Tuscany, the UK buyer's favourite region, has the toughest building regulations of all and attempting even the most modest restoration can turn into a costly endeavour once the local heritage watchdog becomes involved. Anyone with the patience and resilience to see a big project through deserves special credit.
Italian bureaucracy, however, does not daunt Marianne Ismail, from Kent, a feisty Scot married to Adel, an Egyptian property developer. In 2008 the couple bought a 360-acre country estate three miles from Lucca complete with a classic 18th-century villa and a series of tempting part-derelict outbuildings, all with potential.
Creating a luxury boutique hotel
The constant commutes began as the the pair set out to gut the main building while also maintaining UK family life with their two children, Samir, 10, and Alicia, eight. The project had to be meticulously planned with all permissions granted before work could begin. Yet, in 2010, after two years, Albergo Casanova (albergocasanova.com) began a new life as an elegant boutique hotel with 14 super-size, comfortable suites.
The adjoining chapel, painted in broad stripes in traditional Tuscan style, now hosts weddings while the relaxing grounds have become a firm favourite with honeymooners: 50 newly hitched couples stayed at Albergo Casanova this May alone.
"Adel and I have a long-standing love affair with Italy," says Marianne. "We have owned a villa as a holiday home south of Pisa since 2006, and had just finished restoring that when we heard that the Albergo was for sale. We weren't looking to be hoteliers but we both fell for this estate and its incredible views of endless wooded hills. One of Italy's great attractions is finding beautiful buildings, and though you cannot alter the exterior you can make significant changes inside."
Marianne has always had a can-do attitude. She took a job on Wall Street in 1993, thriving in the busy New York money market, in a country that insists that anything is possible. When she met and married Adel in 2000 they returned to the UK. With typical Scottish understatement she describes herself as active but takes multitasking to a new level. Now weekly trips to Italy are built into their routine.
Plans for expansion
The couple chat and plan weekly with their hotel's resident manager, though Marianne has not learnt Italian yet. She says it is her task for winter, to be tagged on to a list of duties that includes continuing her jobs as a private equity investor and university lecturer, helping with homework, learning to play the piano and singing in a local choir.
When in Italy, her time is consumed making perfect limoncello, the Italian liqueur, from lemons grown at Albergo Casanova; organising in-house cookery courses; arranging wine tastings for guests and planning guest trips to the Puccini Festival held in nearby Torre del Lago.
She has continuing plans for the estate, including adding more guest rooms and a second pool and bar. "We have permission to develop the old farmworkers' cottages next to the villa and the derelict barns into apartments, which we will sell from £400,00."
The restoration so far has cost more than £2million but Marianne is not a woman to waste money: with a shrewd ability to source quality products at good-value prices, she has made big savings in restoration and furnishing costs. She bought cavernous cast-iron baths from Catchpole & Rye in Kent, soft furnishings from John Turner at Aylesford Priory and sandstone for the terrace balustrade from India, all with serious savings over Italian prices.
"I got a quote for £32,000 for 14 radiators from an Italian supplier and then found identical ones in the UK for £2,400 including shipping," she says. "The internet makes comparing goods so much easier."
Italy's agricultural estates
Across Italy there are countless agricultural estates that have been left to crumble by their owners. "Italian aristocratic families generally have been reluctant to sell their inherited estates, even when they have neither the means nor inclination to maintain them," says Lynne Davie of Beauchamp Estates.
When estates are sold they are often divided up, so it is becoming harder to find a complete one for sale: Villa Orsetti Estate (right), in the Tuscan hills outside Lucca, is complete and for sale through Beauchamp for £12.05 million.
Once owned by Lucca's premier noble family it covers 120 acres of prime Tuscan countryside with two historic and substantial villas — one a palatial old mansion shuttered and sad that needs total renovation but retains 19th-century frescoes, the other modernised and requiring only final decoration.
There's also a six-bedroom estate manager's house, a chapel, a winery with great potential as a gym and spa, the largest private pool in the Lucca hills and lovely gardens.
"The main villa, Villa Orsetti, dates from the late 1600s and would cost about £1.2 million to fully restore," estimates Davie. "The estate would make a delightful country hotel or a fabulous private home."
If an entire estate is too much to take on, then consider Castello del Nero (left). The medieval castello, 18 miles south of Florence, is now a five-star 50-room hotel and spa. Threaded in the 740-acre grounds, between sinuous lines of Sangiovese vines, are four abandoned stone farmhouses, for sale through Beauchamp Estates.
These are substantial farmhouses — 7,750sq ft to 12,900sq ft — each in one hectare of private grounds. A guide price of £4.8 million will cover total project-managed restoration into a bespoke four- or five-bedroom home.
"Each house is architecturally unique, with separate barns," says Davie. "They are all a good distance from the hotel but part of an agricultural historic Tuscan estate."
Albergo Villa Casanova: +39 0583 369 000; albergocasanova.com
Beauchamp Estates: 020 7499 7722; beauchamp.it
Castello del Nero: +39 055 86470; castellodelnero.com