A farmhouse in Chianti
Living the Italian rural idyll surrounded by abundant vines
THE man who answers the doorbell of the old farmhouse is not the farmer but a Canadian tourist, the only guest, he says, which seems a bit odd given the size of the twostorey guesthouse.
He summons Maria, the farmer’s wife, by telephone from her residence down the road.
As the woman begins to record passport details, my companion, Suzanne, takes the key and goes up to our room.
‘‘We will stay one night,’’ I tell Maria, reconfirming what I told her on the phone yesterday. ‘‘Is there a swimming pool?’’
Most of the farms participating in Italy’s agriturismo program have pools but none has been mentioned in the internet listing of this particular farm, which I have chosen rather arbitrarily.
‘ ‘ I am sorry,’’ replies Maria. ‘‘We don’t.’’
Suzanne suddenly reappears in a side alcove, smiling and waggling two fingers at me out of sight of Maria. ‘‘Two nights,’’ she mouths.
‘‘We may want to stay another night,’’ I inform Maria. room.’’
She confirms there of room.
Seeing no television set in the lobby, I ask if there’s one in the room. She says there is not. ‘‘Good,’’ I lie. ‘‘ We are on holiday.’’
Suzanne is back, this time beaming and waggling three fingers. ‘‘We may want to stay a third night as well,’’ I tell Maria, a bit uncertainly.
‘ ‘ No problem. We have other reservations this week.’’
When I finally join Suzanne upstairs, I see what has captured her. Our assigned room is large and stately. With its wooden ceiling beams, rustic furniture and monastery stillness, it is fit for a lord and lady of the manor. At j80 ($110) it’s as cheap as, or cheaper than, the modest B&Bs we have been staying at in the cities.
The centrepiece lies beyond a set of french doors opening on to a broad, tiled terrace canopied by trees, draped in jasmine and overlooking an expanse of rolling hills covered entirely by plantings
no neatly spaced in long rows. These are the vineyards of Chianti. They march up the hills and down the other sides like an army on parade, sometimes changing direction with the topography but keeping the rhythm.
It is an enchanting, sinuous canvas that seems to have been shaped by a single hand. It is a few moments before we understand that what we can hear — birdsong and a solitary tractor croaking fitfully in the near distance — is all there is to be heard.
We are on the last leg of an eight-day, spur-of-the-moment trip. Suzanne has never been to Italy so we allocated the first four days to Rome and Florence, where we encountered masses of tour groups so overwhelming that we felt as if we were in chaotic theme parks.
It was a relief to escape to the charming walled town of Lucca for a night. But with only three days left we have rented a car and headed in search of the vaunted romance of rural Italy.
At our farmhouse we stumble on to a combination of tranquillity and beauty my sceptical nature has hardly dared imagine. Except for the quiet Canadian, whosits much of the day at an outside table with his computer and a glass of wine, the birds and the tractor remain our only com- panions. I often take along a book of poetry on holiday but never get around to reading it. This time, adrift with inner peace, I feel no embarrassment reading Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson aloud on the terrace to Suzanne. It is something I have never done.
For meals we walk to the village, about 15 minutes away. But most of our time is spent strolling in the countryside, snacking off low-hanging cherry tree branches, sometimes stopping at other agritourismo farmhouses. I had thoughts before coming to Chianti of staying at a couple of farms to see what they were like and of making forays to nearby Siena, but now we don’t want to leave our temporary home even for an hour.
We take our breakfasts at the farm al fresco, with an adjacent hillside propped up before us like a plump green pillow neatly embroidered with columns of vines.
Our good fortune rests on the lesser fortune of others. Italy began its agriturismo program almost 30 years ago in order to permit farmers to supplement their meagre incomes. Today’s farmers are still hard pressed, even in this famed wine-growing region, and many have sought to compensate by upgrading the tourism side of their enterprises. Hence the abundance of swim- ming pools and four-star facilities and diversions such as cooking lessons and horseback riding. The law links the size of tourist facilities to the size of the farm area in order to ensure that agriculture remains the main income source.
The struggling farmer who owns our premises could not afford a pool. Its absence, and the lack of TV, presumably accounts for the paucity of guests in late May, an ideal season, leaving the farmhouse as virtually a private estate for us and the Canadian. We three are in a place that could accommodate 25 guests.
When we come upon the farmer one evening as he’s checking his fermentation tanks, he tells us of the travails of those who labour in the vineyards to shape the landscape for idlers like us. He had worked for years on the farm for his father-in-law, an engineer from town who bought the property and took up growing vines as a hobby. The wine would be sold to merchants, who would mix it with other blends.
Since his father-in-law’s death, the farmer has been working dawn to dusk and consulting with experts in order to upgrade the quality of the wine.
He hopes this year to finally meet the stringent requirements that will permit him to bottle wine from his vines under his ownlabel, which will also carry the black rooster symbol authenticating it as chianti classico. He can afford only two workers and there is no rest for the weary. It is his tractor we have been hearing every day.
This year, he tells us, is the first time in a decade that the weather has been generous, putting things on track for a superb harvest in autumn. But if the weather is not the villain, there is the global economy. There will be economic catastrophe for farmers in a year’s time, he predicts. Another farmer in the area who decided to explore the sale of his farm has been offered only one-third of its value.
Our farmer is planning to open a restaurant in the village to supplement his income and has already hired a chef. Another farmer we speak to during our walks is about to depart for Poland in the hope of selling wine there.
Why does our farmer persist? His intelligent face, wreathed in worry lines while he recounted his problems to us, breaks into a broad smile. ‘‘Why? Because of this . . .’’ He waves his hands around him. ‘‘This miracle.’’
He says solar energy can be turned into electricity. But here, in Chianti, solar energy can be turned into wine. ‘‘It’s magic.’’ greve-in-chianti.com agriturismo.net agriturismo.it
The Chianti countryside is dotted with stone houses, many of which now operate as agriturismo for paying guests