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Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele shares his experiences
Italy is a very rich destination for travelers. Certainly, there’s the ruins of the ancient Roman empire to see, and the art of the Renaissance to appreciate, but a trip to Italy is also about experiencing the people, culture, and cuisine of the countryside. Visitors have a unique opportunity to enjoy rural Italy by staying on a farm that has a guest house, known in Italy as an agriturismo.
What are agriturismos?
In the mid-80s, the Italian government passed a law to help preserve struggling family farms by offering them incentives to accommodate guests. Sometimes this means that visitors stay in historic farmhouses converted into guest lodges, while others have built new structures. Farms are required to be productive, and guests are able to enjoy meals prepared with home grown ingredients.
Despite the images of “WWOOF-ing” that might come to mind, guests are not required to pick vegetables or milk cows, but there can be opportunities to help out when guests choose to do so. For example, at one agriturismo we stayed at, my wife volunteered to help the owner’s mother cook diner so she could see how traditional Italian food is prepared.
Agriturismos and family travel
Staying at an Italian farm is a great way for anyone to experience rural Italy, but it’s an especially attractive option for families. It’s difficult to find rooms at most hotels in Italy that can accommodate more than two or three people, which is enforced at check-in when all guests are required to show their passports. On the other hand, most agriturismos offer family rooms or small apartments with multiple beds.
In addition, agriturismos typically offer family friendly amenities such as swimming pools, play sets, and of course, barnyard animals to pet. Other activities can include horseback riding and bicycling. Finally, there’s the peace of mind that parents enjoy from being able to let kids roam more freely around a rural farm without traffic, strangers, and other urban concerns.
How to choose an agriturismo
Once you know when you’ll be visiting Italy, go to Agriturismo.it and begin your search. There you’ll find information on thousands of properties throughout the country, so you’ll have to take some steps to narrow down your selection. First you can choose one of the 20 regions of Italy, and then choose from the dozen or so provinces within each region; even after that whittling, you might find dozens of agriturismos to choose from.
Next you can sort by price. Some of the more rural properties can be very inexpensive, sometimes well under 100 EUR per night, while others can be downright extravagant and cost several hundred Euros per night. Finally, filter the remaining properties by selecting the amenities that are most important to you, such as swimming pools, meal options, or proximity to local sites. While you won’t be able to book these properties with hotel points, you can redeem miles from cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture for statement credits to help defray your costs.
Once you’ve narrowed the list down a bit, go through each one and look at the pictures, check the rates, and read some reviews. Fortunately, Agriturismo.it offers Trip Advisor-like guest reviews , and automatically translates them to English. For additional information and feedback, you can look for the property’s own web page and see if there are any actual Trip Advisor reviews as well.
Next, you’ll want to email the property to check availability and verify their rates for the meal option you prefer. In my experience, the rates published on the site can be unclear or outdated, so always go by the quotes offered by the owner, which can be somewhat negotiable. For instance, some properties will charge extra for children, depending on their age and the bedding required. Finally, you’ll need to send in a deposit. Some properties take credit cards via PayPal, while others require an international bank transfer.
Tips for planning a rural Italian vacation
When booking our agriturismo stays, we prefer to choose “half-board” accommodations, which include both breakfast and dinner each day. The other options are three meals a day, called “full board”, and just bed and breakfast. By choosing half-board, we can spend the day sightseeing and only have to find a quick lunch before looking forward to a dinner made from local specialties. In fact, these homemade dinners are a real treat, and the added cost is usually less expensive than eating out.
In most cases, you will need to rent a car to visit an agriturismo, although in our experience, some owners have volunteered to pick us up from nearby train stations. Nevertheless, we prefer to have a car when exploring the countryside. If you do rent a car, don’t underestimate the challenges (and fun) of navigating country roads. Your agriturismo may be located on a narrow winding road not shown on a map of the region, and there may not be many street signs. I’ve had great success using Google maps with my iPhone and a roaming plan.
Finally, be sure to utilize the local knowledge of the owner of your agriturismo. On our first stay at agriturismo Il Filare near Parma, we almost paid a tour operator to visit farms in the region. Instead, the owner called his friends at at nearby farms who offered us free tours of their Parmesan cheese production, prosciutto curing plants, and vineyards, and we were happy to spend our money on their products instead. The farm’s owner may come from a family that has lived in that region for centuries, and can serve as the ultimate travel guide.
Our agriturismo experiences
We stayed at this agriturismo outside of Parma in 2011 and it really exceeded our expectations. The owner, Manuel Busi built a new guesthouse and takes pleasure in treating visitors to the many agricultural specialties of the Parma region, including Parmesan cheese, prosciutto de Parma, and local wines. The farm produces fruits and vegetables, and we were invited to sample directly from his groves.
Podere Belvedere Olistico
We recently stayed at this agriturismo about a half an hour’s drive from Florence and had another great experience. Like, Il Flilare, Podere Belvedere Olistico is a very small operation run by a young man who revels in treating his guests to regional specialties . For example, we were treated to pasta with actual shaved truffles that his father discovered with the help of their dog. Other delights included a donkey and piglets to entertain our children, as well as spectacular Tuscan views to enjoy throughout the day.
This agriturismo is located between Florence and Pisa in the hills above the historic town of Pistoia. The property has less of a farm feel to it and is more like a guest lodge with several rooms available. Other amenities include a swimming pool and outdoor dining overlooking several historic castles. We had a great time here and were served excellent breakfasts and dinners, but we did have one significant issue. The owners (and many of the guests) are heavy smokers, which takes away from the dining experience and can be a problem when sleeping with your windows open in a room with no air conditioning. Ultimately, we felt that they were a bit too smoker friendly at the expense of being family friendly and accommodating other non-smokers.
Gli Ulivi di Montalbano
While technically an agriturismo, we saw very little agricultural activity at these private apartments in the hills overlooking the city of La Spezia. Nevertheless, we were impressed by the spacious, clean, and modern accommodations that included a pool, air conditioning, and even a kitchen. Unlike the other three agriturismos we stayed in, we had very little interaction with the owners and used the apartment as a base for exploring the nearby Cinque Terre villages along the northern coast of Italy.
Have you stayed in an agriturismo, or something similar outside of Italy? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!