In 15 years of researching guidebooks for Rick Steves, I’ve checked out hundreds — or probably thousands — of accommodations. But I’ve never seen one quite like Agriturismo Cretaiole. A place has to be pretty special for me to suggest bringing my in-laws there for Thanksgiving week. And Cretaiole exceeded even our lofty expectations.
This stone farmhouse sits like a mirage, poking up from an olive grove at the top of a ridge that overlooks the gently rolling, cypress-fringed hills just outside of Pienza. Yes, the setting is idyllic. But what really sets Cretaiole apart are the remarkable people who run it.
Two decades ago, Isabella was an upwardly mobile city slicker from Milan — just getting into her career, and already feeling burned out. During a break one winter, she escaped the rat race for a week, checking in to a rustic farmhouse B&B in the remote Tuscan hills. That’s where she met the farmer’s son, Carlo.
Isabella and Carlo fell in love. And, after a long-distance romance, they finally got hitched…and Isabella moved down to the farm. In a kind of contemporary Italian Green Acres, Isabella and the Moricciani clan clashed a bit as she found her niche in this traditional world. But it rapidly became clear: This city mouse/country mouse combination was perfect for the Italian concept of agriturismo.
In 1985, the Italian government began providing tax breaks for struggling family farms that opened their doors to travelers. To legally qualify as an agriturismo, a place must balance its tourist activities with actual farm production. (Many Americans love the idea of an agriturismo — but when they’re plunged into all of those authentic farm smells, they realize what they really wanted was a rustic country inn.)
An ideal agriturismo, Cretaiole represents the perfect marriage of a real, hardworking farm and an accessible, well-designed travel experience. Carlo and his dad, Luciano, produce olive oil, wine, cured meats, eggs, produce, and more. Meanwhile, Isabella handles the turismo end of things, applying business savvy, a remarkable attention to detail, and a rare intuition for what her guests want before they know they want it.
The rural setting and traditional-yet-cozy lodgings at Cretaiole are a find. But Isabella also orchestrates an array of special activities that provide precisely the experience her guests are seeking — always hitting the perfect balance of rustic authenticity and comfort. (Our truffle hunt was one great example.)
Isabella embodies a bridge between her guests and her in-laws’ farms. As a relative outsider herself, she observes the same little quirks that fascinate the rest of us — and demystifies them for her guests.
Carlo is a farm boy. But, as evidence by his marriage to a brilliant businesswoman, he’s also smart and cultured. He can get dirty mucking around with the pigs, but he’s also a licensed olive oil taster — with a palate so refined, he has the papers to prove it. Still, Carlo is more at home on a tractor or trekking through the fields than in front of a group of Americans. (During our first morning’s orientation meeting, Carlo fidgeted and glanced nervously at the encroaching clouds. Finally he asked Isabella if he could be excused to go on his morning constitutional.)
Tickled by the chorus line of cats that showed up at our doorstep each morning to beg for burned toast, I asked Carlo what their names were. “They don’t have names,” he said, slightly perplexed. “They’re farm animals.” Watching Carlo affectionately play with the feline companions he refuses to christen, I came a little closer to understanding what it really means to be a farmer.
Luciano is the paterfamilias, who still thinks he runs the show even as he surrounds himself with strong women. He’s careful to project the image of a grizzled curmudgeon. But deep down, he’s touched by the fact that people come from all around the world to settle in for a week at the farmhouse where he grew up. When we toured his farm, he insisted on posing for pictures with his guests in front of the casks where he ages his prized Vin Santo.
Liliana, Luciano’s wife, is rarely seen and never heard. While the rest of the clan attends to business, she looks after the kids and keeps the home fires burning. As Isabella puts it, Liliana is the glue that holds the whole operation together.
Carlotta, Isabella’s right hand, is the newest member of the bunch. But she instantly fit right in. She heroically translates for other family members, tirelessly answers questions, and decodes local customs for her curious guests. (Here, she explains that the local pecorino cheese is set on walnut leaves to age.) Carlotta may not be related…but there’s no doubt she’s family.
And rounding out the cast of characters are the guests — many of whom are on their second, third, or sixth visit. Cretaiole, which usually requires a one-week minimum stay, attracts a rare breed of traveler who understands that slowing down can create the best kind of travel experience. In a week in Italy, you can get fleeting glimpses of Venice, Florence, and Rome. Or you can settle into an agriturismo for a week — waking up each day to a stunning view that changes with the weather, really getting to know a place and the people (and cats) who live there, and feeling so deeply rooted in the Tuscan soil that the 45-minute drive to Siena feels like a big adventure. There’s no doubt that our fellow guests made our Thanksgiving week experience even more memorable.
If people-to-people connections are the stuff of great travels, then Cretaiole is an embarrassment of riches.