The Italians are essentially an urban people, for whom ?civilisation? means, literally, a cultured, city lifestyle. The Romans themselves were great builders, warriors and law-makers, but they did little for agriculture, and for 2,000 years life in the Italian countryside was generally one of hard, back-breaking toil for all except a minority of rich and powerful landowners.

Small wonder, then, that the post-war flight from the land left vast swathes of the Italian landscape dotted with the ruins of abandoned farms and villages. Enter growing numbers of country-loving Britons, and others, who have been buying up converted?or convertible?former farm and estate houses or buildings in Tuscany and Umbria, either as holiday homes or as bases from which to enjoy Florence, Siena, Arezzo and Pisa.

Not that Italy will ever become a mass-market ?sunshine home? destination. Thank heavens, some might say. As James Price of Knight Frank points out: ?Unlike other Mediterranean countries, Italy?s resorts are its cities. People who buy there are looking for something more than sun, sea and sand; and climate is not the be-all-and-end-all.

Also, Draconian controls on building and restoration in the northern Italian countryside mean that house prices are likely to remain relatively high, even for British buyers on the right side of the euro-sterling exchange rate. It means, too, of course, that, unlike some increasingly over-developed areas of southern Europe, property in the most favoured tourist areas of Italy is odds-on to hold its value in the long term. Italy, it must be remembered, is a long-term love affair for most foreigners.?

By way of introduction to the land of opera, Knight Frank (020?7629 8171) and Tuscan agents Ser.Imm (00 39 058 3467450) propose the agreeably priced (at ?850,000) Vallicorte East, a 300sq m, semi-detached ancient hillside farmhouse near Lucca, the birthplace of Puccini. Imaginatively res-tored by an English architect in 1990, the typically three-storeyed house stands in six hectares of gardens, meadows and mature olive groves, and has four bedroom suites, a large sitting room, a dining terrace, a separate dining room, a study, a kitchen and a laundry room.

Knight Frank and its associate Chianti Estates (00 39 057 7731120) seek offers in excess of ?1.2 million for Casale San Gio-vanni, one of four houses in a converted farmstead on the Villa Arceno wine estate, in the Chianti hills near the market town of Castelnuovo Berardenga. Built round a cob-bled courtyard, the house has an entrance hall, three reception rooms, a master suite, two further bedrooms, a bathroom, a study and 6,000sq m of gardens and olive groves.

Knight Frank?s associate in southern Tuscany is long-time Tuscan resident Diana Levins-Moore (00 39 057 8268016). Here, planning restrictions make it virtually impossible to build anything new. Even at a guide price of ?2.5m, the vast living space of the 16th-century Villa Mancini and its secondary house at Foiana della Chiana between Florence and Rome offers huge potential for improvement, she reckons.

Across the border in verdant Umbria, where prices are lower and tranquillity is guaranteed, she says, ?1.495m will buy Racchiusole at Umbertide, a beautifully restored four-bedroom farmhouse on a 150-hectare estate, 35km from Perugia.

Meanwhile, London agent Aylesford (020?7351 2383) is testing the Tuscan market with the sale of a meticulously restored 15th-century Tuscan farmhouse at a guide price of ?2.12m. The house stands amid landscaped gardens in the grounds of an ancient castle, with panoramic views of the hills. The spacious living accommodation, beautifully restored, includes five large bedrooms, five bathrooms, three reception rooms, a kitchen and a laundry room. There is also a restored barn with planning permission as a three-bedroom guest house.