Just One Cownetto! Farm Holidays in Italy - Known as Agriturismo to the Locals - Are Booming. Sebastian Creswell-Turner Offers a Personal Choice of the Very Best
Byline: SEBASTIAN CRESWELL-TURNER
YOU need a break in the summer and feel you deserve a dose of the good life in Italy, but are reluctant to fork out several thousand pounds a week to rent a house in Tuscany. Is there, you wonder, a solution to your problem?
Well, yes, there is. It's called agriturismo, which roughly translates as 'farm holiday'. . . and if that sounds like getting up at dawn to muck out the stables, don't worry, because what's on offer is more tempting than that.
An agritourist property is a farm or working estate that takes in guests.
The idea is to allow farmers to supplement their income by catering for tourists, while also preventing tourism from replacing agriculture; so proprietors are encouraged to feed guests home-grown produce, preferably organic.
From self-catering flats in medieval barns to full board with gourmet food in fortified farmhouses; from boarhunting in Tuscany to beach holidays in Puglia . . . there are about 12,000 agriturismi in Italy, offering holidays to suit all tastes and budgets, though in two-thirds of cases the cost of a bed for a night ranges from a giveaway [pounds sterling]13 to a more-than-reasonable [pounds sterling]26.
In agritourism terms, La Parrina, a 1,000-acre estate near the coast in the beautiful, relatively undiscovered Maremma area of Tuscany, is the Full Monty.
Walk through the courtyard flanked by its cypress trees and into the 19th-century farmhouse, with its original furniture and old family photos on the walls, and you might be in a grand country home.
The owner, Marchesa Franca Spinola, is a doglover and her guests (mainly families with children) are welcome to bring their dogs, which can sleep in the bedrooms. These are traditional affairs, with terracotta floors, old-fashioned beds and slightly chintzy fabrics.
The bathrooms are in the same style: proper baths, a marble-topped table here and a trompel'oeil fresco there.
And, in case you still thought this was a hotel, there are no phones, TVs or mini-bars in the rooms, though there's a phone and fax machine in the hall.
After breakfast, you do as you like. Wander through the estate's 400 acres of oak forest; take your children to feed carrots to the resident donkey; ask Consuelo Tesi, an English botanist, to show you round the nursery garden she runs or grab a mountain bike and ride to the sea along unmade roads.
Nor is there any shortage of things to see nearby, such as the hot sulphur baths of Saturnia, the Etruscan town of Tarquinia and the seaside town of Port' Ercole, where my advice is to sit outside Il Baretto, the happening bar, and look at the beautiful people walking along the seafront.
Lunch is not provided, and the main event of the day, if you opt for it, is supper. The guests assemble in the sitting room with its antique grey stone fireplace and have a drink with the Marchesa, who speaks fluent English. Then it's through to the dining room.
AS IN a private house, you sit down together at the two large tables and eat what is on offer, which in the run-up to Easter might include gourmet items such as artichokes, asparagus and pappardelle al cinghiale (flat spaghetti with wild boar sauce). If this is too sophisticated, special requests are no problem.
Italians are a sociable people and, in an environment such as this, many English visitors - even those with limited foreign language skills - will make friends with the other guests.
But there are plenty of agritourist options for those who prefer to keep to themselves.
At La Parrina they can take one of the independent flats that cost a fraction of the price of renting the most modest Tuscan farmhouse, while nearer to Rome, the Casale Doria Pamphilj, a 17thcentury grain barn on a farm village in the middle of an 850-acre estate, consists entirely of selfcatering loft-style flats.
Here there is no attempt at country-house style hospitality. Like many agritourist places, it is essentially a base from which to explore the surrounding area in an essential hire car.
The accommodation is clean and modern, with phones and TVs in every flat, although the openplan design rules out privacy and the cooking facilities are ungenerous.
But there are two major plus-points.
The first is location.
Rome is a short drive or 20-minute train journey away; the treasures of Tuscany are within easy reach and the beaches are only a few miles distant, where a meal of fresh fish washed down by local white wine costs around e25 ([pounds sterling]17) a head in a restaurant.
The second is the English connection. The property belongs to Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, whose palazzo in the nearby capital houses one of the best art collections in the world, and who, by a strange twist of history, is English.
Perhaps, though, you feel that you want more agri- in your agritourism.
In that case, the Fattoria Galioto, a 45-minute train journey east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is the place for you.
If spring is still a distant hope in Britain, here, by the sea in the middle of the Mediterranean, it officially began on February 21, and at this time of year the 175-acre estate is an explosion of colour: the orange, yellow and green of citrus groves; the yellow of sorrel fields and the bright pink of almond trees in flower.
Owner Pietro Galioto is a passionate advocate of organic farming. His mission is to lead his guests to ecological salvation at the same time as spoiling them rotten, so what you get is not agritourism but ' bioagritourism'.
The eight double rooms in the old stone farmhouse conform to the tenets of 'bio-architecture' and, while I failed to understand exactly what that meant, it involves the absence of TVs and phones. There's no reception for mobiles either, although there is a payphone in the clubhouse.
GALIOTO is a food fanatic, so breadmaking lessons are standard and cookery courses are available on request.
Meals, with families sitting at their own tables and eating at the same time, are a gastronomic treat, featuring local specialities made with fresh seasonal ingredients such as spaghetti with lemon sauce or asparagus risotto.
With this range of options available, it is hardly surprising that agritourism is all the rage among the Italians.
And, if a fortnight's holiday in that Tuscan villa has to wait till you finally win the Lottery, who cares, when there's so much on offer in the meantime?
ON THE FARM
Tel: 0039 0564 862626. www.parrina.it Double rooms from e98 ([pounds sterling]69) per night off-season, inclusive of breakfast.
Independent flats - each with two double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room and cooking facilities - from e450 ([pounds sterling]316) a week off-season.
Casale Doria Pamphilj (Book through Long Travel, details below).
Self-catering flats cost e90 ([pounds sterling]63) per night for two people, e150 ([pounds sterling]105) for four and e200 ([pounds sterling]140) for six.
Tel: 091 8993441. www.sicilian.net B&B e35 ([pounds sterling]24), lunch e20 ([pounds sterling]14), supper e20 ([pounds sterling]14).
Tel: 0039 564 417418 www.byfarmholidays.com This the reservations arm of Agriturist, the largest agritourism association. It represents about 250 properties, all of which are regularly inspected and English is spoken.
Agriturist in Italy has manuals containing details of properties in the scheme. Phone 0039 06 685 2342 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To book via a British agency, try Discovery Tours (Tel: 0845 2301212 or www.discovery-tours.co.uk) for all of Italy; Long Travel (Tel: 01694 722367 or www.long-travel.co.uk) for southern Italy and Sunvil Europe (Tel: 020 8758 4722 or www.sunvil.co.uk) for central and southern Italy.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Just One Cownetto! Farm Holidays in Italy - Known as Agriturismo to the Locals - Are Booming. Sebastian Creswell-Turner Offers a Personal Choice of the Very Best. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: Daily Mail (London). Publication date: March 20, 2004. Page number: 56. © 2007 Daily Mail. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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