Buying overseas: Old as the hills

In breathtaking Umbrian countryside, a grand family estate is being turned into a millionaires' hideaway
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'The kind of people who come here want to keep a low profile," says Count Antonio Bolza, owner of Castello di Reschio, a wonderful – and private – restored house in Umbria. "They don't want to dress up and meet people; if they did, they'd go to St Tropez."

It's true, this spot is tucked away. All the bucolic clichés – misty hills, cypress trees and neat vineyards – can be ticked off while looking out from the terrace. It's a far cry from the searing beaches and flashy villas of the Med. Known as the green heart of Italy, Umbria offers a more peaceful lifestyle. And nowhere is it more placid than at the Castello di Reschio, a 2,700-acre estate dating back to the 11th century.

Within a short drive lie Assisi, Perugia and Cortona. It would be a pity to miss any of them, but you'd be forgiven for not wanting to venture too far from a house like this. The Count tells me that the region's recorded history dates back to the Etruscan period and that, in a former life, the estate's fortified tower was an important military post, guarding the Tiber valley. Not a bad spot to be stationed for a bit of guard duty.

Originally, the estate was divided into parcels of land, and given to farmers who would provide an income for the landowners. Over the years, however, most of them emigrated, the houses were abandoned and fell derelict. It is these derelict homes that Count Bolza and his family are now renovating – breathing new life into the estate as well.

"Castello di Reschio is beautiful just as it is, but without people living here it would feel dead," the Count explains. "And what should one do with these ruined structures? Ruins are romantic, but there's no life in them and I don't want the estate to feel lonely. So we are recreating the life these homes would have had in medieval times, giving the estate meaning again."

There is – beneath all the well-meaning vision – a commercial purpose to his family's new enterprise. Italy has become increasingly popular with people seeking character properties and, as a result, increasing numbers of country estates and privately-owned small villages are being redeveloped for discerning buyers. Clients who express an interest in owning one of the modest, ruined houses are invited to visit the estate, when they can choose which of the 50 they would like. Once they've settled on their favourite, they are quoted an all-in purchase price that includes three acres of land, complete restoration and landscaping, all within a guaranteed time – usually two years.

Each tumbledown house is then carefully planned and renovated by Count Bolza's son, Benedikt, a London-trained architect whose family also lives on the estate. The aim is to integrate contemporary styling and amenities into the ancient structures without losing any of the property's character. This translates as traditional mellow-coloured stone walls and terracotta-tiled roofs, vaulted ceilings and expansive terraces, enhanced by infinity pools, formal gardens and state-of-the-art kitchens and bathrooms.

The Count claims that the main selling point for his restored properties is the fact that the family will take care of everything, from the original plans to the finishing touches. Even the interiors can be included in the project, should busy clients wish, with Countess Bolza, an interior designer, taking control of colour palettes and furnishings.

"We understand what it means to restore a property," says the Count. "It's very difficult, especially if you don't live in Italy, and we want to make this purchase a carefree investment." With prices starting from £2.6m, it's clear that Castello di Reschio's buyers are more conscious of saving time than money, but with 18 of the 50 properties already restored, there is also evidence that the Bolza family is as good as its word – paying close attention to detail and delivering a quality finish. This estate is in the honeypot region near Assisi and Orvieto and not far from Siena and Florence, so for the standards of renovation work and landscaping, and the amount of land sold with each property, those prices are to be expected.

Also on the estate is a fine equestrian centre and restaurant, open only to residents. In time, there will be a spa and small hotel created from the ruined 11th-century castle with the same meticulous attention to detail. For the moment anyone who can't afford to own here (or can't wait until their own property is ready to move into) can rent one of the other homes on the estate.

Of the 18 current owners, Count Bolza will say only that they tend to be professionals and families with young children who are looking for a low-profile and a safe and relaxing holiday environment. With several younger generations of his own family now living on the estate it's an atmosphere he wants to preserve.

"We love it here and everyone who comes here can tell you why," he says with passion. "I wanted to use this property to create something truly exceptional because I knew that if we loved it, there must be others who would, too."

Castello di Reschio:; 00 39 075 844 362

Buyers' guide

* Planning regulations in Italy are strictly enforced, particularly when a property has historic value. Ruins can be restored, but must retain an original appearance. Any additional extensions or alterations must be approved by the local planning authority.

* The rural area in which Castello di Reschio is located has been protected to prevent any future new development.

* If the agreed period of time for project completion overruns, Castello di Reschio contracts include penalties of 1 per cent of the purchase price for every month of extra work.

* Although owners buy the entire freehold of a home at Castello di Reschio and can therefore sell it at will, the purchase contract includes a clause giving first refusal to the Bolza family to purchase the property back at full market value.