Agriturismo

I like to mix my time in Italy between big cities small towns, and places more remote; enter the Agriturismo. A vacation farm-stay.

Agriturismi (agriculture + tourism) were defined by Italian lawmakers in 1985. Many small, rural farms were having trouble making ends meet and hosting guests provided supplemental income to farmers. In some cases, the government provided the funds necessary to restore old buildings. Not only does the tourism help the farmer, it helps the small towns close by that probably would be over-looked by most tourists. In my opinion, these towns are the hidden gems of Italy. 

Agriturismi are located everywhere in Italy and come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are more rustic, some are so luxurious you wouldn't even know you are on a farm.  Some will offer you bed and breakfast while others will offer all meals.  Check out the website agriturismo.it for a concise listing of all agriturismi in Italy. You can be sure to find someplace that matches your interests.

The last agriturismo I stayed at was in Tuscany in the area called Maremma. This is quintessential Tuscany. Unlike northern Tuscany which is more hilly and forested, the Maremma holds the sweeping landscapes of cypress-lined drives. This particular farm grew organic grapes and made wine. Good wine. Really good wine.  Wine that cost 5 Euro a bottle. ( I bought a case!) 

 Future wine

Future wine

The accommodations were lovely! Stone buildings with en-suite rooms and air-conditioning; nice for a Minnesotan during an unseasonably warm Tuscan summer. The vistas from the 2 outdoor pools were stunning and the smell of lavender along with the  hum of bees added to the ambiance. This was la dolce vita! 

 Lavender and butterfly

Lavender and butterfly

 the door to my room

the door to my room

 Scene at the Tuscan Agriturismo

Scene at the Tuscan Agriturismo

It was a short walk to the nearby sleepy village that came alive in the morning while residents sipped espresso and ate brioche and then again in the early evening. Squares or piazzas in Italy is where it all happens. In this particular town, the young kicked around soccer balls while older residents participated in lively conversations. I sat at an outdoor table drinking the best apperitivo I've ever had. A gin and tonic, with basil. Of course! 

 Gin and Tonic with Basil

Gin and Tonic with Basil

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Which country has the most UNESCO sites? Italy! 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites are places of importance to cultural or natural heritage. Italy has 54 of them. 5 of them are natural and include Mt. Etna (the volcano in Sicily) and the Dolomites (a mountain range in northeastern Italy) and the remaining 49 are of cultural significance. They are as diverse as they are interesting!  Those sites include historical centers of cities, churches, landscapes of vineyards, prehistoric dwellings...even entire towns! Check out UNESCO's website: http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/it

Which places would you like to see? These are some of my favorites.

 

 TRULLI OF ALBEroBELLO

TRULLI OF ALBEroBELLO

 Sassi of matera

Sassi of matera

 tivoli

tivoli

 dolomites

dolomites

 Basilica of St Francis

Basilica of St Francis

 mosaic in ravenna

mosaic in ravenna

 Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

Driving In Italy

I often get asked if a rental car is necessary in Italy. The answer is yes and no. It really depends on where you are going and if you have the patience, courage and sometimes, the stomach. Every time I go to Italy I rent a car. Not only because I have relatives that live in places with little, or in some cases, no public transportation, but because I like to discover new places that are simply accessible more quickly by car. Important when you are on vacation, jamming in as much as you can.

Driving in bigger cities is not impossible, but ridiculous! Not only is it confusing and chaotic, the centers of most cities are controlled. This means that unless you have registered your car with the police, you are not allowed to drive in the controlled areas. If you do, you will get a hefty fine. And they will know as there are cameras everywhere. 

If you find yourself travelling to places where a car is necessary, rent the car from the nearest airport. Airport car rental companies are easier to find than ones tucked into cities and it's quicker to the main roads.  Plus, it's usually easy to get to airports from the city center by taxi or bus. 

On a recent trip, our group of 16 rented four cars. Our intent was to drive from Florence to southern Tuscany. The four drivers walked to the car rental nearby, obtained vehicles after a ton of issues, and two hours later were on our way to pick up everyone else at the hotel nearby. MISTAKE! We had to pay extra to drive in the controlled zone, even for 20 minutes. And once we got to the hotel, there really was nowhere to load the others. We had to drive in their gated courtyard and garden area and once loaded, maneuver the cars backwards out from where we came in. We intended to follow each other to a vineyard about an hour and a half away, but once we hit the first round-about, we all ended up going different ways. Somehow, we all ended up at the right place at pretty much the same time.

Autostradas are wonderful. Fast and efficient, but not free. At the on-ramp you take a ticket and at the off-ramp you pay. The autostrada from Rome to Florence is about 23 Euro. 

