Agriturismos (“Agriturismi”?) are an Italian specialty and they’re all over the countryside, farms that host people. They range from offering an empty bit of field for a tent to classy affairs with hot tubs and organic food. I’ve been wanting to stay in one all through our trip, but hadn’t really worked out how to find them online to book in advance and the ‘just turn up and find one’ approach had proved quite expensive when we’d tried it in France. Turns out you can just book them on the regular hotel booking websites under ‘farm stays’. So, with just a few days left in Italy and on our way out of Tuscany, where the greatest concentration of them are, I set about a mission of finding one for the night. I start with my usual thorough search with a million tabs, but Eliza’s being a bit tricky and Marie’s packing everything up to go, which is a bit of a mammoth task, so that gets reconsidered and we take a gamble on the first one that came up.
We have the morning with Jean Marie and Francoise, enjoying a nice bakery breakfast before they leave (with a car piled high with all the things we either overpacked or that Eliza has now grown out of). We have a wander around the weekly market to jazz our lunch of leftovers up a bit, adding some juicy tomatoes and a freshly cooked joint of ham and have a lovely final meal in Sinalunga, though it feels strange with two empty seats at the table.
We only have a short-ish drive to the Agriturismo and arrive with time for a couple of hours in our garden. Despite it being slightly over-budget, I decided that an extra 4 euros for the ‘superior suite’ was worth the gamble and we’re in luck- we have a two-storey villa with a living room, two bedrooms, a patio and a garden. It’s all perfect, save for the gardener who has picked this very moment to strim all the surrounding greenery. He does stop eventually though and Eliza has a great time on ‘jungle blankey’, showing us all her new tummy time skills as she’s holding herself up really well and even shuffling a bit, still no sign of a roll though.
One of the main reasons for this choice of Agriturismo was that it had a restaurant, so on the way in I have had a sneak peek at the menu and am delighted to discover it’s all either from their farm or the local area and am very excited about dinner. It doesn’t disappoint and the staff are all adorable, holding Eliza while we eat and having a good play with her. The plate of local meats and cheeses that we choose is delicious, as is the pasta dish and their own wine. We have a scenic walk back, past a small lake with a mystery animal in the water- looks a bit like an otter or beaver but we can’t get close enough to figure it out.
Our evening of bliss comes to an end back in the room though, where we discover the heating is on, despite the blazing hot sunshine all afternoon. It’s soooo hot, we open windows but that lets mosquitos in and even with them open it doesn’t seem to be cooling down. It’s a total fail, with two air conditioning units in the rooms that won’t turn on, we’re still struggling with it at 2am and have a pretty awful night’s sleep. When I describe this at check out the next morning, they sympathise, explaining the heating and the air conditioning have central controls and older guests had asked for the heating to be on the day before, but they’ll switch it over now. Breakfast is pretty delicious though with an assortment of cakes, meats and cheeses.
From here we have a pretty mammoth day ahead of us, having slightly miscalculated the size of northern Italy. We’re aiming to travel from mid-Tuscany to Asti, nearish the Alps, in a day and, having noticed Modena and Parma are on the way, I’ve decided it would be pretty cool to stop in Modena for balsamic vinegar, Parma for ham, Asti for, well, Asti, and have ourselves a nice little picnic, pausing in Piacenza on the way as that also looks beautiful. This would be great if they were like, neighbouring towns or villages. They’re not. After a bit of route planning online, we discover this is an impossible task, especially with Eliza in tow, and as we’ve also picked an Agriturismo near Asti for the night, we’d like to reach it with enough time to enjoy it, so settle for a lunch stop in Modena instead. First I have a bit of a fail, checking out of the Agriturismo and somehow managing to pack the room key back into my bag as I leave the reception area. Luckily I discover this a few minutes into our journey, so it’s not too big a detour, but an exasperating one for Marie nonetheless, who is sooo ready to get on with our day by this point!
Modena is beautiful. We’re both surprised as we didn’t really know what to expect. I’m starting to think that every Italian city is gorgeous and worthy of a city break in its own right. With its piazzas, pedestrianised areas, array of shops and historical buildings/ sights all intermingled, it’s a great place to spend the afternoon. We arrive in time for lunch and immediately spot a terrace full of locals so stop there for a nice big salad. I choose the ‘Modena salad’ and am not disappointed; lettuce, rocket, sweetcorn, parmesan shavings and… delicious thick, sweet balsamic dressing. I’m pretty satisfied with my balsamic vinegar of Modena in Modena, even if we do discover we’re in afternoon siesta time so there’s nowhere open to buy some to take home.
I say a restaurant full of locals, as it’s what we first see and think, but actually, we’re in a city full of locals. We barely spot any tourists as we walk around and we see lots of people on terraces enjoying an afternoon drink, doing a spot of shopping or moving to or from work. It’s lovely, especially straight after the touristy nature of the whole of Tuscany. Don’t get me wrong, touristy places are good too, after all, they’re touristy for a reason and in Italy that often means great local food and beautiful scenery, but it’s nice to get a mixture in there and my hopes with this road trip have been to experience life a bit more like a local than you get to in a city break somewhere.
