Italian vacations are among the most romantic. But who can afford them nowadays? You can, if you think with your stomach and not just your heart.
While searching the Internet from the comfort of home, a vacation on a farm in Italy seemed like a great idea. Then my wife and I actually did it – but after driving three hours from Milan and navigating a spaghetti plate of rural roads, we had our doubts.
As we drove by the point on the map where our guest lodge should have been, all we saw was a building under construction at the end of an impassable dirt road. Shortly after pointing to the building and telling my wife confidently, “This can’t be it,” we noticed the sign for Il Filare – and realized we had indeed found it.
The driveway was well-graded dirt that led to an empty guest house that, at first glance, appeared abandoned. With trepidation, we circled the property until we found a note indicating that the owner was out picking vegetables. There was a phone number, but we never bothered to purchase an Italian cell phone.
When booking this experience, we had imagined being welcomed into a historic family home and being prepared home-grown meals by an Italian grandmother. But just then, a twenty-something man arrived with a beat-up mini-van. It was Manuel Busi, the proprietor of Il Filare in the Parma region of north-central Italy.
He’s the one who had left us that note, and his van was full of freshly picked fruits and vegetables from his farm. As he showed us to our large, immaculate room in his newly built guest lodge, people started arriving. First, his girlfriend and his parents came to open up a commercial-grade kitchen and to begin preparations for dinner. Next, a houseful of guests began to return from their day trips in the surrounding countryside.
By sunset, we were dining al fresco on an array of appetizers featuring the Parma region’s most famous contributions to the culinary arts: Prosciutto de Parma with fresh-picked melon, cherry tomatoes with ricotta cheese, and small wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano. After an entree of homemade pasta with boar’s meat ragout, we enjoyed tiramisu topped with fresh-picked berries from the garden. Throughout the meal, we savored an exceptional chardonnay from a local vineyard. Long before the meal ended, we felt lucky that we had stumbled upon such a magical experience.
The story of “agriturismos” and Il Filare
With the rise of large-scale agriculture after WWII, small farms around the world became unprofitable. Realizing that family farming was integral to their identity, the Italians legally recognized “agricultural tourism” in 1985. When the European Union first formed, it set aside money to subsidize the creation of “farm lodging,” in order to showcase and preserve this way of life.
Thankfully, visitors aren’t expected to harvest vegetables or milk cows. Instead, they come to relax and enjoy locally grown and prepared foods in the Italian tradition.
I didn’t expect a young man of Manuel Busi’s description to be running a traditional farm – and it turns out, neither did he. After pursuing a degree in computer science, he opened (of all things) a comic book store. When that didn’t work, he discovered what appears to be his true calling: running an agriturismo. With generous subsidies from the European Union, he bought a farm and built the guest house, which opened in January. (The construction we noticed was merely his future private residence.)
Exploring the Parma region
Although agriturismos can feature swimming pools, hiking paths, and other recreational opportunities, there’s little for tourists to do all day at Il Filare. This was just as well – for food that wasn’t grown at Il Filare, we were invited to visit their producing farms nearby. We witnessed the birth of 80-pound wheels of Parmesan cheese in the morning, toured hillside vineyards by lunchtime, and took in the aging and curing process for Prosciutto that afternoon. To give our stomachs a rest, the countryside was littered with impressive castles from the 14th and 15th centuries.
If you go…
Agriturismos can be found in every region of Italy by searching agriturismo.it. There you can find pictures, rates, and guests’ reviews. The types of accommodations vary but typically include breakfast and diner.
Our stay at Il Filare (you can view his Italian website here) was both unforgettable and surprisingly affordable at $160 a night – all-inclusive for two adults and a child. However, you’ll most likely need to rent a car, since most lodges are far from Italy’s otherwise excellent public transportation network.
Finally, take either a GPS or a very good map – and preferably both – because it’s difficult to overstate the challenges of navigating rural Italian roads. Fortunately, excellent maps are available for free at tourist information centers in provincial capitals such as the one in the city of Parma.
Make a point to visit the various dairies and vineyards, but don’t sign up for an expensive food tour, since all the farms and production sites we toured welcomed guests at no charge. Inquire with your host about arranging your visit. Finally, when dining out, be sure to ask for “aqua rubinetta,” the Italian phrase for tap water. To do otherwise will imply that you are willing to pay $6 or $7 for a liter of bottled water. And we weren’t.
If you’re considering a romantic Italian getaway, don’t forget about the agriturismos. Now that I’m back home, I’m glad I did.