As recently as the early 2000s, you could book a room in something calling itself a B&B in Italy, only to arrive and find you had essentially rented a room in an apartment building. Breakfast might have consisted of a few pre-packaged pastries and a coffee maker. The Italians may not go in much for a big breakfast, but even still – it was bound to be a bit of a disappointment.
This is exactly what happened when I booked what I thought was a B&B (in the English sense of the term) in Siena on my first Italy trip in 2001. The apartment itself was phenomenal – inside the old city walls in a great location and with an honest-to-goodness historic frescoed ceiling – but I was still a little flummoxed at the time by the whole lack of a breakfast thing.
It’s possible that the Italian owners of apartments like the one I rented saw the term “B&B” associated with more familiar English lodging words like “hotel” or “inn” and assumed it was basically just another form of accommodation. It’s possible they figured they were providing the fixings for an Italian breakfast, so “B&B” was a totally appropriate term. It’s also possible that foreign tourists, unfamiliar with the Italian word “agriturismo,” overlooked the rich B&B possibilities that have existed in Italy since the mid-1980s – simply because those B&Bs went by a different name entirely.
The word “agriturismo” comes from the Italian words for “agriculture” and “tourism” being squashed together, but to my mind the English equivalent – “agritourism” – hasn’t really caught on. Some places advertise “farm stays,” which is probably the closest English term to “agriturismo.” An “agriturismo” is a type of accommodation in Italy where a working farm has converted at least some of the rooms in the farmhouse (or some structures on the farm property) into guest rooms. You can not only stay on the farm, then, you can also sometimes participate in a harvest, take an on-site cooking class, or forage in the garden for snacks.
In Italy, agriturismi (that’s the plural form of the word) must by law be working farms, and guests must be served items grown on the farm – whether that’s wine or olive oil from the estate’s vineyards and orchards or fresh produce culled from the house’s small private garden. Many agriturismi pride themselves on not only using ingredients grown on their property but bringing all other foodstuffs required from a short distance away. The focus is often on hyper-local and seasonal food in a rural and picturesque setting.
The groundwork for the agriturismo scene was laid in the years after World War II, when smaller farms were struggling to stay afloat and many one-time farmers were being lured to big cities to work in factories for higher pay. That might not be such a terrible thing, except that Italy is a very small country that can’t afford to lose great swaths of agricultural land to industry or housing – before long, the country feared it would be importing basically all its food.
In 1985, then, a law was passed establishing the agriturismo in an effort to keep farmers on their land and working their farms. Farmers who convert part of their property into an agriturismo get some financial help from the government, and – consequently – agriturismi are strictly regulated. There are rules about how much of the food served to guests must come from the farm, how many days per year a property may host guests, and how many years experience a farmer must have to establish an agriturismo.
The word “agriturismo” is becoming more common, so doing a quick web search for “agriturismo” plus the name of a town you want to be near (or a region, if you’re not fixed on a town yet) is as good a place as any to start. Some online accommodation sites have agriturismi listed alongside hotels, hostels, and other lodging options – just look for the tell-tale words like “agriturismo” or “farm stay.” And, as alluded to earlier, you might also want to search for the term “B&B,” too – just in case some places are still using that in their listings.