We are on our first trip to Tuscany. We hear its gentle landscape is gorgeous, its food superb, its wines divine. And so far it is living up to expectations. Cypresses are marching up the hills. Olive groves are tumbling down them. Our daily diet is a feast of salty hams, fat tomatoes, soft ripe cheeses, crusty ciabatta and the fine local Brunello wine.
Why haven't we been before, we declare. The truth is, because we were worried about the tight squeeze it might put on our purse. After all, Tuscany is the haunt of the Chianti-swilling British middle classes, who decamp here to smart villas for the month of August, nanny in tow, no expense spared.
But we haven't got a few grand to fritter away on the annual beano. That's why we are travelling with To Tuscany, a rental-only company through which local owners market their properties direct to tourists at competitive prices.
It is the brainchild of Sean Caulfield, who moved to Italy a few years ago after cashing in an earlier lucrative brainwave - supplying those bucketloads of flowers that you see on sale on Britain's petrol-station forecourts. So far, he has gathered together a choice of 200 places - from city apartments to Renaissance palaces - for parties from two to 60 strong.
That's enough variety to include some affordable options; you can snap up a home for the week from less than £200 per person in high season. Not bad. And with cheap flights available into nearby Pisa - plus all that wonderful local produce to bring a gourmet touch to your economical self-catering kitchen - you shouldn't need to break the bank.
We are staying in Il Villino, a large house on the edge of Siena - a real Sienese suburb, with not a Brit in sight (so far). Il Villino was once the home of the Porri family but when their kids grew up mum and dad moved into the city. Now they rent the house to tourists like us, desperate to feel a little Tuscan sunshine touch their souls.
The house has retained the atmosphere of an old, loved family home, with its traditional style, antique furnishings and lace curtains - not a stick of Ikea in sight. But that's not to say it is fusty and dusty. A new kitchen has been installed, fresh linen dresses the beds, and there's a well-sprung suite to lounge about on.
The children are more interested in the grounds, where there is an outdoor pool and, when troublesome adults aren't wining and dining on it, a large terrace that performs well as a makeshift football pitch; the big old terracotta olive jars doubling as goalposts.
But we are not tied to the house. We are blessed by our location right in the heart of Tuscany and our close proximity to both city and countryside.
Siena's pleasant muddle of medieval streets and swish shops is a 10-minute drive away and keeps us coming back for more. Its famous Campo - the shell-shaped piazza that hosts the crazy annual bareback horserace, Il Palio - is an instant winner with the children who regard it as a vast playground to run around when the adults linger too long over a prosecco at one of the pavement cafés. And the zebra-striped Duomo is unusual enough to catch their attention momentarily - especially when admired with ice-cream cone in hand.
Beyond the city walls, the ochre hill towns of San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Castellina provide the perfect backdrop for our mini knight and damsel to play out their fantasies. So they don't mind too much when we take a detour to try out the wines at Casanuova di Ama on the Chianti Classico trail, just north of the house.
In fact, it turns out to be a positively educational diversion. Daniella, who has married into the third generation of Bencinis tending these precious vines, shows us the winemaking process and tells the children the story behind the cockerel symbol that confirms that their wines are Chianti Classicos. We're thinking of returning for a refresher course ....
A one-week stay with To Tuscany (020-7193 7783; to-tuscany.co.uk) in high season starts at £638 for four people sharing a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with shared pool at Hamlet Montefienali. Il Villino, sleeping 10, is next available in the autumn, starting at £1,050 per week. Argus Car Hire (0141-005 0007; arguscarhire.com) offers a week's car hire out of Pisa from £125 per week. Ryanair (0871-246 0000; ryanair.co.uk) flies to Pisa from £50 returnReuse content