A farm­house in Chi­anti

Liv­ing the Ital­ian ru­ral idyll sur­rounded by abun­dant vines

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ABRA­HAM RABI­NOVICH

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

‘‘If

there’s

is plenty

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

GETTY IM­AGES/PETER ZELEI

The Chi­anti coun­try­side is dot­ted with stone houses, many of which now op­er­ate as agri­t­ur­ismo for pay­ing guests

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