Overseas property: Italian for beginners

With no previous experience, one couple spent 10 hard years creating a Tuscan paradise. Its new buyer will get to heaven the quick way, says Ginetta Vedrickas
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The Independent Online

Anyone undertaking a renovation project usually knows they are in for the long haul. But the transformation of this medieval villa deep in the Tuscany countryside took its owners more than 10 years. From an uninhabitable wreck used only for housing livestock, Villa Pallero is now a beautifully restored historical home, and it has just come on to the market.

In 1989, Australian-born John Vye and Wolfgang Bloham were living in Bloham's native Germany where he worked in the fashion industry and where Vye was a classical ballet dancer. After deciding on a "total life change", they sold up and headed to the Tuscan countryside in search of their dream home but they viewed 83 properties before finally finding "the one". "It wasn't the most beautiful house and it needed the most work by far but as soon as we saw it we knew that its location was extremely special," recalls Bloham.

Perched on a hillside among vineyards and olive groves, Villa Pallero has 360-degree views over the San Indignant countryside below. Reached by a private road, there are no neighbours apart from sheep farmers who produce the well-known pecorino cheese, but the cities of Florence and Siena are both within an hour's drive.

The buying process proved extremely taxing but, after many bureaucratic hurdles, the house was finally theirs. Vye and Bloham admit that their old life in Germany had been "extremely comfortable" but they didn't balk at their new home's primitive conditions. "It was November and icy cold. We had no heating, water, electricity or phone and for the first months we slept with around 300 sheep, pigs and goats all under one roof."

The pair quickly learnt diverse skills from tiling to bricklaying as they began the painstaking restoration process, but they had to call in experts for some jobs. "A 19-year-old boy with a pendulum told us exactly where to dig for water and he was right," says Bloham.

Restoration proved arduous but was further complicated by strict building regulations that Bloham describes as "incredibly bureaucratic, even worse than Germany", but the pair never wavered in their belief that they had made the right decision: "It was a life's adventure and we never really looked back as we knew it could only ever get better, not worse."

Over the years, the once crumbling pile of buildings has been transformed into a chic seven-bedroom property with 10 bathrooms, which is a perfect blend of historical detail such as terracotta-tiled floors and ceilings, uneven walls but with modern touches. The barn, which once teemed with snakes and rats, now houses a Roman-style bathhouse pool complete with mosaic floor and is heated for year-round use. The couple have also installed a gym, hydro massage, Finnish sauna for six and a solarium and have transformed the surrounding land from an overgrown tangle into tranquil gardens, complete with terraces and fountains.

In recent years, the pair have successfully run Villa Pallero as an upmarket boutique hotel for professionals who wish to exchange the stresses of modern living for a tranquil retreat, which is also a great base for sightseeing. But, as Vye's parents get older, the couple wish to live nearer and plan on moving to Australia, where they hope to buy a smart Sydney pied-à-terre overlooking the ocean.

They are selling the house and its antique furniture lovingly collected over the years, but Bloham says that they have no regrets: "We call this house our life sculpture, but our new home will be in absolute contrast and we love the idea of starting again."

Savills is marketing the property and an associate, Lynne Davie of Lore Living, says that describing something as unique is usually a cliché but not in this case: "I see many properties in this area but this one has been restored with such great taste that when you're there you really do get such a feeling of tranquillity and peace that makes it special. A property like this would be extremely hard to find."

The area abounds with large, period buildings but many have been divided and sold off, making Villa Pallero a rarity. Davie finds its location is also special: "It's a very different landscape to Chianti Classico, which is more rugged. Here you get soft rolling hills, cypress trees and it's very open, which personally I find more relaxing."

The area is popular with British visitors - Tony Blair regularly holidays here. But many Brits also choose to make this part of Tuscany their home. One of the few areas in Tuscany that produces white wine, San Gimignano, the city of towers, attracts many visitors, particularly in summer, but the house lies a respectable eight kilometres away.

Davie credits the current owners for their patience and total commitment despite battling uncomfortable living conditions and bureaucracy. "You need absolute dedication for a task like this, as planning rules and regulations here are so strict," she says. Lore Living helps mainly British clients find and buy property but also assists with restoration and project management - acting as a buffer between architect and client. "Often it's about dimming clients' expectations and dealing with two different mindsets."

Occasionally, Davie deters clients from taking on overly ambitious projects, "If their budgets or timescales are unrealistic we sometimes talk them out of it. Projects can take two to three years and usually involve lots of tears. It simply may not be realistic for some, but if it does work then you end up with a property which is totally right for you."

Villa Pallero is for sale for £2,057,000 through Savills International: 020-7016 3740 www.savills.com/abroad

Lore Living: 00 39 055 2654089 www.loreliving.com.

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