John Harrison was introduced to the Italian ski resort area of Cervinia as an MBA student at Bocconi University in the mid-1990s. Harrison, a former partner and COO of Amplitude Capital, started coming back to the area with his wife and four children, spending three weeks of the year there on vacation. One afternoon in 2015, he was coming down the slopes and saw a plateau with what he calls “a rather nice ruin.”
The building itself was derelict, but he loved the high elevation, easy access to the slopes and complete privacy. His ski instructor told him it was for sale, and Harrison could see potential for a vacation home. “By the time we finished our holiday, we bid for the building and the adjoining land,” he says.
He named the property Chalet La Fenice — “phoenix” in Italian — a reference to how the place was reborn from the ashes. After five years of renovation, Harrison spent his first week at the property in 2021.
Now, he’s listed the chalet for €24 million ($26.4 million) with Savills. For that, buyers will get nearly 13,000 square feet of living space, with seven bedrooms, a spa with indoor pool, a ski room, an atrium with a Swarovski chandelier, a helipad and an outdoor Jacuzzi with views of the Matterhorn. It’s the most expensive listing in the Italian Alps, the listing agents say.
Harrison has used it as a family house for winter ski vacations but has also been renting it out on an exclusive-hire basis. The cost to hire it out for six nights in December this year was €65,000.
Harrison says he was nervous when he started renting out the house. “When someone is paying a lot of money to stay at your chalet, it’s a real test of seeing if you’ve delivered,” he says. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, he adds.
Getting it built was a challenge, however. “If you think England can be difficult, Italy is another step up. And halfway up a mountain is even harder,” Harrison says. He employed an Italian architect, Mariapia Bettiol, who specializes in high-altitude luxury projects like chalets and hotels.
The building was historically listed, so he had to keep the outside looking similar to the stone build of the 1930s. But he had carte blanche about what he could do inside.
“We had two options: whether to build a smaller chalet, which would have probably been more sensible for family usage; or to push the bar up and do something different," Harrison says. "We went for the latter."
To create more space than the original building offered, they had to dig below ground, into the side of the mountain. The building team had to bring in dynamite by police escort from Turin and do a controlled explosion.
“I got sent a video on Whatsapp from the architect of an almighty explosion like something out of a war film,” Harrison says.
But it all worked out without incident, and the basement is now made of reinforced concrete. The build also allowed for a 10-meter indoor pool with windows looking out to the slope.
The project didn’t make him popular in the community initially, Harrison says, especially as a Briton buying a well-known Italian property. “I made the mistake of going to some blog when it was still a building site, and everyone was really just going for us,” he says. “But as soon as it was finished, the criticism stopped, and I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t absolutely thrilled that this was done.”
Harrison won’t disclose what he spent on the purchase or years of renovations, simply calling the amount “substantial.” But he says there is nothing like this property in the region, so it deserves its title as the most expensive listing.
“We are one of the few chalets built on ski resorts in Italy, so there really isn’t a comparable to benchmark this with,” he says. “In terms of chalets, everyone thinks of Switzerland and France and not Italy, so we broke the mold.”
Harrison says he’s had several approaches from potential buyers since he finished the renovations. Listing the property with Savills, he says, proves he’s willing to take offers seriously. He thinks the buyer is likely to be a family, perhaps one who worked in finance like him and who enjoys the outdoor pursuits in Cervinia. The area also is connected by cable car to the popular Swiss ski area of Zermatt.
“If someone comes along and says, look, I want to be in a swanky place at the top of the mountain, then we have a really lovely place for them in the Alps to come look at.”