Once we’ve had a good wander round, including a look in the cathedral until we’re politely asked to leave if we can’t cover our shoulders (we’d not expected to go in churches today, usually we’re prepared for this), Eliza doses off so we decide to take advantage of this and get back in the car, so she can sleep through the rest of the journey.
This works at first, but she wakes up on the motorway and we spend the last hour of the journey doing a lot of singing, jiggling toys and anything else we can manage to placate her until we arrive….about 5 minutes before we arrive she falls back to sleep so we get to enjoy the final jaunt through the green soft hills up to our hilltop Agriturismo.
It’s lovely, quite different from the other one which had a full complement of staff and several buildings with accommodation in. This one is family run, mostly by a friendly woman in her 50s, her husband can be seen on the farm and the following morning her son makes us breakfast. She shows us up to our room, admiring the beauty of Eliza the whole time and has an adventure with Marie trying to set up a travel cot- it doesn’t work and is a little comedy-sketch like as each time they manage to get one side erected, another collapses. Karma literally bites me in the arse for finding this amusing though, as I proceed to be eaten alive by mosquitoes in a brief evening sit by the pool while we wait for dinner to be ready.
The lady has made all the food herself, even the pasta, and tells us this proudly, us being the only restaurant guests for the evening. There’s no menu and no mention of pricing, we are just served plate after plate of delicious food with some lovely local wine to accompany it. The appetiser includes cured meat made at the farm and a delicious asparagus pancake. This is followed by homemade spinach ravioli, slow cooked beef and potatoes and a chocolate dessert to finish. We leave for bed very full, with a quick tour of the roses in the garden in an attempt to settle Eliza a bit first (she’s just like her Maman, loves flowers and being outdoors).
The next morning I wake to the discovery of my million and one mosquito bites, which are fairly itchy. Eliza also has one on her cheek, poor little thing, but she doesn’t seem aware of it at all. Breakfast begins as a modest affair, with two types of cake, some local jams, tea and fruit juice. They guy offers us some yoghurt and when we decline, wonders if we might like some meat and cheese then, er, yes please, so out comes the meats from the farm, like the night before, along with an entire plate of 3 different goat cheese’s, Marie literally couldn’t be happier about her breakfast and even I manage to find one that I don’t mind. The winner for me is the thick jam full of whole fruits (also made on the farm). All in all it’s been a great stay and we leave well fed and content.
Our plan for the day has been adjusted a little thanks to the weather, and after some research during the night feeds. We came here for the Asti, but actually we’re in a famous red wine region, particularly for Barbaresco and Barolo wines. We decide to indulge my trip-long wish for wine tasting and head south (in the opposite direction to our next base) to the centre of the wine region. I’ve given Marie a shortlist of vineyards to choose from and she opts for Ca’del Baio, a family vineyard now run by three sisters. The drive there is beautiful, with vineyard covered hills in every direction as we approach our chosen location.
We arrive half an hour before they close for lunch and are greeted by the eldest sister. She welcomes us inside, asks what we would like to taste and happily sits down with us and several bottles. She has children and delights in asking about Eliza and reminiscing about weaning, night feeds and the ups and downs of small babies and toddlers. She prepares some salami and cheese to go with our wine and casually takes us through the different ones, no hint of a rush or sales pitch, it’s completely lovely. After we’ve tried several red wines and picked our favourites, we try their Asti and I’m blown away, a delicious creamy texture amongst the fizz and I immediately suggest we buy some to take home. We get some red too and then her mother comes in with several dogs, has a cuddle with Eliza and it’s all loud and a little like entering a family home. A fantastic visit and experience (sorry to them for the nappy change on their lawn on the way out).
Oh I forgot to mention, we’re still having a little trouble with our number plate falling off. As we’re leaving the wine tasting, the lady notices our number plate is missing and warns us the police can be fussy about that here. Oh no! we think, but fortunately manage to find it 50 metres or so down the road- all the bumps on the rough roads here had loosened it enough that it fell off again.
After our wine tasting it’s lunchtime and in the same research, I have a place in mind in nearby Neive. It turns out to no longer exist, having been transformed into and organic restaurant- great I think, initially, but then don’t feel tempted by any of the menu, so we press on. I’m imagining that we’re in remote locals only land, but alas the only people we pass are fellow tourists- hello touristy wine country again! It’s pretty though, quiet and lovely. I pick us a restaurant for lunch and we’re sat beside a delicious looking cheese selection, many of which I’ve not seen or heard of before. Great I think, that’s dessert sorted. It’s a nice place, a little swish and they give you a free aperitif of vermouth and a free appetiser of salami and bread (yay). Eliza however is not really feeling it and we scoot off after our one course, abandoning my cheese dreams for the sake of ourselves and everyone else trying to enjoy a relaxed lunch!
From here we travel to our accommodation for the night at the foot of the Alps, but I’ll leave that to Marie to describe.