By Fiona Tankard
For some people, the perfect holiday might be summarized as follows: arrive at the airport, check into a luxury hotel, spend the rest of the time at the pool or the beach with the latest bestseller. That may be a good way to unwind and indulge in a bit of unstructured, do-nothing time, but it has always seemed to me to be a bit of a waste, especially when you are a foreign country. Not that I am advocating racing around museums or culturally worthy sights, especially when the weather is hot and you are faced with queues and cross children, but maybe there is a way to have the best of both worlds.
In Italy, one way to experience an authentic taste of the country, its cooking and its way of life is to book yourself into an agriturismo. This roughly translates as a 'farm holiday', but the type of holiday accommodation you find can vary from the simple and rustic to a level of sophistication that's on a par with any five-star hotel.
Down On the Farm?
In order to officially qualify for 'agritourism' status in Italy, the place must actually be an established farm or an agricultural business of some kind. It may not necessarily have livestock, it could grow grapes for wine, organic food, make olive oil and so on, but there should be some direct connection with agriculture. An agriturismo must also try to offer its guests local food typical of the area and items for sale in the farm shop should also be produced by the farm itself.
Being Italy, the original definition of a real farm offering board and lodging is now slightly more, how can I put it, flexibly applied, at least by the accommodation providers. You may be offered anything from simply a room with (or without) meals to a complete farmhouse with extra curricular activities like horse riding, mountain biking, wine tasting, cookery, art or ceramics courses. A search of the internet will reveal a vast array of country house hotels, bed and breakfasts, self catering villas and apartments mixed in with old-fashioned farms, all under the blanket heading of agriturismi. Read the descriptions carefully to see what's on offer. You may find that a country hotel or a small hamlet B&B might be exactly what you are after rather then the full blown farm experience.
Food Glorious Food (and Wine!)
An agriturismo vacation can be a great way to experience another side of Italy. Of course, staying in a tourist hot spot like the heart of Florence or Rome is unforgettable and exciting. But just imagine an alternative, where a stroll along a strada bianca (unmetalled road) could lead you to a tiny rural hamlet or a local festa - with food and wine supplied by villagers for a few euros - with music and dancing. Maybe this white road will lead you to a market, where you can buy slices of pork slow baked with fennel, a kilo of freshly picked peaches and a bottle of the local wine to enjoy later on the terrace of your farmhouse.
Many agriturismi owners will be only too happy to advise you on how to make the best of your stay, suggesting out-of-the-way restaurants (run by their cousins or friends or friends of friends) that you would never find otherwise, or arranging a wine tasting or even olive oil tasting. Yes, it does exist - you slurp the spicy fresh golden green oil from tiny, tiny cups or from the crease between finger and thumb!
Two to Try in Tuscany
There are a number of websites which have put together collections of agriturismo accommodation and one of these is Landscape Properties, which has over 3000 holiday accommodation providers in its database. You can search by accommodation type, location, holiday type or budget and then book direct with the owners.
Here are a couple of examples from Tuscany. The first, Agriturismo Ardene, is located a stone's throw from the medieval town of Montepulciano (famous for its wine) and is packed full of traditional Tuscan features: terracotta floors, chestnut beams and of course incredible views. This is an example of a genuine farm with animals that has been recently restored to a very high standard.
The second is Tenimenti della Spinosa on the border of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio in the beautiful Maremma region, and offers self catering apartments in a series of farms scattered over the 80 hectare (200 acre) land. The farm has its own 20-acre DOC vineyard so you will be OK for wine!
If you look at those properties you will see that although they maintain the character of the original farms, they also offer swimming pools, internet connection, Jacuzzis and all the other modern facilities that you may have thought you would have to forego if staying on an Italian farm.
Maybe giving up the sunlounger by the hotel pool won't be such a sacrifice after all.
Look at thousands more vacation rental properties in Italy on the Landscape Properties website www.landscapeproperties.com
Author Fiona Tankard has lived in Italy since 1994 and works as a freelance writer and internet marketer. Her site is www.spiderywriting.com
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