Country houses for sale

Britons buying European estates

As if we needed telling, the Office for National Statistics informs us that England will soon be the most overcrowded country in Europe, with a projected 1,202 inhabitants per square mile by 2031. Already, with just over 1,000 inhabitants per square mile, this little island is twice as densely populated as Italy and almost four times as densely populated as France. Small wonder then that growing numbers of Britons are retreating to the green and pleasant hills of Italy and southern France for privacy, tranquillity and room to breathe. It is a trend which neither the global credit crunch, nor the recent 5% drop in the value of the pound against the euro, is likely to arrest in 2008, says Paul Humphreys, head of French affairs at Knight Frank, who maintains that people who choose to buy a home in these ‘premium’ countries are used to factoring in change be that in the local tax regime or the state of the global economy. Now that the Russians have discovered St Tropez, this endearingly chaotic resort will be the South of France hotspot again this year, Mr Humphreys predicts.

For tranquillity, then, look inland to the picturesque wine-growing Saint Clément valley, where Knight Frank (020 7629 8171) are selling a pretty restored five-bedroom Provencal farmhouse at La Garde-Freinet, 10 miles from St-Trop’, with a guide price of EUR1.18 million. If it’s long-lost Arcadia and the vie de seigneur that you’re after, you can find both amid the rolling green hills and medieval stone towns of south-west France, where a grand manorial estate often costs less than a modest villa on the Côte d’Azur.

Knight Frank quote a guide price of EUR1.55m for the enchanting Château d’Eysseau in the scenic Lot-et-Garonne, 30 minutes drive from budget-airline destination Bergerac. The small but beautifully restored four-bedroom château with its guest cottage, outbuilding, quarry and ruin sits comfortably at the end of a long private drive, surrounded by 37 acres of land, which includes a small ‘hobby’ vineyard. City workers who fear for their futures, but have not yet lost the spirit of adventure, can take inspiration from expatriate estate agent Jonathan Pugh of Agence Mercure in Toulouse. Having lost his City job in the recession of the late 1980s, Mr Pugh took off for the south-west of France, where he now sells châteaux and estates to wealthy Britons. One of his first ‘celebrity’ clients was former chancellor Nigel Lawson, who bought a home there in the early 1990s. Property values within 1.5 hours drive of Toulouse have risen steadily in recent years, with French purchasers competing with mature British, Scandinavian and Dutch buyers in the market for historic estates. However, younger Britons like to be within half an hour of the airports at Toulouse, Bergerac or Carcassonne, all of which are served by budget airlines. Agence Mercure (00 33 5612 15201) is handling the sale of the prestigious Domaine de Bazillac, near Auch in the Gers, jointly with international property portal Sifex (

The elegant, 296-acre sporting estate, with its 12th-century chartreuse built on the ruins of a Roman villa, was originally owned by the Counts of Foix and later the Armagnac family; it is discreetly on the market at EUR4.55m. The space race has caught up with all but a few of the previously run-down wine estates of Tuscany and Umbria, where the flight from the land in the 1950s and 1960s left whole hillsides littered with the ruins of former estate buildings and houses. Knight Frank are asking EUR6m for the ‘lovingly restored’ 11th-century Torre Palazzone at Sovicille, 10 miles south-west of Siena, comprising a stone tower, two houses, a courtyard and outbuildings enclosed by fortified rampart walls.

The property is further protected by 26 acres of gardens, farm and woodland, plus terraces of fruit and olive trees. To buy the spectacular 393-acre Villa La Malva estate, with its 10-bedroom mansion, state-of-the-art olive-oil mill, vineyard and recording studio, overlooking the Etruscan city of Orvieto in Tuscany will take EUR6.5m. Across the border in Umbria, prices tend to be lower, and EUR2.5m will secure the freehold, through Knight Frank, of a secluded 148-acre wine-estate with ‘big-sky’ views of the Umbrian countryside and four exquisitely restored buildings including a four-bedroom main house, two guest houses and a converted former tobacco tower. Meanwhile, back in Tuscany, Cluttons Italy (00 39 07584 50100) propose the ultimate restoration project for someone with EUR12.5m (and much more) to spend.

The property for sale is the prestigious 279-acre Poggiolandi wine estate at Montalcino, Tuscany, which produces some EUR1m worth of the region’s celebrated Brunello di Montalcino wine each year. The estate surrounds a large farmhouse complex in need of total restoration, including a 15th-century main house and a 19th-century secondary one. But the vendor hopes to soften the impact of the project on the buyer’s bank balance by throwing in 32,000 bottles of Brunello and 20,000 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino as part of the sale.