My friends Josh & Catherine were driving across northern Italy as part of a longer journey from Paris to Croatia. A car full of luggage and their two young boys in tow, we hatched a plan to meet them as they passed through. 1500 kilometers to the Croatian border, the drive from Paris would take three days and Milan was an easy stop in the middle but they didn’t want to be in another city as they’d just left one and we were safer in the open air during the pandemic. They asked to meet at a nearby agriturismo.
As typical Europeans who cherish proximity to rolling hills, expansive agriculture and the bounty of local foods that accompany it we envisioned long lunches, easy hikes and making new goat friends. A blended mixture of tourism and agriculture, an agriturismo in Italy offers the best of both worlds — a connection to nature’s seasonality and a relaxed (and affordable) approach to modern hospitality.
The search for an agriturismo a few hours outside Milan was fruitful. A hub for finance, fashion, design and tech-startups, few know that Milan was once called Milk City due to many nearby dairy farms that produced Lombardia’s globally celebrated cheeses. The entirety of Northern Italy is fertile, due most in part to the Alps on the Italian border. Alpine water ideal for cultivating rice for risotto milanese drains into the Po River just south of Milan, the longest river in Italy. The farmsteads that surround the city are welcomed destinations for city dwellers who crave a mix of hazelnut manure-scented air. A few nights away in an agriturismo over long weekends is only a question of “which direction?”.
Italy is not only known for agriturismi, it’s their birthplace. Italian farm stays became officially recognized in 1985 when the government established tax and promotional incentives for small agriculturally productive landowners. This economic boost would aid in continuing their lifelong investment in maintaining Italy’s pastoral glory. Now farmers could host people around the world to experience it: stomping cannonau grapes during the vendemmia in Sardegna; churning butter under the watchful Redena cow’s eyes in Trentino; rolling and twisting olive oil infused taralli dough in Puglia under the shade of 1000 year old olive oil trees. The beauty of discovering and rediscovering Italy’s centuries old traditions make the territories one of a kind — and in these discoveries, nature’s gifts within.
Farm experiences are not a requirement for agriturismi but serving a selection of their heavenly bounties in the restaurant is. Menus are crafted from farm famiglia recipes unlikely written, changing daily, often iconic of the region and season. Our search for an agriturismo not only included a restaurant (easy enough) but a pool for our kids (a little harder). Agriturismo Villa Bissiniga, less than two hours away on Lake Garda has both. My dubbio blossomed into gioia. A villa and farmhouse on the edge of Alto Garda National Park, the great beauty of stone fruit and olive tree covered hills; the gardens overlooking the bay of Salò; the natural swimming pool and aromatic gardens and the 15th century home that we could call ours for three nights. We’d stepped into yet another Italian fairytale, and the emotional cloak of a global pandemia, lifted.
Agriturismi may not have air conditioning or even printed english menus. The romanze italiane can often be summed up by what is not there, not what is. Salvatici meaning savage, in Italian it refers to untouched land; overgrown bramble, a shield from the sun; deep forest woods, an unmarked trail; a villa above the lake, no wifi or cell service. The roads less traveled that surround Italian’s majestic cities and quaint towns are as much part of Italy’s ancient history too; centuries of foot-pounded earth, pre-Roman tracks formed by adapting to the expansive, diverse nature of the territory. Cascina, tenuta, or azienda agricola, with over 20,000 agriturismi in Italy, the agriturismo farmers often keep close attention to their historic architectural foundations. In Puglia, 16th century fortified farmhouses called Masserie have majestic high-walled courtyards that once protected from intruders. Elegantly whitewashed, as white will not fade, their thick walled structures are ideal for keeping cool inside on a hot summer evening.
Here’s a list of a few key words to keep in mind as you search for your next trip to an agriturismo:
Casetta – a small house or cottage
Antica Casa – an old house; “antique” often implies it has kept many of it’s old, beautiful characteristics
Fattoria – an area of farm land used for growing crops, breeding and keeping cows, sheep, pigs etc
Cascina – typically a large square-yarded farm from the 16th century in the Po Valley, often with semi-autonomous settlements for multiple families
Maso – wooden farmhouses from the 1800s in the mountainous South-Tyrol
Masseria – unique to Southern Italy, large old fortified farm houses constructed with thick, white walls and often with few windows to keep cool temperatures inside
Azienda Agricola – Agricola, from the Latin agricŏla, is often related to planting vegetables and working the soil. These operations often also refer to livestock farming, beekeeping and more
Biologica – organic
Tenuta – means estate, often used for old farmhouses in Tuscany
Podere – means farmhouse and is frequently in the names of wineries in Northern Italy