Italian Dolce Vita and Bavarian quality workmanship

Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel sits chatting in her office in the upper floor of a gleaming modern office block just metres from Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate, reported dpa.

Until a few years ago she was enmeshed in the fashion world as the art director of her father's famous Treviso, Venice-based Stefanel fashion designer company.

Today, in Berlin, she's caught up in the world of real estate, as the wife and business partner of multi-millionaire Bavarian property developer, Ludwig Maximilian Stoffel, 61, who along with his brother Manfred, runs the German family's Stoffel Holding company.

"My husband has been active in the property development branch for 30 years," says the vivacious 53-year-old Italian. "When we first met I was deeply involved in the fashion industry.

"We decided we'd like to do something very special together. We fused our names, married three years ago, and created the Stofanel Investment AG."

"We wanted to develop our own very special kind of art work. Planning started two years ago and now we're developing four big and very different-styled projects in the German capital."

Projects, incidentally, that demand a 300-million-euro (435 million dollars) investment commitment on their part. "Italian Dolce Vita and Bavarian quality workmanship united in Prussia - Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel and Ludwig Maximilian Stoffel" - proclaims a company press handout.

Last week, the foundation stone for the first Stofanel project was laid. Titled Marthashof Urban Village, it is to combine a mix of family-oriented town and garden-style houses, penthouses built around courtyards, as well as flats suitable for singles.

In all, 133 residential units will be built on a 12,380 square-metre site in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg district by 2010. "Forty per cent of the accommodation has already been sold, which is better than we expected," says Giovanna.

The Marthashof site is a story in itself. In the 1850s a Christian-run hostel for maidservants was founded there after a number of young girls contracted syphilis after being lured to work in Berlin under false pretenses.

The "fallen" girls found refuge in the hostel, were given clean accommodation, and medical help. Later, Marthashof became an officially state-recognized evangelical school for future maidservants, supported from 1903 onwards by wealthy Berliners.

By 1917 it had 450 pupils. But after Hitler rose to power, the school came under Nazi party rule, and ultimately closed. In 1943 it suffered a direct hit during an air raid and was destroyed, killing numerous women workers. Today a memorial remembers the former Marthashof on the city's Schwedter Strasse.

Ludwig Maximilian Stoffel's eyes twinkle when he compares Italian and German characteristics. "Why do Germans go to Italy, wear Italian clothes, drink Italian wine? Because they're not sure of taste," he says.

"The Germans usually don't know what is really trendy, what is fashionable. The Italians are so sure: from clothes to glasses, from decoration to cars - they made Ferrari.

"However, a Mercedes is also nice because you have no problems with it. If you buy from a reliable German estate company that has experience, that has a name and tradition, you can be sure you have something with quality," he adds, artfully noting his family's concern in Straubing has "100 years of tradition."

Of her role in the Stofanel Investment company, Giovanna says: "I'm a shareholder and am on the supervisory board. As the art director I'm responsible for everything to do with aesthetics, lifestyle, co-ordination and integration.

"I watch the development of the undertaking very closely. After meeting my husband I realised I could bring my ideals into the property market business," she told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Her husband is impressed with the changes taking place in Berlin, which became reunited Germany's capital in 1990.

"For investors in the 1990s, the biggest risk was the delay in deciding where the nation's capital was going to be - Bonn or Berlin, but once that was decided things started falling into place.

"Big companies opened offices here, hotels were built, artists arrived, galleries opened and tourists flocked to the city again. But only in the past two years have the changes really become evident," he says.

His wife agrees. "What one can have in Berlin, one cannot get elsewhere. In Italy, many people want to buy small apartments in Prenzlauer Berg and other parts of this city because the prices are so reasonable.

"Berlin has sex appeal, offers a lot and is a relatively priceworthy city. But the city does need entrepreneurs," she says.

Stoffel Holding has completed a multitude of buildings in various parts of Germany in the past 20 years, in addition to realising projects at top addresses in Berlin.

The Stofanel Investment AG employs some 25 architects, planners, and finance experts at its Berlin headquarters.

The couple, who have a house in Tyrol they escape to when in need of a break, are renowned for their warmth and generosity in Berlin. For several years now they have been acting as "parents" to 30 Nepalese orphans, paying for their education at an English private school in Katmandu, while offering supportive family environments.

Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel, who has no children of her own, is grateful to her husband for creating the foundation that funds their Nepal activity. "Three times a year we travel to Kathmandu to see the children.

"We'll be going there again in October," she whispers. "Being with the youngsters, aged between five and 17, has become such an important part of our lives."

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