By Rick Steves
For a relaxing break from the intensity, traffic, and obligatory museums of mainstream Italy, head for the rugged hills and settle down in an agriturismo. Agriturismo (agricultural tourism) began in the 1980s as a way to encourage small farmers to survive in a modern economy. By renting rooms to travelers, farmers can make ends meet, remain on their land, and continue to produce food. A peaceful home base for exploring the region, these rural Italian B&Bs are ideal for those traveling by car — especially families.
As the name implies, agriturismi are in the countryside, although some are located within a mile of town. Most are family-run, and vary wildly in quality. Some properties are simple and rustic, while others are downright luxurious, offering amenities such as swimming pools and riding stables. The rooms are usually clean and comfortable. Breakfast is often included, and mezza pensione (half-pension, which in this case means a home-cooked dinner) may be built into the price. Kitchenettes are often available to cook up your own feast. Make sure you know how to operate the appliances. To maximize your time, ask the owner for suggestions on local restaurants, sights, and activities.
To qualify officially as an agriturismo, the farm must generate more money from its farm activities than from tourism, thereby insuring that the land is worked and preserved. Some farmhouse B&Bs are simply that, and are not really working farms, though are still fine places to stay. But if you want the real thing, make sure the owners call their place an agriturismo.
The Tuscan landscape is dotted with agriturismi that were once fortified farms, reminders of battles between Florence and Siena centuries ago. Many of these once-elegant old manor houses are still inhabited by aristocratic families, and are now run as B&Bs. To experience the texture of Tuscany, I book into a noble old farm estate run by the Gori family. It's a working farm: no TV, no swimming pool, and lots of Tuscany.
Signora Gori takes me on a welcome stroll. Our first stop is a sty dominated by a giant pig. "We call him Pastenetto, the little pastry." She takes me into the barn, where fluffy white lambs jump to attention in their hay, raising a sweet-smelling, golden mist. Backlit by stray sunbeams, it's a dreamy, almost Biblical scene. Picking up a baby lamb and giving it a nuzzle, she explains, "We use unpasteurized milk in making the pecorino cheese. This is allowed but with strict health safeguards. I must really know my sheep."
That night at Signori Gori's dinner table, we're joined by the rest of her family. The two sons dress and act like princes, home on break from some Italian Oxford. We sit down to a classic Tuscan table — simplicity, a sense of harmony, and no hurry... with a glass of good red wine. I nod to my hosts, knowing I've found the art of Tuscany.
If agriturismo appeals to you, just pick your spot and let the traffic noise fade as you melt into the hills.