Driving in the country, the small towns, villages and hamlets are usually pretty well marked. However, in mountainous and curvy areas, guard rails are not always the norm. Pay attention! This is scenic and if you're driving, you must pay attention to the road! It's a bit nerve-wracking to take a mountain curve only to come head-on with a semi-truck who is well versed on this type of road. 

Driving will get you to incredible places. If you don't want to hire a driver, a rental car is definitely worth it!

 

 MY RENTAL CAR

MY RENTAL CAR

~ Diane

 NOT MY RENTAL CAR

NOT MY RENTAL CAR

The Sanctuaries of the Cinque Terre

The first time I experienced the famous Cinque Terre, the 5 lands, was in the mid 1970's. What stuck me about the villages was how they seemed untouched by time. They were full of Italians, living their lives without the intrusion of tourists. 

Flash ahead several years when I returned to hike the villages with my husband and young kids. Getting off the train in Riomaggiore, headed for the trail that would lead us to the next village, the place was teeming with tourists. Or so it seemed. New York Yankee caps and Nike shirts were everywhere. Maybe it was just the current Italian fashion trend? Nope! Americans, like me, everywhere. Rick Steves' guide book in hand.

For me, that was the just the beginning of the crush of tourism for this area. Every hike in subsequent years was more and more crowded. Every village was full with more and more tourists. 

Enter the Sanctuaries of the Cinque Terre.  Each village has its personal Sanctuary dedicated to Mary on the hill above its respective village. And the Sanctuary Path allows you to hike all of them.

 Riomaggiore- Our Lady of Montenero                                                                             Manarola- Our Lady of Health
 Corniglia- Our Lady of Grace                                                                                           Vernazzaa- Our Lady of Reggio                                                                                           Monterosso- Our Lady of Soviore

Similar to the hikes from village to village, the Sanctuary Path can be challenging in some areas and easier in others. And like the village paths, views along the Sanctuary Path are just as breathtaking as they wind around vineyards and perfumed woodlands offering glimpses of the sea and villages below. All without the hordes of tourists. 

But the true gift of these paths are the churches of the Sanctuaries themselves. Like many churches I've seem in Italy, the outsides may seem a bit unassuming, but the insides are incredible!  The first time I walked into one of these churches, I was awestruck. Like everything in Italy, the beauty grabs you and doesn't let go.

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Why I Love Italy

From the alpine villages of the north to the villages in southern Sicily, Italy is a treasure trove of art, architecture, history and cuisine; held within wide and varied landscapes.  

Sites like the Coliseum in Rome,  Michelangelo's David in Florence and The Leaning Tower of Pisa are nothing less than awe-inspiring. But so is the quiet of a piazza away from the tourists, the food at the restaurant with no English menu, and watching the early morning frenzy as vendors set-up their goods at the market.  The Italy that is the day-to-day life for Italians. That is the Italy I love.

On a recent trip to Milan, I had the incredible fortune of visiting a family-owned business where umbrellas (ombrelli) have been made by hand since 1854. My friend read about these ombrelli in a men's fashion magazine and since we were near-by, we called to see if we could visit. Their response was "Absolutely, we're waiting for you!" 

This is truly a family owned business. We were given a tour by young Francesco VI, while his uncle Francesco V joked around with us. The young Francesco showed us each step how the ombrelli are made. We picked out the fabric while he explained that not only is the entire ombrello made right here in the "factory", each component of the ombrello is also made in Italy. The fabric, the "spider," the little metal part on the end, everything. 

 assembling the Spider

assembling the Spider

As we went through the process, I started asking the employees how long they had worked there. "32 years," the man told me who assembled the spider to the main rod.  "Since I was 18," a woman my age told me as she steamed out the wrinkles of a finished ombrello in about 20 seconds Watching these people work was like watching a performance art piece that I actually understood!

At the end of the tour, young Francesco went in the back room and brought out a well-worn, huge leather-bound book. As he opened it, I realized what he was showing me. The documented history of his family's business. I was speechless. Inside was the original first invoice. There also was a photo of the factory after it was bombed in WWII, the spiders strewn in tangled chaos. Francesco told me that after this happened, his family moved the operation, including the employees, to a family home near Lake Como in the north.  Here, the business resumed.

 the factory after it was bombed.

the factory after it was bombed.

As we left the ombrelli factory, I was still reeling over what just happened. How we were welcomed like family, how young Francesco told us with pride about his family's business and how the people who worked there were not just employees, but part of a family. 

This is what I love about Italy.   

~ Diane