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

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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. …