Where you lay your head at night can make or break your holiday. Your accommodation seems a simple thing to choose. You go to Tripadvisor, read the reviews and make your booking. You’re looking for a bedroom with a comfortable bed, a bathroom, a decent continental breakfast, cleanliness and friendly attentive staff. That’s probably exactly what you’ll get; a secure place to retreat to after visiting the famous works of art and architecture in some of most beautiful cities in the world. But at the heart of every country are its citizens, people who live differently from you. By your second or third trip, you can begin to think about getting to know them. This is what my tours are about. I want my guests to experience how Italians live their everyday life, which is something you still can’t do on the internet. It’s a compulsive reason to travel to Italy.
I seek total cultural immersion, and so I usually choose an agriturismo for my guests, farm accommodation in the countryside, often on the edge of a village. Each one has a character completely its own determined by the personality of the owners, the setting, the architecture of the farm buildings and the produce of the farm. Here are some examples from my part of Italy, the area around Lucca and the spectacularly beautiful Garfagnana.
I didn’t choose Al Benefizio; it chose me. Early in my sojourn in Italy I was at an agricultural meeting near Barga, feeling totally out of my element, when two women approached me and introduced themselves in English. One was Francesca Buonagurelli, the owner and farmer at Al Benefizio, and she is one of the main reasons for staying at Al Benefizio.
She went to art school in Florence and worked as a graphic designer before making a life change and becoming a beekeeper and olive oil producer.
Next to her farmhouse was an old stall and hay barn which she converted to two apartments and a double bedroom, all tastefully decorated with that artist’s eye of hers.
A second reason for staying is the incomparable view from your balcony of Barga in the golden glow of sunset.
The swimming pool shares the same panorama.
There are fashion chickens, a donkey and a vegetable garden, herbs and fruit trees from which you may pick your fill.
Which hotel would organise a pizza party specially for you at which you learn to make pizza in a wood-fired oven? All Francesca’s friends arrive, many of whom speak some English, and you become an honorary Italian.
As perfect as Al Benefizio is, it’s not suitable for groups of individuals or couples, each of whom wants a room with en suite bath. Francesca helped me find Agriturismo Venturo, higher up the Serchio River Valley from her.
Ismaele and Cinzia Turri and their five children bring this place alive. Their cheerful industry is a model for our ailing economies, but not many of us could stay the course. Ismaele and the children rear the animals; Ismaele is the butcher and cures salumi;
Cinzia looks after the B&B (and the family);
Ismaele’s cousin Pierluigi and his wife Marina run the farm restaurant where you can enjoy home-cooked meals;
grandparents help out when needed. Ismaele also cuts the firewood for winter heating and for the bread and pizza oven,
cleans the pool and supervises building works, converting yet more old farmhouses and buildings to guest apartments.
Oh, and he has a tiny café which he mans from 5 to 7 am when a local woman comes to relieve him, and he scoots back to the farm to light the bread oven and then up the mountain to feed the pigs, cattle and donkeys. The Turri family welcome your interest in everything they do. We usually have a sausage and polenta lesson, and walk to the water mill where the corn is ground.
But you’re also free to lounge by the pool, walk in the woods, ride horses at the stables across the lane, walk into town and explore the hinterland of the Garfagnana.
It was the wine that first attracted me to Fattoria Colleverde and its owners Piero Tartagni and Francesca Pardini. The vineyard and its buildings formed part of the Guinigi estates, from which the Pardini’s are descended. The landscape is all rolling hills, olive groves and vineyards.
When I think of Colleverde, I feel warm sunshine flooding over me. Piero is a filmaker and both are interested in art. If you can manage to engage Piero in conversation, you’ll find his English nearly impeccable, and that he’s widely read in English literature plus much else. A true Renaissance man.
This is a place for families who can share bathrooms or friends who don’t mind stepping outside their bedroom to get to their private bath. If you decide to cook in your own kitchen, at least one of the seven excellent biodynamic wines plus a sweet dessert wine and grappa will compliment any menu.
In the village up the hill, there’s a family pork butcher where I take my clients to find out all about salumi. Lucca is a 20-minute drive away, so it’s the ideal place to combine rural and urban culture in one stay.
I put my guests at Alle Camelie for the activities they can do right on the farm, especially in autumn during the olive harvest.
On the slopes of the Pisan Mountains, Claudio Orsi and his wife Eleonora farm an organic olive estate that has been in the Orsi family for several generations. They live in the villa, and guests stay in the adjacent farm buildings, converted in authentic Tuscan style by Claudio’s father Augusto.
Every year new solar panels sprout from the roofs so now the farm is nearly self-sufficient for energy. From the end of October and throughout November you can help pick olives and see them pressed into oil at the olive press on the farm.
Claudio’s school friend Elena is an accomplished cook. She and Eleonora prepare meals for guests, simple dishes with an intensity of flavour that comes from using the freshest local ingredients.
November is also the time for foraging for wild edible plants. You can participate in a tradition that’s being kept alive by young people like the Orsi’s and their colleagues in Slow Food Lucca Compitese.
If you yearn for urban pleasures, Lucca is only 20 minutes away.
Lots of authentic Italians also live in cities, but it’s much harder to get to know them. To have a more personal acquaintance with Italians being Italian, stay at an agriturismo.
Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.