Castello di Postignano
Less than two hours from Rome and close to the cultural highlights of Siena and Florence, Umbria is Tuscany's quieter and more affordable neighbour. Umbria is called "the green heart of Italy", a thinly populated, landlocked region of vines and national parks and laden with local produce.
The landscape varies dramatically from gentle hills on the Tuscan border in the west, to wooded mountains and crashing rivers, perfect for the local sport of white-water rafting, in the east. In between, medieval towns such as Spoleto and Città di Castello and smaller borgos - walled, fortified villages - sit proud on hilltops.
The rebirth of a borgo
For decades, Italians largely ignored their rural heritage, leaving it to foreigners to restore time-worn ruins. However, in an outrageously ambitious project, two Italian architects are winning plaudits for their painstaking restoration of Castello di Postignano, an entire borgo in eastern Umbria overlooking the beautiful Nerina Valley. The 13th-century borgo was once a thriving village, its sheer, metre-thick stone walls housing 52 families in tall, thin houses off the narrow cobbled paths. By 1993, however, when Matteo Scaramella and Gennaro Matacena chanced upon it, Postignano had been abandoned for 30 years, a victim of the rural rush to cities in search of work, its medieval frescoes long hidden.
It was a passion for the lifelong friends. They set out to buy the borgo, itself a time-consuming process as each home owner had several heirs whose permission was required, and then turned their thoughts to renovation.
"Our satisfaction comes in the authentic restoration of a beautiful place," says Rome-based Scaramella, who tracked down and interviewed former residents to get an accurate picture of life there. "There are 22,000 borgos in Italy but to find one intact in such a natural setting and then discover 14th-century frescoes in the chapel was inspiring."
It would be hard to overstate their dedication to Postignano. The pair are driven by the pursuit of historical architectural excellence, which explains their refusal to sell anything until the project was nearing completion, and their attention to period detail.
As a listed monument, restoration had to be approved by the Italian cultural heritage authorities and while the Castello received a substantial government grant, the pair know they will never recoup their own outlay.
They have used original materials - chestnut beams, pale cotta tiles and local stone - but there are many nods to modern life. Apartments have wi-fi and underfloor heating and there is a reception, restaurant, bar and lounge area in the centre of the borgo. Below the borgo walls and linked by a large lift, there are plans for a pool, tennis court and gym by the end of 2012 and a 23-room hotel is being built.
Postignano has 59 apartments, each one reflecting the organic way the borgo evolved over time. Most are on at least two floors and a third have a balcony or small garden. Prices for this slice of Italian history range from £186,320 for a 430sq ft one-bedroom apartment to £559,000 for a 1,507sq ft three-bedroom home with frescoes.
The summer season in Umbria typically runs from April to October and the weekly rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment could reach £2,200 in high season. Postignano is tucked away in a relatively unknown part of Umbria, deep in the Mount Sibylline National Park yet within 30 minutes of delightful towns like Norcia and Spoleto, host of the acclaimed Two Worlds Festival each June.
Local activities include white-water rafting, hiking and mountain biking, perfect for building up an appetite for delicious food made with local produce including pecorino, black truffles, wild boar, porcetta and prosciutto all cured and smoked in the villages.
* Castello di Postignano: call Pure International (pureintl.com: 020 3031 2860)
Halfway between the medieval towns of Città di Castello and Umbertide, in the north of Umbria, another time-consuming but far smaller restoration project is also nearing completion.
Ciangottini Residence in Promano is a group of farm buildings on a bend in the River Tevere that have been turned into 14 two- and three-bedroom apartments and houses. Marcus Stoner, 42, an Englishman who met and married the daughter of an Italian family of tobacco farmers, and has lived in Umbria for 15 years with his wife and two boys, found the 3.5 hectare site in 2003 and immediately saw its potential.
"It was tucked away in a quiet valley, on the river, surrounded by fertile soil and yet only 10 minutes from the autostrada and two beautiful towns," says Stoner. "People who buy holiday homes in Italy generally want good security and local management services and this project fitted with that."
With neither running water nor electricity and many of the buildings little more than piles of stones, restoration was always going to be challenging. Stoner assembled three investors, led by Jersey-based financier Don Wijsmuller, to buy the properties from the two owners, a local marquise and a wealthy local family, and managed the project himself.
He had his work cut out, dealing with problems as diverse as discovering unexploded Second World War bombs, frustrating and unreliable builders and the endless and inevitable planning tussles involved in turning old farm buildings in Italy into light-filled holiday homes.
The 14 homes range from a two-bedroom 968sq ft apartment in the large Villa Padronale for £281,250, up to £500,970 for the three-bedroom 1,722sq ft detached Stable House with a private garden. The two-bedroom Grain House, with space to add a pool, is £377,930, while three neat terrace houses start from £369,000.
The homes are all completed to a builder's finish — essentially a blank canvas that allows buyers to add floor tiles, kitchens and paint colours. The completed facilities in the communal gardens include a tennis court and a large swimming pool. Pale local stone, terracotta roof tiles and dovecote-style chimneys ensure an Umbrian flavour while Stoner has worked hard with the planners to achieve spacious, light, open-plan interiors, widening windows to frame the gentle country views.
Three English families now own homes at Ciangottini, visiting up to five times a year for anything from a weekend to a fortnight. Stoner had fun with the owners who were on a mission to explore local shops and meet local craftsmen while kitting out their properties, and became a one-man personalised design service, advising on blacksmiths and carpenters and touring kitchen and tile suppliers.
"This is a little-known, uncrowded sweet spot of Italy. Tourists don't pile into Città di Castello. It's a real Italian town with intimate, friendly restaurants serving fabulous and affordable food and wine."
Contact and Factfile
* Ciangottini Residence simplyumbria.com, 020 3286 7152
* Property prices at Ciangottini and Postignano exclude VAT at 10 per cent
* BA and easyJet fly to Rome and Ryanair flies to Perugia from Gatwick, Heathrow or Stansted
* Annual maintenance charges at Castello Postignano start from £1,555 and average £2,800 at Ciangottini Residence
For Valerie it's a place to party
Valerie Wark and her family have fallen in love with Umbria, where they have a second home. Valerie, keen to integrate and make friends there, is learning Italian and even used local venues for her 50th birthday party.
She and her husband, Brian, live in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, but are already planning Christmas with their family in their two-bedroom restored stone farmhouse at Ciangottini Residence, which they bought as a ruin in 2004 before any restoration work had started.
"Life is so relaxed in Umbria that it was easy to invite 60 friends there to celebrate," says Valerie, a training director. "We arranged accommodation locally and held a big party at our house. It was a wonderful weekend."
For the couple and their daughters Helen, 21, Iona, 19 and Hannah, 16, the house is a great escape four times a year. They cycle, hill-walk and have many Italian friends in the village.
Sourcing Umbrian products for the house ensures an authentic atmosphere. Their sofas come from Mercatale, lights from Trestina and metal work from the local blacksmith. "For years we would stay in agrotourismos and that was the look we wanted," says Val. And as she shops, her Italian is improving, though she laughs as she remembers ordering "six brown celery sticks" rather than "six brown leather chairs" from one perplexed retailer.
* Ciangottini Residence: simplyumbria.com; 00 39 075 854 0857