It's a brilliant vacation choice for cost-conscious travelers
In Italy, it's known as "agriturismo" (agricultural tourism), in Britain as "farmstay holidays," in France as a specialized part of the "gites" movement. The chance to stay as a guest on a working farm is one of the fastest-growing options in European vacations, and widely regarded as having many advantages: lower prices than at urban hotels or guesthouses, direct exposure to local culture, greater tranquility and relaxation than in urban settings, superb cuisine. What's it like?
Our first farmstay in Italy was in Umbria in the town of Cannara, situated close to both Assisi and Bevagna. At La Fattoria del Gelso (the Mulberry Farm), (Via Bevagna 1, 06033 Cannara, tel/fax 011-39-07/42-72164), our hosts spoke almost no English, but we managed to communicate with gestures and bits of French, German, and English. Our room and bath were spacious, clean, and modern; the decor had a kind of Moorish feel. By bicycle, we traveled six kilometers (31/2 miles) to Bevagna in one direction and six to Assisi in another. We relaxed by the pool after long days of sightseeing. We ate vegetables and fruits grown on the farm in what seemed like endless delightful courses each night. And would you believe: La Fattoria del Gelso offers lessons in gardening. The cost in 2002: ($30) per person per night for bed and breakfast, ($48) per person for room, breakfast, and dinner.
We moved on, in the course of our next trip, to Il Fae (31020 San Pietro di Feletto, Conegliano, 011-39-04/38-787117, ilfae.com) northeast of Venice, near the town of San Pietro di Feletto in the foothills of the Dolomites. Il Fae is owned by a urologist named Salvatore and his wife Sabina. This lovely property has been in Sabina's family for generations, and she works tirelessly to turn it into a profitable tourist destination.
We were impressed by the couple's entrepreneurial activities. Not only do they produce a lovely cabernet from their own vineyards, but they treat guests to their prosecco--a champagne-like aperitif that is the perfect accompaniment to watching the sun set around the swimming pool. In addition, Sabina makes wooden picture frames and handmade slippers, which are available at their Web site. They have hired a chef for a cooking school. Their goal - to allow Salvatore to give up his medical practice--seems reasonable, based on the quality of the accommodations and the service. By great good fortune, Salvatore and Sabina offered to cook for us one night, and treated us to a buffet of typical dishes of the Veneto, including white polenta with fried salami, roasted peppers and potatoes, rice salad with mozzarella, and more. For dessert, panna cotta was accompanied by amore polenta (a cornmeal and almond cake) and a special dessert wine. The cost of a stay? 991 ($80) for two people, breakfast included.
From Il Fae, we headed to the Emilia-Romagna region where we stayed about halfway between Bologna and Ravenna at Il Palazzo (Via Baccagnano 11, 48013 Brisighella, tel/fax 011-39-05/46-80338) outside the charming town of Brisighella. Although not palatial, Ettore and Adriana Matarese's rooms were quite comfortable, their location outstanding, and the price a real bargain. Il Palazzo is just beyond a popular thermal hot spring about a mile and a half from Brisighella (a town with so much renovation and construction going on that we feared its narrow streets would soon become overcrowded with tourists). From Il Palazzo's hillside perch, one looks across the valley to Brisighella. In the evening, a castle, a church, and a tower clock light the horizon. Acres of vineyards and orchards are visible from Il Palazzo's small outdoor dining pavilion, full of flowering plants and covered by a canopy of wisteria. A constant refreshing breeze cools the hot evenings. Exploring Brisighella's second-story arcades with their ancient shops being restored as apartments was a highlight of our stay, but nothing outshone the famous Byzantine mosaics in nearby Ravenna. Add a visit to the pottery center of Faenza and some time in bustling Bologna, and you could easily spend several days here. And the price? For ($54) per couple, we had room, bath, and breakfast. Add ($11) per person for dinner. No extra charge for the breeze.
Farmstays, cropping up all over the world, are most common in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and to a lesser extent in South America. In Sweden and Switzerland, 20 percent of all farms offer tourist accommodations. Latin American farmstays (estancias) can be booked over the Web for Argentina (argentinatravel.com; click on English, then on estancias). In the United States, the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture (mass.gov/DFA), for example, lists over 200 farms with tourist activities, at least 20 of which have overnight accommodations for guests.
It's a win-win situation for the farmers and their guests. For a farm-owner, agritourism can mean survival. Not only do tourists pay to stay, but farmers are able to supplement their income by marketing their products directly to their guests. In Italy, agriturismo solves an especially acute problem: people had been leaving their failing family farms or villas to look for work in the cities simply because they could no longer make a living in the country. Fearing the loss of heritage and tradition, the Italian government began a program to subsidize renovations for guest accommodations up to 100 percent, rather than have citizens leave their rural homes.
Half of the fun of the agriturismo adventure is discovering the places that are right for you. There are the usual sources like the friends who referred us to a travel agency in Perugia that recommended Il Fae in the Veneto region and La Fattoria del Gelso in Umbria. We found Il Palazzo in a guidebook to Italian B&Bs. But the Internet offers choices galore. For example, at agriturismo.com/englisch.htm, click on "search farm holidays," then select the regions and towns of interest, and pictures of individual options appear. Click on the pictures and you have an instant brochure. Also try argoweb.it/umbria/umbria.uk.html to view ads for holiday farms.
Any drawbacks to these farmstays? They're slight. You'll need a car (or at least a bicycle) to get around; you may not have phone, fax, or e-mail access (and we had to supply our own bath soap twice); you may encounter a language barrier (half the fun); and accommodations can range from elegant down to rustic-buyer beware.
Whatever you choose, you'll find the unexpected cost-free extras that make agriturismo and its brethren in other countries a bonus for the budget-conscious traveler.