ASSISI, Italy — "Yeah, hey, the food in Italy was great and so were the churches, the beaches and the museums. But the people? We didn't meet any."
Sound familiar? It's welcome news, then, to report on an easy, unusual and surprisingly inexpensive way to enrich anyone's experience of Italy. Through a little-known semi-governmental office called Agriturist, thousands of Italian farmers from Sicily to the Veneto throw open their doors, their hearts and their minds to travelers in search of genuine intercultural exchange.
If it's resort atmosphere and hot nighttime action you're after, read no further. Italy's stay-on-a-farm experience means quiet conversational evenings looking out over the Tuscan hills or the lofty Dolomites or the Calbrian seaboard. It means gathering olives or crushing grapes or feeding the horses with your farm hosts. It means peaceful day trips to tourist attractions or just curling up with a book in front of a roaring fire.
Perfect for families, staying on an Italian farm permits not only relaxation and learning but interaction with real Italians.
Acres of Sunflowers
Take the Natalini farm, for instance, a hundred tranquil acres of sunflowers, tobacco, sugar beets and vineyards amid the rolling hills of Umbria in central Italy. On a day's notice we chose the name virtually at random from Agriturist's 200-page directory. The experience transformed our view of Italy.
As we drove up the farm's gravel drive, Caterina and Teresa Natalini and their mother, Giulia, welcomed us warmly. Teresa manages the tourist end of the operation, Caterina runs the farm.
Guests stay in a converted 18th-Century storage-shed that the Natalini sisters have converted into two roomy apartments, each spotlessly clean, with whitewashed walls, an open-beamed living/dining room, fully equipped kitchen and two bedrooms with four beds each. Nothing fancy, mind you, but pleasant and gracious in the country manner. The building lies about 500 yards from the family's residence, allowing for plenty of privacy when you want it.
Arriving travelers immediately feel immersed in rural life. Comfortable, homemade mattresses are stuffed with hay. Freshly pressed olive oil and new-laid eggs stock the sun-filled kitchen, while piles of kindling are invitingly heaped alongside the two enormous stone fireplaces.
"We only modernize up to a point," Teresa says. "We want to provide something authentic and to preserve the artistic integrity of our farm as well. We install bathrooms, kitchens and electricity, but that's about it."
As soon as they were certain we'd made ourselves at home, the women invited us down to their peaceful, high-ceilinged, peasant-style kitchen for a chat. In halting English, over cherries and wine, they began to tell stories.
There's been a Natalini on this land, they begin, for at least 300 years. Or is it 200? Or 400? Laughingly, they admit that they can't remember exactly. In Italy, they tell us, precision isn't always considered necessary.
'My Lifelong Dream'
One of the first things we noticed was the absence of men in charge. Caterina, tough, cheerful, probably in her late 30s, runs the farm alone. "I can't remember when I didn't want to farm this land," she says. "It's been my lifelong dream."
"And why shouldn't she?" pipes up her normally silent mother, Giulia. "I did more than my share of field work in my day. It's about time a woman actually ran the show." Beautiful, fragile, dressed in black, Giulia mostly listens as we talk, all the while stitching away on an elaborate piece of needlework destined to adorn an altar in her parish church.
The women eagerly reminisce about war and peace, hard times and good. We learn that like the picture-perfect American farm, the Natalini farm's idyllic setting conceals a history full of radical change.
Giulia clues us in. Only two decades ago, she tells us, she and her husband plowed the land themselves. There simply wasn't any such thing as mechanization. Today the modernization process is practically complete.
Giulia enjoys recounting her involvement in World War II, when a few days after the landing at Anzio a party of retreating Germans suddenly appeared at the door and commandeered the farm. For two harrowing months the terrified family continued to farm as normally as they could, except that their unwelcome visitors kept the produce for themselves.
Vestiges of that war remain in abundance. Only last year, while plowing a field, Caterina came across eight live bombs and had to summon authorities to deactivate them.
Those weren't the only bombshells to strike the Natalinis last year. A dairy operation since the early 1920s, the farm bade goodby to its beloved herd in 1984, victim to deadly competition from Italy's Common Market partners, the French and Germans. Together with hundreds like them in Umbria, the Natalinis have reluctantly but optimistically switched to tobacco.