Created through the unification of 27 states in 1861, Italy has sharp differences not only between the industrial north and the agricultural south, but also between neighbouring regions. Even today, Italians retain a fervent loyalty to their own region, and while they may all share the same passionate Latin temperament, the distinct differences between the regions add to the interest of this vibrant country.
You can see it in the food as well. Regional cooking is one of the highlights of any trip to Italy. Puglia, in the south, has a diet focused on vegetables and fruit, while the colder northern regions are famous for hearty pastas and risottos made according to recipes handed down for generations.
In summer 2007, the Association of International Property Professionals placed Italy as the fifth most popular country with British buyers - there are an estimated 60,000 of us living there. Improved access - Italy has probably benefited more from the arrival of low-cost airlines than any other country – and new, well-built developments aimed at British house-hunters have attracted more buyers.
Tempted by an Italian home? Here’s a selection of properties in four different regions of Italy, some fully restored and some requiring rather a lot more work.
Partially restored in Piedmont
When the Winter Olympics were held in Turin in 2006, they highlighted the small region of Piedmont in Italy’s north-west. Langhe, the hilly wine region in the south of Piedmont, is a quiet, agricultural area stuffed with vineyards. The typical housing stock is rambling stone buildings set in generous grounds. Crime is low, road and plane access is good, and lunch will set you back less than a round of drinks in London.
This house near Ceva is perfectly placed for the Cote d’Azur and for skiing. It has views of the Alps yet is only two hours' drive from Nice and 70 minutes from Turin airport. The four-bedroom main house was restored 10 years ago, but the original house – on the left in the picture – needs total refurbishment.
The hayloft has planning permission to create a further four rooms. There are 24 acres of grounds and the motorway is 10 minutes away. Priced at €430,000 (£326,600) from Piemonte Property (www.piemonte-property.com; 00 39 0173 971601).
New-build masseria development in Puglia
Getting from London to the south of Italy was difficult until 2004, when low-cost flights from the UK to Bari and Brindisi were launched. Puglia is the ‘heel’ of the Italian boot that spikes into the Adriatic and Ionian seas. It has beautiful beaches, a mix of Baroque, Renaissance and Ottoman architecture, and olive groves that are hundreds of years old. Unlike most of Italy, it is a flat region and is extremely hot in summer, but this is a delightful part of Italy.
Ten miles from the beautiful Baroque town of Lecce in Salento and a short walk from local shops, Knight Frank is selling new-build masseria (fortified houses). The four-bedroom houses all sit in plots of five acres with pools, dry stone walls and their own olive groves. The property is on the eastern edge of Puglia close to white sand beaches. Prices from €500,000 to €1 million (£381,600-£763,200). Contact Knight Frank (www.knightfrank.com; 020 7629 8171).
Restoration drama in Le Marche
Set between Umbria and the Adriatic Sea, Le Marche is a rural region of hilltop medieval villages and rugged hills. Separated from Tuscany and Umbria by the Apennines, Le Marche’s inaccessibility kept most foreign buyers away until the recent advent of low-cost flights to Ancona and Pescara airports. Le Marche has 100 miles of sandy beach, medieval cities, and fantastic music and food festivals throughout the year. Best of all, property prices are 35 per cent lower than those in Tuscany, according to Jane Smith of estate agency Magic Marche.
Brave buyers prepared to take on a challenge could buy this house near the village of Massa Fermana in the very centre of Le Marche. The nearest town, Macerata, holds an open-air opera every July. Set in five acres with woods and a stream, the property needs total renovation; the costs are estimated at €150,000 (£114,000). Once complete, the location and views across the valley mean you could end up with the perfect country idyll. Priced at €200,000 (£152,000) through Magic Marche (www.magicmarche.co.uk; 020 8941 8300).
Fully renovated Tuscan borgo
The expensive heart of Tuscany remains top dollar, with international buyers queuing up to own property in the region. Strict planning rules to preserve this green and glorious land mean that there are few new-builds, yet agents report that more and more buyers want the convenience of a lock-and-leave property with low maintenance costs.
At La Cignella Estate, 20 miles south of Siena, the hard work has been done, enabling you to live like a lord at a fraction of the cost. This 18th century borgo, set in 200 acres of prime Tuscan land, has been restored to provide 14 two-, three- and four-bedroom houses and four apartments at prices from £218,000 to £517,000. Communal facilities include pools, gardens and a caretaker. Contact Savills International (www.savills.co.uk/abroad; 020 7016 3740).