Every few minutes a “ciao Barbara” comes from one passerby or another. 

I’m glad to see Rome’s vibrancy, its storefronts filled with tempting merchandise, Romans and tourists out and about—the lines at the Pantheon are lengthy, as they are at a different kind of nearby landmark, Venchi, the ice cream and chocolate store. Hoteliers have been telling me how good their October had been; travelers always want to come to Rome, even if the roads leading there now require vaccine cards and rapid antigen tests.

Unlike other cities, where the pandemic shuttered many stores, Rome seems to be holding its own. Yes, certain businesses suffered greatly and continue to struggle because of the Covid crisis, but lots of small shops survived. One hotelier said, “micro-family ownership saved Rome.”

Visitors are not only coming (pandemic restrictions permitting) to Rome to sightsee and shop, but increasingly want a place here too. (A variety of factors are at play in the renewed interest in Italian real estate, as Bloomberg recently reported, including good pricing and tax breaks.) Despite the hurdles imposed on travel by Covid, or perhaps because of them, Lessona says she’s seeing a desire for longer stays in private spaces, more interest in rentals and apartment and villa purchases among her clients. “It’s about 50/50 between renting and buying, she says

Grand Brands and Local Artisans

It’s easy to understand why people want to stay. While Rome is not without its problems, it’s hard to beat the setting, the mild winters, the countless good restaurants, and closeness to stunning seaside havens for summer escapes. In a tech-centric world, being in Rome can be a particularly restorative experience. A visit here reintroduces you to forgotten pleasures—spending an hour in a bookstore, getting to know a shopkeeper, touching the smooth suede of a handbag rather than peering at its image online, or watching a product being made from scratch.

The city has long specialized in custom, su misura luxury products with many artisan ateliers and unique only-in-Rome stores to choose from. Shopping here is not only an engaging retail experience, it’s a cultural one too. Mega brands like Bulgari and Fendi, which began in Rome, continue to draw on the city’s rich artistic heritage and enhance its couture-level craft traditions. Luxury maison Andre Laug curates and modernizes the best of its Roman past for a new generation of sophisticated international customers. There are coveted local labels like Atelier Bomba and such Alta Moda names as Michele Miglionico and Franco Ciambella to get to know, says Lessona. Her shopping clients, who come from all over the world, seek out both international and Roman brands and the products produced by artisans whom she describes as “the soul of the country.” 

As we stop at various places, I see that doors open quickly for Lessona, showing how even this sprawling city can feel village-like when you know who to know and where to go. “I love to tell the stories of Roman brands and how they represent the best in artisan craftsmanship,” says Lessona, who grew up immersed in the local fashion culture. “It’s part of my background.” Her father worked for Bulgari, she explains, and the family was friendly with many of the key players on the Italian fashion scene. When we stop at Andre Laug, the couture maison that Lessona describes as integral to Rome’s style DNA, we are greeted warmly by Laura Della Croce di Dojola, a co-owner of the label, which counted Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn as clients. Della Croce, a style legend herself and regarded as one of the chicest women in the city, has known Lessona since she was a teen.

Shopping with Lessona can include behind-the-scenes visits to ateliers, artisan shops, private jewelry labs, artist studios and even an “ancient hat factory.” She’ll let you know about such insider favorites as Lucia Odescalchi or Giulia Barela for jewelry, RedSoul Design for handbags, and smart boutiques with well-curated collections like Laura Urbinati and Barbara Gregori For luxury leisure wear, Barbara has her sources, too, both international labels and Italian favorites like Giannetta Roni. 

It’s very easy to spend big in Rome, but Lessona points out you don’t have to for exceptional quality. Prices in Rome, even during an ongoing pandemic, can look attractive when compared with other fashion centers. For example, Lessona says the cost of a custom-made shirt or skirt starts at €200, custom shoes at €300, high fashion gowns at €1500, and that “jewelry is strong” at a variety of price points. Beautiful leather goods can be surprisingly reasonable. Sirni Pelletteria is an artisan laboratory on the Via della Stelletta run by the second-generation brother and sister team of Rita and Andrea Sirni, where bags and various accessories are custom-made by hand in a variety of leathers. Handcrafted catalogue items start at €250 when on sale.

Renting and Buying in Italy

Lessona’s address book is also filled with a network of contacts to help clients who want to move to Rome, or elsewhere in Italy. She started her relocation services about 20 years ago, which now include everything from scouting for property, connecting renters or buyers with real estate agencies and international lawyers, buying day-to-day necessities, staffing and looking after places when owners are away.

Renting or buying in another country involves a lengthy to-do list, of course, and working through it while navigating a foreign bureaucracy is often best done with someone who knows the ropes. “What seems easy is not,” Lessona says, adding that she gets results because she doesn’t takes ‘no’ for an answer. “During the pandemic I worked more than ever to help people find quick, safe and secure solutions,” she says, and that in part meant catering to an increased demand for spaces large enough for a family with parents and children working or studying remotely, yet within an hour-and-a-half commuting time to Rome. She saw Covid-era vacation rentals sometimes extending to three months, or even a year, in places like Tuscany or Maremma. 

Lessona says requests from clients (who are primarily from the U.S. and Europe and come via word-of-mouth referrals) range from two weeks for holiday rentals to multi-year stays for professionals relocating to Italy. Move-in time depends on the project and whether a house or apartment needs to be furnished, but she says some places can be ready in a week (usually vacation properties); others require one to several months.

Travelers continue to eye central Rome, which can still offer value in comparison to other European cities. “A two- or three-bedroom can be found for €3000 to €5000 a month,” she says. As for buying, she’s seeing properties in the center averaging €8000 to €15000 per square meter, or starting at about €800,000 for a two-bedroom, 100-square-meter apartment.

Lessona recommends central Rome to clients, but makes distinctions between the Spanish Steps area, “which is mostly luxury,” and the Piazza Navona and Campo dei Fiori, “where you have a wider choice.” She notes Monti for its hipness, and says properties near the Villa Borghese gardens as being great for families—“green and ten minutes from the center, with 1920s-era buildings with high ceilings.” For dwellings with beautiful Liberty-style architecture, she suggests the Parioli and Coppedè neighborhoods.

For vacation rentals close to Rome, Lessona says a house with a pool in holiday spots like the Monte Argentario area rent from €800 a day. Farther north in the Maremma and in parts of Liguria, Puglia and Calabria rents usually start at €10,000 a month.

If not relocating for work, Lessona says that those coming from abroad to rent or buy a pied-à-terre in Rome or other parts of the country do so because “they want to have a place [in Italy] where they can come any time, a place to leave their things.” But while convenience is an important factor, it is not the only reason spurring interest in local real estate. “Clients want to buy an Italian experience, meet new people and share a lifestyle,” she says.

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