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Country holidays with wine and food: ten good reasons for visiting Italy

Rural areas are not only keepers of the true Italian traditions in produce and food, but also an authentic reflection of what it means to be Italian

In Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, which also became a film, the main characters made lists of the best songs, records and girls of their lives? Let’s try to list ten good reasons for visiting rural Italy. Rural areas are not only keepers of the true Italian traditions in produce and food, but also an authentic reflection of what it means to be Italian, the many Italian ways of being that often surprise, amuse and irritate foreign visitors. Italy is beautiful because it is full of variety and nothing shows this better than its countryside.

1) Farm stay. Agriturismo is a magic word, impossible to translate, that even has a hazy meaning for Italians. It indicates the possibility of a holiday in a rural context. Technically, it should be hospitality offered by farmers, but the term has by now stretched to include two simple rooms with bed and breakfast on a farm to luxurious quarters in castles and villas in the country. One thing is certain: no agriturismo is the same as another. Each reflects different styles of life, different personalities of the owners, different architecture, different cooking, different history and different settings. Each offer a different idea of agriturismo.

2) Landscape. If the Italian landscape is the most photographed in the world, there must be a reason. In Italy, the rural landscape not only reflects the great variety of soils, climates and altitudes, but also the many different histories of the various regions and provinces over the last thousand years. These different histories are inscribed in the landscape and range from the Tuscan network of farmhouses to the Sicilian feud, heroic mountain vineyards and the rich agriculture of the Po plain. The landscape and countryside of Italy change from place to place, in relation to nature and to different styles of building, different customs, different ways of cultivating and producing.

3) Wine. Apart from great varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, there are hundreds of autochthonous varieties to be found in the Italian countryside. Many have never ceased to be used to make wine; others, rediscovered after decades of oblivion, are coming back into use in the vineyards of the peninsula. Not a single region of Italy is without its wine production, and everywhere the wines are different, showing a “wine biodiversity” equalled by few other countries. The spectrum ranges from the great wines of the quality marks, such as Barolo, Chianti Classico, Brunello and Amarone, to minor and less famous wines. Wine and how it is drunk is one of the keys to understanding what it means to be Italian.

4) Olive oil. Extravirgin olive oil is one of the hidden treasures of Italy. The olive tree is a symbol that grows from Sicily to the northern shore of Lake Garda. Nowhere in Italy is one olive tree the same as another in form, size and quality of fruit and oil. This explains the development of “oil routes” after the famous “wine routes”, itineraries between areas of production that lead to the discovery of the countryside and its riches.

5) Typical products. Few people know that Italy has 175 protected food products and more than 400 types of cheese, more than France and Holland together (National Institute of Rural Sociology). Every producer is convinced that his is better than that of his neighbour and will go to great lengths to demonstrate it. Every bakery turns out different bread, and from one town to another the same speciality has different names.

6) The local bar. Where do people meet? Where is local news exchanged? Where can travellers get information? What is the temple of everyday Italian life, such as coffee and cappuccino? The cafes of small country towns are all this and much more. They are a thermometer of the humanity of a place, a parameter of its physiognomy, a survival school for dialects. Here life is leisurely, and the time it takes to be served becomes an opportunity to observe and listen to how people speak.

7) Country roads. Dirt roads are increasingly rare but a talisman for those in search of isolated and therefore more genuinely Italian areas. Dirt roads are not simply roads without asphalt, they are roads conceived for lighter and less motorized vehicles than those of today, and follow the contours of the land, negotiating hills rather than passing through them. They trace routes centuries old and form the filigree of a lost rural fabric, like threads binding a past, the geography of which is now difficult to discern. Some regions protect country roads as elements of landscape, as if they were works of art.

8) Rural people. Rural people cannot speak a word of your language, but that doesn’t deter them from finding out who you are, what you want, whence you come and from giving you directions. They will invite you home for a glass of wine and a piece of cake. They will not understand why you are in a hurry and after a while, nor will you. Sometimes they are rough and surly by tradition, not out of rudeness.

9) Rural architecture. Farmhouses, country parish churches, tabernacles, sheep folds, barns and covered areas. Like a join-the-dots puzzle, rural buildings provide a historical map of an area, explaining its evolution. Whether restored, gone to ruin, encrusted with modern embellishments, or so poor as to seem Franciscan, every building has its function. In the country, nothing is built out of superfluous wealth or for no reason: the challenge is to discover the reason.

10) Memories, questions, stories. Memories are taken home: photographs, notes, leaflets, bottles, books, objects, images and smells. Many questions come to mind later, thinking over what was seen or experienced, and have to wait until the next visit. The stories are about discoveries, setbacks and surprises during the trip, stories told by others, stories imagined behind the doors of a farmhouse or in the cracks of a tavern table. “Every picture tells a story,” sang Rod Stewart. Nick Hornby would probably agree.

by Stefano Tesi
02 february 2009, Food & Fun > Travel