Scottrick has been busy. He has a dissertation to write so he can graduate, and as his dad, I approve of the distraction. So here is a story for his blog about a long trip to Italy I took with my girlfriend, Marsha, a few years back. I have lots of stories to tell, about black market oyster wholesalers and an emergency landing or two in the small planes I fly, but this one is about finding a place to stay at the last moment.
Unlike Scottrick, I dislike big cities and tourist destinations. We flew into Milan, and I couldn’t wait to leave. We visited Florence and Venice, and I was bored. The smaller cities of Alba and Montepulciano were much more interesting. These smaller cities do not have fancy hotels, and I don’t have Scottrick’s status to stay in fancy hotels anyway.
We arrived in Italy for a three-week trip with reservations for only the first week. We spent evenings at Internet cafes looking for the next place to stay. While looking for housing in rural Italy you will find the term Agriturismo. There’s even a web site, Agriturismo.it, to help you find a place to stay. While the web site has a variety of properties, almost all look the same. They look romantic, located in vineyards or orchards or farms of some sort, but with swimming pools and WiFi in rural Italy! And they often seem disconnected architecturally from their surroundings. They are all fairly new, sometimes rebuilt from an old building but still part of an ancient, or at least very old, farm.
Leaving Florence for Montepulciano (more my speed) we found a beautiful looking Agriturismo spot in a vineyard about ten kilometers from Montepulciano in the town of Valiano. At least that was the plan. We drove to the tiny town and found the road heading to the vineyard. The address was #9. After a couple of kilometers the GPS said ‘unnamed road’. A couple more kilometers up this dirt road, we saw someone working outside and asked for directions. “This is number 4, number 9 is further up,” urging us on. Eventually we found it and the owner’s mother showed us to a clean and neat upstairs room, bigger than a typical US hotel room, overlooking the pool and acres of beautiful vineyard.
Apparently we were the only tenants. It was very quiet. We opened a window and heard crickets. Literally. Ten minutes later Marsha and I decided one of us would kill the other very soon to relieve the boredom. We’re not the type to sit around, even with a beautiful view. Instead we like to visit a winery or two each day, have lunch and dinner in different towns, a walk around town at night. This was way too much quiet for us.
The owner returned from the vineyard. We told him how much we liked his place but that it was quiet. I was subtle but he caught on: “You don’t want to stay? Okay. Here are your passports. Have a nice day.” It was that simple.
I drove down the dirt road in a blaze of dust. It was 5:00 PM and we had no place to stay the night. It wasn’t exactly like we could drive to the nearest Holiday Inn. Down the road, through the tiny town, across the river and the main highway, to the tourist office in Montepulciano we went. The sign said they closed at 6:00, but we were there at 5:45. The clerk found us another Agriturismo in an olive orchard five kilometers out of town. We had a nice apartment, and though there was an extended family staying in an adjacent building, with old, stone walls the room was quiet.
The WiFi didn’t work, but each evening we walked through the orchard, sat on the owner’s front porch, and used the access point in his office. The owner was very pleasant, but he’s an olive and fruit farmer, not a hotelier. His large family lives in an old house, nothing like the fancy Agriturismo across his orchard. The location, while not picturesque, met our needs as a base from which to drive each day to visit other towns, and he even gave us some olives and homemade jams!
I paid attention during the rest of my visit and learned the Italian government wants to promote tourism, and there aren’t enough places for tourists to stay, especially in the less populated areas. So the government created an incentive for farmers to create mini hotels for tourists. The Agriturismo was born. Apparently, a farmer gets a big break on his property tax if he builds and operates one of these hotels on his property.
While these are nice places in the physical sense, think of them from the proprietors’ viewpoints. They are farmers, making a living from their land. Running a hotel is not their primary motivation let alone part of their training. If the place stays empty they still get their tax break. From some reports, a few proprietors are fully engaged in the hospitality business as an adjunct to their farm. However, some actively discourage tenants and others are neutral.
The vineyard owner seemed pleasant on the phone, he had a beautiful place, but he didn’t seem at all disappointed when we left without staying the night. The olive famer was pleasant, almost friendly, but we never saw him or his family at the Agriturismo building. Travel is an adventure and as with all adventures you should be attentive to subtle cues about the environment you’ll encounter at an Agriturismo. They certainly don’t follow the same formula as Marriott or Hilton.