The number of Canadians looking to get a sense of the genuine Italian lifestyle is on the rise. The influx of visitors to Italy can be intolerable, and tourist traps can be found on every piazza. Such hurdles can make it difficult to enjoy the country boasting the highest concentration of art, history and culture in the world. But there is hope. Refuge can, indeed, be found. The salvation comes in the form of agriturismi - an alternative to staying at swanky hotels, and a trend that many Canadians have begun to uncover.
Agriturismi are typically housed in restored buildings hundreds of years old.
Agriturismi - agriturismo in the singular - are large, elegant country homes, and a genuine alternative to hotels. With Prada luggage in hand, elitist Italians have been escaping to their beloved agriturismi for quite some time. Today, many Canadians have also uncovered the secret to escaping commercialized Italy and are enjoying the dolce vita in picturesque villages tucked away in the mountains.
In 2003 the Italian tourism board, Ente Nazionale Italiano per il Turismo (ENIT), reported that 700,863 tourists stayed at an agriturismo. Within that number, there were 3,764 Canadians who stayed a total of 22,771 nights. The Centro degli Agriturismi in the Lazio region has plans to unveil an intensive ad campaign in 2006, specifically targeted to Canadians.
Luca Cenci, co-owner of Il Vecchio Pino, an agriturismo located in Colle San Magno - a town 85 km south of Rome - reveals that not only has the number of visitors to his establishment increased by 65% from the previous year, but that Canadians now make up his largest clientele.
The agriturismo owned and operated by the Cenci family has become a hot spot for many Canucks - and with good reason. Located a 45-minute drive from Rome, it is a beautifully restored house that dates back over 800 years. The name, Il Vecchio Pino - the old pine tree - comes from the 300-year-old enormous pine tree that graces the entrance.
Born and raised in the town, Luca Cenci started up the agriturismo five years ago with his family, the first in Colle San Magno. Another agriturismo, La Bersagliera, opened shortly after.
Before the arrival of these accommodations, the village, which sits 550 metres above sea level and is surrounded by 36 mountain peaks, was virtually unknown to tourists. This year, would-be visitors are advised to book well in advance.
Canadians' love for agriturismi is invigorating, and not unexpected. "Canada is a country that has a love for nature. Not surprisingly, many Canadians are drawn to places offering authenticity, crisp air, beautiful mountain tops and breathtaking views," Cenci remarks.
Breakfast and dinner are usually included when sleeping in an agriturismo. And dinner can be quite spectacular, consisting of a six-course meal, all made with homegrown ingredients. The specialty at Il Vecchio Pino is the homemade limoncello and spaghetti with tartufo, a rare mushroom delicacy costing thousands in Canada, but which can be had for a morsel in Italy because it is found in abundance.
"It's like living the real thing - the real Italian experience," says St诨ane Desjardins, a Montrealer who needs no prompting to extol the virtues of agriturismi. "It's not at all like staying at a Hilton; I would recommend it any day over a hotel. You get to speak and interact with the owners and try their food. It's like being in a Tornatore film, but set over 500 years ago."
Horseback riding, hiking and interacting with the townspeople is all part of the experience. "I should really brush up on some Italian expressions for the next time," Desjardins adds jokingly, noting that he plans to visit an agriturismo in Tuscany for his next vacation.
Agriturismi can be found almost everywhere throughout the Italian countryside, with the majority located in Tuscany. They generally have four to six rooms, but some have as many as 20. The ambience created through detailed renovations is very homey. Agriturismi come in different styles. Some boast wineries, where guests can experience harvesting grapes. Some offer courses on the art of making cheese, and others cater to the culinary specialties of a particular region. The well-established ones have web sites, making it easier for visitors to do their own bookings.
The concept of agriturismo began in Italy about a decade ago when the government decided to help renovate country houses that were going to seed. The abodes, some of them quite large, required significant sums for renovation and maintenance. To save them, the government stepped in and offered to refurbish the original structures as part of a tourism package.
However, in order to earn the title of "agriturismo," in addition to meeting certain standards of comfort for tourists, owners must produce the food they serve in-house and on the grounds. Also, only family members can be employed in an agriturismo.
Overall, agriturismi allow vacationers to have their cake and then some. The majority are located only one hour away from a major city, so it's possible to take in the sights and go shopping in a major centre by day, then retire to a quaint, peaceful and cool locale at night.
Depending on the region, agriturismi vary from two to five stars, with prices ranging from $100 to $500 Canadian per person, per night.
Daniela Cambone is a freelance writer dividing her time between Canada and Italy.