The rustic farmhouse called Cretaiole perches on a ridge overlooking postcard Tuscan farmlands, less than a 10-minute drive outside of Pienza. Its generous lawn is framed by pointy cypress trees and a gentle olive grove.
The resident cats are just how I like them: curious, playful, and starved for attention — they wait outside your door, looking for any chance to slip inside your room and make themselves at home.
And in the evening, an aging farmer named Luciano makes the rounds — knocking on doors, clutching his bottles of homemade grappa and Vin Santo, and cajoling everyone and anyone to come join him for drinks on the veranda.
Cretaiole is an agriturismo — one of more than 20,000 farms subsidized by the government to introduce travelers to Italy’s unique pastoral lifestyle. Agriturismi are required to be working farms — that is, they must actually produce something — while also offering accommodations, restaurants, educational activities, or all of the above. Sleeping at an agriturismo is the ultimate in Italian country living.
Cretaiole is the joint effort of husband-and-wife team Carlo and Isabella. Years ago, Isabella came on vacation from Northern Italy to this part of Tuscany. She fell in love with a local farm boy, Carlo, and decided to stick around. Soon she persuaded her father-in-law, Luciano, to turn their working farm into an agriturismo. And now, about a dozen Americans gather here each Saturday to begin a week-long stay in the comfy apartments that Isabella has carved out of the antique farmhouse.
This isn’t just a place to stay; Isabella has come up with a tempting array of experiences that guests can take part in: olive-oil tastings, truffle hunts, vineyard visits, pasta-rolling classes, and guided excursions to Siena.
Luciano, the old farmhand, has slowly grown accustomed to the visitors from around the world who travel thousands of miles to sleep in his old olive-oil mill. He enjoys knocking on doors after people have returned from dinner, inviting guests to join him for a nightcap of homemade grappa, Vin Santo, and limoncello. While he clearly adores these interactions, Luciano enjoys playing the curmudgeon; one time, observing clueless guests trying to be helpful during the olive harvest, he nudged me and muttered, “That’s the problem with an agriturismo — too much turismo, not enough agri.” But the twinkle in his eye told me he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Cretaiole is the agriturismo that I know best, but there are many, many choices — some more rustic and remote, others on the outskirts of big cities. We recommend our favorites in the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook, and you can also find a comprehensive list at Agriturismo.it.
One word of caution: Be aware that an agriturismo is truly a working farm. While some are more refined than others, expect muddy roads, manure smells, and tractor engines firing up in the wee hours. Some travelers who think they want an agriturismo would actually be more comfortable with a more polished “countryside hotel” experience. For example, the owners of Cretaiole just opened a brand-new hotel called La Moscadella that’s purely posh — offering higher-end amenities and furnishings, if less of the down-home barnyard charm of the original.
Be honest with yourself about what type of rural Tuscan accommodations you’re really interested in — then find the perfect fit.
If Cretaiole sounds good to you, read this full rundown on what it’s like to spend a week there. Then book it.
While I’ve stayed at Cretaiole several times, the most memorable was the wonderful Thanksgiving week that Isabella arranged — an ideal off-season alternative.
Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.
Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including a stay in the countryside of Chianti, plus three nights at Isabella’s wonderful new rural hotel, La Moscadella.
Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.