How poppies (and Italian jealousies) led to the jailing of a British couple

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It was while scanning the internet that Dr Clive Gillis and his wife Nina discovered their dream home.

The former farmhouse may have been covered in ivy, the floors and ceilings had long collapsed, and dead pigeons were strewn on the floor, but they loved it.

The front of the four-bedroom house overlooked a medieval village in the heart of Umbria, in central Italy, while at the rear, vineyards stretched into the distance.

After spending £70,000 over the next two years turning the ruin into a home, the couple were preparing to leave their home in Weston-super-Mare and retire to Italy.

But last June their peace, and world, was shattered when a team of Italian drugs officers raided the house and arrested them. The couple were put in jail following an anonymous tip-off claiming that they were drug dealers who had been cultivating opium poppies to produce morphine.

The GP and his wife, a retired teacher, faced 22 years in prison and a £20,000 fine after police seized more than 180 poppy plants from their garden. After three days in an Italian jail, the couple were allowed to return to Britain on bail while the case was investigated.

To their delight Dr Gillis, 58, and Nina, 57, learnt at the weekend that the charges had been dropped and no further action would be taken. The case, it appears, was due to local jealousy aimed at British people moving into the Italian property market and making a killing.

Niclaflavia Restivo, the judge who dealt with the case, said the poppies grew wild after Dr and Mrs Gillis levelled land to build a swimming pool.

"The root of the problem seems to be jealousy on the part of the locals, for the way they have transformed their farmhouse into an extremely pretty and well-restored home," she said.

"To see a house come to life seemed to inspire jealousy among locals. Their home is extremely charming and its value has shot up.

"It would not be the first time that new people in an area were 'got at' by this form of sniping, with a view to driving them out of their homes."

The Gillises are among the scores of British and American home buyers who have headed to Umbria and Tuscany drawn by the beautiful scenery, rich food and drink, sunny weather, and the possibility of finding a bargain. The sparsely populated Perugia area is dotted with medieval towns and villages and is famous for truffles.

The Gillises' farmhouse had been untouched for 20 years after being abandoned by its owners, two elderly sisters. But at £30,000 it was a bargain. A total of £70,000 was spent on restoration but the house more than doubled in value.

During their visits to the property, the Gillises had to rewire, replumb and replaster the whole house, as well as install a kitchen and a bathroom.

Mrs Gillis said: "We poured love and money into the project. It was our pride and joy.

"After a hard day's graft we would relax on the terrace, sipping wine and looking out on a valley filled with olive trees."

Dr Gillis, speaking from Somerset yesterday, said: "When we bought it, it was a ruin, but it had the most beautiful views. At the front there is a tiny narrow medieval street while at the back there are vineyards. When you are in the swimming pool you feel like [the rock star] Sting."

It was during the renovations that the couple first noticed the poppies, apparently growing wild on their land.

Dr Gillis recalled: "They were more beautiful than the usual poppy - they had a sort of lilacy pink colour. Two, growing close to the house, we admired so much we used to cut the grass around them and asked our neighbours to water them while we were away."

Mrs Gillis added: "We had no idea you could get drugs from the seeds. I just thought they were such a colourful flower with their pretty red petals and they looked nice in the garden."

Dr Gillis said that while he was "delighted" and "relieved" to learn that he and his wife had been cleared, he was incensed about his treatment.

"I spent three days in prison sharing a cell with murderers, rapists and robbers," he said. "It is something I don't want to ever go through again.

"I've been camping lots of times so I'm used to roughing it but the conditions inside were appalling and the regime very authoritarian.

"Afterwards I was very angry at how we had been treated and even now I am still upset as it doesn't take much to see the whole thing was completely ludicrous.

"I mean have you ever seen two more unlikely drug dealers - I'm a GP and my wife is a retired teacher."

Dr Gillis is bemused at why someone should want to spread rumours about him and his wife. He said his immediate neighbours had been extremely friendly and had not objected to the restoration work or the building of a swimming pool.

One suggestion was that drug addicts had planted the crop for their personal use at a time when poppy cultivation was legal.

Judge Restivo offered a different explanation. "This house is now worth a lot of money and would certainly be attractive prey for someone who hoped that, by driving them out of the area, they would be able to buy the house much cheaper than it is worth," she said.

The surge in property prices and foreign ownership has undoubtedly caused resentment among some Italians.

Giovanni Balducci, who owns an estate agency in Umbria, said that farmhouse properties in the Perugia area had risen by about 20 to 30 per cent in the past three years alone. A ruined farmhouse in that part of Umbria currently costs from €100,000 (about £70,000) to €400,000 (about £280,000), while a restored farm property starts at around £260,000.

Eighty per cent of Mr Balducci's clients are from Britain or the United States. "The area attracts people looking for a quiet life, good food, history, museums, and medieval towns. The kind of people drawn here are intellectual people, lawyers, architects and doctors," he said. "The countryside is beautiful, it is very hilly and very green."

Mr Balducci described the Umbrian people as very hospitable and friendly, not at all the type who would try to drive out foreigners.

Despite their ordeal, the Gillises are persevering with their Umbrian dream and they intend to retire to the farmhouse this summer.

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