ROCCATEDERIGHI, Italy — My wife, Liet, and I love Italy's large cities, but we don't like the crowds that fill them to bursting during summer. Last year we found an agreeable solution: We rented a house in the countryside south of Florence and explored the region by car. In June we returned to the old stone house in the company of our two daughters and their husbands; then Liet and I extended our Italian sojourn with two farm stays.
The handsome, century-old stone house stands tall on the slope of a vineyard in Tuscany's Chianti region, near the town of Panzano. Its location halfway between Florence and Siena put us within easy driving distance of such smaller cities as Volterra, Arezzo, Pienza and Montepulciano. We could pass a day in any one of them and still be home by early evening for dinner, which on most nights we prepared ourselves.
The house is called La Rota, for the large, wheel-like stone once used to crush olives for oil. It has three bedrooms, two baths, a living room with color TV, a charming kitchen and an adjacent dining room with a fireplace almost tall enough for me to stand in. Outside are a beautifully landscaped garden and a large swimming pool. It doesn't advertise; we heard about it from a friend who stayed there.
The only drawback to this idyll is the expense. Good houses don't come cheap--ours cost $3,500 for two weeks--and they must be booked well in advance. Liet and I discovered the farm-stay alternative, \o7 agriturismo\f7 , in tourist literature. Thanks to a nonprofit organization known as Terranostra ("our land"), an offshoot of Italy's major agricultural union, more than 4,000 farmers take paying guests as a way of supplementing the income they derive from their crops and livestock, olive oil and wine. It's a way of making it possible for them to remain on their land, which in many cases has been in the same family for centuries.
The Tuscan branch of Terranostra in Florence--which we reached via the Internet and through which we made reservations for the two farms we moved to after leaving our rental house--lists about 500 properties, and the number grows every year. The average price is $90 to $115 per night for two people with half board, which is about what we paid.
An English-speaker handles the bookings via fax and e-mail; the guest pays the host directly.
The first choice to be made is atmosphere: Tuscany has a long coast, steep mountains, old cities and walled medieval towns. Much of the region is rolling, rural hill country--particularly in the Chianti wine-growing area where we rented the house--with some of the neatest farms I've seen in years. In the absence of billboards and other modern eyesores, it looks much as it does in the paintings of Italian Renaissance masters. I love it.
Next, you choose the accommodation that suits you best--a room and bath with half board (breakfast and dinner daily), for example, or a self-catering apartment.
The farmhouses are likely to be old, but this does not mean they are decrepit. Because each farm's guest facilities must be approved by Terranostra, standards are high. Often the accommodations are in brick and stone outbuildings that have been converted to modern guest quarters. Many of the farms have swimming pools and make activities such as horseback riding, tennis, mountain biking and fishing available.
For American visitors, relaxing in the serenely beautiful countryside is not the only reward of a Tuscan farm stay. There's also the opportunity to get to know Italians firsthand, to say nothing of feasting (when meals are part of the arrangement) on home-cooked Tuscan dishes, prepared with produce directly from the farmers' fields, orchards and larders.
Despite such attractions, anyone who decides to take a down-to-earth Tuscan holiday should remember that these are working farms, where roosters crow, chickens cluck and cows moo. A few properties may even be a little rough around the edges, with farm implements and machinery in view. But how much does this matter when the cost of staying there is much below what you would pay for a decent hotel and dinner in a city like Florence or Rome--and when the experience is one you will never forget?
Not knowing Italian proved no disadvantage for us. The young owner of the first farm we visited, Massimo Camilliere, speaks some French, as does Liet, but his charm and contagious enthusiasm, to say nothing of his brilliance in the kitchen, made for a kind of wordless communication. Indeed, at the end of our five-night visit we felt we knew him well. We also got to know his family, which included his lovely wife, who each morning drove off to her job with the police in Florence, their two little girls and his 68-year-old father. When we departed, not only did Massimo give Liet a kiss on each cheek and a warm embrace, but, Italian style, me too.